Overlooking the Pacific Ocean from tall, rugged cliffs, the almost forgotten outpost – a difficult two-hour drive north of San Francisco – has recently attracted more attention than usual as a historical curiosity. It houses a replica of a vintage Russian windmill, courtesy of an oligarch named Viktor Vekselberg.
What is an oligarch, really?
As any son of Moscow or daughter of Vladivostok making a pilgrimage to the park will tell you, Fort Ross is the Russian equivalent of Jamestown. I know this because while hiking in Fort Ross when I lived up the road, I met more than a few Russian visitors who put it to me in those terms. They were serious about connecting with their country’s history in America. The Golden State and Russia go back a long way, and not just because of the necessary alliance during World War II.
The Russian Navy sailed into San Francisco Bay as a fighting ally of the Union in 1863. Fearing that the Confederacy would open a Pacific sea front, Tsar Alexander II put one of his naval squadrons to the layout of Abraham Lincoln. During World War I and the Russian Revolution, it was the Californian heavy element of the American Siberian Expeditionary Force that covered the anti-Bolshevik Russian breakout along the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1918–20.
Political revolts and murderous strongmen come and go – with the requisite tragic results. Refugees are a constant. After the communists came to power, many fleeing Russians settled in California. A few years ago I was sipping coffee with a friend in western Marin County who showed me some famous residents of the region, including the heiress to a great industrial fortune, a semi-disguised prominent movie star and, finally: “a Romanov from the Russian royal family”.
It was indeed Prince Andrew Romanov, who at the time was still enjoying the life of a carpenter whose handyman skills also extended to making hash pipes. (He died in January.) It was an echo of the Palo Alto Safeway further south, where Alexander Kerensky, the last leader of pre-Soviet Russia, shopped until his death in 1970, when he did not teach at Stanford University. In this context, given the long tangle of California and Russia, Google co-founder Sergey Brin is a relative laggard.
Recently, Fort Ross made headlines when a Russian lawmaker named Oleg Matveychev demanded that the United States return the historic colony – along with the entire state of Alaska – as reparations for having supported Ukraine. It wasn’t new, it turns out.
Russian officials make this request every few years, said Sarah Sweedler, executive director of the Fort Ross Conservancy. (The group operates the 3,393-acre park as one of approximately 80 local nonprofit organizations that, through agreements with the state, plan, execute and raise funds for the fort’s programming.) “Sorry, but it’s not for Russia to take back,” she said. “The Russians rented it to the local Kashia [Pomo] tribe. They never owned it and they never claimed it because they chose not to.
Established with aspirations as an agricultural supply base for Russian outposts in Alaska, Fort Ross, the headquarters of Russian-American society, lasted an average of 30 years before the Russians gave it up entirely. (Good for wine grapes and cattle grazing, the land was never intended to be anyone’s main pantry provider.) This failed start-up could also be seen, in retrospect, as a glimpse of the Short-sighted unloading of Russia from Alaska to the United States in 1867. .
Greg Sarris, author and president of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, says his tribal ancestors were a bit sad to see the Russians go, noting that his great-great-great-grandmother lived in Fort Ross as a refugee from the slavery under the Mexican regime. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo in nearby Sonoma. “The Russians generally treated the Indians a lot better, let them come and go and kind of let us do our thing,” Sarris says. (The local sea otter population, now decimated, perhaps testifies to more dubious European legacies.)
Established in 1909 as one of the first entries into California’s state park system, Fort Ross gets by today with a staff of 11 and a budget of around $500,000. It, in tandem with nearby Gerstle Cove in Salt Point State Park, has long been a favorite family or school destination for Northern Californians. (The reservation also operates Salt Point.)
But what about the interesting connection with the oligarchs?
Between 2011 and 2018, just over $1.4 million in donations came from the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, a nonprofit that is part of the Moscow-based Renova Group, led by Putin’s longtime comrade. , Vekselberg. The most obvious contribution of the oligarch: the guarantee of the construction of the windmill. Most of his other donations have supported efforts such as the fort’s annual harvest festival, bilingual walking tours, marine education, and an annual three-day conference of Russian and American students hosted by Stanford University. .
Already subject to a series of sanctions since 2018, Vekselberg was hit a few weeks ago with new public and private sanctions, including a virtual exile from the art world in which he has long been a major collector. Vekselberg and his ties to Fort Ross have hardly been a secret. Sweedler says that although Vekselberg made quite an entrance the only two times he visited – arriving by helicopter with an entourage to quickly depart – he is not so much an international mystery man as he is than another faceless donor from afar.
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“We would pitch an idea, we would write a grant application, there’s the usual back and forth,” she says. “For example, we wanted to expand our marine ecology program and get maybe 30 binoculars suitable for young children. [Renova] have their little logo on a brochure like everyone else, but…you can’t name a building after a donor,” she says, citing state park policies. “Conservation follows all the laws, and when they were sanctioned in 2018…we stopped communication and received no more money.”
Two Russian energy companies, Transneft and Sovcomflot, have also been forced to withdraw funding following recent sanctions as co-sponsors with Chevron of a program linked to Fort Ross. But if there is again room for relaxation between the Russians and Uncle Sam after Ukraine, this program could play a role. Developed from an idea originally pioneered by former California Governor Jerry Brown, since 2012 an annual Fort Ross dialogue brings together an A-list of politicians, civil servants, CEOs, academics , Russian and American scientists and activists in the Bay Area for a few. days of panels that are a political enthusiast’s dream.
“It’s not about kumbaya,” the retired army brigadier retired. General Peter Zwack, former Defense Attaché at the US Embassy in Moscow, told me. “It’s about having seasoned practitioners… who are adversaries who can discuss consequential issues that might just be too difficult to resolve in the Kabuki world of choreographed high diplomacy. People speak up and disagree, but people also sit down and have a drink and talk and engage.
In Washington, at the end of February, someone broke the windows of the Russia House restaurant, apparently in protest against the invasion of Ukraine. Sweedler is keeping a close eye on Bay Area vandalism targeting anything Russian, but calls his concerns low-level. “We to have received some weird emails,” she said. “But we also received emails of support. Hopefully common sense will prevail. …Fort Ross has a rich history that goes far beyond the Russians. It’s a part of California history that is ours, everyone’s.
Jason Vest lives in California.