Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Book Review: Glorious Misadventures

Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America
Owen Matthews
History, Biography

After reading Glorious Misadventures, the best description I can come up with of Tsarist Russia c. 1800 is "government by an aristocracy consisting largely of Donald Trump clones". It's all here! The clash of massive egos. The self-interested pandering. The braggadocio. The grandiose dreams. The ill-concealed ruthlessness. And, especially, the obsessive pursuit of money, stature, money, and more money.

With material like this, it's not a surprise that Glorious Misadventures is a colorful tale. One of the back-cover blurbs compares it to a Flashman novel, which isn't a bad starting point--but Glorious Misadventures is more tragic than comic. It has no less than four major epicenters:

  • The court of Catherine the Great and her successors.
  • The Russian fur trade in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
  • Nikolai Rezanov's excursion to Japan.
  • His subsequent empire-building attempts in Oregon and California.
That makes it sound as though the book goes off in several different directions. There's some truth in that, but it still holds enough shape to be read as a whole. The unifying theme, I think, is not Nikolai Rezanov; it's the Bizarro-world nature of the whole endeavor. It's like a real-world Marx Brothers movie, except everyone in it takes it seriously.

The Dream of a Russian America never had much of a chance. Contemporary America had its share of these guys, but they were outnumbered and outweighed by the comparatively sober bourgeoisie. The Enlightenment was in the air . . . but Nikolai Rezanov and his compatriots weren't breathing it. They were doomed. We should be thankful.

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