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Originally published Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 3:11 AM

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‘Glorious Misadventures’: a Russian’s dreams for America

In “Glorious Misadventures,” Owen Matthews chronicles the checkered history of Nikolai Rezanov, a minor Russian nobleman of the 19th century with dreams of extending Russian rule to the West Coast of North America.

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‘Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America’

by Owen Matthews

Bloomsbury, 400 pp., $28

Nikolai Rezanov was a minor Russian nobleman with great ambitions to extend Russian rule to the West Coast of North America in the early 19th century. As founder of the Russian American Company, modeled after Britain’s East India Company, he worked to expand Russia’s tenuous “string of lonely stockades and forts” through the Aleutian Islands to New Archangel (modern Sitka) in Southeast Alaska. He also dreamed of establishing Russian hegemony all the way south to the Spanish colony at San Francisco.

But Rezanov’s reach far exceeded his grasp, and in this book by journalist Owen Matthews he emerges as a con man and pathological liar who also sometimes showed symptoms of mental illness and was hated by nearly everyone who knew him. That included the captain of the sailing ship that carried Rezanov around the world, who built a partition down the middle of the ship’s cabin and forced Rezanov to stay on one side while the ship’s officers remained on the other.

Rezanov also failed in an attempt to open trade between Russia and Japan. Rebuffed by the Japanese, the Russian nobleman later started a private war against them, causing international embarrassment.

But while he was unlucky in statecraft, Rezanov was lucky in love — sort of.

At age 42 he struck up a romance with the beautiful 15-year-old daughter of the commandant of the Spanish garrison at San Francisco. They were betrothed before Rezanov sailed away with promises to return someday, but he died without ever seeing her again. Their unfulfilled romance later inspired a story by Bret Harte and became fodder for a 1980s Russian rock opera.

The first half of Matthews’ book details Rezanov’s torturous climb through the ranks of the imperial court of Catherine the Great and the Emperors Paul and Alexander. Much of this is tedious, but it includes some Russian history that will probably be new to most North American readers.

The real action is in the book’s second half. Rezanov’s bizarre schemes and improbable adventures make interesting reading, as does Matthews’ account of the history of early settlements along North America’s West Coast, especially Russia’s Alaskan colonies.

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