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

Don’t be fooled by the subtitle. Glorious Misadventures is as much about Asia as anywhere else. The Russian end of the expansion into North America was based in Siberia and it is the Chinese fur trade that provides much the economic rationale. Just as significantly, much of Tsarist adventurer Nikolai Rezanov’s story takes place in Japan as America and is the beginning of Russo-Japanese relations that end in disaster for Russia a century later and which presage the territorial disputes that still remain between the two countries.

Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America by Owen Matthews
Glorious Misadventures; Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, August 2013)

Most people, if pushed, remember that the United States bought Alaska off Russia in the mid-nineteenth century, and might even have the visited Fort Ross in Sonoma County in California, held by Russia from 1812-42, without ever thinking very hard about what the Russians were doing there. Author Owen Matthews—whose first book Stalin’s Children won the Guardian First Book Award, among others—places Russian expansion across the Pacific into context: by turn of the nineteenth century, when this story takes place, Russia had been expanding eastward for more than two centuries; the Pacific Ocean was no more an obvious impediment than the taiga.

The economic imperative driving this expansion was fur; indeed Matthews points out that fur played much the same role in underpinning Russia’s empire as did gold, somewhat earlier, for the Spanish. By 1800, China had developed as a major market; and the market in Canton had a particular liking for sea otter, where they went for “one hundred Spanish dollars per pelt, nearly two years’ salary for an ordinary seaman.”

As a sidebar: it is often said that the British turned to opium because the Chinese wanted nothing other than silver in exchange for tea and other products. This, apparently, seems not to have entirely been the case. Both Russians and Americans traded large amounts of fur in China; indeed, the sea otter was hunted almost to extinction to supply the China market.

 

Matthews tells the story with considerable élan. Nikolai Rezanov was a middling aristocrat who married into the family of the largest Siberian merchant, Grigory Ivanovich Shelikov, a millionaire, and the founder of Russia’s first colonies in Alaska. This was his platform to propose a Russian equivalent of the East India Company whose objective was nothing less than to monopolize trans-Pacific trade and pry open Japan in the process. Rezanov’s ambition extended to kicking the Spanish out of California and turning the Pacific into a Russian lake.

This was certainly a “dream”, as per the subtitle but Matthews is of the view that it was more that that: “this was no mad pipe dream,” he writes, “but a very real possibility.” But Rezanov, who pulled rabbits out a hat when negotiating the corridors of power in St. Petersburg, proved far less apt when faced with actual operations in the field. He succeeded in alienating almost his entire party on the long sea voyage trip from St. Petersburg to Kamchatka via Cape Horn and, fascinatingly, the Marquesas. The attempt to dislodge the Dutch from their monopoly of Japanese trade was a dismal—and a humiliating if not comical—failure: the Japanese were polite but  intractable (although the visit in fact spurred policy debate within Japan) and Rezanov proved vainglorious and brittle.

Russia had been trading in and out of the Aleutians and parts farther south for several decades already, and there already some Russian colonies—outposts might be a better word—in Alaska by the time Rezanov came with the Russian-American Company in 1805. Barely surviving the winter, Rezanov sailed south towards California—passing within five miles of the American explorers Lewis and Clark at one point—and anchored in San Francisco, which was then just about the remotest outpost of a now greatly enfeebled Spanish Empire.

Behind the balls, bullfights, barbecues and stocking up on supplies (including a large amount of rum) for the settlements back in Alaska, Rezanov continued scheming.

Nothing much came of any of it, although the Russians had a presence in California until 1842 and Alaska until 1867 when it was sold to America for less that the cost of some flats in Hong Kong (not counting inflation, of course: but nevertheless, it was still only two cents per acre). Might Russia have pulled off Rezanov’s plan for a “Russian America”? It’s interesting to speculate, but I’m less sanguine than Matthews. North American was far away: not too far away from Russia, perhaps, but too far from St. Petersburg. Vladivostok, Russia’s only proper Pacific port, wasn’t even founded until the same decade that Alaska was sold.

 

But there’s more to the story than this. There is the love affair between Rezanov and the fifteen-year-old Conchita, the beautiful and vivacious daughter of the Spanish governor of San Francisco. Nikolai’s first wife had died, and he was betrothed to Conchita in May 1806.

He sailed away, promising to return and bring her to St. Petersburg, but died in Krasnoyarsk never having made it back to the capital. Conchita died a nun. Their story became the subject of epic poetry in Russia and—astoundingly—a late Soviet rock opera. Matthews saw it as a teenager in 1986 in the final years of the USSR:

 

This being an opera, it is a love story. Being Russian, it’s also of course a tragedy. Rezanov and Conchita, daughter of the Spanish governor, fall in love. Her father and the Catholic priests who surround him are horrified. In the fictionalized version Conchita’s fiery Spanish fiance — invented by the librettist — even fights a duel with the upstart Russian suitor. Rezanov’s own officers warn him that the Tsar will have to give permission for him to marry a foreigner and a Catholic. Our hero brushes aside all objections: on wings of love, he will rush to St Petersburg, petition the Tsar and return to marry Conchita. She does not dare believe it. ‘I will never see you: I will never forget you’ is the couple's last duet, still as famous in Russia as the theme from Jesus Christ Superstar is in the West. On the road home Rezanov falls from his horse and dies. But Conchita, disbelieving rumours of his demise, continues to wait for her lover for thirty-five years. She ends her days a nun, faithful to his memory.

 

The rock opera, named Junona i Avos after Rezanov’s two ships, has proven so enduring popular that it has been running continuously ever since.

 

Glorious Misadventures is itself glorious. It is not just the story—and Matthews know how to tell a good story—of an “imperial dreamer” and a tragic, indeed operatic, love affair; it is also an excellent basic introduction to Russian Asiatic and Pacific history through about 1810. Matthews manages to be both edifying and rollicking good fun.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.