From One Imperial Periphery to Another: The Experiences of a Governor's Wife in Russian Alaska

This seminar will focus on Susanna Rabow-Edling's book project about three governor's wives, who accompanied their husbands to Russian Alaska in the period 1829-1864. Dr. Rabow-Edling will explore how they tried to fulfill sometimes conflicting roles as wives, mothers, and representatives of empire in this distant colony and how contemporary notions of womanhood affected them. The seminar will focus on one of these women, Anna Furuhjelm.

Susanna Rabow-Edling is a research fellow at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University. She received her PhD from Stockholm University and spent a year as a visiting scholar at Cornell University before taking up a position at the department for East European Studies at Uppsala. She is the author of Slavophile Thought and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism (SUNY Press, 2006) as well as several articles about cultural and civic aspects of Russian nationalism.

Her main research interests are: Russian political thought, nationalism, imperialism (especially the civilizing mission), identity issues, and gender studies.


Audio Synopsis:

Dr. Rabow-Edling's talk traces the journeys of three women - Elizabeth, Margareta, and Anna - from mainland Russia to Sitka, the capital of Russian Alaska, as governors’ wives. The presentation draws upon the women's diaries and letters home to explore the experience of being a Russian governor's wife in Alaska, including what was expected of the women as wives and mothers, as representatives of the Russian empire, and as participants in the "civilizing mission" of Russian Alaska. Dr . Rabow-Edling also explores how the women, especially Anna, experienced the social and religious environment of the time.

Elizabeth, Margaret and Anna had more in common than being governors' wives. All three came from the Western periphery of the empire - Finland, and the Baltics -  thus representing ethnic minorities. As Lutherans, they were also religious minorities. All three married Finnish governors. Each was young and newly married when they began their journey, and each gave birth to their first child en route to or upon arrival in Sitka.

While all three women were unprepared for the isolation of Sitka life,  they adjusted differently to their new environment. Anna, the least confident, was overwhelmed by the harsh weather, the wilderness, and the native as well as Russian residents. She shunned a public role and took refuge in the sphere of home and family. Margareta was more self-confident, highly educated, and comfortable in Sitka society. However, her arrival was marred by the death of her firstborn son, which drove her in to a lonely depression. Elizabeth was brave, energetic, and curious, as well as less enthusiastic about religion and motherhood. Dr. Rabow-Edling describes how the women engaged differently with the Russian 'civilizing mission,' which was premised on the idea that only European women could civilize native women. She also describes how interactions with the local orthodox church could be difficult, as when Anna was prevented from distributing Bibles to convert the local people.

In conclusion, Dr. Rabow-Edling highlights the clash between the ideals of “true womanhood” prevalent at the time – emphasizing piety, purity and domestication - and the realities and demands of frontier life.

A discussion session following the presentation raised questions regarding the effects of the French invasion of Russia in 1812, the differences in gender roles between mainland Russia and Alaska, why these three governors chose Lutheran wives, and why Russia appointed so many Finnish governors.