Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Russians of California

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from The Voice of America
Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

September 2010

The other night I had smoked fish, pelmeni and shashlik for dinner. My wife recently made borsch, piroshki and beef Stroganoff. A few weeks ago we spent the day at Russian Gulch State Park. Last week we toured the Russian River. One of our favorite magazines has published a new recipe for Kulebiaka. I sometimes go to Irinka for a glass of tea, or browse in the Ananie bookstore. On the bus I saw a man reading a newspaper called The Russian Daily Life. I live on Russian Hill.

Where am I? Moscow? Kiev? Saint Petersburg?

Not at all. I am in San Francisco, California, and it seems that a day can hardly go by that I don't see or hear or touch or taste something Russian. Russians are all over the world, of course. Through the many years of their great history they have traveled, they have traded, they have hunted, they have planted and settled. Some have remained, some have returned to their motherland. Some have settled in other countries and then moved on to other lands.

But a certain number of Russians have come to California. Here, too, some stayed and some left. And the process still goes on as Russians continue to come and go from all over the world. It was natural, even inevitable for the first Russians to have come to California. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the west coast of what is now America was the next step for Russians who had made the trip to the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. At that time the Spanish and Mexican governments in control of California felt threatened by what they regarded as Russian expansion. To prevent this, the Spanish increased their own colonization of California, and enacted restrictive legislation against the Russians, who were engaged in fur and whale oil trade, agriculture, shipbuilding, cattle raising, fishing and forestry.

The Russians formed a colony at the Russian River, north of San Francisco, called Slavensk, now known as Fort Ross. Meanwhile, the Spanish established missions up and down California to provide a sort of barrier against the Russians. The northernmost of these was the Mission San Francisco Solano, founded in 1823 at Sonoma, butting up against the Russian settlement.

Not all of the Spanish were hostile to the Russians, and there are many stories of friendship and mutual assistance. There is even a famous, if unfortunately tragic, love story. Nicolas Petrovich Rezanoff, a Russian government attache, and a celebrated sixteen year old beauty, Conception Arrilaga, daughter of the Spanish governor of the territory, managed to secure official approval of their betrothal. But Rezanoff, journeying across Siberia, to make a report to his government before the wedding, developed a fever and died. It was 35 years before Conception learned her Russian lover had not abandoned her of his own free will. In the meantime, she had taken church vows, and was to remain faithful to Rezanoff all her life.

Because their people were beset with physical and economic hardships and the mounting hostility of the Spanish, the Russian authorities ordered withdrawal of the Russian colony from California, selling all Russian properties in Decembeer 1841 to Johann August Sutter, a Swiss then living on the Sacramento River.

Today, there are about 50,000 Russians in California, most of whom live in the San Francisco Bay Area. They arrived in periodic waves starting around 1900, except for 50 families who came as early as 1869. Some were Molokani or "milk drinkers," pacifists who drank no alcohol. Others were "Spirit Wrestlers," sometimes called Doukhobours. Some were Subotniks. Many came by way of Turkey, Iran and Siberia. Many came after the revolution of 1917-1919. In the 1930s many came from Manchuria. The last big group to come to California were displaced persons from parts of Eastern Europe, just after World War II.

And what about today's Russians of California? What are they like? How do they differ from other Americans? Seeing how strongly their influence is felt, I became fascinated with the subject. I had to learn more, because in doing so I would learn more about California, San Francisco and myself.. And as I did, I felt I wanted to tell you about it.

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