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A portrait of Nikolai Rezanov painted around the turn of the 19th century, artist unknown.

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. One of the ten barons of Russia, he was the first Russian ambassador to Japan (1804), and participated in the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe (1803), commanding the expedition himself as far as Kamchatka. 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; and his interest to students of history centres round the policy involved in that enterprise, which, thwarted by his death, would have changed the destinies of Russia and the United States.


Russian-American Company

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.

Rezanov was born in Saint Petersburg on March 28, 1764. By the age of 14, he had mastered five languages. In 1791, he joined the staff of Gavrila Derzhavin in his capacity as the private secretary to the Empress. 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 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, and he was obliged to begin again with the ill-balanced and intractable Emperor Paul. For a time the outlook was hopeless, but Rezanov's skill, subtlety and address prevailed, and shortly before the assassination of Paul 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, was a source of large revenue to Rezanov and 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

At the end of a winter in New Archangel, the headquarters of the company (during which he nearly starved with the others) 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. Rezanov, had it not been for a love affair with Concepción Argüello, the daughter of the comandante of San Francisco, Don José Darío Argüello, and for his personal address and diplomatic skill, with which he won over the clergy to his cause, 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 affianced to the most beautiful girl in California. Shortly after his arrival in New Archangel, he proceeded by water 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 signature of the tsar 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 to his marriage.

He died of fever and exhaustion in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, on March 8, 1807. His grave was destroyed by bolsheviks but his remains was reburied. On October 28, 2000 in the Trinity churchyard of Krasnoyarsk on Rezanov’s grave where according to one of the versions his remains were carried to in the late fifties of the 20th century there was an office for the dead and inauguration of the memorial to Rezanov. It is made in the form of the white cross, on one side of it there is an inscription “Nickolai Petrovich Rezanov 1764 — 1807. I will never forget you”, on the other side — “Maria Concepcion de Arguelio 1791 — 1857. I will see you never more”.

The office for the dead was attended by Harry Brown, sheriff of Monterrey Town. The sheriff strewed on Rezanov’s grave the earth from Conchita’s tomb and he took some earth from Rezanov’s grave to scatter it on the tomb of Concepsion de Arguelio. “It will connect them for ever in a symbolic way”.


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. Later this story became a subject of Concepcion de Arguello (sic!), a ballad by Francis Bret Harte.

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 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.

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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