In the early 1800s, the Russians came very close to colonizing North America. Newsweek contributing editor Matthews (Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival, 2008) introduces us to the visionary men who attempted to build a Russian Empire.
The history of Russia and the picture of Catherine the Great’s court show how men like Nikolai Rezanov (1764–1807) and Grigory Shelikhov (1747–1795) had to grovel for permission and funding for their expeditions. It was the fur trade, not patriotic zeal, that beckoned men to America. Shelikhov established Russia’s first overseas colony at Kodiak in 1784. After three years, he returned to Russia as the largest fur trader in the country. Perhaps due to the lack of sources, Matthews does not devote nearly enough ink to this man nor to Alexander Baranov (1746–1819), whose work as the first governor of Russian Alaska ensured a strong foothold. As luck would have it, Shelikhov’s daughter married Rezanov, a St. Petersburg aristocrat searching for riches. Rezanov’s three-year journey to establish trade with Japan and advance the American colonies began badly with confusion over its leader, and his superior attitude destroyed any possibility of success. His constant arguments with the ship’s captain and his descent into madness, chronicled in the multiple journals of co-passengers, make for entertaining reading. Rezanov’s plans for a great trade route in the Pacific could have made Russia a great empire; alas, it was not to be. They failed to take advantage when the Spanish empire collapsed, and they sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, before the Klondike Gold Rush.
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.