What the daily life of Russian America looked like during its heyday


As the Polish writer Stanisław Jerzy Lec once said, even the greatest era consists of a huge number of small people. And the interest in what was decades and even more so centuries ago the life of an ordinary person is no less than in the details of the biographies of kings, war heroes, great scientists and writers. Especially if we are talking about people who lived in an environment that was not quite usual for their time, such as residents of settlements in the territory known in the first half of the 19th century as Russian America. What was their daily life, what did they do, income, expenses, connection with the Motherland and much more — let’s try to briefly talk about this.

As you know, the Russian-American Company (RAC) was generally engaged in the colonization of Alaska and the Pacific coast of America. Founded at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, it sought to recruit workers for its settlements on a contract basis. The standard term of the contract was 7 years, after which the employee, if desired, could freely go home on the first transport, however, in the absence of debts to the Company. Under the terms of the contract, it was not allowed to trade independently with «foreigners and wild peoples» under pain of seizing all «illegally acquired». Workers were hired for various crafts — the extraction of fur-bearing animals, hunting, fishing, agricultural work. Carpenters and builders were also in demand.

At the same time, RAK often hired Yakuts, who eventually played a big role in the life of Russian America. In addition to their traditional crafts, they turned out to be good guides and scouts, who also knew how to find contact with the local population.

The company paid a very decent salary for those times, which for ordinary «industrialists» (that was the name of all the employees who worked in its settlements) — 350 rubles a year (as of the beginning of the 1820s). In addition, a certain amount was given separately for equipment, plus feed money before departure — 70 kopecks daily. On the way, the food was at the expense of the company.

When the industrialist arrived at the place and started to work, in addition to the salary, he was also provided with a free bread ration in the amount of one pood (16 kg) per month. If for some reason there was not enough bread, additional money was paid in return — 5 rubles (although the cost of one pood of rye flour in Novo-Arkhangelsk was about 8 rubles when sold). In addition, in large settlements — Novo-Arkhangelsk, Fort Ross and a number of others, there were shops that sold additional products at certain rates. Every month the worker was entitled to 1 pound of tea, 2-3 pounds of sugar, 1 pound of tobacco and 1 bottle of molasses. On holidays and name days, everyone was allowed to buy one bottle of rum — on other days, drinking alcohol was strictly prohibited, and the punishment for this was severe.

In addition to developing its own crafts, the RAC actively traded with the Aleuts and Indians, buying fur skins from them. For one beaver, depending on the size, they paid from 60 kopecks to 1.2 rubles, the skin of an otter was much more expensive — 3-3.5 rubles. With this money, the natives could buy the goods they needed. They were quite expensive, which is not surprising — the delivery took many months and its volume was limited. So, for a cotton scarf, you had to pay 4 rubles, a large ax cost 5 rubles, and for a large iron cauldron, the payment was quite impressive — 20 rubles.

In addition to the standard contractual pay, qualified workers received additional bonuses. For example, for the Kyakhta ship built at the Novo-Arkhangelsk shipyard in the early 1820s, seven first-class carpenters each received 100 rubles, while second-class carpenters were paid 75 rubles each. For another ship, the Volga, around the same time, the chief carpenter received 125 rubles, and his assistants — 75 and 50 rubles.

As you can see, the incomes of settlers in Russian America were significantly higher than in European Russia — the annual wages of workers, depending on their specialty and qualifications, then fluctuated on average from 50 to 150 rubles, while only an extremely narrow stratum had high incomes (for example, professor at the university received about 2 thousand rubles a year). It is not surprising that many sought to renew their contracts — after all, here you could earn a fairly decent amount for future needs.

However, not everyone agreed to stay in such remote places — it was still boring to live there even by the standards of those times, ships from Russia arrived on average once a year and the news reached the settlers with a huge delay. And besides the office, shop and church, there were no other institutions of any significance in the settlements. In such cases, no one interfered with those leaving, since there was no shortage of people who wanted to take their place. True, the majority found their place in Russian America — for example, the wife of the founder of Fort Ross, Ekaterina Prokhorovna Kuskova, did not fall into depression soon after arriving at her husband, but opened a school where she taught children of both Russian settlers and local Indians.

Such was life in Russian America — in some ways unique, and in some ways ordinary, as in other places of the vast Russian Empire.