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Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America

By Owen Matthews

Reviewed by David Schreiber

Glorious Misadventures            Around the year 1800 the west coast of North America seemed ripe for takeover by Russia. Spain held Mexico firmly in its grip, but its hold on California was loose, consisting of only a scattering of small, poorly supported missions north to San Francisco. In 1789, attempting to block Russian expansion, it had sent an expedition north to Nootka on Vancouver Island, claiming it as Spanish territory and in the process seizing several British commercial ships, but when Britain threatened war, Spain was forced to sign a humiliating treaty and retreat to San Francisco.

The question was open: Who would gain final sovereignty over the waters and coastlands of Pacific North America? (The competing powers—Russia, Britain, Spain—were not interested in large new territories of wilderness; the prize was the lucrative Pacific trade, especially in sea otter furs, which brought astronomical prices in China.) Even though ships from Britain and the U.S. were the most active in the area, and British Captains Cook and Vancouver were mapping the coastal waters, Russia seemed to have the advantage. It had already established colonies stretching 1,400 km from the Aleutian Islands to Sitka. But in the end, of course, Russia's colonial ambitions failed. In 1867 the U.S purchased all its possessions in America for two cents per acre in a bargain known at the time as Seward's Folly.

Glorious Misadventures is the story of Count Nikolai Rezanov, a Russian courtier obsessed with the idea of an empire in America. Taking the British Empire as his model, especially the East India Company, a private company with a royal charter granting it a free hand to exploit and rule, Rezanov lobbied three tsars in succession on the idea, starting with Catherine the Great. Finally, when Tsar Alexander came to believe the British and Americans posed a security threat in the northern Pacific, he allowed the creation of the Russian American Company (RAC), granted it a royal charter, and sent out Rezanov as overseer for the government. The RAC's majority shareholder and chief executive was Grigory Shelikov, the "King of Siberia," an unstoppable, buccaneering fur tycoon who had established several of the outposts along the Alaskan coast. Rezanov became the ultimate point man for Russia's American dreams when, at the age of 32, he married Shelikov's 14-year-old daughter. (They turned out to be deeply devoted to each another before Anna died in childbirth several years later.)

Although Rezanov's big dream never did materialize, his life itself had enough colour for books, poems, and even an opera. In order to travel to Russia's Pacific coast, he was given a fleet and set out on what would be Russia's first round-the-world voyage, sailing from St. Petersburg to Kamchatka by way of Brazil, Hawaii, and Japan. The voyage was marred throughout by fierce and endless quarrels with the captain over who was in charge. Rezanov was fastidious about status and protocol. That insistence on maintaining a show of superiority was disastrous for his mission to open trading relations with Japan. Bowing at the waist to the Shogun's representatives he regarded as degradation. As he wrote in his diary, he did "not even bow to God, except in my own mind." Negotiations dragged on, the Shogun keeping him waiting in virtual confinement for almost a full year. Rezanov was driven to the brink of insanity—he drank, moped, wandered aimlessly in his dressing gown in the walled compound, and urinated in public.

And in the end he sailed away empty-handed and humiliated. He never got over it. Shortly before his death he ordered Russian ships to attack Japan's northern islands, waging a war to which the tsar had not consented.

During his visits to the settlements in America, he found the conditions shocking. Housing was primitive. None of the accoutrements of civilization, such as schools, were provided. The settlers were mostly ex-convicts, brutes and scoundrels of all sorts. The company exploited them, and they exploited the indigenous peoples even more, which resulted in attacks and massacres. Supply ships were often lost at sea, plunging everyone into near starvation. Rezanov had big ideas and he drew up big plans for improvements, but he changed little. In the winter of 1806 the usual state of wretchedness reached a breaking point, with people dying from scurvy and starvation. In utter desperation, Rezanov gathered a band of half-dead compatriots and sailed south, hoping to get food from the Spanish in San Francisco—the people he wanted one day to conquer.

It was that brief, six-week visit, not any of his labours, that assured his name would live on. While recovering from scurvy and malnutrition, with the generous aid of the comandante, he kept an eye out for military weaknesses and, most crucially, wooed Conchita, known as the most beautiful, charming girl in California. She was 15 and the daughter of the comandante. For her, who had never left her tiny, isolated Spanish mission, Rezanov was a dashing, glamorous man of the world. When he proposed after two weeks' courtship, she accepted and prepared herself for a dazzling new life in the court of the tsar. However, because of their religious differences, Rezanov required approval from the Patriarch and she required approval from the Pope, so they agreed to wait. He then returned to Sitka, but on his way back to St. Petersburg he died of disease in Siberia, and the lovers never saw each other again. Conchita waited 35 years for Rezanov's return, until an English traveler convinced her he was dead. She became a nun.

The story of Rezanov and Conchita became perfect fodder for poets. They wrote about it as a great romance—the eternal story of a doomed love, an epic love that yearned against all odds to bridge the chasms of age, nationality, culture, and religion, only to be struck down by cruel Fate. In 1981 it opened in Moscow as the very first rock opera in Russia. It was a sensation. It is still playing in Moscow today and has toured far beyond the country's borders. The highlight is a ballad whose lyrics sum up the romantic essence of the story: "I will never see you. I will never forget you." It was not an American empire that made Rezanov famous but a 15-year-old Spanish girl.

Glorious Misadventures is packed with good stories and sheds light on an obscure part of history, but it seems strangely out-of-date in the vague, sketchy way it treats First Nations peoples.

UFCW