Once upon a time, Russia came close to conquering North America
At the beginning of the 19th century, Russians had a colony about an hour’s drive away from present-day San Francisco in the US. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Russia became a superpower of the northern Pacific Ocean when it conquered the Ural regions, followed by conquering Siberia. In the 18th century, Russia founded colonies beyond the sea in North America and for a while it governed Hawaii as well.
Russia sold its land in North America to the United States in 1867. But this was only a coincidental twist in a series of events that might just as well have led to the majority of North America still being part of Russia today.
According to Owen Matthews’ book Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America (2013) Russia came close to succeeding in its attempted conquest. The problems that eventually ruined Russia’s attempted conquest of America were disconcertingly similar to the problems that are today considered to be the obstacles to Russia’s development.
The biggest setback was when Russia’s trading company in America, which was governing its colonies, fell into disfavour with the Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. The trading company included many rebels and liberal young noblemen who wanted to reform Russia. The Tzar considered them guilty of the rebellion against him in 1825.
Matthews’ book tells the tragic story of the world conqueror and visionary, Russian nobleman Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov. Rezanov, originally a Tatar, served as the trusted man of three tsars. It is known that some Finns were also involved in the trading company and in Alaska.
The conquest of Siberia and the northern Pacific Ocean was motivated by the tempting possibilities of the global fur trade. In China’s Canton, the most valuable fur pelts cost more than a seaman’s annual pay. The penises of certain animals were also worth a good price per kilogram. They were eaten to gain sexual prowess.
The trade was organised by the state in a very poor, even detrimental, manner. Noblemen were prohibited from trading. The conquerors of the Ural regions, Siberia and Alaska were adventurers who had made their own fortune. They were the oligarchs of their times, and there were a large number of crooks and criminals among them. The law did not protect the local population.
The mightiest man in the east was the King of Siberia, Grigory Ivanovich Shelekhov. He created the foundation for Russia’s trading company in America. His wife (and later widow) Natalia Shelekhova was just as energetic as her husband and managed all kinds of business matters on her own.
Nikolay Petrovich became Shelekhov’s partner. Later on he married Shelekhov’s daughter Anna Grigoriyevna. Rezanov was the person who used his networks to arrange the necessary support from the Court of the Tsar in Saint Petersburg.
Even though the Russians tried to benefit from the long-distance trade of North America and Asia just like many other countries, they failed. Russia lacked a financial system that was capable of supporting large-scale long-term efforts. Merchants were not capable of assembling large enough fleets, and they did not have the ability to maintain extensive operations for years on end.
Even maintenance deliveries could not be afforded. Rezanov lamented over the fact that the colonies were dependent on deliveries from foreign states. He had few ships of his own and even those were in poor condition and managed by a crew that was often drunk.
A third problem was the arbitrary nature of the politics. Unlike in Britain, people with great wealth and the noblemen in Russia were dependent on being in favour with the ruler. When the ruler changed, the favour and privileges had to be bought again. No one had permanent protection for his position provided by law.
Russia’s tale in America ended on an unflattering note. When Russia’s flag was lowered with festive ceremonies in New Archangel – the present-day Sitka in Alaska – the flag got tangled around the pole and it could not be lowered. Only the third man who climbed up to the top of the pole was finally able to tug the flag down, according to a Finnish blacksmith, Toomas Ahllund, who watched the ceremony.
This small detail gains special symbolic significance in Russia’s history. We are unlikely to witness any other flag-lowerings in the foreseeable future. The dispute over the Kurile Islands with Japan still continues. The dispute over the island of Sakhalin also began during the time of the trading company. Rezanov waged a war of his own in the area.
Owen Matthews has written a wonderful story of Nikolay Rezanov and his larger-than-life dreams. During his life, Rezanov lived in the glory of the Court of Saint Petersburg, in the wilderness of Siberia and on the seas of the world. Sometimes he ate from silver plates and drank from golden jugs, and sometimes he went hungry and suffered from the cold. All his dreams came crashing down in the end.
In Russia, the greatness of individuals is seen in how they wrestle with their fate – or the system. It is curious that a rock opera was made about this chamberlain of the Tsar during the Soviet Union. The text was written by the poet Andrei Voznesenski, a student of Boris Pasternak. The show was produced and directed by Mark Zaharov. He was granted the honorary title of People’s Artist of the USSR just before the Soviet Union collapsed.
A rock opera in the Soviet Union – a story about Nikolay Rezanov, the Tsar’s man
Russia is an extremely diverse and contradictory country. The rock opera Junona and Avos (Юнона и Авось) is one example of this. The opera was first performed in 1981, which is before Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal politics, perestroika and glasnost.
The opera is still shown to full audiences in Moscow. It was broadcast on television in 1983, and it has done tours of many countries. This rock opera, which was apparently the first great rock opera in the Soviet Union, became a cultural symbol for the country’s reformation policy.
Junona and Avos was fitting for a time when the Cold War was loosening its grip and the threat of a nuclear war was slowly receding. It was an opportunity to tell a story about the love between a Russian nobleman and the Tsar’s favourite, Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov, and the daughter of the commander of San Francisco’s Spanish fortress, Conchita Arguello. Love surpassed nationalities, religions and politics. Rezanov was not even close to the ideal of the Hero of Socialist Labour.
The opera’s story is true in its general outlines. The opera’s name is derived from two ships. The word avos (авось) is also used to refer to the playful interaction between a person’s hopes and fate.
One of Russia’s strong qualities is combining different styles in imaginative ways, as they are in Junona and Avos. The symbols of the era of the tsars and the rock opera methods of telling a story are mixed with religious and political imagery, and of course with the joy of love.
For some reason, the censorship allowed a show like this to be presented. Even the creators were surprised as all the eleven other rock operas by the composer Aleksei Rybnikov had been prohibited right from the start.
It is difficult for an outsider to understand where the line between serious drama and parody is drawn. An ultramodern style is intertwined with grand pathos and silly playfulness without any deeper meaning. The symbolism follows the long traditions of Russian soul and culture. The opera also sings hallelujah to love.
But Rezanov’s love did not last. His wife, Anna Grigoriyevna, whom he so deeply loved, passed away in childbirth after seven years of marriage. Another loved one, Conchita, was left on the other side of the globe. Rezanov died a tired and unhappy man on his way home from San Francisco to St. Petersburg in 1807 in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.
He did not have to see his life’s work and honour destroyed, even though he was already on his way to ruin.
Conchita learned about her groom’s death the following year when a ship’s passenger told her about it. Conchita never married and wanted to remain faithful to Nikolay Petrovich’s memory. In older age, Conchita withdrew into a convent and told her story to a sister in faith.
“I will never forget you – I will never see you again”, goes the opera’s sophisticated pop tune. It has been popular in Russia, just as it was in the Soviet Union.
But this opera is not about nostalgia for the Soviet Union. The show is about genuine nostalgia for the Russian way of life. This is how it was understood even during the Soviet Union era.
Junona and Avos (Юнона и Авось) was shown at the Helsinki Hall of Culture on April 25, 2014. (Comp. Aleksei Rybnikov. Text Andrei Voznesenski. Directed by Aleksandr Ryhlov. Choreography by Žanna Šmakova. Aleksei Rybnikov Theater Company, Moscow.) But the show was only a pale imitation of what it is in Moscow at the Lenkom Theatre and Theatre Estrady.
(Translated from Finnish by Elina Sellgren.)