America purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Even though their occupation ended exactly 150 years ago (thanks Secretary of State William H. Seward!), Russia’s mark endures here in small degrees.
In villages across Alaska, traditional Russian artwork, clothing, and religious relics are found in all manner of homes. Kodiak – ex-Russian HQ for Alaska – even has a nifty cafe that sells Russian Orthodox sundries to go with their caffeinated beverages and divine sandwiches. It was on the Emerald Isle that I first realized how important this faith is to many Alaskans.
Port Heiden is no different. This village of 100 souls has two churches, the larger of which is Russian Orthodox and has a sizable cemetery. Its congregation seems quite devout, despite not having a priest permanently stationed in town.
Port Heiden’s smaller church is Nondenominational Christian. I’d guess its congregation is about 20 strong. (Though I’m not certain; I haven’t heard of any services there yet and so can’t say for sure).
Sadly, the only Russian Orthodox ceremony I’ve attended was a funeral. It was harrowing, jam-packed with most of the village, and every bit as lengthy as I anticipated.
Through most of the ritualistic readings and songs, I observed a community filled with devotion. It was incredible and got me to pondering…
Initially, one would think that whole-sale rejection of anything Russian would follow once America took possession of Alaska. It would make sense, right? Russia’s treatment of indigenous Alaskans was barbaric and amounted to slavery; instances of forced labor, mandatory conversions, and hostage-taking were commonplace. Though I’ve read that not all Russian-Alaskan outposts were so cruel, you get the general idea.
Unfortunately, this treatment of indigenous peoples was not unique to Russia. National powers have historically engaged in grossly immoral activities during colonial expansions. The U.S. is no exception: manifest destiny involved brutal relocations and warfare against multitudes of tribes.
During the funeral, I came to the conclusion that folks in Alaska are happy with their religion. And it’s not like America’s presence did anything to fill the void that Russia left upon departure. Catholic attempts to proselytize Alaska resulted in mixed outcomes at best. And near as I can tell, Mormon and Seventh Day Adventist conversion efforts just haven’t gained much traction.
Either way, Russia’s era has been over for 150 years. Yet, Alaskans still dig what Russia left behind. Even the bigger population centers have impressive Rus roots, with plenty of immigrants and first- and second-generation children of Russia hereabouts.
Anchorage even boasts a full blown Russian Orthodox cathedral in the ornate, colorful olde Ruski style. Juneau and Fairbanks both follow suite with equally snazzy, but less massive churches. In fact, per the ever-infallible Wikipedia, there are over 100 Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska.
Even though these religious throwbacks come from afar, the Russian marks of the past still stand firm on Alaska’s shores. And, truthfully, it’s a beautiful tradition.
Even more importantly, it gives many people hope in times of fear and strife.
What more could one ask of the past?