Sunday, May 4, 2008

Russian Alaska Still Resonates in Sitka

South Florida’s own, Sunny Isles Beach is known for it’s Russian population and cultural influence. In this city, branded “Little Moscow,” nearly 8% of people claim Russian as their first language. Not long ago, a number of Russians called a much colder, less temperate place home.

Russians were the first non-natives to explore and colonize Alaska.Russian Alaska existed from about 1784 to 1867. Sitka, Alaska has the oldest history of Russian influence out of any city in the United States. Old world businessman and Russian seafarer, Grigory Shelikhov established Alaska’s first colony in 1784. In 1799, he set up the Russian-American Company, a fur trading monopoly, in the area now known as Sitka.

In 1848, Sitka became the home of the first Russian Orthodox Church in the new world, The Cathedral of St. Michael. It still stands today despite the fact that Russian attempts to Christianize Alaska Natives fell into the hands of Protestants when Alaska was purchased by America in 1867.

Cathedral of St. Michael in Sitka

Over hunting and corrupt industry killed one of Russia’s most lucrative ventures in Alaska, the trade of sea otter pelts through the Russian-American Company. As a result, Russia became desperate to pass off Alaska to America. The land was sold for 2 cents an acre, totaling $7,200,000. This amounts to about $95,672,993 in today’s terms (adjusted for inflation in 2006 dollars...thanks to Wikipedia).

Americans forced most Russians out of Sitka right after this transaction, however; Russian culture is still leaving its mark. Eastern Orthodoxy is still practiced by about 10,000 Alaskans and Russian influence can be found in many restaurants and shops throughout Sitka. I traveled there in 2006 and whilst perusing typical tourist Meccas and tacky T-shirt shops I noticed the abundance of Matryoshka dolls and knock-off Faberge eggs. Incidentally, this was the inspiration for my lengthy, boring, blog submission. Lastly, if you ever have the need for a shirt that says Coca-Cola in Cyrillic, go to Sitka.

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