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A biographical turn?

Evgenii Akel'ev, Povsednevnaia zhizn' Vorovskogo mira vo vremena Van 'ki Kaina (Daily Life of the Thieves' World in the Time of Van'ka Kain). 413 pp. Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 2012. ISBN-13 978-5235035089.

Owen Matthews, Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America. 386 pp. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. ISBN-13 9781620402399. $28.00.

David Nasaw, opening a 2009 American Historical Review roundtable on biography, expressed the attitude many historians have toward the genre when he wrote that it "remains the profession's unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riffraff." (1) Many scholars, Nasaw noted, believe that biographies cannot provide the "analytically sophisticated interpretation of the past that academics have long expected." (2) The roundtable featured nine articles from well-known historians, most of whom qualified their entries by claiming that their books were not "typical" biographies. These apologies aside, all the articles offered useful ideas for broadening the genre's boundaries. Lois Banner emphasized the "power of culture in shaping the self, in accord with the belief that culture, not nature, is the primary force molding individual personality." (3) Judith M. Brown declared that she does "not see myself as a biographer" but as "a historian of a time and a region ... who uses the medium of 'life histories,' of individuals and groups of individuals, to seek evidence to probe many key issues." (4) In the case of historians working in ancient and medieval history, the sources for biography are limited, a situation that Robin Fleming uses to explain why scholars in these fields turn to prosopography, or multiple biographies. (5) In his contribution to the roundtable, Jochen Hellbeck argued that traditional cradle-to-grave biographies "seem to limit, rather than enrich, historical understanding," because their "focus on a single thinking and acting personality easily breeds self-absorption, at the expense of larger transpersonal dimensions." Instead, he suggested that scholars should focus more on "how and why the sources that we treat as biographical raw material were produced in the first place," a method that would "shift the perspective from a thinking and speaking biographical subject to the making of subjects of biographical experience." (6) Finally, as Kate Brown argued in her article "A Place in Biography for Oneself," biographies do not even have to be about individuals but could be about places such as the Ukrainian heartland. (7)

One key point for historians, Nasaw concluded in his introduction, is to treat individuals as part of larger social structures and cultures. He approvingly cites Marx's view from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past." (8) Yet there is still room for the more "traditional" biographical approach. In her book on the genre, Barbara Caine writes, "biography can be seen as the archetypical 'contingent narrative' and the one best able to show the great importance of particular locations and circumstances and the multiple layers of historical change and experience." (9) Caine even writes that "a biographical turn" has taken place, one that involves "a new preoccupation with individual lives and stories as a way of understanding both contemporary societies and the whole process of social and historical change." (10)

A biographical boom has certainly taken place in our field of late. The study of Soviet subjectivity that began in the mid-1990s introduced a major rethinking of how we understand the modern self in general and the creation of Homo sovieticus in particular. Other scholars have charted equally ambitious, innovative approaches that span the centuries, even while treating the term "biography" with caution. In their creative collection, Portraits of Old Russia, Donald Ostrowski and Marshall Poe employed "imaginative historical re-creation" along with "informed speculation" to narrate the history of early modern Russia through the lives of individual people. The contributions to the volume craft "composites of individual lives, rather than biographies," ranging from nobles to monks to serfs. (11) John Randolph and Katherine Pickering Antonova have both written engaging family biographies that capture the ways domesticity fostered the intellectual achievements of the Bakunin family and recreated the provincial life of the Chikhachevs and their "ordinary marriage," respectively. (12) Others have used individual subjects to investigate larger historical processes, using a life to serve "as an allegory for broader issues affecting the culture as a whole." (13) In this vein, Claudia Verhoeven's book about Dmitry Karakozov is not just about that "odd man" but also about the way in which his 1866 attempt on Alexander II's life served as the birth of modern terrorism, or "a paradigmatic way of becoming a modern political subject." (14) Andrew Jenks also uses Yuri Gagarin not just as a biographical subject but as a "window into Soviet and Russian culture" in order to discover the various ways the cosmonaut became a cultural phenomenon. (15) Finally, Stephen Kotkin's first of a three-volume biography of Stalin recently appeared; in it, Kotkin writes that the Stalinist system was in part the product of "immense structural forces" and Stalins ability to build a personal dictatorship within the Bolshevik dictatorship. (16) The list could go on: whatever we may make of this diverse array of approaches, our field has taken, however cautiously, a biographical turn.

The two books reviewed here at first glance may not seem like obvious examples to evaluate the biographical turn. They represent two accounts--one in Russian and one in English, one more scholarly and one more popular--that tackle men better known for their fictionalized lives than their real ones. One, Evgenii Akel'ev's work on the bandit-turned-police informer Van'ka Kain, is both a collective biography, or prosopography, of 18th-century criminals and a scholarly examination of their world. The second, Owen Matthews's trade book on the bureaucrat-turned-imperial adventurer Nikolai Rezanov, seeks to uncover the truth about a legendary love story. Along the way, Matthews suggests that one man's personality illuminates both the dream of creating a Russia America and its ultimate failure. Taken together, Akel'ev's and Matthews's books show how productive the return of biography can be for historians, particularly when we accept the numerous ways biographical approaches can inform our understanding of the past.

Van'ka Kain, the focus of Akel'ev's work, became a popular hero in 1779, after Matvei Komarov published Russia's "first best seller," The True and Detailed Histories of Two Scoundrels: The First Being the Famous Russian Thief, Robber, and Former Moscow Police Spy Van 'ka Kain with All of His Investigations, Inquests, Madcap Wedding, and Various Humorous Songs and with His Portrait!7 David Gasperetti explains that in retelling the story of a serf (Ivan Osipov) turned infamous robber (Van'ka Kain) turned police informer, Komarov "satisfied what critics have recognized as the primary demand of eighteenth-century Russian readers in their leisure-time books: adventure, bold heroes (or in this case an anti-establishment hero), and a little love intrigue." (18) Kain appears in the fictional retelling as a "scoundrel with a keen mind, mental agility, boldness, and a quick understanding," but also, as Komarov inserts, as a youth who lacked a good upbringing. (19) Kain the fictional creation thus became part lovable rogue, part moralizing lesson of how not to act in life.

It is Komarov's creation that Evgenii Akel'ev, a historian at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, deconstructs in his remarkable book. Povsednevnaia zhizn' examines the life of Moscow's criminals in the 18th century. It is not strictly a biography of Kain; instead, Akel'ev recreates the criminal world in which he lived. As Akel'ev notes, despite the attempts of scholars to discover the "real" Kain over the years since, no one has mined the rich sources at the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts (RGADA) for the traces Kain left there. The archive has preserved the records of the criminals Kain informed on, making them a treasure trove of materials about crime, punishment, and the culture of thieves in 18th-century Moscow. By making use of these archival records, Akel'ev has produced a study that provides an exceptional example of Hellbeck's call to examine the classic sources for inquiries above and beyond biography: the criminal records Kain's work bequeathed include succinct life stories, interrogation records, details about criminal life, and vignettes of crime and punishment. Supplemented with census records, confessions, and other primary sources, Akel'ev's portrait of Moscow is a rich one. To tell his story, he employs what he terms the "new historical biography," which he defines as the "real range of choices that historical characters have at their disposal in a concrete, normative space" (real 'nyi diapazon vybora, kotorym mogli raspolagat' deistvuiushchie litsa v konkretnom normativnom prostranstve) (10). In the case of Kain and his associates, Akel'ev uses the traces left in the archives to tell the collective biography of Moscow's criminals, the spaces in which they lived and operated, the reasons why they turned to crime, and the worlds they created.

To accomplish these tasks, Akel'ev conjures up the overflowing jails, the smells of the latrines as they were dumped into the Moscow River, as well as the scrum of traders and townspeople who would do business in the city center. He captures the details of the jail's interiors, the apartments where groups of thieves lived, and the locations of taverns, houses of ill repute, and other important sites. He situates Kain and his fellow criminals in the places where they lived and plied their trade. In doing so, Akel'ev also provides a fascinating snapshot of Moscow at midcentury, a time that Alexander Martin has recently identified as crucial in the ancient capital's history, when Russian officials launched a decades-long campaign to turn Moscow into an "enlightened metropolis." (20) As Kain changed his roles from thief to informer, in other words, his personal transformation mirrored broader ones within the city.

Akel'ev makes use of extensive sources. In addition to the RGADA documents, he draws on previous studies of Kain that sought to depict the "real" thief. They included G. V. Esipov's 1869 history, where the author usefully concluded that Kain managed to combine two personality types of the time: a detective-robber and a trickster. Esipov, as Akel'ev argues, was not the first or the last to see Kain simultaneously as a product of his time and a hero of his time. Akel'ev delves even further into what he calls the "unknown Kain," unearthing numerous documents about his life as a serf, the Filatev family that owned him, their Rostov lands, and the social milieu into which Osipov was born. He does the same for the Moscow of the 1730s and argues that Ivan's move to the city "dramatically changed the fate of Ivan Osipov" (116). Akel'ev suggests that Osipov's forced move to Moscow at the age of ten generated hatred toward his master, while his immersion in the tangled worlds of Moscow provided him with a means to escape his lot in life. When he was 14, Osipov took his chances and entered into a new life as a criminal. Akel'ev also fills in biographical details of Kain's life after 1741. The informer, in Akel'ev's reconstruction, liked to carry around and brandish a special Senate decree that recognized his special status. He also took to wearing jewelry and fine clothes. It seems that Kain's house contained fineries and that he held regular gambling and drinking fests there (the New Russian gangsters of the 1990s had nothing on him, it seems). In short, as Akel'ev concludes, Kain took to his new role and newfound power by imitating the other powerful people around him. In that he truly was a man of his time.

Akel'ev captures the lived world of Moscow's criminal underclass. The night after he turned himself in to police and offered his services as an informer, Kain helped lead his first raid. Akel'ev recreates in vivid detail the Kitai-Gorod streets where this 28 December 1741 roundup took place. The beggars, thieves, brothel owners and workers, and even some unlucky visitors who were caught that night lived in dense housing: 18 people alone were arrested from one house. The center of Moscow, as Akel'ev recounts, contained dens of thieves, brothels, churches, and government buildings in close proximity to one another. The original raids, which took in 61 people over the course of two days, exposed these nests and other criminal hideouts to the authorities. Starting on 29 December, police reports began to use the term iavsheisia donositel' (incumbent informer) before Kain's name (87). Akel'ev concludes that Kain's "tireless energy," as well as his extraordinary knowledge of the criminal underworld, allowed him to become a unique creation, a "detective from thieves" (syshchika iz vorov) (89). Kain, who emerges as extraordinarily clever in these pages, consolidated his position. By 1748, he had brought in over 800 people.

At the same time, Kain built his own relations with the very underworld he was exposing. He cleaved the criminal world in two, setting up professional thieves as his agents and arresting those who ran afoul of his authority. In his newfound role, Akel'ev writes, Kain used a network of thieves, soldiers, informants taken from the ranks of thieves, illegal traders, and forgers that Kain himself had earlier helped create. Who were these criminals? Akel'ev poses and answers this question in his excellent second chapter. As he comments, Moscow's thieves had perfected techniques across time, passed them down to the next generation, and operated in sophisticated ways. They were hard to catch until Kain exposed them. Akel'ev provides nine rich, well-documented portraits of criminals caught by Kain. He takes his information from the police files produced after their arrests, where the newly caught criminals provided biographical information.

Two examples illustrate how Akel'ev sketches a collective biographical portrait of Moscow's criminal class: all nine indicate that Moscow's lower classes were an important part of the city's life. Petr "Kamchatka" (many criminals, like Kain, went by their nicknames), Kain's friend and teacher in the art of crime, was caught in 1748. The son of a soldier, Kamchatka--whose last name was Romanov--grew up with a nasty stepfather after his father's death in 1715. When his family's business ventures failed, Kamchatka turned to crime at the age of 19, earning a reputation as an expert pickpocket. He even helped Kain escape from his master in 1734. After being arrested, severely punished, and exiled in 1740, Kamchatka returned to Moscow, only to fall into Kain's traps in 1748. He was flogged, sent to Orenburg, and never heard from again. Ivan "Metia" (Broom), the son of a peasant, was also one of Kain's close associates who later got caught by the thief-turned-informant. He came from a family of church serfs owned by the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery that had managed to escape through the cracks of Peter Is poll tax, not register or pay, and move to Moscow as a free "soul" of sorts. This new environment and newfound status, however, did not bring relief, for Ivan's father labored in a factory and Ivan began work there at the age of ten.

After years of backbreaking work, Metla turned to crime and entered Kain's world. He was caught in the original roundup of 28 December 1741 and confessed to numerous acts of pickpocketing. In February 1742, Metla was flogged, had his nostrils slit, and was sent to Orenburg. He married, started a new life, came back to Moscow, returned to crime, got caught again, and received amnesty but was convicted of a manslaughter case involving his wife. He was whipped again, sent to Orenburg to work in hard labor; he, too, was never heard from again. In all the cases, the lack of opportunities for those from the lower estates--often a choice between long hours of factory work and crime--led to the fateful decision to enter Kain's world. Akel'ev provides the details of their crimes, their confessional statements, and even the places where they operated. What he concludes, among other things, is that runaway and passport-less people are an integral part of the social fabric of 18th-century Moscow and that escaping from this underclass proved to be difficult though not impossible (202). Moscow's crooks, Akel'ev argues, committed their crimes out of desperation caused by the failures of traditional charitable institutions (235).

The shared background and experiences also fostered a particular system of values and way of life. Akel'ev attempts to determine whether or not Moscow's criminal class existed as a self-aware community complete with a particular way of life that characterized them all. To do so, he makes extensive use of Kain's own writings and another memoir written by a pickpocket, the fugitive soldier Aleksei Solov'ev. Both men composed their own testimonies in 1741, attempting to gain a pardon from the state by describing in great detail the underworld from which they had emerged. In both documents, Akel'ev highlights that the two criminals understood their milieu as an "antiworld" (antimir) distinct from the "regular" (pravil'nyi) one (241). This perception was shared by the authorities and "regular" Muscovites, who referred to the criminal world as a "thieves' party" (vorovskaia partiid) (242). The criminals, therefore, were a distinct social group, one unofficially recognized by the state: Akel'ev analyzes their language, their own system of justice and law, the sites they frequented and lived in, and their leisurely pursuits (mostly drinking and gambling, in that order).

Akel'ev devotes an entire chapter to the crimes Moscow's criminals committed, dissecting them in terms of most to least frequent as well as the motivations for committing them. The close reading of criminal records allows him to map out the seasonal nature of crime: in summer, pickpockets could ply their trade among the busy streets, in autumn they hit the wagons of peasants bringing their crops to sell, and in winter they frequented Moscow's public baths. The preferred method, as Akel'ev describes it, was very old, consisting of swiftly cutting a bag or purse from its strings and snatching it up. In the summer months, pickpockets favored Red Square, the streets around it, and the various shopping arcades. The most frequent "earnings" taken by thieves were handkerchiefs, which were easily snatched, while the most coveted were snuff boxes and pocket watches. In this thorough examination of crime, Akel'ev also details theft in the public baths, the methods criminals employed to steal from carts, burglaries in Moscow's streets, and home burglaries, by far the riskiest yet also the one with the greatest yield. Akel'ev details some robberies that occurred on the roads outside Moscow, including a few committed against pilgrims headed toward the Trinity--St. Sergius Monastery, but notes that Moscow's thieves preferred to stay inside the city, where they were less vulnerable and could easily disappear into their own world.

Akel'ev's last full chapter is devoted to punishments. Moscow's criminal class, when caught--and most examined in the book were brought in by Kain--were interrogated, checked for telltale scars that would indicate they had previously been subjected to corporal punishment, and often taken to the basements of the police headquarters to be tortured. Akel'ev painstakingly describes the conditions of the main prison and the further torture Moscow's criminals experienced there. Keeping them in jail while awaiting their sentence was not always easy: guards could be bribed to "release" prisoners, even convicted murderers, while other criminals guilty of lesser crimes were allowed to perform menial tasks such as getting kvass, often leading to their escape. When sentences were passed, the most common punishments were flogging and exile to Siberia. Eventually Kain himself experienced this process. In early 1749, his profiteering from his newfound position caught up with him. The authorities received several letters detailing Kain's double dealings and arrested him. The case took years to go through the system, but in September 1754, Kain was sentenced to flogging, to having his nostrils slit, to having the word "thief" (vor) branded on his face, and then to exile in Siberia. Like so many criminals before him, Kain was not heard from again. We may not know about the end of his life, but as Akel'ev's book so brilliantly demonstrates, Kain's work as informer left a cache of materials that helps us understand his world.

The subject of Owen Matthews's book, Nikolai Rezanov, also had a fictionalized life created around him. The Soviet rock opera Junona i Avos, with a libretto written by the poet Andrei Voznesenskii, tells a timeless love story between a Russian aristocrat, Rezanov, and the daughter of the Spanish governor of California, Maria Concepcion Arguello. In the opera, theirs was a love not meant to be: Rezanov meets her in California, proposes to her, but dies on the way back to St. Petersburg, where he was seeking permission from the Russian emperor to marry a Catholic. When Maria hears of her lover's demise, she decides to remain true to him and becomes a nun. The rock opera debuted at the Lenkom Theater in 1981 and became a hit. Matthews saw it as a 15-year old in 1986 and notes in his book that "it's hard to imagine today quite how extraordinary it was to see a Russian aristocrat and tsarist officers cast as heroes on a Soviet stage" (7). The story in the opera, as Matthews later discovered, was "largely true," and "Rezanov spent much of his life passionately advocating the idea that America's west coast could be a province of Russia, and the Pacific a Russian sea," a belief that "was no mad pipe dream but a very real possibility" (7).

Matthews, the former Newsweek bureau chief in Moscow, decides to discover the "real" Rezanov and with him, the real story of his engagement to Maria. To recover the story and with it, Rezanov's journey to America, Matthews mined archives in St. Petersburg, Washington, DC, and Tartu, Estonia. Over the course of the biography, Rezanov's life story and imperial ambitions take center stage: his life as an adventurer and advocate for a Russian presence in America is ultimately more interesting than his brief love affair with Maria. Rezanov, Matthews discovered, emerged from relative obscurity to found the Russian American Company (RAC), led the first-ever Russian circumnavigation of the globe, and served as the first emissary to the Tokugawa Shogunate. His biography perfectly captures Barbara Caine's point about how an individual's life can illustrate "the great importance of particular locations and circumstances and the multiple layers of historical change and experience." (21)

In writing about Russian America from Rezanov's perspective, Matthews recounts a general history that may be familiar to many scholars, particularly those that have read Ilya Vinkovetsky's insightful monograph. (22) Vinkovetsky narrates a political history that focuses on the administrative, geopolitical, and cultural aspects of Russian America. His is not a story where personalities drive the history: Rezanov plays a bit part, appearing on a handful of pages. As opposed to this, most of Matthews's account about Rezanov and his involvement with the RAC takes the form of a biographical travelogue. Matthews traveled to the spots Rezanov visited over the course of his life and the remarkable journey that took him to California, St. Petersburg, Pskov, Irkutsk, Buriat and Chinese border lands, Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka, Kodiak Island, Alaska, and Hawaii. Rezanov's biographical trajectory thus serves as a useful complement to Vinkovetsky's history. Matthews's approach resembles Willard Sunderland's in his recent microhistorical biography of Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg. Sunderland's argument holds true for Matthews's book, too: "surveying empire from the great vantage of policies, structures, or ideologies, as historians do, we perceive one set of truths, but stepping into the shoes of imperial people, we see another." (23)

What then do we learn about Russian America by focusing on Rezanov? Matthews's focus on the individual allows us to see how the RAC originated, how it was run, and the intensely personal nature of imperial Russian bureaucracies. Born in 1763 St. Petersburg to a minor noble family, Rezanov was mostly a nonentity until the late 1780s, when he took a job as Gavrila Derzhavin's private secretary. Before that move, he had worked as a civil servant in Pskov and then in St. Petersburg. Once he started work for Derzhavin, however, Rezanov's rise was rapid: he cultivated powerful patrons and developed a network of connections that would lead to the fulfillment of his imperial ambitions. Within a year of Rezanov's taking the position with Derzhavin, he was hired away by Platon Zubov, Catherine II's last favorite. At this vital stage of his protagonist's life, Matthews acknowledges that it was still hard to take the measure of Rezanov: he was an energetic bureaucrat, to be sure, an ambitious and hardworking man, someone who could obviously gain the attention of important people, and passionately patriotic, but that is about it. However, it was working as Zubov's subordinate that brought Rezanov into contact with Grigorii Shelikhov, the "King of Siberia," who would set Rezanov on the path that gained him fame and infamy.

Much as Akel'ev recreates the dense world of Moscow's thieves, revealing how closely related the thieves were to one another and how they constituted a particular subset of the population, Matthews excels at uncovering the way court politics functioned and how the system of patron-client relations shaped imperial policies. Shelikhov was a self-made millionaire who had founded Russia's first overseas colony, using his company to set up a new colony on Kodiak Island in 1783. When Shelikhov returned to Russia, he was feted as a celebrity and hatched an even more ambitious plan to use Kodiak as the foundation for a vast Russian Pacific empire. This was the idea that Rezanov latched onto. By 1793, he was a gatekeeper to Zubov and his court, which Matthews described as "a magnet for adventurers, rogues, and opportunists" (80). Rezanov had mastered this system and the personal connections necessary to get ahead in it. Shelikhov came to the capital to pitch his idea and Rezanov ingratiated himself with the "King of Siberia," even marrying his daughter. Rezanov persuaded first Zubov and then Catherine to support the plan to establish a large Russian American colony. Zubov, who wanted to ensure that his investment in the plan would be secure, dispatched his trusted aide, Rezanov, to Irkutsk in January 1794.

As Matthews describes, unforeseen circumstances forced Rezanov to react to a series of challenges with remarkable adeptness. Shelikhov was poisoned and died in July 1795, eight days before Rezanov's nine-month-old daughter died. Reeling from these tragedies, Rezanov also learned that a Russian priest on Kodiak had sent letters to the Holy Synod, stating that "Shelikhov used the name of Christ to deceive the government and entice thirty-five families to the savage shores of America, there to fall victim to his avarice" (107). The plan to establish a Russian America was in danger now that Shelikhov was dead and his initial scheme exposed in Petersburg as one that rested on personal greed. Rezanov responded by hatching a scheme to remake the company and model it on the British East India Company. The company he refounded in 1795 was the RAC; its eventual mission, according to Matthews, was to bring all of Pacific America, from Alaska to California, under Russian control (108). In recounting these details, Matthews reveals why the biographical genre can be so valuable: Rezanov's scheming and his reaction to the challenges he faced illustrate how contingencies and an individual's response to them brought about economic and political changes. (24)

To make his dream a reality, Rezanov first used his interpersonal skills to convince Paul I to back the plan and then, after it took years to go through government channels, did the same with Alexander I. Armed with his backing, Rezanov ratcheted up his grand design, which, as Matthews describes it, "was nothing less than to make Russia the all-powerful master of the whole northern Pacific" (132). Rezanov planned to lead the first Russian circumnavigation of the world: the proposed expedition would be a naval sortie to support the RAC's American colonies, a scientific journey to advance the prestige of the newly founded Russian Academy of Sciences, and Russia's first-ever diplomatic mission to the Japanese shogun at Edo. Matthews, using the journals of several crew members as well as the archival records left from the journey (the majority of the literate men on the expedition kept diaries), narrates the ensuing expedition as a clash of personalities, mainly of Rezanov and Captain Adam Johann Krusenstern. Both men, as Matthews recounts, believed they were in charge.

In July 1803, the two ships, the Nadezhda and the Neva, set out from St. Petersburg. Rezanov's fractious relations with his crew dominated the trip, in particular the route from South America to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) to Kamchatka. Matthews, primarily using the diary of Hermann Ludwig von Lowenstern, the Nadezhda's fourth lieutenant and mapmaker, describes the petty squabbles in vivid detail: the passengers recorded their glee at seeing Rezanov often suffer from seasickness. (25) In Matthews's reading Rezanov may even have become unhinged on this journey: he stayed in his cabin, brooded, drank, and barely appeared on deck from South America to Kamchatka. After another dustup, Rezanov finally settled his differences with Krusenstern and sent a letter to the emperor that noted "we put our petty personal ambitions above the interests of the state" out of "great ambitions, which blinded the minds of all of us to such an extent we became jealous of one another" (172).

The rapprochement, Matthews suggests, occurred mostly because Rezanov wanted to ready himself for the glory that would surely come when he accomplished the task of opening Japan up for Russian trade. Here again the biographical approach provides insight into larger historical processes: using the diaries of Rezanov's companions, Matthews is able to penetrate the rationalizations, the postures and performances, and the self-delusions and self-deceptions that characterized Rezanov's misadventures. (26) In September 1804, the Nadezhda entered Nagasaki Bay. From that auspicious beginning, however, Rezanov committed blunder after blunder. He did not understand Japanese protocol, which required deferential treatment toward the shogun. Instead, the Russian insisted on his own exalted status. Once again Matthews revels in the accounts left by fellow crew members of Rezanov's mistakes. In his diary, Lowenstern noted that Rezanov "loses a great deal in the eyes of the Japanese who observe etiquette so strictly," concluding that they "hold us Europeans in contempt--and rightly so" (186). Lowenstern would go on to record Rezanov's numerous missteps in Japan and even sketched them: the drawings, thankfully, are in Matthews's book, including one illustrating Rezanov falling into the mud on his way to visit Japanese officials. Forced to wait over the winter and into the next spring for the Japanese to respond to the tsar's trade request, Rezanov suffered physical and mental pains. Japanese doctors, summoned by the expedition's physician, Georg Heinrich Baron von Langsdorff, to examine Rezanov, diagnosed him with "ill will and ill humor" (196). His arrival, however, prompted a long discussion among would-be modernizers and more conservative officials that would reappear in the 1860s Meiji Restoration. This time, however, those who wanted to keep the country closed won out: after a few audiences in April, Rezanov's request was denied. Rezanov, humiliated, departed on 5 April 1805.

Once back in Petropavlovsk, Rezanov decided to take another ship, the Maria, and head back to America to make good on his imperial plan. "The consolidation and conquest of America," Matthews writes, "would be Rezanov's redemption" (206). Thankfully for the historian, Langsdorff, who also kept a detailed diary, decided to stay with Rezanov and document this voyage, too. It is through his eyes that Matthews relates the story of the doomed romance. Rezanov, Langsdorff, and the rest of the crew first traveled to Kodiak and witnessed the devastation the Russian presence had caused there. Rezanov, having purchased yet another boat, the Juno, from a Rhode Island crew, left Sitka Sound in February 1806 and headed south to California. By March, the ship landed in San Francisco Bay. There, at the Presidio, the love story between Rezanov and the 15-year old Dona Maria de Concepcion Arguello--Conchita for short--began (Rezanov's wife, Anna, died from complications of childbirth just before he left on the expedition). Langsdorff too was smitten, writing of her "fine form and a thousand other charms" (262). Everyone found California far better than Sitka--as Matthews notes, five men from the crew requested permission to stay, an act that led them to be court martialed and imprisoned on the nearby island of La Isla de los Alcatraces.

Rezanov, as Matthews implies, found himself back in a more familiar milieu: he had successfully curried favor with the court in Petersburg and worming his way into the Arguello family proved easy at first. He proposed to open New Spain to trade, he spied on the fortifications, and after two weeks of wooing, he proposed to Conchita, who accepted. Was it really, as the opera and other version of the affair would have it, a love story for the ages or a calculated attempt by Rezanov to win over the Spanish family for diplomatic or espionage purposes? Matthews believes that for Conchita, at least, Rezanov's proposal was one that offered her a chance to get away from the strict confines of the presidio. When Rezanov departed after it became apparent to his hosts that he was not acting under anyone's authority, the family threw a farewell ball. The event served as the scene for Voznesensky's later poem "Avos!" and libretto for the rock opera, where Conchita declares, "I will never see you--I will never forget you!" She would become a nun in Monterrey and would tell others about her love for the Russian officer for decades afterward. (27)

As for Rezanov's "love" for Conchita, Matthews sees it mostly as a political calculation, designed to make up for his Japanese failure (he would eventually instruct an officer on board the Juno to attack Japanese commercial sites on Sakhalin Island). Matthews does not want to abandon the idea of a doomed affair entirely, noting that Rezanov was no doubt attracted to Conchita and "probably even meant it" when he said he would return. In the end, though, he notes that "whatever Rezanov's good points might have been, it's also clear that he was an accomplished and convincing liar" (286-87). After his departure from California, Rezanov wrote a 120-page letter that summed up his journey. Matthews found it at the Archive of the Foreign Ministry in Moscow but also discovered a draft that had sat for 150 years in the State Historical Archive of St. Petersburg. Almost all the changes Rezanov made from the draft to the original, he writes, "were to distance himself from Conchita and make the relationship appear more political and calculating" (290). It turns out the "love story for the ages" was more an example of Rezanov's ability to win patrons and seek economic gains for himself.

Rezanov made his way to Irkutsk, where he enjoyed three months as a celebrity: he also penned instructions to the crews of the Juno and the Avos to attack Sakhalin as an act of revenge for his Japanese misadventure. On his way back to St. Petersburg, he fell ill. When he arrived in Krasnoiarsk on 8 March 1807, he was unconscious. He died the next day. Derzhavin immediately penned a poem that opens "Rezanov! Who does not wish to be part of his immortal fame? And who can ever hope to rival his energy, his bravery, his fearless soul?" The poem brings Rezanov's story full circle: Derzhavin, once Rezanov's patron, now provided the first attempt to make his exploits famous. By the late 19th century, the love story of Rezanov and Conchita even crossed back to the United States: an 1872 feature in the Atlantic Monthly retold the affair, and the early 20th-century romance novelist Gertrude Atherton published a 1906 novel titled Rezanov. The Russian who had cultivated relationships, hatched a plan to establish a Russian America, and angered fellow Russians across two continents had instead passed into memory as a star-crossed lover. What Matthews's biography demonstrates, however, is that the Rezanov love story is just one part of a larger, equally compelling life story. Rezanov's biography, his personality, including his successes at court and failures at sea, help explain how the Russian Empire worked in the time of Catherine I, Paul I, and Alexander I. (28) Rezanov's life also offers an explanation why the attempt to establish a colony in America failed: as Matthews notes, the enterprise was dominated by the sort of incompetence and misadventure that Rezanov embodied (311). (29)

Matthews is a gifted writer. His biography is full of telling details and witty connections drawn between Rezanov's time and today. He also captures how a personality such as Rezanov operated in the empire of Catherine and her successors, illuminating the personal connections and interpersonal relationships that helped bring about the possibility of a Russian America. Rezanov's skills at court, where patronage and cultivating personal connections were all-important, led to the creation of the RAC. At the same time, as Matthews argues, the attributes that allowed Rezanov to succeed in Petersburg rubbed his crew members the wrong way. His arrogance and ability to stretch the truth also did not impress Japanese officials or a Spanish nobility in California (with the exception of one 15-year-old girl). The love story that captivated the younger Matthews ultimately serves as a sidebar, however important, in Rezanov's larger historical significance: he may have eventually become "a romantic hero torn between love and duty" (325) to later admirers, but the great story he bequeathed to contemporary historians is the way he shaped Russian imperial adventures in the early 19th century.

The two books reviewed here highlight the richness of the biographical approach in historiography: whether it is recreating an entire world of Moscow's thieves through a collective biographical approach or illustrating the way one man navigated his path through Petersburg's court to hatch an imperial dream, both Akel'ev and Matthews demonstrate that biographies can give us a different set of truths if we are willing to place ourselves in another person's shoes. Neither Rezanov nor Kain qualify as heroes in any sense, which makes their stories all the more interesting. Neither author, it is also worth noting, apologized for taking a biographical approach.

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(1) David Nasaw, "Historians and Biography," American Historical Review 114, 3 (2009): 573.

(2) Ibid. Nasaw is quoting an e-mail sent by Robert Schneider, the journal's editor, to the historians invited to contribute to the special issue.

(3) Lois Banner, "Biography as History," American Historical Review 114, 3 (2009): 581.

(4) Judith M. Brown, " 'Life Histories' and the History of Modern South Asia," American Historical Review 114, 3 (2009): 587.

(5) Robin Fleming, "Writing Biography at the Edge of History," American Historical Review 114, 3 (2009): 606-7.

(6) Jochen Hellbeck, "Galaxy of Black Stars: The Power of Soviet Biography," American Historical Review 114, 3 (2009): 615.

(7) Brown referred to her prizewinning account, A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderlands to Soviet Heartland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), which "hardly qualifies as a biography in the usual sense of the word," but explained that her examination of the Ukrainian borderlands had a beginning and a definite end and was therefore a geographical biography ("A Place in Biography for Oneself," American Historical Review 114, 3 [2009]: 596).

(8) Quoted in Nasaw, "Historians and Biography," 578.

(9) Barbara Caine, Biography and History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 2.

(10) Ibid., 1.

(11) Donald Ostrowski and Marshall Poe, eds., Portraits of Old Russia: Imagined Lives of Ordinary People, 1300-1725 (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2011), xxiii.

(12) John Randolph, The House in the Garden: The Bakunin Family and the Romance of Russian Idealism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007); Katherine Pickering Antonova, An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Antonovas book is reviewed in this issue of Kritika.

(13) The words are Jill Lepore's from her "Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography," Journal of American History 88, 1 (2001): 133.

(14) Claudia Verhoeven, The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), 6.

(15) Andrew Jenks, The Cosmonaut Who Couldn't Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012), 6.

(16) Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 (New York: Penguin Press, 2014), 3-4, reviewed in this issue of Kritika.

(17) David Gasperetti, "Introduction," to Mikhail Chulkov and Matvei Komarov, Three Russian Tales of the Eighteenth Century: The Comely Cook, Vanka Kain, and "Poor Liza", trans. Gasperetti (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012), 15.

(18) Ibid.

(19) Chulkov and Komarov, Three Russian Tales, 115.

(20) Alexander Martin, Enlightened Metropolis: Constructing Imperial Moscow, 1762-1825 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). As Martin argues, Russian rulers "sought to turn Moscow into a refined European city and make its poorly educated, xenophobic middle strata into a class that resembled a Western bourgeoisie and was loyal to the imperial state" (2), beginning especially with Catherine II. The task was a daunting one, as Martin details, for, among other issues, "the regime's control of the city was further subverted by a criminal underworld that became legendary thanks to Van'ka Kain, a notorious gangster immortalized in eighteenth-century pulp fiction for his daring crimes and ability to thumb his nose at the police" (3).

(21) Caine, Biography and History, 2.

(22) Ilya Vinkovetsky, Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(23) Willard Sunderland, The Baron's Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 7.

(24) Liana Vardi focuses on two French economists from the 19th century to demonstrate how a biographical approach allowed her "to weave together the personal, the cultural, and the economic" ("Rewriting the Lives of Eighteenth-Century Economists," American Historical Review 114, 3 [2009]: 654).

(25) The diary, written mostly in German with some English and Russian, was translated into English in 2003: Lieutenant Hermann Ludwig von Lowenstern, The First Russian Voyage Around the World, trans. Victoria Joan Moessner (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2003). Moessner previously translated Langsdorff's diary into English.

(26) I am paraphrasing one of Leon Edel's four principles to writing a good biography. See his Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984); and Barbara Caine's analysis of Edel in Biography and History, 86-87.

(27) One of her fellow sisters at the Dominican Convent of Monterrey, Maria Manuela Francesca Salgado, would have her recollections of Conchitas story published. The love story also attracted the attention of romance novelists in the 19th century. See also Eve Iverson, The Romance of Nikolai Rezanov and Concepcion Arguello: A Literary Legend and Its Effect on Californian History (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1998).

(28) Willard Sunderland makes a similar case for the value of Ungern-Sternberg's life as one that reveals the ways the empire worked (Baron's Cloak, 10).

(29) Matthews also details the number of Decembrists, including Kondratii Ryleev, who were closely associated with the RAC. Ryleev was the company's office manager and lived at its Moika Canal headquarters at the time of the 1825 revolt.
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Title Annotation:"Daily Life of the Thieves' World in the Time of Van'ka Kain" and "Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America"
Author:Norris, Stephen M.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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