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.