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The Russian-American Company was a privately funded concern which obtained a royal monopoly on exploration and settlement in America. It sponsored and managed the Russian presence from the Aleutians to the Farallon Islands. The Company had agents in several Russian cities and hired most of its promyshlenniks in the port town of Okhotsk. Many of them were unskilled, indebted, or drunkards; all were willing or forced to sign a seven-year contract.

Chief Manager Baranov mentioned in two letters [Tikhmenev in Pierce's edition, II: Documents, pp. 104 and 124] that the company's hires had signed up "in the Commandant's office in Okhotsk" and had "given a pledge to the Commandant of Okhotsk before they were shipped here to obey my orders".

The port commandant was a military officer (sometimes a corrupt one like the notorious Bukharin, who according to Davydov in the same volume, imprisoned a ship's crew so that he could overcharge the company for the use of his own oarsmen). Baranov's emphasis and repetition suggests that the Commandant's presence was by design and not just Bukharin taking advantage. Venality aside, the commandant's official responsibility must have been to a superior far away in Yakutsk or Irkutsk.

Could the Company's salaried agents hire new employees, or was the Okhotsk commandant for some reason the only one who could convey their passports for the colonies?

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The Russian-American Company was founded under the auspices of the Tsar. Hence, it was not really a "private" company, but what we Americans would call a government sponsored entity (GSE). Think "Fannie Mae" or "Freddie Mac." In fact, the original founding merchants were soon displaced as shareholders by nobles and aristocrats, particularly government officials.

Thus, an employee of the company had two allegiances; to the company itself, and to the Russian government. While "salaried agents" were representatives of the former, the Commandant of Okhotsk was a "local" representative of the latter. He may have overstepped his bounds by demanding that the employees pledge allegiance to him personally, but basically, he was doing his job by "overseeing" the Russian-American Company and its employees.

As this note to Fort Ross (California) explains, the Russian government sent soldiers to protect what were technically commercial, rather than military, ventures in its far-flung "outpost" regions. From the Wikipedia article:

"Between twelve and forty cannons were placed within the stockade and blockhouses, the number varying in the different accounts of the site written over the years. Sentries bearing flintlock muskets stood guard in each blockhouse, but although it was fortified, the settlement served as a commercial, not a military outpost. Flagstaffs were first erected in the center of the stockade and outside it on the bluff, each bearing the flag of the Russian-American Company, with the imperial double-headed eagle as its insignia."

A reason may have been that they could not have been protected by conventional diplomatic means, given the power vacuums that existed in these remote areas. Another reason was that the Russian-American Company was given the task of exploring and colonizing the lands that it was developing economically.

  • I agree that my question did not describe the depth of government sponsorship of the Company. Per Khlebnikov's report, though, navy captains were the only government officials on the Company payroll. I will accept this answer if you add a citation that helps explain this connection between the military and the company. – Aaron Brick Jan 1 '18 at 3:33
  • @AaronBrick: Added a reference to Fort Ross. – Tom Au Jan 1 '18 at 14:17
  • Those sentries were company employees: "Everyone in the vicinity of Fort Ross labored for the Russian-American Company." – Aaron Brick Jan 7 '18 at 21:41

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