Never forgotten

I first visited the United States in 2004, destination Silicon Valley. With three suitcases filled with equipment, I and my colleagues were roadshowing a 3D camera and a face recognition system to the Sandhill Road venture capitalists. Bottom line: it didn’t work that time — we were trying to boil the ocean; it was a mistake to educate the market; we had no “socket” — in short, if you cannot resist the masochistic desire to be humiliated with style, come to Sandhill Road! Eight years later the ocean must have been boiling already, the market educated enough, and the socket wired and online — at least, that’s what Intel thought when it bought our company. But this is a totally different story. My schedule then was quite packed, but I left a free day for sightseeing, rented a car, and went to San Francisco. One of the first things I visited was the old Presidio which, among other things, hosts a collection of Great Depression murals. Apparently, the main goal of commissioning these frescos was to create jobs rather than undying masterpieces — consequently, they have little artistic value. However, I was looking for a specific image titled Peacetime Activities of the Army depicting the old Presidio Army command building with the star-spangled banner proudly flying on the mast at the center. I paid little attention to this historical nonsense, as my attention was drawn to the figures of Maria de la Concepción Marcela Argüello y Morago, the daughter of the Presidio Commander Don José Argüello, and Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, a Chamberlain at the court of the Russian Tsar Alexander I, her promised husband.

You may wonder why instead of riding the iconic cable car at Powell Street or enjoying the cozily cool cells of Alcatraz I chose that particular attraction, which is, quite likely, not even mentioned in any tourist guide. To explain the reason, I will have to fast backward to my childhood in the mid-’80s in Russia, which used to be the Soviet Union at that time. I have many fond memories of that period, many of which are related to staying at my grandparents’ home (dont plus rien ne subsiste, as sang Charles Aznavour.) We would often listen to the radio — Радио Маяк as far as I can recollect — that filled the air with the 80’s hits. In fact, I remember many of them by heart even though over thirty years have since passed. One of those schlagers I listened to an uncountable number of times was a romance named Ты меня на рассвете разбудишь (At the dawn you will come to awake me). I remember the words and the tune by heart, as this song happened to be part of my repertoire many years later when I took singing lessons. In my English translation, I allowed myself certain liberty with the text to maintain the original meter.

Ты меня на рассвете разбудишь,
Проводить необутая выйдешь,
Ты меня никогда не забудешь,
Ты меня никогда не увидишь.
At the dawn, you will come to awake me
Barefoot, you will say your farewell
I am sure, you’ll never forget me
And I know, we are parting forever.
Заслонивши тебя от простуды,
Я подумаю: “Боже всевышний!
Я тебя никогда не забуду,
Я тебя никогда не увижу”.
Shielding you from the cold of the winter
I will say to me: “oh, God in heaven!
I am sure, I’ll never forget you
And I know, we are parting forever.”
Не мигают, слезятся от ветра
Безнадежные карие вишни,
Возвращаться – плохая примета,
Я тебя никогда не увижу.
Blinkless, as the wind’s getting colder
Hopeless eyes shine at me, so tender.
I will never look over my shoulder
And I know, we are parting forever.
И качнутся бессмысленной высью
Пара фраз, залетевших отсюда:
“Я тебя никогда не увижу,
Я тебя никогда не забуду”.
They will sound so solemnly distant
These two phrases, absurd altogether:
“I am sure, you’ll never forget me,”
And “I know, we are parting forever.”

The text is based on Andrei Voznesensky’s poem A Saga (Сага) from the 60’s; originally, it had three additional stanzas, removing which, in my opinion, was a terrific idea. But, most importantly, this was not a standalone song but rather a duet (or, in some versions, an aria) from the Soviet rock opera Juno and Avos (Юнона и Авось) produced in 1979 and first set on stage in 1981. The opera was composed by Alexey Rybnikov with Voznesensky’s libretto and is inspired by a real story. Here is how it is recounted in the opera.

Chamberlain Count Nikolai Rezanov who has just buried his beloved wife takes a timeout from state affairs and devotes himself to the Russian national sport, that is, drinking strong spirits. At the peak of his sobriety, Virgin Mary comes to him speaking words of wisdom: Wake up, Count! The dawn is already bathing your windows… no, not like this. Wake up, Count! Great deeds await you! Better. Anyways, the Count wakes up from his depression and decides to redeem himself by serving his great Fatherland. He buys at his own penny two schooners at the St. Petersburg shipyard and naming them Juno and Avos , respectively [sic], embarks on the first Russian circumnavigation expedition.

San Francisco, California, 1806. Juno and Avos, flying the St. Andrew’s ensign, drop anchor and Count Rezanov, radiantly handsome in his formal Imperial uniform, disembarks to greet the people of this god-forsaken provincial Spanish colony. Make a way for His Excellency Ambassador Plenipotentiary of the mighty Tsar! The Russian is received by the Governor with all the honors befitting the unexpected guest’s high rank and is invited to the fiesta de quince años of Governor’s daughter Conchita who is betrothed to the son of a local boss, a certain Don Federico. The quinceañera appears to be quite a dish, and Nikolai asks her to a dance. The charm of the brilliant foreign statesman, diplomat, explorer, businessman, and polyglot takes its toll; the uniform and the fanciful stories of the glamorous St. Petersburg’s court finish the job and totally conquer the imagination of the provincial teenager. Hit and sunk! The jealous Federico watches helplessly his fianceé’s heart taken away by the stranger under the cynical remarks of the guests making bets on who will pluck the flower of California.

At night, Conchita, a devout Catholic, says her prayers for she has sinned, but instead of the Virgin her crush shows up in her chamber (even my five-year-old son would wonder about the logistics of actually getting there, but let’s deem it a theatrical dramatization). The two declare their love in a touching duet (he sings in Russian, she in Spanish and, whenever it comes to prayers, in Latin), Concha piles up a few more sins to ask forgiveness for, and while their alter egos bathe in the resounding applause on stage, the latter is prepared for a duel scene. Obviously, the hot-blooded Don is not giving up without a fight. But eventually oxytocin takes over testosterone and, at the expense of his honor, Federico ends up begging the Count to take Conchita with him to Mother Russia lest she dies heartbroken.

Rezanov is not someone who needs to be asked twice; he proposes to Conchita and, after a brief hiccup, her pious father agrees to give his daughter to the Orthodox infidel. The couple gets engaged and, presaging an ill ending, they kiss goodbye as if there were no tomorrow and sing the famous “I’ll never forget you” romance. The Russian ships set sail the following morning; the reason for such haste remains untold. The Spanish beauty, who promises to wait for her will-be husband’s return, vigorously waves her candid kerchief watching his vessel exit the Golden Gate Strait and disappear into the horizon. Sadly, it appears that Rezanov and Argüello totally called it — the Count falls victim to the Russian roads, which at the beginning of 1800 were only slightly better than they are today. Rezanov speaks his last words angrily to the deaf heaven and, without a kiss, he dies. Conchita waits for her beloved for thirty years, takes the vows, and ends her days in a convent, while the choir sings a cold and a broken Hallelujah. Curtain.

Juno and Avos instantly became a hit, perhaps the biggest hit of its time — some even say that it did in the Soviet Union what Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar did at the other side of the Iron Curtain. At least, it can easily compete with the latter in its irreverence, for never in the history of the Soviet stage have the show makers had enough guts to display such a rich collection of symbols repudiated by the authorities. In 1981, still amidst the Cold War, on stage goes an opera with one protagonist being a Tsarist functionary and another one an imperialist occupant from the decaying West. All this comes with a full suite of odious emblems including double-headed eagles and St. Andrew’s crosses, and is accompanied by music based on Russian Orthodox chants, with explicit liturgical pieces, both Orthodox and Catholic —the last drop of opium of the people (of course, the educated Soviet spectator knows that god doesn’t exist). I suspect that such a juicy selection of prohibited items plus the Lolita — that is, Conchita — story made the show virtually impossible to resist. At the same time, I don’t have a convincing explanation for how and why Juno and Avos wasn’t banned on the spot — many much more innocuous works were trashed or heavily censored around the same time (for example, The Ugly Swans and Prisoners of Power by the Strugatsky brothers.) Maybe one of the reasons is that the authors cautiously defined their work as a “modern opera” avoiding any mentioning of the tightly-controlled and trouble-bearing term “rock”. Still, after the first stage performance in Moscow, the Western press dubbed the show boldly anti-Soviet, which considerably complicated the author’s lives and delayed the production of the LP record by over two years. Who knows, maybe the Soviet censors didn’t completely rely on their own taste and wanted to hear the BBC’s opinion first.

To my own, admittedly uninitiated, taste, the lyrics of Juno and Avos is an egregious example of poetic patchwork, or, using the pithier Russian term, халтура. The main body of the text is based on Voznesensky’s 1970 poem Avos! (Авось!); the lyrics of the renowned romance, as I already mentioned, is an abridged version of another 1962 poem, A Saga (Сага), while Rezanov’s last monolog is a translation of a madrigal written at the beginning of 1500 (!) by Michelangelo Buonarroti (seriously, man?) I’m not joking. Here is an excerpt from the monolog:

Я пуст! Я нищая падаль!
Себя я утратил…
Создатель! Создатель! Создатель!
Ты дух мой похитил
Пустыню обитель,
Стучу по груди пустотелой,
Как дятел!
Создатель! Создатель! Создатель!

And now, behold Michelangelo’s verses, side-by-side with a (good) English translation by William Wells Jewell:

Come può esser ch’io non sia più mio?
O Dio, o Dio, o Dio,
chi m’ha tolto a me stesso,
c’a me fusse più presso
o più di me potessi che poss’io?
O Dio, o Dio, o Dio,
come mi passa el core
chi non par che mi tocchi?
Che cosa è questo, Amore,
c’al core entra per gli occhi,
per poco spazio dentro par che cresca?
E s’avvien che trabocchi?
How came to pass that I am mine no more?
Ah me!
Who took myself from me
To draw more close to me
Than ever I could be,
More dearly mine, than I myself before?
Ah me!
How reached he to the heart
Touching no outward part?
Who prithee may Love be,
That entered at the eyes,
And if in breathed sighs
He go abroad, increaseth inwardly?

and Voznesensky’s translation side-by-side with my own English “traduction”:

Я пуст, я стандартен. Себя я утратил.
Создатель, Создатель, Создатель,
Ты дух мой похитил,
Пустынна обитель.
Стучу по груди пустотелой, как дятел:
Создатель, Создатель, Создатель!
Как на сердце пусто
От страсти бесстыжей,
Я вижу Искусством,
А сердцам не вижу.
Где я обнаружу
Пропавшую душу?
Наверно, вся выкипела наружу.
I’m empty, I’m banal. I’ve lost myself.
Creator, Creator, Creator,
You stole my spirit,
Empty is my dwelling.
I’m banging on my hollow chest, like a woodpecker:
Creator, Creator, Creator!
How empty my heart feels
because of the indecent passion!
I see with my Art,
but not with my heart.
Where shall I find
my lost soul?
Perhaps, it has all boiled away.

There are some apparent differences as well. For example, in Buonarroti’s translation, the opening says “Я пуст, я стандартен. Себя я утратил.” (I’m empty, I’m banal. I’ve lost myself), while in the Rezanov’s monolog the corresponding line is more poignant: “Я пуст! Я нищая падаль!” (I’m empty! I’m vagabond carrion.) The poet must have intended “vagabond” in the metaphorical sense, of course, as Rezanov was clearly a high net-worth individual; the morbid comparison of the dying Chamberlain to decaying flesh is actually taken from another translation of another Michelangelo’s sonnet (why is this obsession with the Rinascimento?)

I’ sto rinchiuso come la midolla
da la sua scorza, qua pover e solo,
come spirto legato in un’ampolla.
I’m packaged in here like the pulp in fruit
compacted by its peel. In lonely gloom,
a genii in a jar. Dumped destitute.

and, again, Voznesensky’s version with my English traduction:

Я нищая падаль. Я пища для морга.
Мне душно, как джину в бутылке прогорклой,
как в тьме позвоночника костному мозгу!
I’m vagabond carrion, food for the morgue.
I’m suffocating, like a genie in a rank bottle,
like the marrow in the darkness of the spine!

I’m surprised how Voznesensky translated midolla as “spinal marrow” rather than “fruit pulp”, which was, obviously, the originally intended meaning (interestingly, the corresponding English word pith has both meaning). I don’t know whether this was an elementary mistake or a poetic license; however, as the result, the translation sounds stronger than the original. Given Voznesensky’s record as a poet, I’m more inclined toward the second explanation. I doubt he was seeking a verbatim translation — that would be a rather challenging (if not futile) quest, considering the already existing superb translations of Michelangelo’s rhymes, for example, by the legendary Anatoly Efros. No, I think Voznesensky aimed at a totally different goal. It is something that the modern Italian reader would hardly appreciate due to the dust of time covering Renaissance poetry, but his verses were written in a provocatively colloquial language, bordering with being vulgarly unpoetic. At least, this is how they must have sounded in the beginning of Cinquecento. The only way to recreate this impression is by rewriting the poems in a modern language, and this is what Voznesensky succeeded in doing, in my opinion, masterly. To better convey the original Italian sound, he also abandoned the canonical translation of the Italian feminine rhymes into Russian masculine endings (lines ending with a stressed syllable, like in Lozinsky’s translation “и я упал как падает мертвец” of Dante’s “e caddi come corpo morto cade”.) I’m not at all a fan of Voznesensky’s, but to his translation of Michelangelo’s rhymes I would take my hat off if I wore any.

Of course, Buonarroti as well as Voznesensky merit a much longer discussion, but we have completely deviated from our original story — that of undying love across the Pacific Ocean or, at least, how it is recounted in Juno and Avos. What is amazing about this tale is that it is not even wrong. Any resemblance to real persons — too bad for the real persons. Let’s start with the protagonist, Count Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov. He was no Count at all. Rezanov was born in the family of an impoverished Collegiate Councillor (коллежский советник), a 6th class civil servant, which according to the Table of Ranks corresponded to a Colonel in the military. Definitely not a vagabond, but neither a high-ranking aristocrat. Rezanov was most likely promoted to the earldom by the American writers who created the Far West fairytale about Nikolai and Conchita’s love. In his famous poetic rendering of the story, Bret Harte refers to our hero as “Count von Rézanoff, the Russian, envoy of the mighty Czar.” Forgiving the ridiculous “von”, the German spelling, and the accent on the first syllable (if Byron can, why shouldn’t Harte?), here comes the Count. But I am still surprised — Rezanov is never mentioned with this title in the Russian sources, and I doubt that Vozenesnky relied on any English documents. Perhaps, he was simply blinded by the success of another allegedly fake Count, Aleksey Tolstoy. This comrade Count was quite famous for sending man to Mars (and back), for bombarding the Moon with ultralyddite rockets before Werner von Braun went to school, for inventing non-divergent light beams before the word laser was coined (let alone lost its capital letters), using them to blow up chemical factories and do other useful work, and, most importantly, for discovering pliable morals for self-promotion. Some bad tongues said that he falsely attributed the title to better resemble his distant relative, the (even more distant) writer Count (this time, a real one) Leo Tolstoy. But that was, of course, spoken out of jealousy toward the triple Stalin Prize laureate.

What is true, however, is that Rezanov was a Chamberlain (камергер or Kamerherr — a fourth class court rank equated to Major General in the army); it is also historically correct that he was the recipient of the Order of Saint Anna for his service. Both honors were awarded one month before Rezanov’s departure to his monumental expedition from which he would never return. Who was this man, then? He starts his career in the military, first in artillery corps, then in Her Imperial Majesty’s household troops. Aged only sixteen, he accompanies Empress Catherine II (known simply as the Great) during her Crimean campaign as her personal bodyguard. He certainly knew the ABCs of his duty: never let her out of his sight; never let his guard down… I’m dubious about the C though. Catherine, then already in her 50’s, got quite a name for her promiscuity. When she assigned a handsome young man to be personally responsible for her safety, the job included additional duties. In any case, it seems that Rezanov fulfills his bodyguard duties with brilliance, as his career takes off steeply. Starting his service from the lowest 14th class in the Table of Ranks, by 1791 he is already a private secretary to the Empress, taking care of her numerous and delicate personal affairs. There he gets on Prince Platon Zubov’s radar. Zubov was Catherine’s last favorite — three years younger than Rezanov, he also started as her toy soldier. Since the Empress had a record of replacing her favorites (Prince Potemkin, the ex, could certainly attest to it,) Zubov decided that it would be more prudent to keep the rival bodyguard far away from the body. Rezanov is tasked with inspecting the activities of the Siberian merchant Grigory Shelikhov, the founder of the Russian American Company that started the first Russian settlements in North America. Who can disobey the order of the most powerful person in the Empire (after her Majesty, of course)? Rezanov packs his baggage and departs to the remote Irkutsk.

Shelikhov, a sharp-witted businessman, understands that his corporation’s valuation would skyrocket if he could get the royals on board (and, by the way, be granted exclusive trading rights with America.) He arranges the marriage of his eldest daughter, the fifteen-year-old Anna, to his handsome metropolitan guest. The couple gets married on January 24th, 1795; the bride from a merchant family gets the blazon and the poor groom becomes a de facto co-owner of an immense fortune (but it was also a marriage for love — I will get to the ultimate proof.) Very conveniently, the father dies six months later —Rezanov has a head start as a businessman. Catherine also dies and, following the brief tumultuous reign of Paul I, Alexander I accedes to the throne of the Russian Empire. Under Alexander, Rezanov’s career reaches its zenith and he relocates to the capital.

The mentioned circumnavigation expedition merits a special discussion. According to the opera, Rezanov acquired at his own expenses two schooners at the St. Petersburg shipyard, named them Juno (Yunona in Russian) and Avos, and in summer 1806 set sail for the first Russian circumnavigation under the auspices of none less than His Imperial Majesty Alexander I himself. This synopsys reminds a quintessential Radio Yerevan joke from the totalitarian times: It’s true in principle, but not exactly. It wasn’t Chamberlain Nikolai Rezanov but Captain Yuri Lisyansky, not at the St. Petersburg shipyard, but in England, not schooners but sloops, not at his own expenses but one on Tsar Alexander’s penny and the second one on behalf of the Russian American Company, and not Juno and Avos but Nadezhda (Hope) and Neva (formerly known as British merchantmen Leander and Thames, respectively). And, of course, by the end of summer 1806, both ships were already back in Kronstadt as the expedition departed in 1803. The first Russian circumnavigation was sponsored by the Minister of Commerce of the Russian Empire, Count Nikolai Rumyantsev (a real Count), funded by the Russian American Company, and led by the great Russian navigator and explorer, Admiral (at the time, Captain Lieutenant) Adam Johann von Krusenstern (call him a Russian — he won’t even frown.) The crew listed numerous illustrious figures such as the great Russian explorer, cartographer and future admiral Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, the famous Russian explorer and navigator Otto von Kotzebue, and the renowned Russian naturalists and explorers doctors Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff and Willhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau. The reader might wonder why there are suspiciously many German names among the renowned Russian explorers, but we, of course, know that this is nothing but the propaganda of the imperialist enemy. I repeat, all explorers aboard the ships were Russian.

I almost forgot to mention another high-ranking passenger aboard Nadezhda — Chamberlain Nikolai Rezanov. In the beginning of 1803, shortly after his young wife’s untimely death, Rezanov hands in his resignation, both from his civil servant’s duties as well as from his capacity of what today would be called the CFO of the Russian American Company. Since Tsar Alexander I and half of the royal family had considerable stakes in the corporation, the resignation is refused and Rezanov is appointed the first emissary to Japan, with the purpose to establish Nippono-Russian commercial relations. A tiny secondary task was to buy the island of Sakhalin (only the size of Ireland — peanuts.) Rezanov naively accepted, obviously knowing very little about the Land of the Rising Sun and totally unaware of sakoku (鎖国) — the nearly absolute foreign isolationist policy of Japan in the Edo period. As a sign-up bonus, the Tsar threw in a shiny new first class Saint Anna’s cross and a Chamberlain’s title on Rezanov’s business card. This is how our hero became a Chamberlain. Do you still complain about conflicts of interests in modern day business and politics?

Only a small issue remained: how to transport the envoy and his entourage around the globe to Japan? “I would give you my private jet” said Alexander, “but, unfortunately, it hasn’t been invented yet. Look, there is this expedition that is about to depart. It’s not exactly a direct trip, but it will only make a few brief stopovers in Denmark, England, Tenerife, Brazil, Easter Islands, Hawaii, and Kamchatka. And the prices are unbeatable. I booked you in first class, in Captain’s cabin.” This is how one bright day von Krusenstern found out that he would have to share his six square meter cabin aboard Nadezhda with His Excellency the Ambassador. And, by the way, the Tsar also appointed Rezanov to head the expedition but forgot to inform the Captain — the poor fellow believed he was in charge. I start thinking that the double-headed eagle was not only a heraldic emblem but also a management paradigm. Rezanov, as befits a real diplomat, said: “I’ll blow the horn! And calling dibs on the helm!” But he waited for ten months (!) — strategically, until the ships were in Brazil, making sure that there was no way to confirm his authority (Popov — or Popoff — hadn’t invented the Russian wireless yet.)

Six square meters is a tiny space indeed, especially when two big egos have to fit in. The roommates quarreled badly and eventually reduced to communicating between each other through letters, sending their messages from the starboard side of the cabin to the port side, two meters across. When Nadezhda anchored in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Rezanov complained to the local Governor denouncing the Captain and his entire crew, accusing them of mutiny and demanding von Krusenstern’s trial and execution (no half measures!) von Krusenstern immediately offered his sword, accepted being sent to trial in St. Petersburg as a simple criminal, and reminded that, by the way, from that point on it was Rezanov’s responsibility to navigate the vessel to Japan. Rezanov, who couldn’t moor a boat without sinking, had enough wits to understand that this would doom his own mission as well. He magnanimously agreed to continue the voyage with the same crew after, as he reported in a letter, the Captain and his officers offered an apology for their disobedience. Curiously, according to von Krusenstern’s records, it was the Chamberlain who came to apologize.

Nadezhda arrived to Nagasaki (or, as von Krusenstern insists on calling it in his reports, “Nangasaki”) in September 1804, badly damaged by a storm en route (the other ship sailed straight to Alaska.) The Japanese received the Russians with great suspicion. They resupplied the ship and helped repairing her completely for free. Rezanov was allowed to disembark and was hosted in an isolated and heavily surveilled residence for six months (no rush!) — again all services included. According to some accounts, the Ambassador refused upfront to follow the Japanese customs and behaved tactlessly and with an unmasked arrogance. After a lengthy ping pong game between the Japanese bureaucrats of increasing ranks, the final verdict was delivered from the Shōgun in Edo: the Russian embassy was refused, any trade relations denied, and Nadezhda and its crew were demanded to leave the Japanese territorial waters, which they did, returning to Petropavlovsk. Thus ended Rezanov’s brilliant albeit short diplomatic career. But the Chamberlain didn’t forget or forgive this fiasco — I’ll talk about it later.

In Petropavlovsk Rezanov learns that while von Krusenstern and his officers were generously awarded various promotions, he himself received only a silly souvenir from the Tsar. The monarch also exonerated the Chamberlain from the need to continue sharing Captain’s cabin as well as from participating in the expedition’s final part. Rezanov has been assigned a new mission: to inspect the Russian colonies in Alaska (notice the repeating pattern: every time he is sent to inspect something, he returns with a fifteen-year-old wife.) He watches Nadezhda, under von Krusenstern’s command, sail to China on her way back to Kronstadt, and then, as a simple mortal, departs on the unpretending merchantman Maria to Sitka (at the time —Новоaрхангельск, New Archangel.) The only piece of the great expedition Rezanov manages to salvage for himself by hook or by crook is Herr Dr. von Langsdorff, the naturalist. The Chamberlain’s eloquence extolling the riches of the boreal nature (that he himself has never seen before) must have impressed the German — I mean, Russian — scientist, who agreed to follow him to Alaska.

Alaska didn’t greet the two men particularly well, not at all. What they discovered at their arrival was a bunch of poorly populated ghost towns devastated by alcohol, hunger, and scurvy (yes, scurvy. Vitamin C — ascorbic acid had been discovered at the century turn, but the habit to give daily doses of lemon juice to sailors took a few more years to become a common practice.) The colonies were replenished from Russia — the supplies traveled thousands of miles by land through Siberia and then by sea to Alaska (in Russia, two points are preferably connected by the longest possible path. As a Russian parody song says: space there is not Euclidean — the hell knows whose it is.) Anyway, you can imagine in what condition the food arrived after several months in transit. von Langsdorff reported in his diary that he received a hot meal only once a day and had to hunt the crows or collect seashells to complete his ration. The roof of his dwelling leaked, and since the doctor wasn’t a good singer or dancer, he didn’t particularly enjoy the rain. The winter of 1805-1806 was not merciful and over a dozen locals died of malnutrition. The Russian American Company executives were desperate enough to buy the first merchant ship that came into their haven, complete with all the content of her hold. The owner, a certain Mr. DeWolf, an American, made a great deal selling his brigantine Juno to the Russians.

Yes, it was that ship — named after the Roman goddess and rechristened as Yunona à la russe. What about the other proud schooner, Avos? Well, schooner would be, indeed, too proud a name for the small tender vessel that was built on the spot in Sitka — fortunately, there is no shortage of timber in Alaska. While in 1806 Russia had excellent shipyards equipped with state-of-the-art shipbuilding technologies, none of these was available in the god-forsaken colonies. I’m convinced that the ship name, Avos, fully reflects the engineering skill and thought of her builders. Avos (авось) is a genuine Russian word — probably the only one starting with an “а” as a famous challenge suggests — meaning roughly the desire of something to happen without planning for it or taking adverse circumstances into account. Авось доплывёт! — Let’s hope it won’t sink. Untranslatable as it is, авось! is the quintessence of the Russian psyche.

Knowing that Juno’s cargo will only suffice for temporary relief, in February 1806 Chamberlain Rezanov steps aboard Yunona and sets sail to the south to bring more supplies to the starving Alaskan colonies. At the helm of the ship is a young naval officer Lieutenant Nikolai Khvostov doing a contract job for the Russian American Company; the accompanying tender is commanded by his fellow, midshipman Gavriil Davydov. Both seamen are mentioned in the opera and in Voznesensky’s poem. The crew and the commanders were quite surely under-qualified for such a voyage, but it was a desperate measure. The original destination was Vancouver; however, having failed to enter the Columbia River, Juno continues sailing south and in April, after over a month at sea, the sailors finally sight the hills of Yerba Buena, a little town in the Alta California province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Forty years later it will be renamed as San Francisco.

Here, in Yerba Buena, starts Rezanov’s last adventure that gave birth to the first all-Californian legend of immortal love and faith. The Spaniards were a little bit friendlier than the Japanese — they at least allowed Juno to enter the bay and its crew to disembark. Don José Joaquín de Arrillaga (who was the real Governor of Alta California in 1806) and Don José Darío Argüello, the Commander of the Presidio of San Francisco, receive the Russians and treat them well. However, they categorically refuse any trade deals, even though Rezanov was probably offering higher-than-market prices for food as, quite frankly, he had little choice (by the way, he was not paying cash — it would be a commodity exchange transaction trading furs for grain and fresh vegetables.) Arrillaga would have loved to sell some goods to the Russians but his boss Ferdinand VII of Spain did not allow his colonies to freely trade with foreign states. Add to it the fact that Spain has severed its diplomatic ties with Russia a few years earlier; Rezanov’s voyage was already during the Napoleonic wars when the two countries were not exactly friends, though they never fought each other directly. So, be our guests as much as you desire, but no commercial transactions, or, as the winged quote from a famous Russian movie said: I’m not gonna give you my machine gun, folks.

Rezanov meets Conchita (or Concha — seashell in Spanish, as her friends called her) in the officer club at the Presidio, which still stands until today. I can only imagine the impression the forty-two-year-old widower made on the fifteen-year-old girl: foul breath and loose teeth (lack of vitamin C), poor eyesight (lack of vitamin A), untidy hair full of lice (no shower for a month — freshwater was a precious resource for seafarers,) skin covered with rashes due to scurvy and malnutrition. Oh, they never mention these details in romance books! On top of that, the Chamberlain no hablaba nada de español, so their entire communication was probably limited to smiles and courtesy gestures. Reportedly, Rezanov spoke five European languages, but all of them were useless with those barbarians who could only speak Spanish — the language barrier was so bad that the Chamberlain had to engage von Langsdorff who knew Latin and could converse with one of the friars. The doctor complains in his diary that the role of a translator wasn’t exactly the sum of his expectations from the visit to the American West Coast. Anyway, certain types of messages are better conveyed with means other than words, and it seems that the Chamberlain was rather skilled in that art.

It is quite certain that despite his temporary unpresentableness, Rezanov still received considerable acclaim. The locals haven’t seen any European in years, so such a high-flying courtier was definitely an exotic bird in those places. Concepción must also have made a deep impression on the foreigners — she was a beautiful young lady, especially in the eyes of two healthy males deprived for months of any female company. Even the cold-blooded Teuton describes her as “lively and animated” with “sparkling, love-inspiring eyes, beautiful teeth, pleasing and expressive features, a fine form and a thousand other charms.” Olive skin, dark eyes, and ebony-black long hair have a magic appeal to the pale northerners — at least, to my own pale northerner’s taste. The teenager was also impressively intelligent and even knew how to read and write — a rarity, as women in the Spanish colonies at that time were seen primarily as a reproduction device. If we can believe the doctor’s account of the facts, the lovely Conchita indeed pierced Rezanov’s soul.

Concha and Nikolai started seeing each other daily — of course, following the formal protocol of Spanish courtship, which meant rendezvous in the family kitchen in the presence of numerous female relatives. The couple also went for long walks along the seashore and even on a picnic to Angel Island, obviously, attended by yet more female chaperones. They had little space for any intimacy. Still, I believe Rezanov was infatuated with the charming Californian, which is quite understandable. But was there love from the first sight as the legend tells? I’m very skeptical — at least, not from the Russian’s side. Here is how Rezanov reports his romantic adventure, in his own words, in a letter to his boss, Count Rumyantsev:

Здесь должен я Вашему Сиятельству сделать исповедь частных приключений моих. Видя положение моё не улучшающееся, ожидая со дня на день больших неприятностей и на собственных людей своих ни малой надежды не имея, решился я на серьёзный тон переменить свои вежливости. Ежедневно куртизируя гишпанскую [sic] красавицу, приметил я предприимчивый характер её, честолюбие неограниченное, которое при пятнадцатилетнем возрасте уже только одной ей из всего семейства делало отчизну ее неприятною. «Прекрасная земля, теплый климат. Хлеба и скота много, и больше ничего». Я представлял ей российский посуровее, и притом во всем изобильный, она готова была жить в нем, и наконец нечувствительно поселил я в ней нетерпеливость услышать от меня что-либо посерьёзнее до того, что лишь предложил ей руку, то и получил согласие». Here I must confess to Your Illustrious Highness some of my private adventures. Seeing my situation not getting better, expecting big[ger] troubles to come any day, and not counting in the slightest way on my own men, I decided to change my courtesy to a more serious tone. Courting the Spanish beauty on a daily basis, I noted her enterprising character and her limitless ambitiousness, which already at fifteen year of age rendered her motherland rather unpleasant to her. “Beautiful land, mild weather. A lot of grain and cattle, and nothing more.” I described Russia’s [climate] as more severe but abundant in everything, she was prepared to live there, until I, insensitively, settled in her the eagerness to hear something more serious from me, to the extent that once I proposed to her I received her immediate consent.

This sounds more like cold calculation rather than true love; it is also quite likely that Concha saw in this man, who could have been her grandfather, a chance to escape the fate of being given off to a local and remaining in the isolated province for the rest of her days. For her, it was more than just puberty dreams — she really won her lottery ticket. In any case, Rezanov’s declared serious intentions freed the deadlock situation and goods started flowing generously into Juno’s holds. According to his own report later in the same letter, Rezanov could do in the Spanish port as he pleased and the Governor ended up assuring him of the most sincere sympathy of his house. The roles of guests and hosts flipped, at least, believing the somewhat self-aggrandizing Chamberlain’s account.

The Argüello family was, quite obviously, flattered by the proposed mésalliance, but, at the same time, the perspective of marrying their Catholic daughter off to a Russian Orthodox and, most likely, not seeing her ever again was unbearable. They used all their parental influence in an attempt to talk her off, even brought her to the missionaries to confess, but Conchita was adamant. She already fancied herself wearing a rich gown at a glamorous St. Petersburg ball and had no intention to renounce her dreams. In the end, Don José gave his consent to the couple’s engagement, which created quite a sensation in the otherwise boring Californian province. Technically, Concepción and Nikolai could not be married because of their different faith; the best Rezanov could obtain was a conditional act that had to be approved by the Pope in person. Rezanov planned to solicit Emperor Alexander to obtain the Holy See’s blessing — a procedure that, according to his own estimate, would take about two years (you can stop complaining about the lengthy processing times of the modern bureaucracy.)

The Russians enjoyed the hospitality of their Californian hosts for six weeks — it is quite impressive what Rezanov achieved in such a short period of time. After all, he was a skilled diplomat when it came to his own interests. Local fruits and wines are renowned for their quality; restored by this plentiful dulce vida Rezanov departs San Francisco Bay in May heading back to Alaska. Concepción gives her future husband a golden locket with her miniature portrait and all the beau monde of Yerba Buena and environs gathers to bid farewell to the VIP guest. Juno exits the Golden Gate straight firing her salute seven times; the Presidio cannons reply with nine shots. The Russians disembark in Sitka one month later. Rezanov spends the summer concluding the Alaskan part of his mission; only in September is he able to finally leave the American continent. By the way, it is not true that as a final tribute to her beloved he names after her an island in the Silver Bay — the Arguello island was named 130 years later by the US Forest Service.

Bad weather forces Rezanov to stay in Okhotsk where Juno arrives in October. Prudence commands to stay for the entire winter, as Siberian roads are practically impassable in autumn, but Rezanov, stubborn as he is, orders to continue the voyage on horseback in an attempt to recuperate the lost time. With 40 degrees below zero and frequent blizzards, such a journey is beyond what a typical insurance company would nowadays cover under the definition of “extreme sports;” two centuries ago, it was synonymous to suicide. Rezanov reaches Yakutsk with bilateral pneumonia, stays for ten days to recover and despite the attempts of his friends and doctors to persuade him to stay, continues his travel, arriving very ill and exhausted to Irkutsk. Having recovered a little, the convoy gallops further into the snow. On February 26th, on his way to Krasnoyarsk, Rezanov suddenly loses his consciousness and falls off his horse. The Chamberlain is brought to Krasnoyarsk on horseback already moribund. After several days of agony, Nikolai Petrovich passes away, aged only 42. Thus comes to its end an Odyssey of this incredible man.

How did Conchita fare? According to the legend, also immortalized in Voznesenky’s lyrics, she waited for years for her husband to return, then became a nun and died in 1857, outliving her unfortunate betrothed by 50 years. In his poem Concepción de Argüello Bret Harte describes a scene in which Concha finally receives the news of her husband death from the famous English traveler Sir George Simpson, sometime in the 40’s:

Forty years on wall and bastion swept the hollow idle breeze,
Since the Russian eagle fluttered from the California seas;
Forty years on wall and bastion wrought its slow but sure decay,
And St. George’s cross was lifted in the port of Monterey;
And the citadel was lighted, and the hall was gayly drest,
All to honor Sir George Simpson, famous traveler and guest.
Far and near the people gathered to the costly banquet set,
And exchanged congratulations with the English baronet;
Till, the formal speeches ended, and amidst the laugh and wine,
Some one spoke of Concha’s lover,–heedless of the warning sign.
Quickly then cried Sir George Simpson: ‘Speak no ill of him, I pray!
He is dead. He died, poor fellow, forty years ago this day,–
‘Died while speeding home to Russia, falling from a fractious horse.
Left a sweetheart, too, they tell me. Married, I suppose, of course!
‘Lives she yet?’ A deathlike silence fell on banquet, guests, and hall,
And a trembling figure rising fixed the awestruck gaze of all.
Two black eyes in darkened orbits gleamed beneath the nun’s white hood;
Black serge hid the wasted figure, bowed and stricken where it stood.
‘Lives she yet?’ Sir George repeated. All were hushed as Concha drew
Closer yet her nun’s attire. ‘Señor, pardon, she died too!’

This account is not accurate. Conchita certainly learned about her husband’s death no later than 1808 when Comandante Don José Argüello received a letter from Baranov, the CEO of the Russian American Company, in which the Russian informed the family of Rezanov’s earnest attempt to fulfill his promise and his untimely death on the way back to St. Petersburg. The letter effectively freed the sixteen-year-old Conchita from her marriage vows. Some sources say that she received the news already in 1807 from a Russian officer who also told her that Rezanov’s last thoughts and words were about his young wife-to-be, but she refused to believe him. This story seems to be quite unlikely. What is certainly true is that Conchita decided to remain unmarried, despite there was no shortage of men looking for her hand, and dedicated the rest of her life to charity. There being no religious orders for women in California at that time, she had to content herself with joining the Third Order of St. Francis. It was the dark gown of this secular order that Sir George Simpson mistook for “nun’s attire” in 1842 when he visited her in Santa Barbara (and not in San Francisco, as the poem narrates.) Concha wore the white habit only in 1851 when she was received into the newly founded Dominican sisterhood in Monterey, becoming the first native Californian nun under the name of Maria Dominga, known simply as La Beata (the blessed.) In 1854 the order relocated to Benicia, where she ended her days and was interred.

Ending one’s life in a convent was not unusual for a widowed woman at that time, but Conchita was only sixteen years old and, technically, not a widow. What exactly drove her to such a decision? Was it her sincere love for Nikolai, a zealous commitment to her engagement vows (fanatic religiousness is no different from obsessive-compulsive disorder and is, therefore, especially corrosive for a susceptible teenager,) or both? Or was it the realization that no other groom would ever come close to the colossal change that Chamberlain Rezanov promised to bring into her life? Did she refuse, after having seen through a keyhole the fancy wonderland awaiting her, to accept anything inferior? Given the lack of evidence, I personally prefer to believe that Conchita loved her Nikolai and took her love to the grave.

What is certain beyond any doubt that Rezanov never loved his Spanish wife. Recently, in a Krasnoyarsk archive, a letter was found addressed to Rezanov’s brother-in-law Mikhail Buldakov. Written in Irkutsk, the letter is dated January 24nd, 1807 — the day of Rezanov’s wedding (with his first wife, obviously,) which he remembers with tears, as he admits in the opening of the message. This is the last known letter written by Rezanov. The Chamberlain probably presaged his near end, at least, he explicitly says “my forces are leaving me, I’m getting worse and weaker by the day. I don’t know if I’m going to make it reach you.” So it is a deathbed confession, which — even legally — renders its contents trustworthy. And thus he writes:

Из калифорнского [sic] донесения моего не сочти, мой друг, меня ветреницей. Любовь моя у вас в Невском под куском мрамора, а здесь следствие ентузиазма [sic] и новая жертва Отечеству. Контенсия [sic] мила, как ангел, прекрасна, добра сердцем, любит меня; я люблю ее, и плачу о том, что нет ей места в сердце моем, здесь я, друг мой, как грешник на духу, каюсь, но ты, как пастырь мой, сохрани тайну. From my Californian report do not consider me, my friend, a light-minded man. My love rests beneath a piece of marble in [Saint Alexander] Nevsky’s [Monastery], while that one is the consequence of my enthusiasm and another sacrifice for the Fatherland. Concepción is fair as an angel, beautiful, good-hearted, loves me; I love her and weep for there is no place for her in my heart. Here, my friend, I confess I am to blame, but you in the capacity of my pastor, pray keep it secret.

Having a young beautiful wife barely seems such a great sacrifice; however, at the time of the described events, the very idea of marrying for any personal virtues or, even worse, love would sound ridiculous. Marriages were combined by convenience and a thirty-year age difference was far from setting a record. But with his social status and personal wealth, Rezanov could find a better match that would propel him higher among St. Petersburg aristocracy. A much bigger sacrifice, though, was the fact that quite surely a provincial Catholic woman would be a stranger at the imperial court, and that would estrange him as well. In a society where the public opinion — spoken or tacit — had huge importance, marrying Concha was a very bad move for the Chamberlain. So yes, Rezanov did subordinate his sentimental life to his idea of duty to the Fatherland and his responsibility toward the Russian American Company, in which, by the way, he had non-negligible personal financial interests.

After Rezanov’s death, Russia’s interest in the American colonies gradually declined, culminating in the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars (about 100 million today.) I’ve heard certain Russian patriots say that had Rezanov lived, everything would have turned differently. This is pure nonsense. Alaska was ceded because Russia simply could not control a territory so remote and large. Just to put things into the right proportion, all the colonies in “Siberia’s Siberia” amounted to roughly 700 people enforcing sovereignty in a land twice as big as the State of Texas. It is less known that Great Britain was offered the deal first and refused it for the same reason Russia was trying to sell Alaska in first place. The US of A was a natural buyer and it is common to claim that the Americans hit the jackpot when gold and other natural resources were discovered in Alaska. However, a closer examination of the numbers in a 150-year time frame makes the deal less obviously a lucky strike. Regardless of the profitability or not of the Alaska sale, all Rezanov’s endeavors were irrelevant to its fate.

Our story has come to its end, but it would remain inconclusive without mentioning the destiny of the two protagonist ships, Juno and Avos. Before perishing in Siberia, Rezanov gave secret instructions to Khvostov and Davydov consisting of visiting South Sakhalin, Iturup, Urup, and Simushir. To salute Nippon, naturally — from Russia with love! Khvostov’s Strafkommando aboard Juno accompanied by Davydov aboard Avos executed their orders with particular zeal. Their raids dryly referred to as the Khvostov incident (フヴォストフ事件) in Japan, lasted from October 1806 until June 1807. The toll amounted to several Japanese merchantmen that were sunk, numerous villages ransacked and burned to the ground, food and supplies pillaged. The pirates even took prisoners and forced them to slave labor. Diplomat Rezanov’s last bow: his resentment towards the unyielding Nippon resulted in a full-scale retaliation mission. Perhaps the Chamberlain believed that he could achieve with force and intimidation what he failed to achieve with diplomacy, but, of course, he had no clue about the samurai culture. The aftermath of the “incident” was an even bigger fiasco: not only did Japan maintain its presence in Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, but it actually amplified it, sending a thousand man-strong garrison to guard the rebuilt villages. In 1811, the Japanese military in Kunashir captured the Russian explorer Vasily Golovnin and kept him in prison for two years until the Russian government admitted that Khvostov’s raids were acts of piracy never sanctioned by the authorities. A trade agreement between the two states was ratified only half a century later, while the territorial dispute overshadowing the troubled Russo-Japanese relations hasn’t been resolved until today. It is incredible how much harm one person’s big ego can inflict. Quite understandably, the names of Fuvusutofu (フヴォストフ), Davuidofu (ダヴィドフ), their boss Rezanofu (レザノフ) and the ships Yunona (ユノナ) and Avosu (アヴォス) are not very welcome among the Japanese until today. For the same reason, the opera Juno and Avos isn’t particularly loved, putting it mildly.

Upon their return to Okhotsk, Khvostov and Davydov were placed under arrest for assault and abuse of power and discretion; however, the adventurous duo succeeded to flee aided by several sympathizing locals. Incredibly, they were able to walk for over 700 kilometers through Siberian winter equipped with some bread and a pair of rifles. The officers were arrested again in Yakutsk, but shortly after the Minister of the Navy in person ordered their release and return to St. Petersburg. None of them was ever tried or charged for their acts of piracy. In 1809, returning late at night under influence from a particularly merry party held by Mr. DeWolf (the same one who sold Juno to Baranov) Khvostov and Davydov fell off St. Isaac’s bridge. Their bodies were never found. It is a bit suspicious that two experienced navy officers ended their lives in such a Darwin prize-worthy manner — perhaps, their death wasn’t exactly an accident? But then, cui prodest? The vessels outlived their commanders only by one year: in 1810, during a heavy storm Juno and Avos hit the rocks off of Kamchatka coast and sank with their crews aboard. Only three men survived.

Allow me to finish with a more romantic chord. In 2000 Monterey Police Chief took a chunk of Californian earth and brought it to Rezanov’s resting place in Krasnoyarsk. Earth from Rezanov’s Siberian grave was scattered over Concha’s grave in Benicia. After two centuries of separation, the lovers were finally reunited.

2 replies to “Never forgotten”:

  1. Rodrigo says:

    Do you mind if I quote a few of your areticles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your blog?

    1. Alex says:

      Of course, with pleasure!

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