Russians in the Bay Area

May 31, 2014 by


As we saw in the previous post, California’s Russian-speaking community is concentrated in the San Francisco region. The nine counties of the Bay Area – Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma – are home to more than 40,000 Russian speakers. The love affair between Russians and the San Francisco Bay Area is of long standing, told in a fascinating photo book Russian San Francisco by Lydia B. Zaverukha and Nina Bogdan.

Zaverukha and Bogdan’s first chapter recounts the romantic yet sad tale of Nikolai Rezanov’s famed expedition in April 1806. Rezanov was an accomplished statesman, explorer, Russian-American Company official, and author of a lexicon of the Japanese language (now preserved in the library of Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg). Upon his arrival in New Archangel (Sitka) in Alaska, he despaired at the plight of the half-starving Russian settlers . Seeing to remedy the situation, he sailed along the Pacific coast to what was then Spanish California, with which he hoped to establish trade. While he was able to purchase grain and dried meat for an immediate shipping to Alaska, the laws of Spain forbade colonists from trading with foreign powers, and so Rezanov’s long-term project failed. But while visiting San Francisco, the 42-year old Rezanov fell in love with the 15-year old Concepción (Conchita) Argüello, the daughter of the commandant of San Francisco, Don José Darío Argüello. And she fell for him too. Since she was Catholic and he was Russian Orthodox, royal consent for marriage was necessary. As a result, Rezanov set out on an arduous trip back to St. Petersburg. En route, he fell ill and died at Krasny Yar (now Krasnoyarsk) in Siberia, on March 8, 1807. According to the traditional—if contested—account, Conchita never learned of her beloved’s fate and continued to wait for him till the end of her life. She rejected all other men and became a nun in a Dominican monastery in Monterey, California. Never reunited in real life, Conchita and Rezanov were symbolically joined in 2000, when the sheriff of Benicia, town where Conchita is buried, brought a handful of dirt from her grave to Nikolai Rezanov’s last resting place in Krasnoyark. This tragic love story inspired the American poet Francis Bret Harte to write a ballad, and two Russians – composer Alexey Rybnikov and poet Andrei Voznesensky – to write the rock-opera “Juno and Avos” (named after the two ships that constituted Rezanov’s ill-fated expedition).*

While Nikolai Rezanov was negotiating with the Spanish authorities, his captain Lt. Khvostov explored and charted the coast north of San Francisco Bay. He found it completely unoccupied by Europeans. Based on this exploration, Russian-American Company officials decided to establish an outpost in the area. The initial plan was to settle in near Bodega Bay, rich in beavers and sea otters. However, by the time Russian ships arrived to Bodega Bay in the spring of 1812, they found that American otter-hunting ships had beat them to the draw. After exploring the area further, the Russians ended up selecting a site 23 miles (37 km) north, which the native Kashaya Pomo people called Mad shui nui or Metini. This area, abundant in natural resources, became the Russian settlement of Fortress Ross. Its present name, Fort Ross, appears first on a French chart published in 1842 by Eugene Duflot de Mofras, who visited California in 1840. The name Ross is said to derive from the Russian root ros-, as in the Russian name of the country Rossia or Russians’ poetic name for themselves velikoross. The colony that sprang up around Fort Ross constituted the southernmost Russian outpost in North America, which was spread over an area stretching from Point Arena in the north to Tomales Bay in the south. The colony included a port at Bodega Bay named after Count Nikolai Petrovich Rumiantsev; a sealing station on the Farallon Islands, 18 miles (29 km) out to sea from San Francisco; and several small farming communities, called “ranchos”, near the present-day towns of Graton and Bodega. Agriculture, however, was only marginally successful. Summers on the northern California cost are too cool and foggy for optimum grain production, and pocket gophers were an omnipresent nuisance.

Fort Ross itself became a center of varied activities, including milling and shipbuilding. Russian scientists associated with the colony were among the first to record California’s cultural and natural history. Alongside ethnic Russians, other subjects of the Russian Empire lived at Fort Ross, including Poles, Finns, Ukrainians, and Estonians. Native Americans, especially the Kashaya Pomo people indigenous to the area, continued to reside at Ft. Ross as well, though the relations between the Russian settlers and the natives were not always peaceful. At least one  smallpox outbreak among the native populations can be traced to the settlement. Yet, the Russians also introduced vaccination in the area: the first vaccine was brought by the Russian-American Company ship in 1821, and 54 persons were inoculated. But despite these efforts, in 1837 a deadly epidemic of smallpox that came from the headquarters of the Russian-American Company at Sitka, Alaska wiped out most Native Americans in the Ft. Ross area.

By 1840 the agricultural importance of Fort Ross and surrounding ranchos has decreased considerably as new trade networks supplanted Alta California as the main source of foodstuffs for the Alaskan colonies. Also, the local population of fur-bearing marine mammals had been depleted by over-hunting, bringing that industry to an end. At this point, the Russians decided to sell the settlement, and a deal was made with John Sutter, a Mexican citizen of Swiss origin famous for starting the California Gold Rush. However, sources disagree as to whether Sutter actually paid for Fort Ross and whether the legal title of the settlement was ever transferred to him; as a result, some claim that the site still belongs to the Russian people. Fort Ross subsequently passed through a number of private hands until it was purchased by the California Historical Landmarks Commission in 1903, At that point, it was turned over to the State of California for preservation and restoration as a state historic park, open to the public. Each year last Saturday in July Fort Ross celebrates Cultural Heritage Day, with liturgical and folk Russian music performances, musket and cannon displays, storytelling, craft demonstrations, Russian food preparation and more.

Going back to the 1800s, Russian explorers, scientists, and travelers made regular visits to the growing city of Yerba Buena, as San Francisco was then known. Among them were the artist Louis Andreyevich Choris, who documented the native culture and local fauna, indispensable to later researchers of local history, and Ilya Gavrilovich Voznesenskiy whose records of a year-long sojourn in San Francisco in 1840 give us a window into the city’s early history. Nikolai Konstatinovich Sudzilovskii, another Russian writer and traveler, described the environs of San Francisco in 1891 as nearly empty: “the population density of Ekaterinoslav province [today, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in Ukraine] outstrips California’s by six times, that of Kovno Governorate [today, Kaunas county in Lithuania] by ten”. He would have hardly recognized California today, as its present-day population density of 242 /sq mi is comparable to that of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast (282/sq mi) and of Kaunas county (216/sq mi).

Throughout the 19th century, Russian Imperial Navy ships made visits to San Francisco Bay. In 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, Tsar Alexander II sent six navy ships – the corvettes Bogatyr, Kalevala, Rynda, and Novik, and the clippers Abrek and Gaidamak – under the command of Rear Admiral Andrei A. Popov to San Francisco to show support for the Union side. The action came at a fraught time: the British were considering recognizing the Confederacy, the French were about to send an army to Mexico, and the Confederate Navy had ideas about the Pacific. The crews of these ships helped fight a terrible fire on the wharf during their stay, losing six lives in the process. A Russian naval ship would not dock again in San Francisco for another 147 years; in the summer of 2010, the cruiser Varyag of Russia’s Pacific fleet arrived on a visit that combined friendship, history, and a display of military power. While the curious public could get onboard and check out the ship’s 16 cruise missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, and conventional twin-barrel gun, the crew helped dedicate a plaque honoring their compatriots who died in the 1863 fire.

Those early sailors and other Russian visitors who died in City by the Bay were buried in the area that became known as Russian Hill. But the permanent Russian presence in San Francisco did not start until the Gold Rush of 1849 established an instant city. Travelers who came for commercial reasons sometimes decided to stay. In 1864, California’s first permanent Eastern Orthodox parish, which served Serbs and Greeks along with Russians, was established in San Francisco, and by 1871 there was enough parishioners to establish a Russian school for children. Ten years later a magnificent Russian cathedral was built on Powell Street near Columbus Avenue.


The Russian-speaking community grew significantly in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War, when numerous White Russians, opponents of the Red Bolsheviks, settled in San Francisco. Among them were aristocrats, officers of the Russian Imperial Army, members of the merchant class and the intelligentsia, priests, members of sectarian communities, such as the Molokans, Baptists, Dukhobors, as well as many Russian-speaking Jews who were fleeing the pogroms.  Having lost everything in the chaos of war, such people believed that they would not be able to live under the Bolshevik regime. As a result of this influx, the Russian community in San Francisco grew to some 10,000 in 1920s. In 1939 the Russian Center was founded to preserve their cultural heritage. Among its activities is an annual Russian Festival, a three-day showcase of food, art, music, and dance (the 24th such festival took place February 10-12 of this year).


Interestingly, the story of Russian immigrants in the City by the Bay is intertwined with that of its Chinese immigrants, as many Russians came to San Francisco, by way of the Chinese cities of Harbin and Shanghai. Harbin, on the Russian-built Chinese Eastern Railroad, was a  half-Russian city of 68,500 people in 1913. In the 1920s, it was flooded with 100,000 to 200,000 Russian White émigrés fleeing from Bolshevik regime. Most were officers and soldiers involved with the White governments in Siberia and the Russian Far East. In 1935, many were forced back into the Soviet Union when Japan took Harbin. Another round of forced return occurred in 1945 when Harbin was occupied the Soviet Army. Returnees were usually exiled to labor camps, or worse. Some were able to flee from Harbin to other Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, and Qingdao, and eventually immigration_over_Pacific_1922-1939quite a few relocated to San Francisco.

















The Russian community in Shanghai similarly swelled in 1923, when Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East fell into Bolshevik hands. The well-educated and well-to-do Russians quickly became the crème de la crème of the Shanghai “white” society (which, curiously, included the Japanese but not the Chinese natives). By 1930s, the 25,000-strong Russian community in Shanghai was the third-largest foreign contingent, trailing only the British and the Japanese. Most Russians settled in the French Concession (see map on the left), where the central street, Avenue Joffre, nicknamed “Little Russia” and “Nevskiy Prospekt”, was lined with restaurants featuring borsch, beef Stroganov, and chicken à la Kiev, and jewelry stores selling Russian pocket watches and other traditional knick-knacks. Annual Russian balls took place at the hotel Majestic. But by late 1920s, many Shanghai Russians found themselves in reduced circumstances: former musicians of the Imperial orchestra had to play as accompanists in bars, and former prima ballerinas of Moscow and St. Petersburg theaters were reduced to dancing in night-clubs. The White émigré community gradually lost the financial support of Western powers, who initially saw them as a force to cultivate against the Bolsheviks. But by the late 1920s, it was clear that the Communist Party was not going to collapse and it had became more profitable for the West to trade with the Soviet Union than subsidize its enemies. The end of the Russian community in Shanghai effectively came in 1945, when the city fell into the Chinese Communists’ hands. Its members dispersed widely, and many were shunted through displaced persons camps in Tubabao in the Philippines. Eventually, quite a few ended up in the San Francisco area.

The latest wave of Russian-speaking immigrants to the Bay Area began with the fall of the Soviet Union. Even before the regime collapsed, Jews were beginning to flee, and the movement became a torrent after 1991. Many of the Jews of the former Soviet Union have migrated, and although most moved to Israel, many ended up in the United States, with San Francisco forming a favored destination. Highly educated ethnic Russians have also  been attracted by the promise of the Silicon Valley. The two groups, however, rarely interact. According to Lydia B. Zaverukha and Nina Bogdan, Russian Jewish organizations refused to participate in their Russian San Francisco book project.

This latest wave of Russian-speaking immigrants includes a number of success stories. Among them is Moscow-born Professor Grigory Barenblatt, formerly G. I. Taylor Professor of Fluid Mechanics at the University of Cambridge and now a Professor in Residence at the Department of Mathematics of the University of California, Berkeley and Mathematician at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Another successful Russian-speaking transplant to San Francisco is St. Petersburg native Alexander Barantschik, principal violin and concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, who joined the orchestra in 2001 at the invitation of the musical director Michael Tilson Thomas. Perhaps the best-known Russian immigrant to the Bay Area is Sergei Brin, co-founder of Google who left Moscow for the United States at the age of six. His motto is quoted to be “knowledge is always a good thing—and more of it should be shared”, something I wholeheartedly believe in too.


* A less-known aspect of this story is that two sailors under Rezanov’s command, who were tired of the hardships of sea life and living with scurvy, defected. They spent a summer in the San Francisco area, hunting and foraging for food, before being caught and shipped to Mexico and thence to Russia.



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