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Friday, 9 May 2014

A letter sent and regretted

We are awash with CGI and fast moving images, but sometimes a simple woodcut or sketch can evoke something far deeper. This is a sketch by Dr George Heinrich Langsdorff who accompanied Rezanov's expedition to Alaska, Oregon, California and Japan. When I came across this page I stared at it for some time, thinking of two letters that might have passed each other, one from Nikolai Rezanov to the Tsar, the other from the Tsar to Rezanov. 

But background is needed.

Alexander I of Russia was a natural politician. When he sent out an expedition he hoped would win Russia great tracts of unexplored America and vast wealth from fur and trading links, he led the ship’s Captain, a German named Krustenstern, to believe he was charge of the expedition. He also led his emissary, Nikolai Rezanov, to believe that he was in charge. It might sound madness but Alexander knew what he was doing. Both were indispensible to the mission and neither would serve under the other. At least it allowed the mission to set sail.

 The problems came later, problems so bad that Krustenstern had to order the ship’s carpenter to divide the master cabin by a wooden partition. Rezanov spent much of the voyage in his half, ostracised by officers and crew alike. At last, eaten up with rage he wrote a twenty page letter to  Alexander, the Tsar of all Russia. In it he threatened to leave the Tsar’s service: “I will stay in America for a century. Rank and decoration are not necessary in America and I will send them back with pleasure on the first available transport.” He demanded his children be sent to him when they reached the age of thirteen, intending them to settle with him in Kodiak. Things must have been bad. Have you seen Kodiak? 


It was also political suicide, but like strong drink it felt good at the time. The letter was sealed and sent with dispatches to St Petersburg. 

 Somewhere in Siberia this letter would have passed another letter, one sent from Alexander to Rezanov. In Owen Matthew’s words, ‘it was the warmest, friendliest, and most supportive letter the emperor had ever sent him; it would also be the last.’ It ended with: ‘As a sign of Our particular good wishes towards you I also send you a diamond tobacco case with Our monogram. I have also taken your son as a Page at court.’ The whole story is reminiscent of those emails launched in drunken anger – except in slow and tragic slow motion. One can only imagine how Rezanov felt when he read the Tsar's letter and thought on his own, trundling its way  west on the plains of Siberia.  

No more posts on Nikolai Rezanov, I promise you. I'll just recommend Owen Matthew's book 'Glorious Misadventures' for those who like this kind of thing.

* This map of Kodiak Island and the surrounding area. I, Karl Musser, created it based on USGS data.


Jeanne said...

Wow, Mike, what a great story! Before I even knew you wrote it, I was drawn to read it by the wood cut and by your opening paragraph!

Maria Zannini said...

Ouch! And the sad thing is, given human nature, the same thing would happen whether the letter went by dog sled or email.

Mike Keyton said...

Jeanne, thank you. I'd love to have the original lithograph or a better copy to frame. It's what I call a silent picture that draws you in. And I know that's stupid. Most pictures are silent, apart from those in Hogwarts.

Mike Keyton said...

I'm afraid you're right, Maria. God help us when technology allows us to be telepathically linked. My conception of Purgatory is everyone being forced to mutually absorb everything ever thought about them, then reconcile and forgive.

DRC said...

It's maddening when things like this happen. At least with today's email, the issues caused by misunderstood, drunken emails can quickly be resolved. But back then I imagine it would have taken months, if not years to resolve - if they were resolved at all...

LD Masterson said...

We just keep making the same foolish mistakes, only we can make them faster now.

Mike Keyton said...

DRC, in this case, sadly it was never resolved, though Rezanov was briefly compensated by a red hot Spanish senorita in California.

Linda It's fast already. God help us when we have chip telepathy :)

Jean Michelle Miernik said...

LULZ! The worst part is he had months and months to stew in regret before he could even find out if the letter was received, let alone get any kind of response or word about anything that resulted. With email at least you generally find out the recipient is pissed at you within 24 hours.

I love your idea of Purgatory. Horrible.