interview with Owen Matthews - author of THE 2014 PUSHKIN HOUSE PRIZE shortlisted book 'Glorious Misadventures'
What is your connection to Russia?
My mother is Russian, and I have been going there since birth. I never really considered myself to be properly Russian but perhaps I am more so than I think. With age, I have started to ascribe some of my more self-destructive character traits to Russianness.
What inspired you to write the book?
I had seen the Soviet Union’s first ever rock opera, Juno and Avos, at the Lenkom theatre in Moscow, which opened in 1981. It tells the story of a dashing Russian aristrocrat, and his quest to conquer California’s fairest daughter, Conchita. It’s based on a poem by Andrei Voznesensky, a protégé of Pasternak. It turned out to be a true story, to my great surprise, based on my protagonist Nikolai Rezanov, and it’s very well known in Russia. But it’s not at all known in the west. For many years it was in the back of my mind. I thought it was time to revisit this quixotic corner of history.
How easy was it for the Soviet regime to permit that story on stage?
It’s an extraordinary miracle that it was ever produced under Brezhnev and Andropov: a story all about Russian imperialism and Tsarist aristocrats, with an icon hoisted on stage and the Orthodox liturgy. It was a very strange, radical event in those pre-perestroika days. Like so many in the Soviet period, it happened by accident. It was not that anyone on high approved it, but rather that the director just happened to get a very sleepy, lazy board of censors, buttered them up in the usual way, and this committee of old Bolsheviks just nodded it through. They had especially written it with bits they intended to be cut, and were utterly amazed when passed in toto. They were so delighted, they went on a two-day drinking session in the National Hotel.
So what is the underlying story?
It’s about Russia’s failed attempt to colonise America from the other side. My hero, or anti-hero, is Rezanov. It encompasses the whole idea of longing, of being separated by the tides of history – a very Russian theme.
Any thoughts on the story’s relevance to the recent events in Ukraine?
One of the most interesting things about the whole period is that it is the moment when Russia first really starts to assert itself as a European power. You have entirely surprising things: the Russian army occupied Rome in the 1790s. Milan. The Russian naval power defeats the Ottomans at Cesme in the 1760s. Rezanov is from Russia’s really true imperial generation, when the idea emerged of projecting Russian power beyond its borders as part of a concerted imperial government strategy. Before it had been ad hoc, with expansion by merchant adventurers. By the end of the eighteenth century, Russia was emerging as self consciously expansionist, trying to carve out a place in Europe.
What was the most surprising experience for you during your research?
One is very used to seeing imperial echoes of France and Britain – ticket machines, trams, French lampposts. They are very familiar phenomena. It’s much more surprising to see imperial echoes of Russia. But in Alaska, the main feature of every village is a Russian church on the coast. Almost all the native Americans are Russian orthodox. They have Russian names and surnames. It’s all very odd. On one island there, I was sitting in a room with two Russian priests, one who was Japanese and the other a white American from Washington state, plus three deacons who were all Aleut natives. They were all discussing the liturgy in English, wearing black cassocks, beards. Yet I was the most Russian person in the room. In California, you have the Russian River marking the furthest advances, and at Fort Ross, there are extremely Russian-looking, buildings, church, cannons and double-headed eagles from the1840s – which were all rebuilt by the National Parks Service in 1976!
How difficult was it finding source material?
That was one of the great joys of writing this book – there was plenty of information. One of the central events is when Rezanov sets out in 1883 on his first round the world voyage. It turned out to be incredibly fractious and disastrous. Luckily for me, almost every participant wrote a diary. There was an enormous richness of detail, including some which was very amusing and extremely rude because it was not written for publication. Rezanov himself was a bureaucratic, a dedicated scribbler. And a lot of correspondence exists in triplicate so it has survived. Because he knew of the unreliability of communications across Siberia and the Pacific, he always sent three copies. Luckily, a lot of the Russian-American Company archives were sold to the Americans, so it is in the Library of Congress.
What was Rezanov’s legacy?
At one point Rezanov wanted to make the American settlement a kind of Russian version of Australia. His initial vision was as a penal colony, where convicts were shipped off – a kind of giant gulag. After he got there, and spent so many years away from St Petersburg, he realised it was not going to work if you tell people to work. It would fall apart into corruption, alcoholism and incompetence. He saw the only way to make it work would be to create a class of property-owning smallholders to buy, trade, prosper and become citizens. Exactly the model the east coast of the same continent followed. Had he lived longer and succeeded, it would have been very interesting to see how this reformed version of Russian society would have evolved. We think of the Decembrists in 1825 returning from occupied Paris after the Napoleonic wars, but many also spent time in the Americas and brought back these ideas.
Is your book translated into Russian?
It is underway. There are a large number of Russian enthusiasts and amateur historians for whom Rezanov is a hero. I think they’ll be slightly upset. He was not a hero but a chancer, a bit of a scoundrel. For me, he’s much more interesting as a result: he’s a man who saw the world as it might be, not as is it. Instead of a banal romantic history of an imperial conquistador, there is a rather complex, conflicted man who went in search of a fortune, suddenly stumbled on the new world and created a new version of his own country to plant there.
What is your next book?
I’m writing a novel set in Chechnya during the second war, which I covered for Newsweek. It’s about a war crime that carries across the generations.
Owen Matthews is a journalist and writer.
Interview by Andrew Jack