Are the Russians Coming?

It was another tough week in the news with a feeling of history being repeated as Stalin’s “Iron Curtain” morphed into Putin’s pipe dream of recreating the glory of the Soviet Union by reclaiming former territories — causing questions to be asked like, “Didn’t Russia own Alaska?”

Yes. The implications are disturbing.

In 1728, Vitus Bering, a Dane working for the Russian Navy, discovered Asia was separated from North America by a Strait that bears his name. In 1741, Bering found the coast of southeast Alaska while looking for furs and local tribes they could “bring under a sovereign hand” and tax. They did this by taking the women and children hostage, giving the men fox traps and telling them they could see their families again if they brought in enough furs and provisions, and converted to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The accidental discovery in the 1700s that a few scraps of metal, some glass beads or an article of disease-infected clothing could be traded on the Northwest Coast for sea otter pelts worth a fortune in China had set off the treachery and slaughter that historians euphemistically refer to as the fur trade. Eventually, metal, alcohol, gunpowder and disease were introduced to the stone-age cultures of Alaska and the Northwest Coast with devastating results.

In 1799, the Russian American Company was chartered with a mission of establishing trade with the natives, converting them to the Russian Orthodox Church, hunting fur and colonizing settlements as far south as Baja, Calif. By then, the Russians had slaughtered, pillaged and enslaved their way East from the Aleutian Islands to make their capitol at New Archangel.

The Tlingit resented the Russians for taking their land and using their enemies, the Aleut, to exterminate the sea otter and disrupt traditional trade patterns between the tribes. In 1802, the Tlingit burned the Russian fort. In 1804, Russian-American Company Manager Alexander Baranov returned and burned the Tlingit Town, Noow Tlein, and built a new fort, Novo Arkhangelsk or what we call Sitka today.

It was a great land for furs, but too far north for agriculture. In 1808, Baranov sent the Russian ship S.V. Nikolai under Navigator Nikolai Bulygin from Sitka to claim land for an agricultural colony somewhere south of Vancouver Island. The S.V. Nikolai was thought to have been purchased in Hawaii from King Kamehameha, probably in exchange for weapons used in his bloody consolidation of the Hawaiian Islands under his control. At the time, Hawaii was a sanctuary where Europeans could avoid the harsh North American winter, recover from scurvy and obtain sandalwood.The Nikolai wrecked at La Push. The survivors endured a running battle with the Quileute and Hoh people. The Russians built a stockade on the Hoh River, where they were eventually captured. Of the original crew of 22, 13 survivors were ransomed by the American Captain Brown of the brig Lydia.

This was a devastating loss to the Russians, who decided to head farther south to Bodega Bay, establishing Fort Ross in 1812. It was an agricultural colony that flourished until 1841, when the Russians bought their food from the Hudson Bay Company at Fort Vancouver and Fort Langley. By 1867, the expense of the Crimean War, the near extinction of the sea otter and the hostility of the Tlingit convinced Russia to sell Alaska to the United States.

Leaving us today wondering, what would happen if Russia tried to reclaim lands it once owned in Alaska, California, Hawaii and the Hoh River? It’s something to think about before protesting the U.S. Navy F-18’s flying over the Olympic Peninsula.