Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America by Owen Matthews. When the Wild West was also the Wild East. This review first appeared in Nudge Books (now NB).
The dominant position of the United States in North America is so assured that its spread from the eastern seaboard to the Pacific now seems inevitable. An ‘un-American’ California is unthinkable. And yet … in the early nineteenth century three European powers still claimed large parts of what is now the US: Spain, France—and Russia. Napoleon quickly sold France’s portion after flirting with the idea of a transatlantic empire, but Spain and Russia were still expanding, approaching one another edgily in the far west. US dominion on the far side of the continent seemed a long way off in every sense. In fact, while their famous explorers Lewis and Clark were getting their first sight of the Pacific ocean, a Russian American Company (RAC) ship was off the coast moving southward towards the tiny new settlement of San Francisco, shortly to make first contact with Spanish America.
The Russian ship carried Kamerheer (royal chamberlain, equivalent to a major-general) Nikolai Rezanov, representative of both the tsar and the RAC. He and his officers and crew were hungry, suffering from scurvy and desperate. When they finally arrived in harbour they were convinced they’d have to bluff their way in, regardless of diplomatic niceties. Rezanov, always willing to put up a front, and to tell a useful lie, had the officers put on their dress uniforms and briefed them on their cover story; they were expected, they hoped the Spaniards had had word from their superiors, this was an official mission.
On landing they were met by an escort of mounted men. No Russian spoke Spanish, and no Spaniard spoke Russian. Habitationes nostras in regione ad septentrionem tenemus, appeleta Russia est, the Russians explained in Latin, ‘Our abode is in a northern region called Russia.’ They were astonished to be told that they were indeed expected. Spanish diplomatic intelligence had been aware of their original departure—three years earlier—and the government had ordered that they be welcomed courteously. They were, in fact, even expecting Rezanov.
What followed—and I’m not going to reveal anything about that subtle and ambiguous business here—became the subject for novels and poetry in at least two languages, and the Soviet Union’s first rock opera, which is still playing now, the second-longest stage show run in history.
How did this unlikely conjunction come about, and what did it portend?
Russia’s expansion eastward through Siberia’s vastness towards and across the Pacific was largely effected informally, through Cossack private enterprise and low-level warfare. Much of the impetus for it came from the search for fur, ‘soft gold’. The Cossacks brought a sort of pillaging technique to most things they did, and this included the fur trade; each area would be successively denuded of fur-bearing animals and then they would move on. It was a terrible method in just about every way, but it did advance exploration.
In time the trade grew more sophisticated and offshore ‘colonies’, essentially fortified trading posts, were established as far away as the Alaskan coast. A ship carrying a cartographer and a natural scientist or two might be sent from time to time for exploration and the advancement of knowledge. Some monks were sent out to lend respectability. But the Cossack method remained. ‘Colonisation’ was a rough and ready business.
Nikolai Rezanov, an imperial courtier and bureaucrat, wasn’t the first to have more ambitious ideas, but he was the first to have the necessary combination of capability, determination and influence to see these seriously attempted. He transformed the Russian approach to the ‘Wild East’.
By 1812 the border of the Tsar’s dominions was on what is today called the Russian River, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco along California’s Highway 1. Russia also—briefly—had a colony on Hawaii. Rezanov spent much of his life passionately advocating the idea that America’s west coast could be a province of Russia, and the Pacific a Russian sea. This was no mad pipe dream but a very real possibility.
Rezanov’s active imperial career in the east began with a sea voyage round the globe, intended to explore, to open trading relations with closed-off shogunal Japan, and to deliver supplies to Russian America. It attracted much fashionable interest, and it was news of this that led to the Spaniards expecting the unplanned Russian arrival three years later. The years in between were a mix of courage, adventure, greed, farce, vanity, bloodshed, madness, heavy drinking and tragedy. While the beginning was typically ominous (‘Of all the arrogant drunks in this most mismatched of ship’s companies, Tolstoy [the as yet unborn novelist’s uncle] was to be the most dangerous and disruptive’), the ending was also characteristic: eccentric, ambiguous and inconclusive.
It’s a good story, told with gusto and humour. There’s a lot to get in, with the set-up taking up the first third of the book, but it’s all interesting and the complexities are neatly disentangled. For the story proper, many of those around Rezanov kept journals, while some carried sketchbooks; these are much quoted and reproduced, adding a lot of character and incidental pleasure to the narrative. The private opinions and observations of shipmates, colleagues and enemies are at times almost absurdly hostile, which Matthews reports with a certain dry, properly detached relish. The drawings are interesting, nicely presented and much more than glossy filler material.
The resistance of Rezanov’s character to analysis, and his frequently weak or peripheral influence on events, could easily make for a loss of focus, but this isn’t the case, this is a history-cum-story more than a biography. Matthews doesn’t worry if others take centre stage at times, the narrative continues easily along, and he doesn’t feel compelled to offer any of the almost-customary trite and laboured psychoanalysis; for the most part he just shows what he can of Rezanov and allows readers to make of him what they will. The one certain thing is that he finds him entertaining. The question of whether he was a visionary, a buffoon, mad, essentially sincere, a scheming liar, enlightened or ruthless is left open, mostly because such either/or opinions have little validity here and can have no firm answer. This well-judged, well-informed agnosticism is a real strength of what is a good and enjoyable book.