January 1, 1741
Krasheninnikov discusses the culture and beliefs of the Native Kamchadals. "They believe that the earth, sky, air, water, land, mountains and forests are inhabited by spirits whom they fear and honor more than their god!" Sacrifices were made to these spirits and idols were kept in their dwellings, "and rather than fearing their god, they curse him for all their misfortunes?" Russia began sending priests in 1741.
Topics: (click to open)
In Siberia, as in Alaska, Russians paid only scant attention to native ceremonies and beliefs. Christians could only dismiss native beliefs as gross superstitions and deplore their barbarity. Most Russians assumed that Bering Sea natives did not believe in God and had difficulty understanding the aboriginals' conceptions of the supernatural. Krasheninnikov, however, conceded that the Kamchadals believed in God, but found their idea of God and notions of good and evil very strange. His assessment of the native character was not commendatory. "Their pleasure consists of idleness and of the satisfaction of their natural desires. They arouse their lust with songs, dances and love tales which they are accustomed to relate. Boredom, responsibilities, troubles, are considered the greatest misfortunes which can befall them; and to guard against these, there is nothing they will not do, even sometimes at the risk of their lives. Their guiding principle is that it is better to die than not to live in comfort, or to be unable to satisfy their desires. Thus they used to have recourse to suicide as a last resort to find happiness." 8
It is hard to determine the basis on which the young Russian reached such curious conclusions. He does not illustrate the great fear of boredom nor the abhorrence of discomfort he seemed to have discovered. and one suspects that such tendencies might have been more manifest among the idle nobles of eighteenth-century St. Petersburg than the Kamchadals. As for the natives' suicidal propensities, there is evidence that this was a result of Russian oppression rather than an ingrained cultural trait. The only instances Krasheninnikov cites were the aftermath of battles with Cossacks when, after realizing that further resistance would be futile, Kamchadals hurled themselves into the midst of the enemy "with weapons in hands so as not to die without avenging" themselves. 9 As late as 1740, Kamchadal warriors, after a futile rebellion, killed all their women and threw themselves into the sea from a cliff where they had taken refuge. Krasheninnikov himself relates that suicide "became so common among them when they were conquered by the Russians, that the Court sent orders from Moscow to put a halt to it." 10 No one seems to have considered that the Kamchadals might have had good and rational reasons for preferring suicide to falling into the hands of victorious Cossacks heated by battle.
Other judgments of Kamchadals reached by Krasheninnikov were equally derogatory. "They have no knowledge either of riches, of honor, nor of glory; consequently they know neither greed, ambition nor prides all their desires are aimed to living in an abundance of everything they want, satisfying their passions, their hatred, and their vengeance." 11 According to the curious reasoning of the young Russian, the ignorance of the Kamchadals caused them to avoid some vices and indulge in others. Kasheninnikov's conclusions were never as clear as his prejudices. The more closely one examines such statements, the more confusing they become. Using the same depictions of character traits, a sympathetic observer might have presented the motives in quite a favorable light, though Krasheninnikor cannot be condemned for reflecting the attitudes of his time.
Krasheninnikov found the Kamchadals extremely boorish. "They never doff their hats nor bow to anyone. They are so stupid in their discourse that only in their power of speech do they differ from animals." 12 Their religion mystified the Russian scientist: "They believe that the earth, sky, air, water, land, mountains and forests are inhabited by spirits whom they fear and honor more than their god!" Sacrifices were made to these spirits and idols were kept in their dwellings, "and rather than fearing their god, they curse him for all their misfortunes?" 13 Krasheninnikov's notes on native customs are extensive, valuable records which seem to have gained much by his use of Steller's work. Steller had a great curiosity concerning native beliefs and he had the patience to satisfy it by means of extensive questioning. When the German scientist inquired about the Kamchadals' belief in a supreme being he did not depend upon a handful of informants, but put the same question to more than a hundred Kamchadals. Together, both men contributed to a monumental and timely work, the record of a people whose culture was soon to be overwhelmed. A few years later it would have been impossible to compile such a thorough description of the doomed nation. In 1741 the first Russian priests were sent out to convert the heathen and stamp out what remained of their traditional beliefs: What the Cossacks had begun with firearms was completed by the churchmen.