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Home  >  Timeline  >  Russian America  >  Russian Orthodox Church: Russia's Alaskan Legacy
Russian Orthodox Church: Russia’s Alaskan Legacy

The Russian Orthodox Church:  Russia's Alaska Legacy
Between 1741 and 1867 Russia’s fur trappers and traders—the promyshlenniki—left a permanent mark on Alaska’s indigenous population. But as new diseases, environmental degradation, and societal disintegration generated by the Russian encroachment eroded cultural confidence, it was the missionaries—priests of the Russian Orthodox Church—who gradually gained a strong foothold within Alaska Native communities. 

Ironically, the Church influence did not take hold during the Russia’s tenure in Alaska, but after Alaskans had already lived a few decades under American rule. After the Russian sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867 to approximately the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the role of the Russian Orthodox Church transformed from an agent of change to a kind of middle ground where, at Native villages throughout Alaska, Orthodoxy and indigenous traditions integrated into a new form of spiritual belief. 

The transition from promyshlennik to priest did not occur overnight. The Russian Orthodox mission officially began in Alaska in 1794. Historian Barbara Sweetland Smith describes it as “a frank instrument of Russia’s pacification policy.” That year monks from a monastery in Siberia established the Ka’diak Spiritual Mission. The establishment of the mission was encouraged by Grigorii Shelikhov, who strongly argued that conversion of the indigenous peoples was vital to the fur trade. He successfully convinced Catherine II, who sent ten missionaries off to the new colony. 

Although considered an independent institution, the Russian Orthodox Church received financial support from the Russian-American Company to build chapels and churches, pay priest's salaries, and operate schools. In the artels Christianity was deeply tied to the economic and social activities of the fur trade. Priests saw themselves as moral overseers of such activities, and clashes between company employees and missionaries frequently occurred. Besides defending Native peoples against exploitation, Russian priests devoted much of their time to describing Native cultures. In 1824 Rev. Ioann Veniaminov, who would be elevated in 1840 as Bishop Innocent, arrived at Unalaska as a Russian Orthodox missionary and provided some of the most significant ethnographic information about this period in Alaska history. His Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska District is an unparalleled compilation of Aleut traditions.

Alaska Natives adopted Orthodoxy during the first half of the 19th century due to outside forces that continually contradicted traditional beliefs. Epidemics and harsh working conditions caused populations to rapidly decline. Hunting practices that nearly wiped out the fur-bearing animals brought terrible guilt to Native hunters who left meat to rot for the price of pelts. These events undermined traditional knowledge and Native views of the world. This lack of control over their spiritual lives led many confused and anxious people to question their own ways of knowing and place in the universe. As disease, over-hunting, and environmental degradation began to fragment the existing order, some Alaska Natives sought relief within the Orthodox Church. 

The blending of Russian Orthodoxy and Alaska Native culture ito a new Christianity began, in part, with the attitudes priests held towards nature. Most of the Russian Orthodox priests in Alaska came from monasteries located in the Siberian wilderness. Moreover, priests were required by the Church to imitate Christ’s suffering in nature. According to Church doctrine each missionary was to seek ideal places to recreate Christ’s affliction in the Biblical desert and directly interact with that environment. Alaska’s Orthodox priests transplanted the Bible’s "desert" metaphor to Alaska’s northern desert of severe cold and ice. Alaska Native people probably interpreted this “respect” for the natural world as consistent with their own spiritual relationship with nature. 

For a long time a blurred line existed between Shamanism and Orthodoxy. The ornate qualities and ancient ritualism of the Church apparently appealed to many Alaska Native groups. Likewise, Russian clerics tended to tolerate shamanistic practice. Although they discouraged ceremonialism, the clergy supported the shaman’s social role as healer, seer, and hunting administrator. But with power provided by innovations like the smallpox vaccine the priests slowly began to take on more social and spiritual responsibilities as the healer, the clairvoyant, the pacifier of the forces of nature, and the link to the spirit world. Gradually Native religious views shifted from animism to Orthodoxy.

Like the Russian artels, Orthodox chapels and churches became shared space where indigenous religious practice merged with Christianity. Residents typically built chapels on the highest ground in the village, and socially the church stood at the center of village life. Similar to the traditional qasiq that functioned like a community hall, Orthodox chapels and churches welcomed village parishioners especially during the dark winter months. Worshippers used such spaces for all religious services—baptisms, weddings, funerals—but chapels and churches were also used by Natives to perform more traditional ceremonies such as masking and other winter rituals. 

The blending of Russian and Native religion continued to blur as the Church instructed missionaries to train indigenous clergy, to render Native languages into written form, and to translate the Sacred Books into Aleut, Alutiiq, Yup’ik, and Athabascan so that the liturgy could be performed in the Native tongues. To accord with the 1821 Russian-American Company charter, the Russian Orthodox Church designed a bilingual educational system to train, teach, and convert Alaska’s indigenous population. By 1840 Bishop Innocent Veniaminov had compiled Aleut dictionaries and translated important parts of the New Testament and other Christian text from Church Slavonic and Russian into several Native languages, which were used for both Church service and school education.

A multicultural education system played a major role in converting Alaska’s Native population to Christianity, but it did something that other colonial projects did not—it indigenized the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska. Unlike most colonial powers in North America that marginalized the indigenous peoples, the Russian Orthodox Church included Native people as mediators and translators of the missionary message. The Orthodox educators allowed Native peoples to keep their most salient cultural trait—their language.

The purchase of Alaska in 1867 brought an influx of American newcomers, innovative technology, modern goods, new forms of transportation, conflicting moral and religious systems, disease, alcohol, and, of course, capitalism.  This began to change the composition of 19th century village society. The encroaching American presence caused anxiety among Orthodox priests as American Protestant missionaries competed with them for their parishioners. As a result, Alaska Natives and Russian priests formed an alliance where the Church served as an enclave protecting both Russians and Alaska Natives, at least for a while, from the inevitability of Americanization. The blending of Russian and Native spiritual beliefs became a concerted effort to maintain a sense of cultural identity and equal status in a world of powerful newcomers.

Orthodoxy did not create a thin facade, beneath which lay ancient beliefs and values. Instead the Church became a place where both Russian and Native people interacted and became equal participants in Christian acceptance as well as the conversion process. According to scholars like Sergei Kan and Andrei Znamenski, Native people were able to adapt Christianity to their own needs and transform it into something meaningful to them. In fact, because there were so few actual Russians in Alaska, the adoption of Orthodoxy by so many of Alaska’s inhabitants could be considered a choice, not an imposition. This contributed to the formation of what scholars call a genuine form of Alaska Native Christianity. Despite eventual Americanization, the Alaska Native brand of Orthodoxy continues to this day. Indeed, nowhere was the Russian influence greater or more lasting in Alaska than in the religious transformation that bridged the Old World with the New.

Gallery of Images
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The first Russian Orthodox Church established in Kodiak
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Ivan Veniaminov, Saint Innocent
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Russian School, Sitka, Alaska
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Abbot Chariton of Valaam
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Church bells being run on Atka Island
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