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When Russia Colonized North America

In the mid 18th century, as British colonists began steadily populating North America’s eastern seaboard, a burgeoning world power was working to establish settlements on the continent’s distant northwest coast: Russia.

Ever since its 1721 victory in the Great Northern War established Russia as Europe’s dominant military force—and prompted a formal declaration that its tsar, Peter the Great, was presiding over a full-fledged empire—Russia actively worked to expand its global footprint.

To do that, Peter and his heirs recognized that they’d need to look eastward—to the Pacific Ocean and beyond, to what is now the Aleutian Islands and Alaskan coast. The allure? Not only the chance to seize more land, but the opportunity to maintain Russian dominance of the lucrative fur trade, which at its peak in Peter the Great’s lifetime, accounted for more than 10 percent of the empire’s total revenues, according to Benson Bobrick, author of East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia.

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