Like his 2008 book Stalin's Children, Owen Matthews's second work of non-fiction, Glorious Misadventures, has its roots in the author's personal experiences as a child in Soviet Russia in this case, his attendance at a performance of the hugely popular Russian rock opera Junona i Avos about the dashing nobleman and explorer, Nikolai Rezanov (1764-1807). That story, based on fact, sparked his curiosity and prompted Matthew to research Rezanov's life. The result, Glorious Misadventures, is a compelling read that combines history, biography and adventure into a fascinating narrative about Russia's colonization of America's Pacific Northwest region and their first circumnavigation of the globe.
To fully understand how parts of modern-day Alaska were once Russian territory, it is necessary to have an overview of the country's economics, history and politics. Matthews takes great pains to illustrate how all these factors culminated over the decades, beginning with the reign of Peter the Great in the early 1700s, into Russia's first circumnavigation of the globe by Nikolai Rezanov in the early 1800s. Most Russian exploration was driven by economics, particularly fur trading. The author states that "at the beginning of the seventeenth century 'soft gold' [i.e., fur] accounted for up to a third of Muscovy's (a principality of Moscow) revenues. Without the Siberian fur rush, the wealth it brought and the vertiginous territorial expansion that it drove, the Russia of Peter the Great would have been unimaginable [I]t was not state ambition but private enterprise that drove Russians forward towards America." Peter the Great commissioned a Dane, Vitus Bering, to explore the North Pacific (known to the Russians as the "Eastern Ocean") in 1724 and a second expedition was undertaken in 1733. Although Bering and thirty-one of his seventy-five men died after being shipwrecked during the voyage, it was considered an economic success, allowing Russia to stake a claim to the territory and opening the area to trappers. The vast amount of money to be made in the Aleutian Islands and western Alaska drew many adventurers and speculators, the most successful of whom was Grigory Shelikov (1747-1795). Shelikov was Nikolai Rezanov's father-in-law, and upon Shelikov's death Rezanov inherited control of the trading company.
Economics made the exploration of the Aleutians desirable, but it took careful manipulation of Russia's rulers to make the 1803-1806 circumnavigation possible, as only the government had the vast capital needed to provision the necessary ships. Here too, Matthews describes in fascinating detail how Rezanov and others navigated the minefield of St. Petersburg politics to obtain backing. Rising to prominence in the court of Catherine the Great, Rezanov became an aide to Catherine's young, influential lover Platon Zubov, who helped sell Catherine on the idea of exploration, preying on her concern that England or the United States would claim the area first. He convinced her that "a race for America's west coast was afoot, and Russia could lose no time in staking her claims to the land." He proposed creating a Russian enterprise in the mold of the British East India Company a government-backed corporation given free rein over a specific piece of territory. His plans, though, were jeopardized by Catherine's death and the ascension of her son, Tsar Paul, who was openly hostile to those Catherine favored. It was not until Paul's assassination that Rezanov was finally able to make his long dreamed-of Russia America Company (RAC) a reality with support from Paul's successor Alexander I (at its height, around 1810, the RAC had settlements on America's Pacific coast from Alaska to California — the southernmost being in Sonoma County just north of San Francisco.)
It isn't until the second half of Glorious Misadventures that Rezanov actually sets sail, the first part being almost entirely devoted to outlining exactly what went into creating an atmosphere favorable to launching such a grand endeavor. I breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the sections devoted to Rezanov and company's first voyage with the stated goals of establishing trade with China and Japan, facilitating trade in South America, and examining California for a possible colony — a two-year, two-ship, round-the-world expedition which sailed west across the Baltic on 26 July 1803, and returned to Russian soil on 24 May 1805. The account of Rezanov's miserable failure to establish trade with Japan is one of the more entertaining parts of the book. The author goes on to relate Rezanov's decision to sail east along the Aleutian Islands rather than return to St. Petersburg in disgrace; the condition of the Russian and Aleut settlements; and the ways in which the Russian colonists impacted the native populations.
I can't say Glorious Misadventures flew by; Matthews's narrative is jam-packed with facts and sidebars and trivia, all of which are extremely interesting but which also tend to bog it down. The book is obviously very well researched, and that may actually be the problem the author seems to want to include every bit of minutia he discovered about his subject; the book isn't "dry" so much as simply overstuffed. I was also a bit disappointed that I never got a good feel for who Nikolai Rezanov really was, in spite of what appears to be quite a lot of documentation (letters penned by him and about him, journals, official documents, etc.). I wasn't sure if the author is promoting him as a hero or condemning him as a madman.
While the book isn't a fast read, it is entertaining and informative, and I can certainly recommend it to those looking for an in-depth look at late 18th century/early 19th century Russian history and exploration. Matthews's attention to detail and extensive research make Glorious Misadventures a good choice for fans of the genre.
This review was originally published in January 2014, and has been updated for the July 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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