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Back to the future: Siberian pioneers to America 200 years ago seen as epoch’s astronauts

March 17, 14:29 UTC+3 IRKUTSK
Although not widely known nowadays, 150-200 years ago, the geopolitical standing of the Asian-Pacific Region was taking shape here on the Lena’s left shore
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© Press service of the Baikal-Alaska expedition

IRKUTSK, March 17. /TASS/. It was time when Irkutsk, a city nestled on the Angara river, made up the "eastern border" of Russia, and back then it was considered to be a major hub for trade traffic, sort of a ‘Silk Road’ of the times. Moreover, this Siberian city is the birthplace of the Pacific Fleet and the Far East’s transport infrastructures. TASS correspondent tells about what goods Irkutsk merchants traded in two centuries ago and why nothing could stop the vanquishers of the frozen Alaska wilderness.

Tomb of the unknown colonist

Yelanka is a remote village in Yakutia. Although not widely known nowadays, 150-200 years ago, the geopolitical standing of the Asian-Pacific Region was taking shape here on the Lena’s left shore.

Travelers from many walks of life passed through Yelanka heading towards the strait between the Arctic and Pacific Oceans, named after Vitus Bering, a Danish-born Russian officer who had discovered it.

Last summer, during the reconnaissance stage of the Baikal-Alaska expedition, we uncovered a moss-covered stone slab containing an indistinct inscription in Yelanka. The curator of the local museum, Lyubomir Sokolov, suggested this is a grave stone of a ‘conqueror’ of America, head of the Baikal-Alaska expedition and director of the Baikalov tourist operator, Anatoly Kazakevich, said. The colonist’s name is lost, like the names of hundreds of those who had left Irkutsk and set off to establish new settlements in Alaska and California.

Nobody can say how many Russians trekked along this route from Irkutsk. Some reports say roughly 1,000 - 1,500 Russians used to live on the continent at the time Alaska was sold. Most Russian "Americans" received seven-year passports. When their American travel document expired, they returned home. Some, however, married the locals and settled down there.

Off to the wild blue yonder!

Historians say Irkutsk "globetrotters" began traveling to the New World in the 1730s. From Irkutsk to Kachuga (250km distance, the Lena’s upper reaches) they went by land, then sailed along the Lena River to Yakutsk and then on horseback or by reindeer headed to the shipyards of Okhotsk, from where they would depart on sea vessels. As time went on, the route moved towards Ayan - the birthplace of the future Pacific Fleet and other transport infrastructures of the Far East. Voyages to America promised fantastic profits, though the risks along the route were enormous. Anyway, nothing could hold those Siberian adventurers back from going on their voyages.

"It is next to impossible to exaggerate the contribution and heroism of Alaska’s colonists," said Alexander Petrov, a historian from the Academy of Sciences’ Institute. "Often the severe climate alone would offer slim chances for survival. Violent storms in the Bering Strait swept people off decks. Vessels struggled to stay on the journey’s course, and when they would try to dock even the anchors were torn to pieces. It was terra incognita, a fantastic far-away land even compared to Siberia. Going there was like going to space - that is, to God knows where. In fact, they were astronauts of that time, admired by contemporaries, and treated like heroes.

Head of the Baikal-Alaska expedition says even presently this route is still extreme, though not as dangerous as it used to be 200 years ago, when it was impossible to get storm forecasts. The Baikal-Alaska expedition in 2016 explored the route’s three passages and this May they plan the expedition itself. They will go to the sea on board the Iskatel (explorer) - an inflatable trimaran, which can accelerate up to 35km/h, and in case of bad weather it can be pulled ashore. The sea passages are planned so that the expedition’s members would not remain on the water for more than a day.

The Baikal-Alaska crew will repeat the historic route for the first time in nearly 150 years.

"As the time passed, Irkutsk was losing its formerly high administrative status. Back in the 18th -19th centuries, more than half the country was managed from that city-from Yenisey to Alaska, and at certain times - even territories in California and Hawaii. We want to remember that past: perhaps it will inspire Siberians to carry out new spectacular and powerfully heroic deeds," the head of the expedition stated.

The history expert of the Academy’s institute says the expedition’s members will be amazed primarily at the "export" of Russian culture, which is still preserved there for more than two centuries.

"The locals believe sincerely the words like chayok [diminutive Russian word for tea], platok [shawl in Russian] and babushka [granny] originate from their local dialect," the scientist said. - In fact, elements of the XIX-century Russian language have "tinned" there.

The Russian footprint in Alaska is also evident in geographic names, and, of course in Orthodox cathedrals. Eastern Christianity is still the dominating spiritual tradition there.

American Irkutsk

Centuries later, the city on the Angara still retains its imperial air and connections with Russian America, Professor of the Irkutsk State University Vadim Shakherov says.

"The ability of Irkutsk’s entrepreneurs to rush to the new continent and to do business so far away from home and so actively that those territories had even become part of the empire, of course, was reflected in people’s consciousness at those times. The trips overseas were rather massive. Many families in Irkutsk had clothes and tools of the American natives. Aleuts and Creoles, children born in mixed marriages, were common in Irkutsk. Merchants brought those children to Russia as their caravans returned home, and these children were taught various trades and arts, like, for example, playing instruments, and then they would return home," the scientist said.

Traces of that epoch are seen in Irkutsk’s architecture, chiefly, in its churches. Local merchants financed their construction generously. The Harlampiyevskaya Archangel Michael Church, restored after being destroyed during the Soviet era, was built in the 18th century with Emelyan Yugov, an entrepreneur footing the bill for its construction. He had earned the money in trips to Russian America.

The gorgeous building overlooking the Angara was decorated with elements used in navigation maps - in the form of scrolls. Thus, Irkutsk, located in the continent’s center, got a "marine cathedral" - as it was called before the revolution - where priests blessed adventurers before they set off on their trips. No wonder, later on, Admiral Kolchak chose this cathedral for a wedding ceremony.

Irkutsk was also home to the headquarters of the Russian-American Company. Presently, this house, 24 Surikov Street, is divided into flats.

"The issue of opening there a museum of Russian America was raised many times. But due to often changing regional authorities, the project still remains on paper only," the scientist said.

The Gazprom of its times

The Russian-American Company, founded by merchants Grigory Shelikhov and Ivan Golikov was the first example in Russia’s history of a public-private partnership and also the first monopoly, the scientist said.

"It was for the first time that members of the Russian royal family became shareholders. That was a major step for the company’s reputation. The share quotes on the St. Petersburg’s Exchange remained at maximum highs up to the late 1850s. The company had super profits, and its influence can be compared with that of today’s Gazprom," the historian said.

The super profits came not from the gas or oil - they came from the so-called "soft gold." The price for the skin of one sea otter, hunted near Alaska’s shores, reached 300 rubles on the Chinese market. Here is a comparison: a ready-made wooden house in Irkutsk would be worth 25 rubles at the most during those times. Merchants delivered the fur to China, where they bought tea and thus later on received revenues from the price difference.

The money, which 150 years ago (March 1867) Alexander II received from selling to Americans the lands, which were bringing unheard-of revenues, was slightly over the company’s annual turnover. It was about 11.3 million rubles in gold.

"Students often ask me: can we return Alaska? And I reply by saying: yes - here the professor takes a pause. - Only culturally though. We should preserve and develop the traditions in Alaska, which the older generations still care about and have begun fading in this era of globalization."

The route to Russian America has a definite future, the head of the tourist company noted.

He outlined the prospects for future tourism. "Following the Baikal-Alaska expedition, the organizers will create an interactive guide, which will show historic objects, such as the Yelanka gravestone, the nature and names of our interesting contemporaries, who lived along the route. It would be a very useful guide for those who would want to follow the route of Russian ‘American’ colonists.

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