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Nikolai Rezanov – Statesman, Explorer and Romantic

On July 1981 the rock opera Juno and Avos premiered at Moscow's Lenkom Theater, and more than three decades later the love story of Nikolai Rezenov and Concepción Argüello continues to draw audiences to theaters. Named after the two ships that carried Russian explorer Nikolai Rezanov and his team to what was then Spanish California, the opera was written by Alexey Rybnikov, with poetry by Andrei Voznesensky. The opening season of Juno and Avos was directed by Mark Zakharov with Nikolai Karachentsov and Elena Shanina in the starring roles.

Born in Saint Petersburg in 1764, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov was fluent in five languages by the time he was 14 years old. After joining the staff of the private secretary to Empress Catherine, Gavrila Derzhavin, Rezenov pursued his goal of obtaining a monopoly over the fur trade in the Russian Empire's dependencies, by obtaining an agreement from Emperor Paul, who had succeeded Catherine the Great, that his business, the Russian-American Company could have dominion over the Pacific Northwest coast of North American north of 55 degrees latitude, as well as over the chain of islands from Kamchatka to Alaska.

Upon finding that the islands and territories of the Russian-American Company were suffering from a lack of food, Rezenov set sail for Spanish settlements in California with the intention of trading Russian wares for food and establishing a contract for his colonies to be supplied with products from the fertile Californian region. He discovered, though, that the laws of Spain prohibited its colonies from trading with foreign powers, and Governor José Darío Argüello was incorruptible. However, Rezenov and Argüello's 15-year old daughter Concepción fell in love, and by the time he left six weeks later he had secured food for his colonies and the promise from Argüello that he would have the arrangement authorized by authorities in Spain.

After proceeding by sea to Kamchatka, Rezenov set off overland to Saint Petersburg to have the arrangement with Spain authorized by the Tsar. He also had personal letters addressed to the pope and the King of Spain requesting consent for his marriage to Concepción. On 8 March 1807 Rezanov became ill and died in the town of Krasny Yar (modern-day Krasnoyarsk), Siberia, and was reportedly buried there. The story goes that Concepción only learned of her betrothed's fate a year later. She chose to become a nun and remained so until her death in 1857.

The treaty which Rezanov had struck between the governor of Spanish California and Russia was never signed. Historians note that if it had been, it would have resulted in the entire west coast of North America being annexed by Russia, and large scale emigration from Russia to North America would have taken place. As it is, the dramatized love story of Rezanov and Concepción continues to be told and retold on stage.


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