The promyshlenniki (from the Russian промышленность, literally "a trade of business") were Russian and native Siberian contract workers drawn largely from the State serf and townsman class who engaged in the maritime fur trade in Siberia and Alaska in the 1790s. Although not all fur hunters (many were sailors, carpenters, and craftsmen), they were the backbone of Russian trading operations in Alaska. By the early 1820s, when the share system was abandoned and replaced by salaries, their status remained in name only; they became employees of the Russian-American Company and their duties and activities became increasingly less involved in the fur-gathering activities of the Company.
In early Siberia
In early Siberia, service-men and promyshlenniks were the two main classes of the Russian population. Service-men were nominally servants of the tsar, had certain legal rights and duties and could expect pay if they were lucky. Promyshleniks were free men who made their living any way they could. A minor group were sworn-men ('tseloval'niki', literally [cross or bible] 'kissers'). These men swore an oath and gained certain rights and duties. In practice the groups blended into each other and the distinction was most important when dealing with the government. When petitioning the tsar, a service-man would call himself 'your slave' and a promishlenik 'your orphan'. These people were often called cossacks, but only in the loose sense of being neither land-owners nor peasants.
The Lebedev-Lastochkin Company sent the first Russian promyshlenniki to investigate the resources of the lower Yukon River in 1790. The party, led by the hunter Ivanov, traveled from Iliamna Lake to the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers. Ivanov reported on the extensive fish and game resources and the many people inhabiting the region. At first the traders returned to Kamchatka after every season but eventually trading posts were established in the territory. These posts began in the Aleutians and moved eastward toward the Alaska Peninsula rather than north to the Yukon delta and Bering Strait.
Relations with Aleut and Alutiiq people
Promyshlenniki were adept at hunting on land but they lacked the skills to hunt on water, where sea otters lived. The Promyshlenniki then turned to the native Aleut and Alutiiq men to do their hunting for them. These Alaska Natives were trained at a young age to hunt sea otters. The Russians took the women and children hostage and forced the men to hunt for them to ensure the safety of their families.
As time passed many of the Russian promyshlenniki took Aleut partners, had children, and adopted a native lifestyle during their time in the Aleutian Islands. In 1794, with direct authorization from Catherine II, the Siberian governor Ivan Pil sent instructions that company managers at Kodiak should "encourage" single Russian men to marry native women.
[The Promyshlenniki] appeared to be perfectly content to live after the manner of the Native indians of the country; partaking with equal relish and appetite their . . . food, adopting the same fashion, and using the same materials for their apparel.
- "Alaska History and Cultural Studies: 1800-1869 The Russians and English Meet". Retrieved 2007-11-18.
- Gross, Nancy (1994-11-03). "From Promyshlenniki to Pollock and Beyond". Trade and commerce in Alaska's past : papers presented at the annual meeting of the Alaska Historical Society. Kodiak, Alaska. pp. 6–19.
- "Alaska Regional Profiles : Yukon Region : The People". Retrieved 2008-01-07.
- Gwenn A. Miller (2005). "Russian Routes". Retrieved 2007-11-18.
- "Alaska History and Cultural Studies: 1743-1867 Era of Russian Violence". Retrieved 2007-11-18.