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Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, by Owen Matthews, Bloomsbury USA, New York, 2013, $28

The exploration and conquest of the American frontier required a rare breed of bold, ruthless, often eccentric visionaries, whether they came westward from Spain, the Netherlands, France, Britain or the newly minted United States…or eastward from Russia, as did the remarkable protagonist of Glorious Misadventures. In 1803, while President Thomas Jefferson was ordering Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, Tsar Alexander I sent Nikolai Rezanov on a mission with multiple ambitions—among other things, to establish Russian diplomatic and trading relations with Japan, to expand the hegemony of the Russian American Co. from its Alaskan base deep into Spanish California and beyond, and perhaps to complete the first Russian circumnavigation.

As journalist Owen Matthews discovered in the course of researching Rezanov’s writings and the impressions of those who knew him, Rezanov harbored a larger-than-life ambition to carve out an American empire. When he returned to California in 1806, Rezanov wrote to the Russian minister of commerce, “Not through petty enterprise but by great undertakings have mighty commercial bodies achieved rank and power.” Marrying the 15-year-old daughter of the garrison commander at Yerba Buena—later to be the great city of San Francisco, but in May 1806 a town dwarfed in size and importance by the Russian port of Sitka—Rezanov envisioned the Russian American Co. eclipsing Spain as the dominant colonial power in the New World.

Like so many Western pioneers, however, Rezanov harbored weaknesses as outsized as his strengths. A charming and skilled diplomat and daring gambler, he could also be a volatile bully. Rezanov’s saga ended somewhat anticlimactically in 1807, but his death left a legend that Russian posterity and even the Soviet Union proudly embraced. The author’s project to retrace Rezanov’s steps was largely inspired by the hottest show in 1986 Moscow—Junona i Avos, a rock opera named for two of Rezanov’s ships and centered around his ill-starred romance in California.

Jon Guttman