Bloomsbury £20

Review: Glorious Misadventures - Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, By Owen Matthews

Ripping yarn of a Russian way out west

In 1818, Tsarist Russia had settlements in Sonoma County, California, and on the islands of Hawaii. By 1867, it had sold Alaska, its remaining foothold in the Americas, for a pittance to the US, leaving the Russian Orthodox religion and a high rate of alcoholism as its legacy. Owen Matthews relates the story of the courtier Nikolai Rezanov's attempts to settle America for Russia. And, were it not for the author's painstaking research and copious footnotes, Rezanov's life would read like an outrageous ripping yarn.

Rezanov, born in 1763 in St Petersburg, was a middling civil servant who grabbed the passing coat-tails of the ambitious Prince Zubov, young lover to Catherine the Great, and quickly found himself promoted beyond his competence. Rezanov fetched up in Siberia and married into one of the great fur-trading families. The trade in fur, "soft gold", made many men, including Rezanov, very rich, with a single sea-otter pelt sold in China worth two years' pay for a Russian sailor. However, in Siberia animals were hunted for their skins until there were no more left and the hunters moved on to repeat the process in another area; commerce trumped conservation.

New frontiers were needed but Rezanov dreamed of more – of expanding Russia's fur trading posts in Alaska into a new colony stretching down America's Pacific Coast. Two old worlds finally met in the New World when the middle-aged and widowed Rezanov was betrothed to 15-year-old Conchita, daughter of the Spanish governor of Nuevo California, in the tiny fort town of San Francisco. It is a measure of Rezanov's courtly charm that when he first met Conchita's father he was at the end of a troubled three-year sea voyage, emaciated and with his breath stinking owing to scurvy. And still the Governor gave his permission for the betrothal.

Matthews has an engaging style which makes the complexities of Russian politics less taxing than they might otherwise be. He has travelled to many of the places Rezanov knew and there is a strong thread of travelogue woven into the biography. His finely-tuned sense of the absurd is brought to the fore in the episode where Rezanov is sent by the Tsar to Japan as an emissary. Rezanov, perhaps feeling a little out of his depth, leans a little too heavily on his dignity, offending his hosts at every turn, even urinating in front of them.

Rezanov is an astonishing character: his swashbuckling charisma and ambition far outpaced his abilities as a courtier, but he is captivating in both in his triumphs and tragedies.

Matthews's footnotes, full of fascinating details, also display his wry humour. He has penned a compelling tale with a flawed hero whose story deserves to be better known, and he more than does his flamboyant subject justice.

 

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn