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Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America Hardcover – November 12, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

A man who almost rewrote the history of two countries comes alive in all-too-human proportions in this fascinating volume. Nikolai Rezanov, courtier and adventurer, had grand plans to expand the Russian Empire in America at the dawn of the nineteenth century. His rise and fall in an age when exploration and exploitation were inextricably intertwined encompass fascinating figures from the period, including Catherine the Great, and spans the wilds of Siberia to the fledgling outpost of San Francisco. Matthews takes obvious relish in the accounts of Rezanov’s disastrous round-the-world voyage, down to the pranks and mishaps on board. Although he sometimes comes close to using too many lesser details, the journalist and author of Stalin’s Children (2008) survives his tendency to become lost in minutiae by presenting gems of anecdotes and evocative place descriptions and by always pushing the bigger narrative forward. Rezanov himself—­volatile, diligent, bold, paranoid—is thoroughly ­fascinating, and his misadventures expose the ragged edges of civility. This epic historical account illuminates the promise and failings of a lost empire through the ambition of a single man. --Bridget Thoreson

Review

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 that it had become indefensible. But few know how it had become Russian in the first place . . . Glorious Misadventures is in part this extraordinary man's biography . . . His voyage to the Pacific, with shipmates even more mercurial, reads like an implausibly lively historical novel . . . The exotic personalities and adventures come against a backdrop of geopolitical tussles between France, Spain, Russia and Britain. Mr Matthews depicts them neatly, and paints enjoyable cameos . . . The book bursts with telling details, many of them gruesome . . . [An] exemplary account of adventures that could have changed the world. (Economist)

A swashbuckling Tsarist Russian in America … Told by Matthews, the story loses none of its strangeness and its swashbuckling verve, reading at times like a cross between Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Gogol's the Government Inspector. (Financial Times)

Deftly chronicle[d]. So the settlements are cold, the men are drunk, the trade is slow, but Matthews treats it all with an amused dryness that's as quintessentially British as good gin. The many digressions are in the service of a story that would make a fine Hollywood film. (Newsweek)

Did you know that early in the 19th Century--as Napoleon was on the march--Russia's Tsar Alexander I sent a vainglorious, hotheaded seafaring courtier named Rezanov to conquer California for the Russian empire? Obviously, Rezanov's mission didn't succeed (though he made a killing in "soft gold" in Sitka and Alaska en route--harvesting thousands of seal skins, which the Chinese bought at premium prices). In Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, Owen Matthews thrillingly relates this swashbuckling, Vernean, and entirely true chapter of forgotten history. (Liesl Schillinger, Daily Beast)

Matthews is wonderful at pacing the history of Russia's various eastward fur-trapping journeys and voyages; whether the cast of energetic, clever and violent fur traders are crossing Siberia by sleigh or the Atlantic and Pacific by ship, he never rushes, he never lags. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Drawing on diaries and other sources, Mr. Matthews weaves a tale of courage and chicanery, avarice and incompetence . . . [A] well-researched glimpse into an underappreciated era in New World history. (Wall Street Journal)

Matthews opens a new window into the first settlements of America's Pacific coast, the men who led it and the reasons for its failure. (Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

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. (Seattle Times)

Fascinating . . . Rezanov [is] a kind of Russian Fitzcarraldo, an imperial visionary in hot pursuit of a mad dream. (William Grimes, New York Times)

A fascinating book of Russian involvement in US settlement and history of our far west coast. (San Francisco Book Review)

Matthews's humor, eye for detail, and voluminous knowledge of the historical context make this book a penetrating and enjoyable account of the exploration age and Russian society, from the imperial court to the wild frontier garrisons. (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

Fascinating . . . This epic historical account illuminates the promise and failings of a lost empire through the ambition of a single man. (Booklist)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; First Edition edition (November 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1620402394
  • ISBN-13: 978-1620402399
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #609,238 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By BookBob on January 10, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
A Russian Explorer name Vitus Bering (namesake of the Bering Straits), and the Czar's claimer of the Alaska in 1720 led to a small group of Russian settlers 50 years later to the North American Western coast seeking fur for trade. The Spanish empire restricted the southern settlement of these pioneers from Alaska until 1801 when Czar Alexander's (I) courtier named Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov was sent to seek out an expansion of the fur trade. Rezanov & the Czar's goal was to expand into California and work with the Spanish to permit the development of a fur trade with Japan. The Japanese flat out rejected any trade arrangement with Russia leading to Rezanov seeking other opportunities to save face with the Czar.

He chose to attempt a partnership with the Spain by courtship & potential marriage with an elite Spanish colonists family. He courted Conchita a young daughter of the commandant who sincerely falls in love with Rezanov only to be abandoned by him. Mexico wins there independence from Spain in 1821 and presents another opportunity to the Czar to purchase Northern California. Czar Alexander rejects the opportunity not wishing to deal with the new Republic. In the meantime Rezanov becomes ill & dies never reuniting with Conchita. She becomes stranded in Mexico eventually entering a convent in Monterey. The relationship is filled with romantic tragedy.

The author did a good job developing this piece of History into a tale of loss cause, incompetence, heartbreak, and mental instability of the primary character Rezanov. At least I know the origin of namesake of the Russian River in the Napa Valley, and also ponder what if Russia purchased California. The book is good and brings forward a piece of American History unknown to many of us. The book jumps around a bit by developing the conclusion of the tale too soon, but I would recommend reading because of the historical uniqueness of this time.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By critical customer on January 31, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book has somewhat mixed reviews, but for those interested in the period of Catherine the Great and the years after it is a page turner. The people involved are well described and the early history of Alaska is fascinating.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By TropicalHeat on December 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I saw this book reviewed at the Economist several months before it was available, and was waiting to receive it. i am into about 50 pages so far, but i would certainly recommend it from the standpoint of excellent and entertaining writing to the very interesting and little known historical content.
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Format: Hardcover
This was a wonderful book. I learned more in this novel, written by Matthews, then I could have ever learned in US History class. It should be supplemental reading in US schools and universities in the Russian colonization of the Pacific. The extensive research that was undertaken to compile the accuracy of the facts is impressive. The history leading up to the Russian expeditions and further later colonization is quite fascinating. Rezanov played the political game with Catherine the Great, Paul I, and Alexander I brilliantly as one could during 18th century imperialism when it was dominated by the English, French and Spanish. Majority, well i hope most Americans know the Alaskan purchase (1867) was from Russia; but most don't understand why or how it came to be sold by Russia. But first, Rezanov had a dream. A dream to leave a legacy of Russian domination of the New World via the Pacific. To match the British, surpass the 'Dutch East India Company', and steal the riches from a lazy Spanish monarchy. Rezanov was keen on the rich furs and pelts which could be harvested on the shores by the millions of seals, otters, foxes, whales, and bears. By attempting to conquer aleut island by aleut island, slaughtering local tribes in a frozen world which was worse than Siberia, he did leave his heritage in history but not where you think it would be. Rezanov was the first Captain to harbor criminals on the "La Isla de la Alcatraces"--Island of the Pelicans or better known as Alcatraz, but its not here where he will be remembered! Will he be remembered by the personal vendetta he had against the Japanese while he was rejected by the Japanese Emperor to officially meet him and to conduct business.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
This is the story of the Russian colonization of North-Western America, the first Russian circumnavigation of the Earth, and Nikolai Rezanov's eventful life, together with some intrigue at the court of St-Petersburg, some Siberian trade, some Japanese diplomacy, some native Alaskan life, and much more.

The author manages to weave a coherent and compelling narrative, with a full complement of more or less rascally characters, obscure but fascinating historical facts, and well-chosen digressions in the past and future. Mr Matthews is a very pleasant scholar, and his citations from original sources are always to the point and just the right length. He makes his characters' ideas alive, from now outdated concerns about rank, etiquette, and serving the Tsar, to more understandable worries about exterminating the natives.

This is however not a history of Russian America, as there is no explicit method of investigation, no systematic study of a well-defined subject, and no understanding of the forces (economic or geographic, say) which drove its development and eventual demise. Actually, the author seems to believe that Rezanov's personality and untimely death were determinant. I am willing to admit that great men matter, but only to a certain extent. Still, this detracts nothing from the thrill of reading this work by a master storyteller.
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