International Association of Specialists on Russian America

 Irkutsk and Russian America

Irkutsk, founded in 1661 on the Angara River, was one of the most important cities in Siberia at the time when Russia was establishing settlements in North America. As a large trading center and source of new capital, it was from here that large-scale entrepreneurs sought monopolistic control of Alaska's resources (Black 2004:101). From this perspective, Irkutsk was key to the expansion of the Russian fur trade into Alaska. During the 18th and 19th centuries Irkutsk was the center of provincial government; a starting point for scientific, trade, and military expeditions; a center of Orthodoxy in Siberia (after 1727); and a center for the administration of Russian colonial policy (Bychkov 1997:43-44).

The farms, factories, and cottage industries of Irkutsk region produced a wide range of products for the Alaska trade (e.g., wheat, flour, beef, butter, tallow, leather, silk, coarse textiles, iron and iron hardware, glass, distilled spirits, copper goods, salt, rope, and tar) (Crowell 1997:155). During the late 18th century, Irkutsk was also heavily involved with the Kiakhta trade, through which Chinese items (e.g., cotton cloth, silk, tea, porcelain, earthenwares, tobacco, and glass beads) were procured and redistributed to Russian America and other locations (Crowell 1997:155). During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, goods from Irkutsk were transported some 2300 miles overland to Okhotsk via the Lena River and Yakutsk, thence by ship to Russian America. Aron Crowell (1997:156), who excavated Alaska's Three Saints Harbor settlement (constructed by G. Shelikhov in 1784), feels that most of the imported archaeological materials from this site can be traced directly to the Irkutsk region or China. He stresses the need for more material sourcing studies, especially with respect to factories in western Russia and Irkutsk (Crowell 1997:226). Archaeological excavations at Castle Hill, the colonial capitol of Russian America from 1808-1867, produced more than 300,000 items (McMahan 1999; 2001:94; 2002a:172-175). The majority of these materials were recovered from a manufacturing and living complex dating from the first quarter of the 19th century. A high percentage of imported items from this area can also be linked to factories in Russia (McMahan and Thompson 2002:83) (Figure 1). Potentially, many of the items of Russian origin were shipped to Alaska as described above, from Irkutsk. There was an effort by the Russian-American Company to establish industries in its outlying settlements, thus avoiding dependence on Irkutsk and other locations in Russia, as well as the long arduous and expensive haul of goods from European Russia and Siberia to Alaska (Crowell 1997:218; Dilliplane 2002:209-214). At least 25 industries / work activities were founded in the colonies. These included fur-gathering, brick-making, shipbuilding / boat-making, mining, agriculture, the ice trade, grain milling, blacksmithing, coppersmithing, and rope-making (Dilliplane 1980:231-246; 1981:1-23; 1982:5-27; 1990:131-143; 1993:1, 13). As the settlements grew, supplies were shipped directly from the Baltic port of Cronstadt or purchased from British and American trading vessels. In addition to the importance of Irkutsk as a trade and administrative center, many persons prominent in the settlement and history of Russian America are linked to the region. These include Grigorii Shelikhov, Aleksandr Baranov, Pavel Lebedev-Lastochkin, and Ioann Veniaminov (i.e., Saint Innocent of Alaska).

The Scientific Library of Irkutsk State University has posted a concise history of Irkutsk at: http://www.manus.baikal.ru/eng/essay.htm

  References Cited

Photos: Click to Enlarge

 

Bering's travels from Irkutsk (arrow) across Siberia (L'Isle 1736)

 

Circa 1880 View of Irkutsk

 

Russian American Company Bldg., Irkutsk

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