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

Russia’s American empire: When the tsarist empire reached California

Jul 20th 2013 |From the print edition


Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America. By Owen Matthews. Bloomsbury; 320 pages; £20. To be published in America in November by Bloomsbury; $28. Buy from

HIS breath stinking from scurvy, his hair crawling with lice, and starving in his fine clothes, Nikolai Rezanov was as unlikely a suitor as he was an ambassador. His most urgent mission, when he arrived in 1806 at the tiny Spanish fort of San Francisco, was trade: tools and weapons in exchange for grain, for the hungry garrison he had left behind in Russian Alaska. Spain forbade such trade, but Rezanov (pictured here as the Japanese saw him) was not cowed by rules. Once clean and fed, he was an exotic, cosmopolitan presence in the tiny settlement. His wooing (passionate but pragmatic) of Conchita, the 15-year-old daughter of the fort’s commander, brought both a deal and a betrothal. His ship groaning with cargo, he left, promising to return and bring his bride back to the delights of St Petersburg.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 it had become indefensible. But few know how it became Russian in the first place. Had history gone a little differently—if gold had been found a little earlier, or if Russia had not been so extraordinarily unlucky in its rulers—California’s Russian River might be a geopolitical reality, rather than a toponymic echo.

An extraordinary man, Rezanov was also an infuriating oddball: without his pathological determination, Russia’s Pacific foray might have fared even worse; had he been less moody, deceitful and unlucky, it might have ended in success. “Glorious Misadventures” is in part this extraordinary man’s biography, starting from his days scratching a living in deathly dull Pskov, and plotting his rise to high favour, aided in part by a successful first marriage to the daughter of a rich merchant.

His voyage to the Pacific, with shipmates even more mercurial and quarrelsome than himself, reads like an implausibly lively historical novel. Many letters, diaries and sketches have survived; Mr Matthews has tracked them down, in archives ranging from Estonia to Japan (where Rezanov tried in vain to open trade, and later launched a private war).

The picture is of intellectual endeavour, personal hardiness, patriotism and vicious intrigue. Among only a handful of truly attractive characters is the ship’s doctor, Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, who talked his way on board in Copenhagen. An accomplished naturalist, he survived many privations (including when Rezanov casually threw his most prized specimens overboard) and ended up as Russia’s consul-general in Brazil.

The exotic personalities and adventures come against a background of geopolitical tussles between France, Spain, Russia and Britain. Mr Matthews depicts them neatly, and paints enjoyable cameos. The sexually insatiable Catherine the Great, Rezanov’s original sponsor, was also a fan of Adam Smith. She initially turned down Rezanov’s planned “Russian American Company”—a business venture that would run the empire along the lines of the East India Companies run by Britain, France and the Netherlands—on the grounds that it would be monopolistic.

Years later, long after Rezanov was gone and just as his business plans were finally beginning to flourish, the company fell into disfavour at court. Its modern-minded chiefs were seen as threatening by the ultra-reactionary Nicholas I. Incompetent and corrupt administration finally doomed Russia’s American adventure—just as it did, ultimately, the tsarist regime.

The book bursts with telling details, many of them gruesome. The Russian regime exploited its eastern domains—first in Europe, then Asia and finally America—ruthlessly and wastefully. When valuable animals such as sable and lynx were hunted to near-extinction, the Russians simply moved on (an approach to natural resources that has not changed much since). Even Rezanov was horrified by the way early colonists killed a million seals (30,000 in one day) and left them to rot. Only the penises were taken, to be dried and sold as aphrodisiacs in Canton.

The story of the beautiful Conchita, loyally but vainly waiting for Rezanov’s return, is sad enough. But the real tragedy involved mostly nameless people in North America, the indigenous Tlingits and Aleuts, who bore the brunt of the Russians’ arrival. Their shadows complete this exemplary account of adventures that could have changed the world.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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