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August 18, 1994

Exhibition To Open on the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska, 1794-1915

The impact of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska is the subject of a Library of Congress exhibition, "In the Beginning Was the Word: The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures," which will be on view from Sept. 23 through Dec. 31 in the foyer of the James Madison Building. The exhibition is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Admission is free.

The exhibition, curated by Dr. Vyacheslav Ivanov, a member of the Library's Council of Scholars and professor of linguistics and Slavic literature at Moscow University and the University of California at Los Angeles, traces the church's early beginnings on the Alaskan frontier 200 years ago. The Russian explorers Vitus Bering and Aleksei Chirikov discovered Alaska in 1741, and the Russians established their first mission on Kodiak Island in 1794.

The exhibition includes:

  • A decree from Catherine the Great (1729-1796) instructing the Russians to treat the natives with "tenderness and goodwill." A letter from Czar Alexander II (1818- 1881) expressing his concern over the small number of conversions to Russian Orthodoxy.
  • A series of valuable reports made by priests to their bishop on the composition of parishes, including the number of Russians, natives, creoles, and creole descendants and their age, gender, original and Christian names, and village of origin.
  • Letters from Orthodox priests reflecting on the difficulties of their mission, including their struggle with the natives' shamanism as well as requests from native males for brides.
  • Journals of post-Russian explorers and settlers who brought American and Protestant traditions to Alaska.
  • Conversion lists and a description of the conversion of a native called "Mad Stefan."
  • Rules for conversions and for the establishment of church archives by Bishop Innokentii (Ioann Veniaminov), one of the great figures of the period.
  • A typical workbook and menu for children at church-sponsored schools.
  • An 1893 passport for the Rev. Tikhon Shalamov, issued by Czar Alexander III, allowing priest and family to administer a parish in Alaska, by then part of the United States.

The Alaskan Russian Church Archives was donated to the Library of Congress in 1927. Additional records were received by the Library in 1940 and 1943. The collection, which contains more than 87,000 items, was cataloged in 1979 to accommodate the Native Alaskan Claims Act passed by Congress. Professor Ivanov culled more than 100 items from the collection that demonstrate the Orthodox Church's role in Alaska, its relationship to the natives and information on everyday life in Russian Alaska.

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PR 94-140
ISSN 0731-3527

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