Posts tagged Peter the Aleut
Here are a few thoughts on the discussion about the historicity of the martyrdom account of St. Peter the Aleut kicked off by Fr. Oliver Herbel and continued by Matthew Namee on the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas’s OrthodoxHistory.org blog. These thoughts are borrowed (adapted and expanded) from comments to “Rebooted: Why I Currently Do Not Accept the Martyrdom Account for Peter the Aleut” on Fr. Oliver’s Frontier Orthodoxy blog.
We should understand more about how the cult of St. Peter the Aleut developed in the 1970s, i.e., in the lead up to his 1980 canonization by both ROCOR and the OCA’s Alaskan Diocese. It hasn’t been discussed, but there seem to be questions regarding the motives behind the canonizations. There have been whispers for years that “St. Peter the Aleut didn’t really exist” and about why he was canonized since “he didn’t exist” and ROCOR and the OCA were at each other’s throats in 1980. The process leading up to his local canonizations should be explored.
Specifically, was there perhaps a highly localized cult of St. Peter already that most are unaware of, e.g., in San Francisco, in Alaska, on Kodiak Island? Did The Orthodox Word [possibly Vol. III, No. 3 or Issue #14, June-July] or another publication simply stumble upon primary or secondary documents and unquestioningly publish them as true? Or, was an already established local tradition concerning St. Peter made public along with these supporting documents? If there was a local veneration of St. Peter why was it so unknown prior to the 1970s (and today)? Fr. Oliver says he knows “someone who went up [to Alaska] to document [the oral history surrounding St. Peter] and found none at all and was shocked.” Was the inclusion of Peter’s name in the service for St. Herman of Alaska (canonized in 1970) the primary introduction most Orthodox had to the story of Peter’s martyrdom? What sources were used to write this service? Were all of the primary sources assessed for reliability prior to his canonization (and the inclusion of Peter’s martyrdom story in St. Herman’s service) or were they taken simply, at face value? Was only the most ‘hagiographical’ account given credence to support an a priori decision to canonize? Did the RCC’s beatification of the “Mohawk Saint” Catherine Tekakwitha on June 22, 1980 play a part in St. Peter’s canonization on September 24, 1980? Were there political or ecumenical factors at play within the Alaskan Diocese, the OCA and/or ROCOR at the time that the canonization was meant to address? Were there cultural factors at play in Alaska between Natives and those from the lower 48? between Alaska and New York/Syosset?
I highly recommend looking at the various posts (and comments) on this topic available on Frontier Orthodoxy and at OrthodoxHistory.org:
- St. Peter the Aleut Did Not Exist
- Fr. Oliver Herbel on St. Peter the Aleut
- Monday Morning Priest: Continuing the Discussion Concerning the “Martyr-Peter”
- Fr. Oliver “reboots” the St. Peter discussion
- Rebooting the St. Peter the Aleut Discussion
- Rebooted: Why I Currently Do Not Accept the Martyrdom Account for Peter the Aleut
- Is the St. Peter the Aleut story true?
- Primary sources on St. Peter the Aleut
When thinking through these issues, I think it’s also worth noting a couple of things about historical inquiry and the canonization process in the Orthodox Church, in no particular order:
- The Orthodox Church should not canonize people she knows or legitimately suspects were either immoral or fictionalized.
- Prelest, ignorance and error must be guarded against through prayerful, sober, deliberative discernment and competent, reasonable due diligence
- Local veneration can be founded on error, the same is true of purported miracles, sweet scents, visions, etc. as many a story in the Paterika tell us.
- Conciliar discernment of sanctity by the Church is required, which includes the bishops in Synod, the clergy, monastics and people.
- ROCOR and the OCA were in canonically “irregular” positions in 1980 when St. Peter was canonized.
- As has been shown in the recent Act of Canonical Communion between the MP and the ROCOR, ROCOR was always only a part of the single local Church of Russia. ROCOR cannot and could not speak for the whole local Church of Russia, definitively. Similarly, it is only the OCA’s Diocese of Alaska that has canonized St. Peter the Aleut, and a single diocese alone cannot speak for the whole OCA, definitively.
- Questioning and assessing local veneration and canonization is part of the ‘reception’ process in Orthodox ecclesiology, cf. the 1848 Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs, A Reply to the Epistle of Pope Pius IX, ‘to the Easterns’.
- Questioning the wisdom of local canonizations is a very different thing than questioning the reality of a St. Christopher, for instance, as the Roman Catholics have done; questioning the canonization of St. Peter the Aleut is not like questioning the canonization of a modern, well-attested to saint such as St. Tikhon of Moscow or of an ancient, universally venerated saint such as St. George.
- A lack of historical documentation does not mean a person did not exist or that an event did not take place.
- It is possible that the Church knows, for a fact, that a person is a saint while not knowing anything for sure about his/her life.
- It is possible there are less than historically factual stories circulating about a saint. Whether the person is a saint or not is a different issue than whether stories about him are literally factual.
- Lack of documentary evidence from centuries ago, from illiterate peoples, from frontiers, from climates that poorly preserve documents, etc. are different than a lack of documentary evidence closer to our age, in places and times with a profusion of surviving documentation, from literate peoples, etc.
- While St. Peter’s world may have butted up against highly literate, documentary cultures (Russian, Spanish) in 19th century California, it can also be said that the Mission country of Alta California and its Channel Islands up through Russian Alaska should be treated more like a centuries-past, wild frontier when assessing available evidence.
- When assessing the canonization of a 19th-century, frontier saint such as St. Peter the Aleut, we should keep in mind the same criteria we use when assessing ancient hagiographical writings surrounding St. George and the dragon, St. Mary of Egypt, non-Biblical Marian Feasts, etc.
- Poetic license is a facet of Orthodox hymnography. For instance, there are innumerable hymns that tell us (“literally”) that Mary said X and the Gabriel said Y and then, etc. Literally speaking, these conversations did not happen; however, iconically and poetically, they tell us something important – especially from the perspective of the Eternal Now, “Today”. (See pp. vii, x-xii in The Life of the Virgin Mary, The Theotokos [Holy Apostles Convent, 2006].)
- We should not be too quick to dismiss such stories as untrue ‘legends’, ‘fables’ and ‘myths’. We must be careful not to assume that pre-modern ways of viewing the world, speaking of the world, etc. are inherently inferior and unreliable when compared to modern/post-modern, materialistic ways of thinking and speaking. There is a paucity of non-literal, non-scientific language in our day; this was not the case in centuries and millenia past in more aural and oral, less literate cultures.
- Hagiography is not simply myth and legend, neither is historical fact the most true portraiture of sanctity; similarly, icons show us not simply historical characters and events as they were on earth in the flesh, but as they are now, transformed by God’s glory – as they were then, too, spiritually. Spiritual time and space are in the eternal Present, the Now, the “Today” of iconography, hymnography, liturgy and prophecy; and this can truthfully elide historical events with events from intervening centuries (as well as ‘interpolated’ theology, e.g., Nicene, Chalcedonian or Palamite formulae), together with present and future events. We are told something more than bare , historical facts in hagiography, which is why less than literal historical events remain in Orthodox hagiography, hymnography, etc. unlike in the RCC post-Vatican II.
- All the historian can do in the case of a poorly attested to event or person is make a case for the likelihood (or not) of existence and veracity. That is, the historian assigns probability regarding the facts surrounding a person or event.
- Probability is not the proper, primary determiner in deciding whether to canonize or not.
- However, evidence and its lack must be given serious consideration prior to canonization due to the ever present danger in sinful humanity of prelest, ignorance, error and overreach.
- Matthew Namee identifies a number of different areas of research in the St. Peter story: the historical (what really happened?), the historiographical (how has he been viewed by people over time?) and the ecclesiastical (how do/should canonizations work?).
- I would underline the importance of the historical question (what really happened?) to the past-tense ecclesiastical question (how and why did this particular canonization take place when it did? in both OCA Alaska and ROCOR?)
What I appreciate about the historical investigation and assessment of both Archbishop Arseny (Chagovtsov) of Winnipeg and St. Peter the Aleut for universal veneration is the enunciation, enumeration and assessment of reasons we may want to consider not formally canonizing these candidates sainthood. We shouldn’t simply decide someone should be canonized and then develop a case for their canonization – especially if this includes ignoring evidence that contradicts their sanctity (or existence). While I think some have overstated the case to be made against St. Peter’s existence based on the evidence available, I expect historians to grant significant weight to the tools of their academic discipline. As stated above, probability is often the best historical inquiry can do, and academic probability alone must not be given precedent over established Tradition. Since Archbishop Arseny and St. Peter the Aleut have only been canonized or venerated locally, as stated above, it is the Church’s duty to conduct appropriate, competent and reasonable due diligence into whether two new saints should be put forward for universal veneration. The Church is in need of those who will play “devil’s advocate”; She is in need of those who will raise potential concerns that could come back to embarrass the Church. Concerns about St. Peter have been whispered for years, and a modest inquiry into Archbishop Arseny quickly raised questions that should have been addressed far earlier in the canonization process. The informal, almost ad hoc nature of the Orthodox canonization process with its lack of formal criteria and procedure is perhaps too easily prone to misuse and/or prelest – or the perception of such. If a friendly “devil’s advocate” doesn’t raise all of the questions that can be raised, I assure you other, less friendly critics will. “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither [any thing] hid, that shall not be known and come abroad.” (Luke 8:17)
“Sober, deliberative discernment is required” – which includes historical investigation and assessment – so the Orthodox Church does “not canonize people she knows or legitimately suspects were either immoral or fictionalized.” Our saints are canonized because they were and are living canons – literally “rules” – for us to live by. The Church should do all it can to ensure Her “canonized” measures are true.
A DECREE OF THE SYNOD OF BISHOPS OF ROCOR to the diocesan bishops and pastors of churches directly subject to the President of the Synod of Bishops
0n 15/28 October, 1980, the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia [ROCOR] heard the appeal of a number of the faithful for the canonization of the martyrs Peter the Aleut and Hieromonk Juvenalius.
Resolved: In as much as the martyrdom of Peter the Aleut and Hieromonk Juvenalius is not in doubt, and that in accordance with a resolution of the Higher Ecclesiastical Authority their names were listed in the service to St. Herman of Alaska as holy martyrs, a new decision on their canonization is not required. Their memory should be celebrated on the same day as that of the Venerable Herman of Alaska.
[Resolved also:] To send an encyclical ukase for information and guidance to all the diocesan bishops and to the pastors of churches subject directly to the President of the Synod of Bishops.†Metropolitan Philaret, President†Bishop Gregory, Secretary
31 0ct./13 Nov. 1980
(Source; emphasis mine)
This article was written by Christopher Orr.
Given the recent discussion about St. Peter the Aleut, I thought it might be worthwhile to publish some of the primary sources we have for his story. As I explained on Monday, there are four main sources:
- The 1819 transcript from the deposition of Keglii Ivan, the only known eyewitness to St. Peter’s martyrdom.
- The 1820 report of Russian official Simeon Yanovsky to his superiors in St. Petersburg.
- The 1820 report of the head of the Russian-American Company to the Tsar.
- The 1865 letter of Yanovsky to the abbot of Valaam Monastery.
We don’t yet have a copy of the 1819 deposition. The 1865 Yanovsky letter has been widely circulated, but is almost certainly the least reliable of the four sources. That leaves the two 1820 accounts, which I will reprint here. I have taken them from a paper by Jesuit priest Raymond A. Bucko.
First, the February 15, 1820 Yanovsky report:
Here is an example of the inhumanity and ignorance of the Spanish clergy: In June 1815, on the coast of California near the Mission San Pedro, they seized 15 baidarkas of Kadiak men under Tarasov, of whom two Kadiaks fled to Il’men Island (possibly a Russian name for San Nicolas Island – Ed.) where one of them died, and the other, Keglii Ivan, lived with the natives of this island until by chance the Russian-American Company brig Il’men came in March, 1819, when he appeared before the commander of the vessel, Mr. Banzeman, and was taken to Fort Ross. I enclose the original testimony of this Aleut taken by Mr. Kuskov. He has now been sent here on the brig Il’men and tells me the same thing. He is not a type who could think up things. The Spanish tortured his unfortunate comrade, who until the very end replied to his torturer that he was a Christian and wanted no other faith, and with these words he died. One must note that this victim though baptized like the others was not taught Christianity, probably did not even know the dogmas of the faith except God the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. I suggest that the Government intervene so that the Spanish do not do the same with the rest. But we have to keep in mind that the colonies cannot get along without grain from California.
Here is the report from the main administrator of the Russian-American Company, sent to Tsar Alexander I “sometime before December 20, 1820″:
A Company promyshlennick, a native of the island of Kodiak by the name of Kykhklai, who had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards in 1815 and returned to our settlement at Ross and then to the headquarters of the colony on Sitka Island in 1819, gave the following account of inhuman treatment by the Spaniards of one of the Company promyshlenniks.
In 1815 a Company servitor named (Boris) Tarasov was on Ilmen Island, which did not belong to any nation. He was the leader of a group of promyshlenniks who were there to hunt. Since they were unsuccessful there they decided to set out with fifteen dependent islanders from our Kodiak colony to go to the other islands, Santa Rosa and Ekaterina (Catalina?). During the voyage his baidarka began to leak, and he had to proceed to the coast of California. They stopped at the bay on Cabo San Pedro, where bad weather detained them until the next day. While they were there a Spanish soldier came to them from the mission of San Pedro and informed Tarasov that in exchange for some gifts, he would bring to him two of our Kodiak men who had previously run off from another such hunting party and were presently in the mission.
When the soldier left, although the weather was calmer and they could proceed on their projected route, the desire to see and to free their fellow islanders persuaded them to remain there longer. On the fourth day of their stay they were suddenly attacked by some 20 armed horsemen, who tied up all of our people and wounded many of them with their sabers. One of the Kodiak islanders named Chunagnak was wounded in the head. The attackers looted all their possessions and all the Company trade goods. The prisoners were then taken to the mission of San Pedro where they actually did find the two Kodiak islanders who had fled from the island of Clement from another party of partisans. When they reached the mission, a missionary who was head of the mission wanted them to accept the Catholic faith. The prisoners replied that they had already accepted the Greek Christian religion and did not wish to change. Some time later Tarasov and almost all the Kodiak people were taken to Santa Barbara. Only two of them, Kykhklai and the wounded Chunagnak, were thrown into prison with the Indians who were being held. They suffered for several days without food or drink.
One night the head of the mission sent the runaway Kodiak islanders with a second order for them to accept the Catholic faith, but again they remained steadfast in their own faith.
At dawn a cleric went to the prison, accompanied by Indians. When the prisoners were brought out, he ordered the Indians to encircle them. Then he ordered the Indians to cut off the fingers from both hands of the above mentioned Chunagnak, then to cut off both his hands; finally, not satisfied with this tyranny, he gave orders that Chunagnak be disemboweled.
Tortured in this manner, Chunagnak breathed his last after the final procedure. The same punishment would have awaited the other Kodiak, Kykhklai, had it not been for the fact that the cleric received a timely piece of paper. When he read it, he ordered that the man who had been killed be buried, and that Kykhklai be returned to prison; several days later they sent him to Santa Barbara. There was not one of his comrades there who had been taken prisoner with him. All of them had been sent off to Monterey. Kykhklai was assigned to the same work as other Company promyshlenniks who had been taken prisoner by the Spanish.
Wanting to escape from a life of such torture, Kykhklai and another man conceived the idea of breaking away. They stole a baidarka and went in to the bay on Cabo San Pedro, and from there to the island of Catalina, then to [Santa] Barbara [Island] and finally to Ilmen, where one of them died and where Kykhklai was taken aboard the Company brig Ilmen, which had come to the island and then went to the Ross settlement. The others who had been taken prisoner at the same time were freed on the insistence of our captains Hagemeister and Kotzebue.
This incident, just one of many, is a striking example of the inhuman way in which the Spanish treat Russian promyshlenniks. Many who had previously been in their captivity were so exhausted with labor and so abused from beatings that they will carry the results with them to the grave. The suffering inflicted on the poor Indians is impossible to conceive without shuddering. Not only do they not consider the Indians human beings, they consider them below animals. The Spanish take great pleasure in beating innocent Indians then bragging about it to other Spaniards.
Over on his blog, Fr. Oliver Herbel has decided to re-frame his presentation of the St. Peter the Aleut question. He’s taken down both of his earlier articles on the subject and replaced them with a new one, which you can read by clicking here.
Well, this has been interesting. Last week, I posted a link to an article Fr. Oliver Herbel wrote, entitled, “St. Peter the Aleut Did Not Exist.” As you can imagine, this sparked a very strong response from many readers, who challenged Fr. Oliver on several points. Some took issue with his historical arguments, while others were simply scandalized that an Orthodox priest would call into question the existence of a canonized saint. Personally, I have learned a great deal, on both sides of this debate, in the past few days.
I have to say, I have never been more indecisive about an American Orthodox historical matter than I have with St. Peter the Aleut. I honestly do not know whether he existed or not, and if he existed, whether his martyrdom story is true. The past few days have really forced me to reevaluate my view of St. Peter. When I first read Fr. Oliver’s article, my reaction was, “Gosh, that’s a little bit bold, but I tend to agree that St. Peter’s martyrdom story is a fiction.” Then I read all the reactions — and boy, were there reactions. A lot of people made a lot of compelling comments, on both sides. Some of those commenters are friends of mine.
And in the end, my mind was changed. No, I haven’t moved from “he probably didn’t exist” to “he definitely existed,” but I’ve come back to the middle. I am now an agnostic, as far as St. Peter the Aleut is concerned: I just do not know.
What to do, then? It might be worthwhile to revisit Fr. Oliver’s original six arguments against St. Peter’s existence, and discuss their weaknesses. I’ll summarize them, but I would highly recommend that you go read his original article if you haven’t already.
1. Unlike so many Alaskan Orthodox stories (e.g. St. Juvenaly), the St. Peter story has no supporting oral tradition.
At first blush, this seems like a big problem, given the centrality of oral tradition in Native Alaskan culture. Then again, St. Peter is a lot different than, say, St. Juvenaly, whose martyrdom was witnessed by a whole village and was considered a momentous event in their history. The communal memory was preserved through oral tradition, but in St. Peter’s case, there is no communal memory — just a single eyewitness. Even assuming word of his martyrdom eventually reached St. Peter’s village, it would have been at least five years (and probably more) after anyone had last seen him. And unless the eyewitness himself was from the same village, or visited it and told his story, it’s possible that the villagers never actually heard it. I don’t think the lack of oral history is damning, in this case.
2. Fr. Michael Oleksa virtually ignores St. Peter’s martyrdom in his published work on Alaskan Orthodox history.
It’s true — as far as I’m aware, Fr. Michael’s only published reference to St. Peter is a passing mention in Alaskan Missionary Spirituality. But it’s just as true that Fr. Michael has spoken at length about St. Peter in public lectures, and he has reportedly theorized that Spanish government officials, rather than Roman Catholic missionaries, were responsible for St. Peter’s death. This really doesn’t score any points against St. Peter’s story.
3. There are no corroborating accounts of Spanish-Russian violence in California around this time, or accounts of Spaniards torturing natives to convert them to Roman Catholicism.
Well… not exactly. One of the best articles on St. Peterwas written by a Jesuit priest, Raymond Bucko, who himself seriously questions the martyrdom story. But in Bucko’s article, he does point out that part of the St. Peter story is true — there was an 1815 Spanish raid on a Russian-American Company ship, and Native Alaskans on board were taken into Spanish captivity. Also, I think it’s premature to say that there are no corroborating accounts. Only a few researchers have paid even the most cursory attention to St. Peter’s story, and it seems to me that we need to do a thorough check of the Spanish records before we can say that no corroborating accounts exist. At this point, we can merely say that no corroborating accounts of the martyrdom are known to exist.
4. Roman Catholic evidence contradicts the martyrdom accounts.
In support of this claim, Fr. Oliver cites an 1816 letter from one Roman Catholic mission priest to another. This source, which also comes from the Bucko article, suggests that the Roman Catholic approach to Native Alaskan captives was one of relative tolerance and indifference, rather than persecution. It seems to contradict the idea that the missionaries would torture an Alaskan Orthodox prisoner in an effort to convert him to Catholicism.
The problem here is, this is but one piece of evidence. Someone needs to dig into the archives of both the Catholic missions and the secular Spanish authorities to determine how they treated Native Alaskan captives. If we can establish a pattern of tolerant behavior, it does undermine the idea that St. Peter was martyred by Catholic missionaries. But that gets to the bigger problem: we need to comb the Spanish archives for evidence. This 1816 letter, while helpful, is hardly definitive.
5. There is no evidence that St. Peter and his alleged persecutors could converse in the same language, undermining the accounts of an exchange between them.
Well, okay, but how much of an exchange was there, really? The two extant 1820 accounts (one by the Russian official Yanovsky and one by the administrator of the Russian-American Company) say nothing about a lengthy exchange between St. Peter and the Spaniards. They merely tell us that Peter was told to accept Roman Catholic baptism, and he refused. This would be easy enough to communicate, even if the two parties couldn’t understand each other’s words. But there’s more: in the most comprehensive of the 1820 accounts, we are told that the Spanish missionaries used runaway Kodiak Islanders as intermediaries when dealing with St. Peter and his companion. So St. Peter may very well have been able to understand his captors, and they him.
6. The accounts of St. Peter’s martyrdom are “highly suspect.”
There are four known accounts of the martyrdom, all stemming from the same eyewitness testimony:
- The transcript of the deposition of the purported eyewitness, taken by the Russian official Kuskov. I don’t know anyone who has ever seen this account, although I’ve heard that it was published in Russian a few years ago. See the postscript at the bottom of this article for the possible references.
- Yanovsky’s report dated 2/15/1820, which gave a very brief summary of the martyrdom story. The summary was brief because, according to the letter, Yanovsky also enclosed the deposition transcript. Yanovsky also notes that, after the eyewitness was deposed, he was sent to Yanovsky. Having interviewed the man himself, Yanovsky concluded, “He is not the type who could think up things.” Also — and this will be of interest to those who suspect that Yanovsky may have been trying to stir up anti-Spanish sentiments — Yanovsky wrote, “I suggest that the Government intervene so that the Spanish do not do the same with the rest. But we have to keep in mind that the colonies cannot get along without grain from California.”
- A report submitted by the main administrator of the Russian-American Company to Tsar Alexander I “sometime before December 20, 1820.” This account is much more detailed than Yanovsky’s earlier version, and it appears to draw on the original deposition transcript.
- Yanovsky’s 1865 letter to the abbot of Valaam Monastery.
While the 1820 accounts have the tone of official reports, the 1865 version reads like hagiography. Yanovsky didn’t have the old 1820 documents in front of him when he wrote that 1865 letter, either — we know this because Yanovsky can only remember Peter’s baptismal name, but not his Alaskan one. One might argue that Yanovsky’s inconsistencies are evidence that the original story was fabricated. I think it’s more likely that Yanovsky believed that what he was saying was true, but in the intervening 45 years, exaggerations and embellishments had crept into his memory. Is this really so unbelievable? A 32-year-old man hears a remarkable, memorable story, retains no written account of it, and when he’s 77, he tells the same basic story but with added drama and detail? Seems to me that this is the most likely scenario.
The bigger problem, as I see it, is that we are relying on the testimony of one man, about whose character we know nothing besides Yanovsky’s judgment, “He is not the type who could think up things.” Did the Russian officials Yanovsky and/or Kuskov fabricate the story? If so, why? I understand that there may have been tensions between Spain and Russia over fur trading and the like, but this isn’t the sort of story you just make up out of whole cloth. And the purported eyewitness seems to have even less of a motive to lie.
What do we know? Let’s try to break down the story, point-by-point. We’ll use as our main source the 1820 account by the main administrator of the Russian-American Company, which, in my opinion, is the best version (in the absence of the original deposition).
- In 1815, a party of Native Alaskan hunters, led by Boris Tarasov of the Russian-American Company, was raided and captured by the Spanish. According to Bucko, this essential fact is corroborated by Spanish records.
- One of the Alaskans, Chunagnak of Kodiak Island, was wounded in the head during the raid. Spanish records agree that some of the Alaskans were injured in the raid.
- The captives were taken to a Roman Catholic mission. There, they encountered two runaway Kodiak Islanders. The head of the mission wanted the new arrivals to become Catholic, but the Alaskans said that they were already Orthodox and did not want to change.
- Eventually, most of the prisoners were taken elsewhere, and only Chunagnak (Peter) and Kykhaklai (the eyewitness, called “Keglii Ivan” in the 1820 Yanovsky account) remained. They were imprisoned with other Indians (not Alaskans).
- The Spanish missionary sent a message to Peter and his companion by way of the runaway Kodiak Islanders (that is, in a language Peter could understand), again ordering them to become Roman Catholic. Peter and Keglii Ivan refused. Up to this point in the narrative, nothing particularly extraordinary has happened, and all this seems perfectly believable.
- The next morning, a Spanish cleric and a group of Indians came to the prison. The cleric ordered the Indians to encircle the two Alaskans, torture Peter (cutting off fingers and then hands), and then disembowel him. The Indians did all this, and then someone approached the cleric with a paper. After reading it, the Spaniard ordered the Indians to bury Peter and return Keglii Ivan to prison.
- Keglii Ivan was transferred and then enslaved by the Spanish before escaping. Several years later, he was picked up by a Russian brig and taken to Fort Ross. According to the 1820 Yanovsky account, he gave his testimony to Kuskov, who then sent him to meet with Yanovsky.
That’s it; basically, that is the original story of St. Peter, as best I can tell. What observations can we make about this story? Well, for one, the involvement of the Spanish clergy is not quite as clear-cut as it might initially seem. Communications between the Spanish clergy and the Alaskan prisoners seem to have been through intermediaries (the runaway Kodiak Islanders). The wicked acts done to Peter were actually carried out by Indians from California — they weren’t directly done by Roman Catholic clergymen. Yes, the eyewitness said that a cleric ordered the Indians to do these things, but that just tells us what the witness thought. Was the persecutor really a cleric, or was he perhaps a Spanish official or soldier? Isn’t it possible that Keglii Ivan was mistaken about the man’s office? And even if the man was a member of the clergy, what are we to make of the letter he received after Peter’s death? Someone — we don’t know who, but presumably a superior such as the head of the mission — ordered the persecution to be stopped. Doesn’t this suggest that the cleric — if he was a cleric — was not carrying out any kind of official Roman Catholic (or Spanish) policy, but rather acting of his own accord? And is it so hard to believe that there might have been an overzealous, sadistic Roman Catholic priest operating in California in 1815?
I know that nobody has yet identified any other instance of this sort of torture in Spanish California in the early 1800s. This is really the biggest weakness of the St. Peter story — it’s just so outlandish, so extreme, that it seems incredible. Had the story ended with Peter’s death as a result of, say, a beating, rather than a gruesome and elaborate torture, I don’t think the account would raise nearly so many eyebrows. But dismemberment and disembowelment — that’s singular, really.
But while some see this as a reason to disbelieve, you could argue that it paradoxically lends credibility to the story. I realize this may sound absurd to some, and maybe it is, but hear me out. Yanovsky — he had no motive to lie, and he was definitely not interested in causing problems that would upset the grain supply from California. If the other Russian official, Kuskov, was a liar, why would he have sent Keglii Ivan to Yanovsky to be interviewed? Why not just take down Keglii Ivan’s “testimony” at Fort Ross, send the witness on his way, and then forward the deposition transcript on to Yanovsky in Alaska? That Kuskov sent Keglii Ivan to Yanvosky suggests that Kuskov had nothing to hide, and even that he wanted Yanovsky’s opinion as to the veracity of Keglii Ivan’s testimony. Yanovsky felt the need to explicitly tell his superiors in Russia that Keglii Ivan was a credible witness — that is, Yanovsky realized how crazy this story was, but he believed Keglii Ivan and was willing to put his own judgment and reputation behind the testimony. As for Keglii Ivan himself, why on earth would he make up something like this? What could he possibly have to gain by fabricating something this bizarre? In the end, to those who think that the St. Peter martyrdom is a fiction, I would like to ask, how do you explain the lie? Who lied, and why did they do it? That is as much of a mystery as the question of who might have been behind St. Peter’s gruesome murder.
None of this is to say that St. Peter was definitely martyred. Also, I have said nothing thus far on the merits of his canonization (by both ROCOR and the OCA’s Diocese of Alaska in 1980). Personally, I think that his canonization, at that time, was ill-advised, simply because those who canonized him lacked sufficient historical evidence for his story. But saying that he was prematurely canonized is NOT to say that he didn’t exist, or that the substance of his story is not true. I remain undecided on those questions, but it seems to me that those who would confidently declare St. Peter’s story false may themselves be acting prematurely. Now that this debate has been opened, let us work together to learn as much as we possibly can in an effort to determine what, if anything, can be verified and/or disproven by the primary sources which might survive.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
Postscript: I understand that Yanovsky’s original 1820 report is published in The Russian Orthodox Religious Mission in America, 1794–1837, with Materials Concerning the Life and Works of the Monk German, and Ethnographic Notes by the Hieromonk Gedeon. This book was originally published in Russian in 1894, and was translated into English by Colin Bearne. The resulting text was edited by Richard A. Pierce and published by Limestone Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 1978). The report in question appears on pages 80-89.
Also, I’m told that Yanovsky’s 1820 report (and possibly the much-desired deposition transcript) appears in the Russian-language collection Russia in California: Russian Documents on Fort Ross and Russian-Californian Relations in 1803-1850, volume 1, published in 2005. I’ve just ordered a copy of this book to be sent to my own law school library (actually, one of the other libraries at my university has it, so it won’t take long). We’ll need to get it translated, but as soon as possible, we’ll publish it.
Oh, and two final notes:
- St. Peter was not an Aleut — according to the 1820 sources, he was a Kodiak Islander. Both the name “Peter” and the description of “Aleut” come from the more questionable 1865 Yanovsky letter.
- While St. Peter is often depicted and referred to as a child in icons and hymnography, the original accounts give no indication as to his age. I believe the Russian-American Company employed Native Alaskans beginning at age 18, so calling Peter a “child” is rather misleading.
UPDATE: Fr. Oliver has offered a response to my article. Click here to read it. [The original link was broken; this link should work.]
This morning on his Frontier Orthodoxy blog, Fr. Oliver Herbel offered a post with the provocative title, “St. Peter the Aleut Did Not Exist.” Fr. Oliver says that he intentionally did not publish the article here at OH.org so as to spare us the inevitable debate; however, I do think it’s appropriate that we link to the post and give people a chance to read it.
Fr. Oliver’s argument boils down to six main points:
- Unlike so many Alaskan Orthodox stories (e.g. St. Juvenaly), the St. Peter story has no supporting oral tradition.
- Fr. Michael Oleksa, the foremost scholar on Alaskan Orthodox history, has written next to nothing about St. Peter. In Orthodox Alaska, Fr. Michael makes not a single mention of Peter’s story. (I would add that Fr. Michael mentions St. Peter only in passing in Alaskan Missionary Spirituality.)
- No corroborating evidence exists — that is, there is no other evidence of Spanish-Russian violence in California in that era. The St. Peter incident sticks out as an anomaly.
- On the contrary, there is an internal Roman Catholic document from the period that actually contradicts the idea that the Spanish would torture Native Alaskans.
- There is no evidence that St. Peter and his alleged persecutors would have been able to converse in the same language, which makes the exchange between them unlikely.
- There is only one primary account of St. Peter’s martyrdom, and it is suspect for various reasons.
I’d encourage you to read the whole article, as I’ve just barely summarized Fr. Oliver’s observations. And, for the time being, I’m going to stay out of the public debate over whether St. Peter was real (and, if he was real, whether he was really martyred). I do think it is of paramount importance that the original account of St. Peter’s martyrdom be made public and translated into English. We don’t have that account, and I don’t know of anyone who has ever seen it, although in the comments to Fr. Oliver’s post, someone says that it was due to be published in a book.
At some future point, I’ll examine the pro-Peter arguments, and generally discuss the merits of his case.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.