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

Overview


At the dawn of the nineteenth century two empires met on the far side of North America. Spain was the tired and hidebound colonial master of much of the Americas. Russia was the upstart, hungry for America’s Pacific Northwest coast, a prize left unclaimed after the golden age of exploration.

The dream of a Russian America became the goal of the Russian America Company, championed and led by Nikolai Rezanov, aristocratic adventurer, diplomat, and courtier to Tsar Alexander I. At...

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

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Overview


At the dawn of the nineteenth century two empires met on the far side of North America. Spain was the tired and hidebound colonial master of much of the Americas. Russia was the upstart, hungry for America’s Pacific Northwest coast, a prize left unclaimed after the golden age of exploration.

The dream of a Russian America became the goal of the Russian America Company, championed and led by Nikolai Rezanov, aristocratic adventurer, diplomat, and courtier to Tsar Alexander I. At a time when John Jacob Astor was amassing his own fortune in the fur trade, Rezanov envisioned transforming fur-hunting stations on the Alaskan coast into the hub of a Pacific empire stretching from Siberia to California. The distances were vast—thousands of miles overland across the endless Russian steppes, thousands more by sea to Alaska and down to San Francisco Bay. His men were unreliable—disorderly, dissolute, disease-ridden—and the dangers ever-present. Yet Rezanov persisted, and in 1806—just as Lewis and Clark were discovering the Columbia River to the north—he came close to realizing his dream. Had he done so, the history of the United States might have been very different.

Owen Matthews brilliantly chronicles a hitherto untold story of adventure and colonial ambition, brought to life by vivid firsthand accounts and his own travels across Russia, recalling a time when dreams of glory pushed men to the limits of human endurance.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 08/26/2013
Matthews, a Newsweek editor and Russia specialist, follows in the footsteps of the eccentric Rezanov, illuminating the story of the Russian American Company, whose early-19th-century land claims stretched from the Aleutians to Northern California and included a short-lived Hawaiian colony. Russia’s schemes for Pacific domination amounted to little more than a “string of lonely stockades and forts manned by a motley array of convicts, fur trappers and foreign desperadoes,” and Rezanov, the driving force behind Russia’s New World forays, grew increasingly erratic the longer he was away from St. Petersburg. The book’s most memorable episode occurs not in America, however, but during Rezanov’s disastrous mission to Japan. With his ship anchored off the coast during a weeks-long wait for the shogun’s permission to land, he amused himself by urinating from the deck, in full view of curious locals. Humiliated by his eventual failure to establish diplomatic relations, he would later declare war on the country against the express orders of the czar. Matthews’s humor, eye for detail, and voluminous knowledge of the historical context make this book a penetrating and enjoyable account of the exploration age and Russian society, from the imperial court to the wild frontier garrisons. Agent: Natasha Fairweather, A.P. Watt (U.K.). (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"Rezanov is the central character in Owen Matthews’s enthralling account of Russia’s great misfire: its attempt to colonise America. Many know that Russia sold Alaska to America, rather cheaply in 1867, fearing that it had become indefensible. But few know how it had become Russian in the first place . . . Glorious Misadventures is in part this extraordinary man’s biography . . . His voyage to the Pacific, with shipmates even more mercurial, reads like an implausibly lively historical novel . . . The exotic personalities and adventures come against a backdrop of geopolitical tussles between France, Spain, Russia and Britain. Mr Matthews depicts them neatly, and paints enjoyable cameos . . . The book bursts with telling details, many of them gruesome . . . [An] exemplary account of adventures that could have changed the world." —Economist

"A swashbuckling Tsarist Russian in America … Told by Matthews, the story loses none of its strangeness and its swashbuckling verve, reading at times like a cross between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Gogol’s the Government Inspector." —Financial Times

"Deftly chronicle[d]. So the settlements are cold, the men are drunk, the trade is slow, but Matthews treats it all with an amused dryness that’s as quintessentially British as good gin. The many digressions are in the service of a story that would make a fine Hollywood film." —Newsweek

"Did you know that early in the 19th Century—as Napoleon was on the march—Russia’s Tsar Alexander I sent a vainglorious, hotheaded seafaring courtier named Rezanov to conquer California for the Russian empire? Obviously, Rezanov’s mission didn’t succeed (though he made a killing in “soft gold” in Sitka and Alaska en route—harvesting thousands of seal skins, which the Chinese bought at premium prices). In Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, Owen Matthews thrillingly relates this swashbuckling, Vernean, and entirely true chapter of forgotten history." —Liesl Schillinger, Daily Beast

"Matthews is wonderful at pacing the history of Russia's various eastward fur-trapping journeys and voyages; whether the cast of energetic, clever and violent fur traders are crossing Siberia by sleigh or the Atlantic and Pacific by ship, he never rushes, he never lags." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Drawing on diaries and other sources, Mr. Matthews weaves a tale of courage and chicanery, avarice and incompetence . . . [A] well-researched glimpse into an underappreciated era in New World history." —Wall Street Journal

"Matthews opens a new window into the first settlements of America’s Pacific coast, the men who led it and the reasons for its failure." —Pittsburgh Post Gazette

"Rezanov’s bizarre schemes and improbable adventures make interesting reading, as does Matthews’ account of the history of early settlements along North America’s West Coast, especially Russia’s Alaskan colonies." —Seattle Times

"Fascinating . . . Rezanov [is] a kind of Russian Fitzcarraldo, an imperial visionary in hot pursuit of a mad dream." —William Grimes, New York Times

"A fascinating book of Russian involvement in US settlement and history of our far west coast." —San Francisco Book Review

"Matthews’s humor, eye for detail, and voluminous knowledge of the historical context make this book a penetrating and enjoyable account of the exploration age and Russian society, from the imperial court to the wild frontier garrisons." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Fascinating . . . This epic historical account illuminates the promise and failings of a lost empire through the ambition of a single man.” —Booklist

"Matthews opens a new window into the first settlements of America’s Pacific coast, the men who led it and the reasons for its failure." —Kirkus Reviews 

Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-01
In the early 1800s, the Russians came very close to colonizing North America. Newsweek contributing editor Matthews (Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival, 2008) introduces us to the visionary men who attempted to build a Russian Empire. The history of Russia and the picture of Catherine the Great's court show how men like Nikolai Rezanov (1764–1807) and Grigory Shelikhov (1747–1795) had to grovel for permission and funding for their expeditions. It was the fur trade, not patriotic zeal, that beckoned men to America. Shelikhov established Russia's first overseas colony at Kodiak in 1784. After three years, he returned to Russia as the largest fur trader in the country. Perhaps due to the lack of sources, Matthews does not devote nearly enough ink to this man nor to Alexander Baranov (1746–1819), whose work as the first governor of Russian Alaska ensured a strong foothold. As luck would have it, Shelikhov's daughter married Rezanov, a St. Petersburg aristocrat searching for riches. Rezanov's three-year journey to establish trade with Japan and advance the American colonies began badly with confusion over its leader, and his superior attitude destroyed any possibility of success. His constant arguments with the ship's captain and his descent into madness, chronicled in the multiple journals of co-passengers, make for entertaining reading. Rezanov's plans for a great trade route in the Pacific could have made Russia a great empire; alas, it was not to be. They failed to take advantage when the Spanish empire collapsed, and they sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, before the Klondike Gold Rush. Matthews opens a new window into the first settlements of America's Pacific coast, the men who led it and the reasons for its failure.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781620402399
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 11/12/2013
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 306,095
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author


Owen Matthews studied History at Oxford University before becoming a journalist. He has covered conflicts in Bosnia, Lebanon, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq and is currently a contributing editor at Newsweek Magazine. Stalin’s Children (2008) was shortlisted for the Guardian First Books Award, the Orwell Prize and France’s Prix Medicis, and has been translated into twenty-six languages. He lives in Moscow and Istanbul.
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