The Russian Orthodox Mission and Priest-monk Afanasii’s "Secret", 1824-1826.

The first mission from Valaam Monastery (6 monks and 4 novices) departed Moscow on January 22, 1794 and arrived in Kodiak on September 24 to establish the new era of Christianity in America. From this original group, which "has a tremendous history" only Afanasii and Herman remained by 1824. In many aspects, 1824 was a crucial year for the North Pacific Russian colony. The period from A. A. Baronov’s dismissal by Russian naval officer Hagemeister in 1818 to 1824 was a difficult one for inhabitants of Russian America. The colony was facing starvation due to short food supply and, to complicate matters, the Russian-American Company (RAC) wasn’t allowed to trade with foreign ships between 1820 and 1824.

These were also difficult years for the Russian spiritual mission in Alaska. There weren’t enough priests to go around at the time, and those who were active tended to be rather old. By 1823, when most of them had passed away or gone back to Russia, the mission had all but stopped (His Grace, the Right Reverend Gregory "Orthodoxy in Alaska" in Russia in North America. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Russian America. Sitka, Alaska, August 19-22, 1987. Richard A. Pierce, ed. Fairbanks, Limestone Press 1990. P.292.).

The situation was very serious and it had been the subject of a special discussion, in which the directors of the RAC, E. F. Kankrin, Minister of Finances, P. S. Mescherskii, Chief Prosecutor of the Holy Synod all took part (The Holy Synod – Fr. Alekseii Sokolov, May 18, 1824 // Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, USA. Russian Orthodox Church collection. D. 338. (Sokolov Alekseii, 1824-1827.) Having received letters from America and from St. Petersburg, regarding the situation in America, His Grace, Mikhail, the Bishop of Irkutsk, Nerchinsk, Iakutsk and Cavalier, supported spiritual mission by all possible means. In the autumn 1823-spring 1824 spiritual mission in Russian America received reinforcement in the persons of Fathers Ioan Veniaminov and Frumentii Mrdovskii.

On the 8th of July, 1824, the ship Ruirik set sail for Unalashka. Father Ioann Veniaminov, the future "Apostle of America", was on bord. During his nine-month stay in Novo-Arkhangel’sk he’d managed to gain the respect of Murav’ev, who was captain of Russian navy and the territory’s general manager (1820-1825). He wrote of the young priest: "It would be impossible to wish for a person of greater moral character, such knowledge, noble bearing, and with such dedication to his duties for this region than father Ioann." (Matvei I. Murav’ev—Russian-American Company Headquarters, St. Petersburg. May 1, 1824.// National Archives and Record Service, USA, Russian-American Company Collection, Reel 29, P. 76.) Father Ioann’s parish consisted of 60 small islands on the border of the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean, the largest of which was Unalashka. Here he found 10 small villages. There was no church on Unalashka, only a half-ruined chapel. He began his missionary activity by constructing a church. He was an excellent carpenter and mason, and in gaining the respect of the locals, managed to draw them into the construction effort. ("Showing the Way to the Kingdom of Heaven. Hagiography of Innokentii, Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomenskoye."//Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchy Publishing House. Moscow 1997. Pp.60-64.) In letter to Kirill T. Khlebnikov, head of the RAC Novo-Arkhangel’sk office, Father Ioann wrote "I am pleased with my present situation, insofar as I am healthy, and could be happy, at peace, well-off, and content" (Russian America, Moscow, Nauka 1994. Pp. 157-158.)

On January 27, 1824, Murav’ev sent the ship Kiakhta, under the command of Prokopii S. Tumanin, to Kodiak with a load of wheat. (Passport of Prokopii S. Tumanin. Jan. 17, 1825.// National Archives and Record Service, USA, Russian-American Company Collection, Reel 29, P.191.) The priest Frumentii Mordovskii was on board to be a priest in Kodiak. The situation in Kodiak had been specially discussed in the Holly Synod on September 23, 1824. The result was a decree stating that creols who were "educated and with excellent moral characteristics" could serve in the Church as sextons. It was even allowed by the Holly Synod that they could serve without travelling to Irkutsk to receive the blessing from the Bishop Mikhail, due to the hardship, and time needed to travel the thousands of miles from Kodiak to Irkutsk (The Holly Synod-Father Aleksei Sokolov, May 18, 1824. // Library of Congress. Manuscript Division. Russian Greek Orthodox Church Collection. D. 338 ( Sokolov Aleksei, 1824-1827.) Father Frumentii was supposed to have occupied his position in Kodiak the previous fall, but due to his illness, his family was allowed to postpone their departure with a stay in Novo-Arkhangel’sk (Matvei I. Murav’ev—Kodiak Office, January 23, 1825.// Ibid. P. 195.)

During the winter of 1825, Murav’ev was ailing, but continued to work in spite of his ill health. He busied himself with church affairs, sending out orders to his officers regarding the decree of the Holy Synod allowing creoles to wear sticharion. For example, in the Saint Arkhistratig Mikhail church in Novo-Arkhangel’sk, the creole Nikolai Chichenev was ordained as a prichetnik with an annual salary of 250 rubles (Matvei I. Murav’ev—Russian-American Company Headquarters, St. Petersburg. February 11, 1825.// Ibid. P. 202 and reverse.)

The news arriving from Kodiak and Unalashka islands in spring 1825 was both good and bad as it was understood by General Manager Murav’ev at the first time. The troubling news came to him from Kodiak. Father Frumentii, together with Nikiforov, the head of the Kodiak office of the Russian-American Company, went with a special inspection expedition to Spruce Island where monk Herman lived as a hermit, not even having visited Kodiak in many years (Spruce Island is only about a mile away from Kodiak Island.) Father Frumentii Mordovskii, arriving at the hermit’s cabin and finding a number of utensils worth thousands of rubles, undertook an inventory of Herman’s possessions, who was then sent to Kodiak.

The situation in Unalashka was rather more gratifying for Murav’ev. Ioann Veniaminov had settled in the old government house and had managed to present himself not only as a capable jack-of-all-trades, but as a very humble man as well. Murav’ev wrote: "the deeds of Father Frumentii from Kodiak have convinced me of the comparative superiority of Father Ioann" (Mikhail I. Murav’ev—Russian-American Company Headquarters, St. Petersburg. April 27, 1825.// National Archives and Record Service, USA, Russian-American Company Collection, Reel 29, P.264.)

Inasmuch as Murav’ev was happy with the activity of Ioan Veniaminov, he was troubled by Frumentii Mordovskii’s actions because he had a great deal of respect for the Herman. Further, Murav’ev discovered that Mordovskii had sent priest-monk Afanasii to Irkutsk. Murav’ev decided, however, not to take sanctions against the priest, fearing he may have been acting on directives from the Bishop in Irkutst, of possibly even the Holy Synod. Instead, he sent to the RAC Headquarters for special instructions. It turned out that Fr. Frumentii Mordovskii did have full authority to send monk Afanasii to Russia (Bishop Gregory (Afonsky) "A History of the Orthodox Church in Alaska (1794-1917). Kodiak: St. Herman Theological Seminary, 1977. P. 43.) It would perhaps be unfair to view Fr. Frumentii Mordovskii’s actions solely in light of Murav’ev’s comments. Fr. Frumentii Mordovskii was very much a man of his time, and did his best to fulfill his role, as he understood it, within the greater task of the Mission to the America. In the end, it should be noted, his actions contributed to the realization on the government’s behalf that it needed to pay closer attention and give greater care to the needs of the Orthodox Mission, and to the role of Orthodoxy in America.

Priest-monk Afanasii’s return to Russia received a continuation that was both unexpected and unpleasant for the RAC. The 68 year-old priest-monk, upon arriving in Irkutsk, presented a detailed report to the Bishop there. In his report he described "his 33-year service in the American mission and indicated that he had a secret he was willing to disclose only to the Holy Synod" (Determination of the Holy Synod, October 4, 1826. // Russian State Historical Archive, Collection 18, Inventory 5, File 1276, P. 2.) The Irkutsk office of the RAC began taking all measures in their power to prevent Afanasii from sharing his secret. It had been proposed that the monk lately returned from America needed "rest in a monastery hospital" and if Afanasii did indeed have a secret, his best course of action would have been to commit it to a letter to be opened in the Holy Synod. The Bishop Mikhail asked Afanasii to stay, while the RAC issued him an annual pension of 200 rubles. Priest-monk Afanasii, however, was insistent that he reveal his secret to the Holy Synod. Eventually news of the affair reached St. Petersburg, and Afanasii had been granted an access to the Holy Synod. It had been also allowed to him to meet his request to return to Valaam Monastery.

In Moscow on September 3, 1826, priest-monk Afanasii revealed his secret before the Holy Synod. It turned out that for some time the RAC had been sending hunters from Kodiak and other territories out on trips lasting eleven or more years. As a result of the lack of spiritual guidance and being separated from their wives and children, the men were beginning to drift away from their faith, and as a result of the prolonged separation from their wives, the population had begun to decline. At one point, there had been as many as 7000 Christians in Kodiak, but at this point there were less than 4000. According to Afanasii, fur hunters should be separated from their wives for no more than one year. (Ibid. Pp. 1-3 reverse.) This was a rather serious accusation the priest-monk had leveled against the RAC.

On October 20, 1826, the Synod’s chief prosecutor, prince Petr S. Meshcherskii, sent a request to minister of finance Kankrin asking him to settle the matter. By this time, 1826, the Company had a great deal of experience dealing with such grievances. For example, in 1797 Father Makarii had gone to St. Petersburg to present a list of complaints about the RAC to the Russian Emperor Paul I. Not only did he not receive any action in these matters, he was sent back to America with an admonishment from the Holy Synod not to leave his post without authorization and not to go around complaining, as it was unbecoming a priest. Afanasii’s appeal likewise met with official consideration, having in mind the position of the Russian-American Company. In the detail answer to Afanasii’ secret the directors of the company show their respect to the Russian Orthodox Mission in America. With carefully selected and pleasant towards Afanasii language, the directors expressed their concern on the Orthodox Mission and presented their understanding of the situation: "There is only monk Herman left from the spiritual mission, and he himself lives as a hermit. At present, it has been replaced by the white clergy which is more keeping in correspondence with the circumstances of the area, because in representing the rituals of the Church, the white clergy can lead with a good example of home life." The RAC directors were not sure that Afanasii’s claim that the hunters had been separated from their families for ten years or more was well grounded. This was the first time RAC founder Grigorii I. Shelikhov had met with criticism from the company he had organized: "without insulting the memory of the Honorable Shelikhov, it may be noted that he may not quite have accurately estimated the population of Kodiak, indeed, that he may have exaggerated it in order to lend greater importance to his new discovery, so to speak, his conquest. The clergy, following these reasons, in a very forgivable mistake, increased the number of new converts to Christianity" (RAC Headquarters, St. Petersburg—Minister of Finance Kankrin, November 25, 1826// Ibid. P.8.) In the conclusion to its letter, the RAC headquarters wrote: "during the last five years, the population had not been diminished." Priest-monk Afanasii decided to neither agree nor disagree with the RAC. He returned to Valaam Monastery, where he passed away in 1831 at the age of 74, and was interred in the monastery cemetery (M. Z. Vinokurov (USA) to the Abbot of Valaam Preobrazhenskii Monastery, May 30, 1937 // Central Archive of the Republic of Karelia, Collection 762, Inventory 2, File 13/155. P. 120.)

The events of 1824-1826 described in this article are but a glimpse of the picture of the Spiritual Orthodox mission’s activity in America. The spread of the Russian Orthodox Church in America is inseparable from the history of Russian America and the Russian-American Company, which in turn is itself tied to world history. Events in the domestic and international arenas had a tremendous impact on the activity of the Russian-American Company, while in turn "Orthodoxy, in the form of the Orthodox Church, was following in the footsteps of the Russian-American Company" (His Grace, the Right Reverend Gregory. "Orthodoxy in Alaska" in Russia in North America. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Russian America. Sitka, Alaska, August 19-22, 1987. Richard A. Pierce, ed. Fairbanks, Limestone Press 1990. Pp. 291-292.) Studying Orthodoxy in America, bearing in mind its integral part in global historical processes, the differences between studying the history of the RAC and of Orthodoxy in America can clearly be seen.

The RAC, Russia’s first monopolistic privately held joint stock company, under the protection of His Imperial Majesty, was trying to gain as much profit as possible while protecting its territory. The Orthodox Church, while being economically and financially dependent upon the Golikov-Shelikhov Company (1794-1799), and later the RAC (1799-1867), saw its mission as transcending the boundaries and interests of the companies. The idea was, and is, to give spiritual guidance and enlightenment to every individual regardless of nationality, ethnicity, economic position, and even citizenship. The doors of the Church were open to all. The differences between the Orthodox and the RAC approaches are clearly evident in the cases of priest-monk Makarii (1797) and priest-monk Afanasii (1825-26) (Petrov, Alexander Iu. The Formation of the Russian-American Company. Moscow, Nauka 2000. Pp. 105-108.) From the face of it, the actions of the Orthodox clergy in America were seen as inflexible, even disloyal, to the command of the Golikov-Shelikhov Company (later to become the RAC). This superficial take may be unfair, however. The truth is that a limited number of clergy, working thousands of miles from their heartland, brought Christianity to another world. The Orthodox mission in America reached saw its apex in the work of St. Innocent, who brought to his teaching "patience and… a complete lack of any kind of force," with "…no use for seeking praise from people, no reason or object for pretense before others" (His Grace, the Right Reverend Gregory. "Orthodoxy in Alaska" in Russia in North America. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Russian America. Sitka, Alaska, August 19-22, 1987. Richard A. Pierce, ed. Fairbanks, Limestone Press 1990. P. 297.; Garret, Paul P. St. Innocent: Apostle to America Crestwood, NY. St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1979. P. 327.)

To really understand the mission in full it would be essential to examine in as much detail as possible the Russian Orthodox mission in Russian America, working from the tremendous variety of sources available. The documents which could help us to understand the operations of the Orthodox mission to Alaska, however, are scattered in different depositories throughout Russia and the US. Bringing them all together is crucial to presenting a complete picture of the past. Each new document shows us that the lives of the missionaries were full of deeds forced by circumstance, deeds which at first blush may give the wrong impression. For the time being, however, it is clear that we must view their lives as examples of bravery and fearlessness, yet at the same time meekness and humility.

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