Moscow on the Pacific

A new book chronicles Russia’s failed attempts to colonize California. Underwood Archives/Getty

The Cold War update of Paul Revere's patriotic warning – The Russians are coming! – had it all wrong. The Russians have already been here, having invaded our shores a good two centuries ago. Remnants of their fleeting sojourn in the New World are still in evidence in California, where the royals of St. Petersburg had once sought to expand their empire. San Francisco's Russian Hill alludes to the Empire's presence in what was a distant outpost of New Spain in the 18th century. Drive north along the coastal curvatures of state Route 1, past the redwoods, the wineries, and vitreous tech campuses, and you will eventually encounter Fort Ross, which is the farthest south the Russians managed to establish themselves, staying there from 1812 until 1842. Most visitors to Sonoma, I suspect, never visit this austere little fortress, though they may wonder why the wine they are tasting bears the appellation of Russian River.

Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, by Owen Matthews – a Newsweek contributor who hails from London and lives in Istanbul – tells a story that, like many of the best ones, probably seemed a lot less improbable as it was happening. The book arrives at a time when Russia seems to be awakening from its post-Soviet slumber with its hunger for geopolitical influence as acute as ever, even while filling a pothole on Nevsky Prospect remains a daunting challenge.

But back to the "soft gold" that powers this fun history of not-very-fun adventures. Expansion into Siberia during the 16th century had alerted the merchants in Petersburg and Moscow to the abundance of fur in the eastern provinces, a plenty that was announced to Europe in 1595, when Czar Boris Godunov sent the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who was then battling the Turks, "337,235 squirrel skins and 40,360 sables, as well as marten, beaver and wolf skins" – which in toto filled 20 rooms in Prague Castle. That must have been enough bling to suffocate all the Ottoman sultans, or at least impress the hell out of them.

As Sarah Palin once famously informed the world, Alaska begins pretty much where Russia ends. Thus, the eventual designs on the West Coast were only a natural expansion of Russia's imperial and commercial aims, which tended to dovetail neatly. Those design were dreamed up, in large part, by Nikolai Rezanov, the scion of a prominent Petersburg family who just happened to be "volatile, a bully and a martinet" – in other words, the perfect hero for this story of transcontinental ambition. Born in 1764, Rezanov started off as a military cadet but left at 20 to enter the civil service, which he found to be rife with "mind-boggling provincial tedium" of the sort that Gogol skewers in Dead Souls. He later landed at the court of Catherine the Great, which, for all its aspirations, had devolved into a nexus for "adventurers, rogues and opportunists" under Prince Platon Zubov, the last of Catherine's several courtiers. Rezanov might have languished there, too, were it not for Grigory Shelikhov, the self-styled King of Siberia who seemed to have been a sort of early Slavic version of Donald Trump. He managed to convince an aimless Rezanov that his fortunes – and those of the Russian Empire – lay in the fur trade of the Far East.

The Russian-American Company was founded in 1799 and would become the vessel for Rezanov's overriding aim, "which was nothing less than to make Russia the all-powerful master of the whole northern Pacific," from Alaska to California. Shelikhov had died four years previous, leaving few checks on Rezanov's growing ambition. He would have both Japan and Spain to contend with, the former an insular Pacific power, the latter a huge European empire whose settlements were crawling up the California coast. The Russians established the capital of New Archangel, in what is today the Alaskan city of Sitka but was once, absurdly, deemed the "Paris of the Pacific." Matthews – who actually visited many of the other godforsaken outposts he writes about in Glorious Misadventures, in nice contrast to most histories – calls it a place of "blood and terror" where the native Tlingit were routinely slaughtered. These indigenous people, who had trade interests of their own, did their best to reciprocate in kind.

Colonial outposts are unpretty things; in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad observes how colonists had "grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale." That was in Africa, but the Pacific misadventures Matthews deftly chronicles were just as sanguinary. Approaching a company settlement on the Pribilov Islands, Rezanov is disgusted by "piles of rotting seal carcasses," some 30,000 animals whose valuable pelts had been tossed away – the trade was primarily with the Chinese, who wanted only the penises of the seals as aphrodisiacs. "The Russians for momentary advantage kill all they meet with," lamented one observer.

His aims may have been noble, but Rezanov appears to have succumbed to his own vanity. He boasts preposterously to the Japanese that "Russia occupies half the world and is the greatest Empire in the Universe," then proceeds to "show himself" by micturating off the side of his boat into Nagasaki Bay. A management seminar might have helped too, as Rezanov had little apparent control over his frozen empire. The Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdam had been famously riotous, too – but that was a speck of a settlement reached easily enough by overseers from Amsterdam. Rezanov was no Peter Stuyvesant, willing to impose order for the sake of the colony's survival. "[I] am obstructed by many obstacles of a physical and moral nature," he complains in one letter. "I am disturbed almost every hour by abuse and turbulence." He may have had George H.W. Bush's famous "vision thing" but not the will to carry it out. You'd have needed a Stalin for something like that.

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. (Russell Crowe could play Rezanov.) Of the many fine historical morsels here, none is tastier than Rezanov, making his way down the coast of the Pacific Northwest and coming within five miles of Lewis and Clark near the mouth of the Columbia River, in what is today western Washington state. Two empires almost converged on the Pacific Coast on that day in 1805, though their subsequent fates could not be more divergent.

Rezanov arrived in San Francisco in April 1806, to be received warmly by the Spanish officials there. After the cruelties of Alaska and Siberia, California must have seemed like paradise, much as it would to so many Americans in the next century. "The Russians spent their days shooting partridge and duck," in a respite that must have seemed surreal. Even better, Rezanov married Conchita, the 15-year-old daughter of a colonial Spanish potentate, in what was surely part of his design on California. It was not to be: Rezanov died in 1807, while his Russian American Company – "an orphan left to the will of Fate" – was almost entirely forgotten after the United States bought Alaska in 1867.

I wish only that Matthews had delved some into the present, with Russia extending its ambitions once again, attempting to claim the Arctic as its own while seeming to suggest in all seriousness – as Rezanov once did – that it is a world power. It wasn't really then, and it certainly isn't now. That lack of a modern perspective is one of my two regrets about this book. The other is that I did not write it myself.