Nikolai Rezanov

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A portrait of Court Chamberlain Nikolai Rezanov painted around the turn of the 19th century, artist unknown.State History Museum, Moscow

Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov (Russian: Николай Петрович Резанов) (1764 – 1807) was a Russian nobleman and statesman who promoted the project of Russian colonization of Alaska and California. Aleksander I commissioned him as Russian ambassador to Japan (1804) to conclude a commercial treaty. In order to get there he was appointed co-commander of the First Russian circumnavigation (1803-1806), led by Adam Johann von Krusenstern. Rezanov departed the expedition when it reached Kamchatka after visiting Japan where he was unsuccessful in his ambassadorial mission. He was also the author of a lexicon of the Japanese language and of several other works, which are preserved in the library of the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences, of which he was a member. But Rezanov's monument for many years after his death was the great Russian American Company.

Russian-American Company[edit]

A replica of Russian Block House #1 (one of three watchtowers that guarded the stockade walls at Novo-Arkhangelsk) as constructed by the National Park Service in 1962.

Born in Saint Petersburg on March 28, 1764, Rezanov mastered five languages by the age of 14. In 1791, he joined the staff of Gavrila Derzhavin in his capacity as the private secretary to the Empress Catherine. Several years earlier, meeting Grigory Shelikhov, of the Shelikhov-Golikov Fur Company, Rezanov became interested in the merchant's project to obtain a monopoly of the fur trade in those distant dependencies. Conscious of latent energies, and already tired of the pleasures of a dissolute court, he married Shelikhov's daughter and became a partner in the company, and rapidly developed into a keen and tireless man of business. At the death of Shelikhov in 1795, he became the leading spirit of the wealthy and amalgamated but harassed companies, and resolved to obtain for himself and his partners privileges analogous to those granted by Great Britain to the East India Company.

He had just succeeded in persuading Catherine II to sign his charter when she died (1796), and had to begin again with the ill-balanced and intractable Emperor Paul. For a time the outlook appeared hopeless, but Rezanov's skill, subtlety and address prevailed, and shortly before the assassination of Paul (1801) he obtained his signature to the momentous instrument which granted to the Russian-American Company, for a term of twenty years, dominion over the Pacific Northwest coast of North America, from latitude 55 degrees northward; and over the chain of islands extending from Kamchatka northward to Alaska and southward to Japan.

This famous "Trust", which crowded out all the small companies and independent traders, provided large revenue to Rezanov and to the other shareholders (including members of the Imperial family) until the first years of the 19th century, when mismanagement and scarcity of nourishing food threatened it with serious losses if not ultimate ruin. Rezanov, his humiliating embassy to Japan concluded, reached Kamchatka in 1805, and found commands awaiting him to remain in the Russian colonies as Imperial inspector and plenipotentiary of the company, and to correct the abuses that were ruining the great enterprise. He traveled slowly to New Archangel (Sitka) by way of the islands, establishing measures to protect the fur-bearing animals from reckless slaughter, punishing or banishing the worst offenders against the company's laws, and introducing the civilizing influence of schools and libraries - most of the books being his personal gifts. He even established cooking schools, which flourished briefly.

Mission in California[edit]

After spending a winter at the company headquarters in New Archangel (during which he and the others nearly starved), Rezanov bought a ship from a Yankee skipper (John DeWolf) and sailed for the Spanish settlements in California, proposing to trade his tempting cargo of American and Russian wares for food-stuffs, and to arrange a treaty by whose terms his colonies should be provisioned twice a year with the bountiful products of New Spain. He cast anchor in the harbor of San Francisco early in April 1806, after a stormy voyage which had defeated his intention to take possession of the Columbia River in the name of Russia.

Although he was received with great courtesy and entertained night and day by the Californians, no time was lost in informing him that the laws of Spain forbade her colonies to trade with foreign powers, and that the governor of all the Californias was incorruptible. Had it not been for a love affair with Concepción Argüello, the 15-year-old[1] daughter of the comandante of San Francisco, Don José Darío Argüello, and for his diplomatic skill, with which he won over the clergy, Rezanov would have failed again.

As it was, when he sailed for New Archangel six weeks after his arrival, the Juno's hold was full of bread-stuffs and dried meats, he had the promise of the perplexed governor to forward a copy of the treaty to Spain at once, and he was engaged to the most beautiful girl in California. Shortly after his arrival in New Archangel, he proceeded by sea to Kamchatka, where he dispatched his ships to wrest the island Sakhalin of the lower Kuril group from Japan, then started overland for Saint Petersburg to obtain the tsar's signature to the treaty, and also personal letters to the pope and king of Spain that he might ask for the dispensation and the royal consent necessary for his marriage.

He died of fever and exhaustion in Krasny Yar (now Krasnoyarsk), Siberia, on March 8, 1807. His grave was destroyed by bolsheviks, but his remains were reburied. On October 28, 2000, at Rezanov’s grave in the Trinity churchyard of Krasnoyarsk (where according to one account his remains were moved in the late 1950s) there was a service for the dead and the dedication of a memorial to Rezanov. It is a white cross, bearing on one side the inscription “Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov 1764 — 1807. I will never forget you”, and on the other side — “Maria Concepcion de Arguelio 1791 — 1857. I will see you never more”.

The High Mass for the two lovers was attended by Gary E. Brown, Police Chief of the city of Monterey, California. He was in Siberia as part of a Pointman Leadership Institute team to instruct the National Police in Ethical Based Leadership. Chief Brown scattered on Rezanov’s tomb some earth from Conchita’s grave, and at the suggestion of Monterey resident John Middleton, a rose from her burial site, and took some earth from Rezanov’s grave to scatter on the resting place of Concepcion de Arguello in Benicia, CA. “It will connect them forever in a symbolic way” said the chief. He went on to share that the love story which took place 200 years ago forever united the cities of Krasnoyarsk and Monterey.

Assessment[edit]

Rezanov's tomb in Krasnoyarsk.

The treaty with California, the bare suggestion of which made such a commotion in New Spain, was the least of Rezanov's projects. It was sincerely conceived, for he was deeply and humanely concerned for his employees and the wretched natives who were little more than the slaves of the company; but its very obviousness raised the necessary amount of dust.

His correspondence with the company betrays a clearly defined purpose to annex to Russia the entire western coast of North America, and to encourage immediate emigration from the parent country on a large scale. Had he lived, there is, all things considered, hardly a doubt that he would have accomplished his object. The treaty was never signed, the reforms of Rezanov died of discouragement, the fortunes of the colonies gradually collapsed, and the Spanish girl who had loved Rezanov became a nun.

Legacy[edit]

Later this story became the subject of Concepcion de Arguello, a ballad by the San Francisco author, Francis Bret Harte, and a 1937 novel, Rezánov and Doña Concha, by the largely forgotten San Francisco author Gertrude Atherton, who had also written a biography of Rezanov on the centennial of his romance with Concepcion.

In 1979, the composer Alexei Rybnikov and the poet Andrey Voznesensky wrote one of the first Russian rock operas, choosing the love affair of Rezanov and Concepcion as their subject and naming the opera after two of Rezanov's ships, Juno and Avos. The original production has enjoyed immense success in the Lenkom Theatre in the course of 25 years, and is still being performed to standing ovations as of 2007. The original actor playing Rezanov from 1979–2005, Nikolai Karachentsov, was seriously injured in a car crash in 2005, and has been replaced in the production by Dmitry Pevtsov and Viktor Rakov.

Related biographies[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21581967-when-tsarist-empire-reached-california-how-east-was-lost Russia’s American empire: How the east was lost

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

Further Reading[edit]

  • Matthews, Owen. Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2013. ISBN 9781620402399 OCLC 827256838

External links[edit]