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Russia's 19th-century effort to colonise the US

Owen Matthews tells the enthralling, brutal and tragic story of Russia's attempts to colonise America, writes Matthew Price
Dmitry Averin as the Russian imperial adventurer Nikolai Rezanov in the Rostov State Musical Theatre's production Juno and Avos. Itar-Tass / Vladimir Astapkovich
Dmitry Averin as the Russian imperial adventurer Nikolai Rezanov in the Rostov State Musical Theatre's production Juno and Avos. Itar-Tass / Vladimir Astapkovich

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

Owen Matthews


Across North America, three great empires left their imprint: the British, French and Spanish. But a fourth empire, Russia, also once had a claim in the New World. Its traces now are faint and more remote. If you travel up and down the Alaskan coast, for example, you will find, in the small towns that dot the lengthy shoreline of this vast American state, distinctive churches topped with the onion-shaped domes of the Russian Orthodox faith. The Alaska Purchase of 1867, when the United States bought Russian America for pennies an acre, is a staple of grade-school textbooks; but the full story of Russian America remains obscure, even to this American reviewer of history.

In Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, the journalist and writer Owen Matthews tells the enthralling, brutal and tragic story of Russia's designs on America's Pacific Northwest coast and the imperial adventurer who envisioned an empire stretching from Alaska to Hawaii. If it never fully came to pass - Russian America would remain largely confined to the Alaska coast - Rezanov's scheme was startling in its boldness and calculation. Colonists had to contend with disease, starvation and hostile indigenous peoples, whom Russian settlers treated with equal brutality. Carving a settlement out of the wilds of Alaska would prove a formidable, nearly impossible, task.

The sweep of Matthews' account is immense and covers thousands of miles. He ranges from the glittering bustle of St Petersburg in the late 18th century, "the Dubai of its age", to the endless Russian steppes to the frozen tundra of Siberia.

The roots of Russian America lay in the "wild east", the forbidding Siberian terrain where Cossack traders and fur-trappers, "essentially pirates licensed by the Russian crown", made fortunes from fox, sable and marten pelts. Fur transformed the Russia of Peter the Great into an economic juggernaut. The traders pushed east, into the Pacific, towards Alaska, where the "soft gold" of sea otter and seal fur beckoned.

Matthews vigorously sketches the contrasting careers and social status of the aristocratic Rezanov, an ambitious courtier in the orbit of Catherine the Great, and the most powerful baron of the Siberian fur trade, Grigory Shelikhov, whose commercial drive pointed the way across the Pacific.

Had Shelikhov "been born of noble stock", Matthews writes of the founder of Russia's first overseas colony, "or even at a pinch a foreigner, he would doubtless have been recognised in his life as one of the age's greatest explorers. But since he was the son of a middling merchant … Shelikhov's discoveries were tainted by the lowly motive of commercial profit rather than the lofty scientific and imperial ambition of gentleman explorers …" The hard-charging Shelikhov, however, did not let such social impediments get in his way, and he attracted enough investors to fund his scheme to send settlers to Alaska's Kodiak Island in 1783. The natives did not take kindly to the Russian interlopers, and Shelikhov unleashed his cannons on the islanders.

Such actions did not endear Shelikhov to Russia's ruling classes, who frowned on such brutish methods. Enter Rezanov, who married the merchant's young daughter. With the imprimatur of Rezanov, Russian America would gain a respectability it had previously lacked. Rezanov fashioned his venture, called the Russian-American Company (RAC), which he founded in 1799, along the lines of the British East India Company, which was a government-sanctioned monopoly. Tsar Paul I granted the RAC exclusive rights to trade "on the shore of America from 55 degrees latitude [roughly the southern border of modern Alaska] to the Bering Strait and beyond and also on the Aleutian, Kurile and other islands lying in the north-eastern [Pacific] Ocean". It was a vast remit.

Rezanov was not an easy man to work with. With a team of scientists, sailors and commerce-minded men, he undertook a round-the-world voyage - part economic mission, part scientific quest - which nearly disintegrated from personality clashes. The mission suffered further strain when Rezanov tried to open commercial relations with Japan. It ended in humiliation. That left Alaska, and the last chance to salvage his reputation. "The consolidation and conquest of America would be Rezanov's redemption," writes Matthews. It would prove an elusive and frustrating endeavour. When Rezanov finally caught his first glimpse of Russian America in 1805, at the Pribilof Islands, he was appalled. The once-rich seal and sea otter hunting grounds had been plundered both by Russians and hunters who sailed out of New England. "More than a million fur seals had been killed by the time I arrived," Rezanov wrote in a letter to company headquarters. "Even at that, I was told that there are only a tenth as many as there used to be. These islands could be an inexhaustible source of wealth if only the Bostonians did not compete with us on the Chinese market." Rezanov might blame American competitors, but it was Russian rapacity that was destroying populations of fur-bearing animals. Observed one of Rezanov's colleagues: "The Russian, for momentary advantage, kill all they meet with - old and young. Nor do they see that by such a procedure they must soon be deprived of their trade entirely."

Rezanov found Russian America to be a troubled, violent place, peopled by alcoholics, outlaws and other unsavoury types. "The life of the colonies was a desperate hand-to-mouth existence largely because of the precariousness of the supply chain from Okhotsk [the main Russian base on the Pacific]," Matthews notes. It was a penal colony in all but name, where the scum of the earth ran free. Rezanov complained: "After two years of travels with immoral men I have become used to abominations of all kinds. I am disturbed almost every hour by abuse and turbulence." In the settlement of New Archangel (present day Sitka), settlers faced starvation and hostile Tlingit tribes, who harassed colonists, in the winter of 1805-1806.

Thus began Rezanov's last act, which played out not in cold and damp Alaska, but sunny Spanish California. With a ship of sick and weakened men, Rezanov sailed south in search of provisions. In San Francisco, the Spanish welcomed their bedraggled Russian victors. But Rezanov, a widower, soon caused a stir by falling for - and proposing to - the governor's 15-year-old daughter, Conchita. The affair would enter Russian lore, inspire several poems, and even a rock opera. Matthew's account of Rezanov's last melodramatic chapter is deliciously speculative. What were Rezanov's motives? Was it love or crafty self-interest? Spanish America was built on religious missions, not trade. Rezanov wanted to force a change, to enrich Russia by trade with the closed off Spanish America. By marrying Conchita, he moved ever closer to Spanish power.

Matthews contends that Rezanov had genuine feelings for Conchita. But he also wanted to advance the fortunes of the RAC. He even contemplated seizing California. Rezanov was a master dissembler, and he concocted various versions of his story, trimmed as needed. To officials back in Russia, Rezanov "was at pains to cast himself as a calculating diplomat, not a besotted middle-aged lover". He was a bit of both.

Nikolai Rezanov died en route to St Petersburg in 1807. His promises to return to Cochita were unfulfilled, as was his reformist vision of a Russian America reconstructed along the lines of the English colonies of North America. Had Rezanov's ideas been put into place, Matthews muses, "the history of Russian America - and perhaps Russia itself - would have turned out very differently". Colonists did eventually settle in California, even Hawaii. But these ventures, too, were near misses. After the California settlement was sold in 1842, one of the richest veins of gold in history was discovered nearby. As Matthews observes mordantly, following Rezanov's death: "Russia never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity in the New World". Still, the what-ifs are fascinating to ponder.


Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.

Updated: August 17, 2013 04:00 AM