California Dreaming

Owen Matthews revisits two articles, one of them from the earliest days of History Today, on Russia’s American empire.

The story of imperial Russia’s attempt to colonise America is one of history’s oddest back-corners: by 1812 the southernmost outpost of the tsar’s dominions was in Sonoma County, just 70 miles north of San Francisco. Russia also – briefly – had a colony in Hawaii. In the end Russia’s American empire turned out to be an epic commercial and imperial failure: Tsar Nicholas I’s refusal to accept large swathes of modern California, which the newly-minted Republic of Mexico offered in exchange for arms and diplomatic recognition in 1827, must count as one of the worst political and economic decisions ever made.

History Today published an article about this strange tale in its very first volume, in 1951, when George Edinger noted that ‘the first Europeans to foresee the possibilities of California were Russians, who came across Siberia and felt their way down the Pacific coast’. In 1992 Jeffrey Miller returned to the topic, writing about Russia’s great imperial misfire as ‘a saga of discovery, courage, cunning, misfortune, misdeed and missed opportunities’. Both are excellent essays but, oddly, both are very thin on Russian sources. 

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