Across North America, three great empires left their imprint: the British, French and Spanish. But a fourth empire, Russia, also once had a claim in the New World. Its traces now are faint and more remote. If you travel up and down the Alaskan coast, for example, you will find, in the small towns that dot the lengthy shoreline of this vast American state, distinctive churches topped with the onion-shaped domes of the Russian Orthodox faith. The Alaska Purchase of 1867, when the United States bought Russian America for pennies an acre, is a staple of grade-school textbooks; but the full story of Russian America remains obscure, even to this American reviewer of history. In Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, the journalist and writer Owen Matthews tells the enthralling, brutal and tragic story of Russia\'s designs on America\'s Pacific Northwest coast and the imperial adventurer who envisioned an empire stretching from Alaska to Hawaii. If it never fully came to pass - Russian America would remain largely confined to the Alaska coast - Rezanov\'s scheme was startling in its boldness and calculation. Colonists had to contend with disease, starvation and hostile indigenous peoples, whom Russian settlers treated with equal brutality. Carving a settlement out of the wilds of Alaska would prove a formidable, nearly impossible, task. The sweep of Matthews\' account is immense and covers thousands of miles. He ranges from the glittering bustle of St Petersburg in the late 18th century, \"the Dubai of its age\", to the endless Russian steppes to the frozen tundra of Siberia. The roots of Russian America lay in the \"wild east\", the forbidding Siberian terrain where Cossack traders and fur-trappers, \"essentially pirates licensed by the Russian crown\", made fortunes from fox, sable and marten pelts. Fur transformed the Russia of Peter the Great into an economic juggernaut. The traders pushed east, into the Pacific, towards Alaska, where the \"soft gold\" of sea otter and seal fur beckoned. Matthews vigorously sketches the contrasting careers and social status of the aristocratic Rezanov, an ambitious courtier in the orbit of Catherine the Great, and the most powerful baron of the Siberian fur trade, Grigory Shelikhov, whose commercial drive pointed the way across the Pacific. Had Shelikhov \"been born of noble stock\", Matthews writes of the founder of Russia\'s first overseas colony, \"or even at a pinch a foreigner, he would doubtless have been recognised in his life as one of the age\'s greatest explorers. But since he was the son of a middling merchant … Shelikhov\'s discoveries were tainted by the lowly motive of commercial profit rather than the lofty scientific and imperial ambition of gentleman explorers …\" The hard-charging Shelikhov, however, did not let such social impediments get in his way, and he attracted enough investors to fund his scheme to send settlers to Alaska\'s Kodiak Island in 1783. The natives did not take kindly to the Russian interlopers, and Shelikhov unleashed his cannons on the islanders. Such actions did not endear Shelikhov to Russia\'s ruling classes, who frowned on such brutish methods. Enter Rezanov, who married the merchant\'s young daughter. With the imprimatur of Rezanov, Russian America would gain a respectability it had previously lacked. Rezanov fashioned his venture, called the Russian-American Company (RAC), which he founded in 1799, along the lines of the British East India Company, which was a government-sanctioned monopoly. Tsar Paul I granted the RAC exclusive rights to trade \"on the shore of America from 55 degrees latitude [roughly the southern border of modern Alaska] to the Bering Strait and beyond and also on the Aleutian, Kurile and other islands lying in the north-eastern [Pacific] Ocean\". It was a vast remit.