The far side of the world was where Rezanov found both humiliation and, perhaps, love. Either or both seem to have liberated his spirit. But the privations he suffered and the power he wielded in those remote provinces of the Russian Empire also drove him a little mad. Rezanov was a great imperial visionary, but he could also be a liar and a schemer. He had moments of great bravery and sacrifice, but he was capable of shameless acts of buck-passing cowardice. Rezanov was a courtier and politician of genius, but he also dispensed summary justice and launched a private war against Japan for reasons of personal revenge. He probably loved Conchita, but in his official reports did everything to portray the relationship with the poor girl as a cynical political game. He was morbidly conscious of his own status to a degree that seems absurd to us today, yet during his embassy to Japan and his visit to California front and bluster were really all he had to offer, and they took him remarkably far.
So Rezanov was perhaps not a hero. But certainly he was a man whose life spanned worlds. The two worlds in which he moved the court and the wilderness were separated by a social and geographical distance almost too vast to be grasped by a modern mind. Rezanov spoke to tsars and numbered the Russian Empire's greatest men as his friends and enemies. His plans for Russian America were the subject of lively correspondence between Napoleon and Tsar Paul as they laid their plans for world domination. Yet Rezanov spent much of the last years of his life scrabbling for food and squabbling with illiterate mutinous frontiersmen.
Nikolai Rezanov wanted to make his country a match for the upstart France with only a gang of Cossacks, criminals and the renegades of the frontier at his command. He wanted to plant a new, better Russia in the New World just as old England had created a vigorous new version of herself in the Thirteen Colonies which had recently formed themselves into the United States. Russian America would not be a republic, of course, but a well ordered company-run empire under the Tsar's protection. That was his imperial vision a dream of which almost nothing remains today. And yet in his lifetime it seemed, for a few tantalizing years, that Russia could successfully colonize America, with incalculable consequences for both.
Excerpted from Glorious Misadventures by Owen Matthews. Copyright © 2013 by Owen Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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