Archbishop Innocent Ivan Veniaminov

Archbishop Innocent (Ivan Veniaminov) was born on August 26, 1797, of local lineage, in the village of Anga (Anginskoe) in the Irkutsk gubernia. He would become an important missionary of Alaska, Siberia, and the Far East, an ethnologist, and a linguist.

He received the name Ioann at baptism as an infant, inherited his father's surname, and was known as Ioann (Ivan) Evseevich Popov in his youth. Enrolled in the Irkutsk Theological Seminary, he was gifted not only as a scholar but in mechanics, and gained skills in architecture and clock-making-skills that he would apply later in Alaska.

He received the surname Veniaminov in 1814, in honor of the bishop of Irkutsk, Veniamin, who had died that year. The rector of the seminary gave the name as a surname to the brightest student. He was thereafter known as Ioann (Ivan) Evseevich Veniaminov. In 1817, Veniaminov married Ekaterina Ivanovna, the daughter of a local clergyman. Graduating from the seminary in 1820, Veniaminov was ordained to the priesthood in Irkutsk in 1821.

The Holy Synod of the Russian Church requested a volunteer to serve as the first parish priest ever to be assigned to the Unalaska district in Russian-America (Alaska), and Veniaminov offered his services. He arrived with his family at Unalaska Island in 1824, and entered into cooperative relationships with the Aleuts.

Veniaminov was received principally by the Aleut toion (chief) of Akun and Tigalda Islands in the district, Ivan Pan'kov. Bilingual, and a generation older than the young priest, Pan'kov became his mentor with regard to Aleut culture and language. Together, they traveled by kayak from village to village. Pan'kov served as translator until Veniaminov had learned Aleut. Eventually, they translated the Gospel according to Matthew into the Unalaska dialect of the Aleut language. They constructed an alphabet, based on Cyrillic letters with new characters introduced to represent special sounds in Aleut phonetics. Also,

Veniaminov included Aleut with Russian lessons in the parish school.

Concurrently, he increased his own knowledge of the district, producing an ethnography and geography as well as a grammar and a bilingual dictionary. Ultimately, Veniaminov achieved such proficiency that he was able to compose a doctrinal work in this language, Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven. It was printed as a book in Aleut (1840), and then translated and published through numerous editions in the Russian language. It has been translated furthermore for publication in various Asian and European languages, including English. This international popularity indicates the substance and relevance of the text, written originally by Veniaminov in Aleut for the Aleuts.

After a decade in the Unalaska district, in 1834 Veniaminov assumed the duties of parish priest at Novo Arkhangel'sk (today Sitka), where he concentrated, among his other activities, on learning the Tlingit language and customs.

In 1839, Veniaminov traveled to Europe, including St Petersburg. The same year, his wife died. A widower, he was tonsured as a monastic in 1840, receiving the name Innokentii (Innocent), and he was elevated to the status of bishop for the newly established Diocese of Kamchatka, the Kurils, and the Aleutians. He traveled from St Petersburg via Moscow to his diocesan see at Novo Arkhangel'sk (Sitka), arriving in 1841.

Veniaminov opened missions on the Alaska mainland, and one for the Tlingits in the Alexander archipelago, while he actively ministered in Kamchatka. He continued to promote the use of native languages in education and literature along with liturgics, and he continued to develop multilingual native leadership.

Veniaminov was elevated to archbishop in 1850. The archdiocesan see was located in Aian, northeast Asia, where he worked among the Tungus (Evenk) tribes. The archdiocese was expanded to include Chukotka, Yakutia, and the Amur region in addition to his former diocese. The archdiocese was subdivided into two vicariates in 1858, one administered from Novo Arkhangel'sk and the other from Yakutsk.

In Yakutsk, Veniaminov intensified the production of translations in the Sakha (Yakut) language, a process that had already begun here in 1812. Many fine publications were produced, including the Bible, liturgical texts, patristic texts, catechisms, grammars, dictionaries, and schoolbooks, thus inaugurating the flowering of literacy in this language. Some publications were achieved in other languages of Yakutia also, particularly Evenk (Tungus).

Veniaminov was elected as an Honorary Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1857. In 1868, the year after the sale of Alaska to the United States, he was appointed to succeed as the Metropolitan of Moscow, which was the highest rank in the Russian Church at the time.

Veniaminov's enduring importance is reflected through the commemorations that spanned the Northern Hemisphere in 1997 at the bicentennial of his birth. The government of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) sponsored a two-year-long series of events that involved the state universities, national library, state museum, and academy of sciences along with the diocese.

In Alaska, the bicentennial commemorations were patronized by the Aleut Foundation, and the Governor of Alaska officially designated 1997 as the Veniaminov Bicentennial Year in the state. An international conference was convened in the state university at Fairbanks. Exhibits were organized by the Alaska State Museums.

Other commemorations involving civic institutions took place in Irkutsk, Kamchatka, Vladivostock, and Moscow. A distinguished lecture series took place even in Berkeley, as he had visited the San Francisco Bay Area from Fort Ross, the Russian settlement in northern California, during his lifetime. His international importance is reflected furthermore at the bicentennial through an exhibit in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, as well as academic symposia in Oxford University and Edinburgh University.


Ioann Evsevievich Popov was born on August 26, 1797 at the village of Anginskoye, Irkutsk Province, Russia. His father Evsei Popov was the sacristan of the village church. The family was poor, yet the boy received a substantial education. He entered the seminary in Irkutsk, c.1806. In 1814, he received the surname Veniaminov in honor of Veniamin, the bishop of Irkustk, who had passed away earlier that year. In 1817, he married Ekaterina Ivanovna, with whom eventually he had seven children. He graduated from the seminary in 1820, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1821. Volunteering for parish ministry in Alaska, he arrived at Unalaska with his family in June 1824. He wrote and published several studies in the Aleut and Tlingit languages, including an Aleut catechism, and ethnographic studies such as his Notes on the Unalaska District (1840). Becoming a monk in 1840, after his wife's death, he took the name Innokentii (Innocent). He was consecrated bishop on December 15, 1840, becoming archbishop in 1850, and ultimately becoming the Metropolitan of Moscow in 1868. He passed away on the March 31, 1879, and was buried in the St Sergius Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Zagorsk near Moscow. He was canonized as a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977.

S.A. Mousalimas

See also Aleut

Further Reading

Chryssavgis, John, "The Spiritual Legacy of Innocent Veniaminov: Reflections on the Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven." The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 44(1-4) (1999): 585-596 Garrett, Paul, St Innocent: Apostle to America, Crestwood, New

York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1979 Library of Congress, "Father Ioann Veniaminov." In Meeting of Frontiers (published in American and Russian), website:, Washington, District of Columbia, 2001 Mousalimas, S.A., From Mask to Icon: Transformation in the Arctic, Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2003

Pierce, Richard A., "Veniaminov, Ivan I." In Russian-America: A Biographical Dictionary, Kingston, Ontario, and Fairbanks: The Limestone Press, 1990 Shishigin, Egor Spiridonovich, Rasprostranenie Hristianstva v Yakutii [The Formation of Christianity in Yakutia], Yakutsk: State Museum of the Histories and Cultures of the People of Siberia, 1991

-, "Prelate Innokentii and Yakutia." The Greek Orthodox

Theological Review, 44(1-4) (1999): 597-605 Veniaminov, Ioann (Innokentii), "The condition of the Orthodox Church in Russian America: Innokentii Veniaminov's history of the Russian Church in Alaska," translated and edited by Robert Nichols and Robert Croskey. Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 63(2) (1972): 41-54

-, "The Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska: Innokentii

Veniaminov's supplementary account (1858)," translated by Robert Croskey. Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 65(1) (1975): 26-29

-, Notes on the Islands of the Unalashka District, translated by Lydia T. Black & Richard H. Geoghegan, edited by Richard A. Pierce, Kingston, Ontario, and Fairbanks: The Limestone Press and University of Alaska, 1984

-, Journals of the Priest Ioann Veniaminov in Alaska,

1823 to 1833, translated by Jerome Kisslinger, Fairbanks: University of Alaska, 1993 Ware, Kallistos, "The light that enlightens everyone: the knowledge of God according to the Greek Fathers and St Innocent." The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 44(1-4) (1999): 557-564 Yakimov, Oleg Dmitrievich, "The Unalaska period of Ioann Veniaminov's life and activity." The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 44(1-4) (1999): 623-631

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