Monday, August 3, 2015

The lingerings of Russian Alaska

One of the maxims of Holscher's Laws of History is that "Everything last occurred more recently than you suppose".  Given that, I should have realized that there's be lingering aspects of Russian culture in Alaska.  Nonetheless, I was surprised to find this true.

The United States bought Alaska from Imperial Russia in 1867.  Quite a long time ago, by how we generally reckon things, but not all that long, really, in cultural terms.  Russia started penetrating into Alaska in the 1740s and things really got rolling in the 1780s, although their numbers were always limited.  Naturally, they brought with them the Russian Orthodox faith.

I guess I hadn't appreciated the extent to which Russian Orthodox missionaries operated in Alaska, but they certainly did, and they were successful.  And, for no real reason, I would have presumed that the influence of Russian Orthodoxy would have dramatically waned after the US purchase of the territory.  I knew that it remained a bit, but I thought just a bit.


Well, I was wrong.

About 12.5% of the population of Alaska is Orthodox.  80% of the population is Christian.  The Orthodox population rivals that of the Catholic population, which is really amazing as the Catholic Church is by far the largest of the apostolic churches in the United States.  That the percentage is this high is all the more amazing as the demographics of Alaska have undoubtedly changed significantly since 1974, when the oil pipeline brought in a large number of out of state workers, which would have increased the Protestant populations significantly and the Catholic population as well.  Therefore, if we look at the pre 1974 demographics, and the long term resident demographics, the percentage of Russian Orthodox would be even higher.

And this would be strongly reflected amongst Alaskan Native populations, who would make up the bulk of the Orthodox in Alaska.

All this goes to show that culture is indeed resilient, as we also previously noted in one of our laws of history.  In some places the Orthodox parishes have declined, but demographically, they're still strong.  I shouldn't have made the assumption that I did.

I actually found this out, I'd note, in a bit of a roundabout way, and I'd guess many who visit Alaska never realize this.  As I find church architecture interesting, and post photos of them to a blog, when I was in Alaska I ran across a reference to an Old Believer church near Homer and then did a short search and ran into a second Russian Orthodox Church.  The Old Believer church, I should note, does not represent an enduring Alaskan cultural feature, as they moved into the region in 1966 (and there are actually several Old Believer communities near Homer).  In looking up a Russian Orthodox Church I photographed in Ninilchik I was surprised to find that there'd been a church I'd missed in Homer itself, and not only there, but darned near everywhere.  There were a lot of them, as indeed there should be, as there are Catholic churches everywhere and nearly as many Alaskans are Russian Orthodox as are Catholic.

Which shows, I suppose, when observing something, a person must be open to observing the unexpected.

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