In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Russia and North America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Exploration and Navigation
  • Science and Environment
  • Russian Far East and the Projection of Empire
  • Document Collections
  • Sale of Alaska

Atlantic History Russia and North America
Ilya Vinkovetsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0309


Following Vitus Bering’s second exploratory voyage, which sighted land on the North American continent in 1741, the Russians began to venture from Asia across the North Pacific Ocean to the Aleutian Islands, and later the Alaskan mainland. “Russian America” eventually came to include territory in Alaska and, briefly, in California and the Hawaiian Islands. The Russian colonies in America, as Russian America was officially called, were overseen between 1799 and 1867 by the Russian-American Company (RAC), a chartered Saint Petersburg-based joint-stock fur trade company that descended from a merger of several Siberian-based merchant-run enterprises but was also modeled loosely on contemporary West European colonial companies. Under the oversight of the RAC, Russian employees and Alaska Native hunters (mostly the Unangan Aleut and the Alutiiq of Kodiak Island) controlled the marine fur trade of the North Pacific, in the process changing its ecology. After the Russians, in the early 19th century, advanced from their previous colonial center on Kodiak Island to the Alaska Panhandle area inhabited by the Tlingit, Novo-Arkhangel’sk (present-day Sitka, Alaska) became Russian America’s administrative capital. It was also arguably the Russian Empire’s best-functioning port in the Pacific. As such, Sitka became an important port of call for numerous Russian and foreign voyages. Beginning in 1804, Russian America became a destination for Russian circumnavigation voyages originating in the Baltic: these voyages inevitably made stops in ports around the world, including the Atlantic. In December 1866, Russia’s government decided to sell Russian America to the United States, concluding the sale in 1867. Diplomatic relations between the United States and the Russian Empire were, on the whole, cordial from the formation of the United States up through the transfer of Alaska, mainly because of a common strategic adversary—the British Empire. Then again, on the Northwest Coast of North America, from the 1830s on, the RAC often cooperated rather than competed with the British Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), even “loaning” the HBC Russian territory in the Alaska Panhandle in exchange for provisioning Sitka from British Columbia. This localized cooperation was designed to be at the expense of the two companies’ smaller American competitors and the Native American hunters and trappers. A secret treaty protected RAC and HBC territories in North America from the hostilities of warfare during the Crimean War (1853–1856). But the awareness of the vulnerability of Russian America to naval attack, brought into focus by that war, helped convince Russian officials to terminate their experiment in overseas colonialism.

General Overviews

The best comprehensive overview of the history of the Russian colonies in America is the multi-authored three-volume study Bolkhovitinov 1997–1999. Chevigny 1965 is a popularized version of traditional US-based scholarship on Russian Alaska as it stood at that time. Black 2004 positions itself as a counterbalance to that older scholarship. Starr 1987 signaled the dawn of international dialogue among scholars in producing post–Cold War historiography. The interpretive Vinkovetsky 2011 represents an attempt to situate Russian Alaska within both New Russian Imperial and New American Western historical traditions, while also incorporating insights from global studies of colonialism. Grinev 2018 provides a novel, detailed, authoritative study of the origins of Russian activity in the Pacific. Bolkhovitinov 1975 is a lively treatment of US-Russian diplomatic and cultural relations in the early decades of the United States as an independent country by a scholar who knew the relevant sources on the Russian side more intimately than anyone before or since. Saul 1991 is an analogous effort by an American scholar.

  • Black, Lydia T. Russians in Alaska, 1732–1867. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2004.

    This synthesis represents an attempt to reinterpret the history of Russian Alaska with the aim of countering the “great man” orientation and Russian exploitation narratives of older American scholarship. It highlights the positive aspects of the Russian presence. Foci include the humanitarian activity of the Russian Orthodox Church and the agency of the Russian-Native “Creoles” in the development of a more humanitarian and paternalistic colonial order in Russian America’s later years.

  • Bolkhovitinov, Nikolai Nikolaevich. The Beginnings of Russian-American Relations, 1775–1815. Translated by Elena Levin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

    A history of early relations between the Russian Empire and the United States from the leading authority on the topic. Also highlights intellectual exchanges and the growth of knowledge in the two countries about each other. An expert on both international diplomacy and Russian colonization in Alaska, the author makes multiple links between the two.

  • Bolkhovitinov, Nikolai Nikolaevich, ed. Istoriia Russkoi Ameriki, 1732–1867. 3 vols. Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye Otnosheniia, 1997–1999.

    The only comprehensive scholarly overview of the history of the Russian colony in America from start to finish is this multi-authored three-volume study, available only in Russian. Numerous scholars from different countries made contributions, but Nikolai Bolkhovitinov and Andrei Grinev wrote, or cowrote, eighteen of the thirty chronological chapters. The strengths of this work reflect their specializations in political, diplomatic, and social history.

  • Chevigny, Hector. Russian America: The Great Alaskan Venture. Portland, OR: Binford & Mort, 1965.

    Although dated and containing many inaccuracies, this sweeping, narrative-driven journalistic retelling of the story of the Russian conquest of Alaska has the virtue of being written in a style that appeals to a general audience. Focusing on the actions of the leading protagonists of Russian imperialism, it represents the traditional “great man”-oriented synthesis that prevailed in the American historiography of Russian Alaska up to the time of its publication.

  • Grinev, Andrei Val’terovich. Russian Colonization of Alaska: Preconditions, Discovery, and Initial Development, 1741–1799. Translated by Richard L. Bland. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018.

    The first volume of an expected trilogy based on Grinev’s 2016 Russian-language book, this is an authoritative document-based account of Russian activity in the North Pacific in the 18th century. Unlike Bolkhovitinov 1997–1999, to which Grinev was a major contributor, this book explicitly engages the theory of “colonial politarism,” which provides the framework for the author’s analysis of economic and political development.

  • Saul, Norman E. Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763–1867. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991.

    A wide-ranging survey of early Russian-American relations, examining diplomatic, political, cultural, and economic ties.

  • Starr, S. Frederick, ed. Russia’s American Colony. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.

    This seminal collective volume was a product of a landmark scholarly conference held in Sitka in 1979. Leading experts on Russian America from different sides of the Cold War divide relished their first real opportunity to meet and compare ideas. Many of these contributions from Canada, the United States, and the Soviet Union remain relevant.

  • Vinkovetsky, Ilya. Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195391282.001.0001

    Emphasizes the construction of a new colonial system in Russian America based on borrowings from the overseas colonial systems of rival European powers and carryover from Russian experiences in Siberia. Highlights the impact of the 19th-century circumnavigation voyages on Russian relations with Alaska Natives.

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