Fort Ross, a revered Russian outpost in America, has oligarch ties

Since Vladimir Putin loosed Russian troops on Ukraine, there hasn’t been much pity for Russian oligarchs, who have seen their funds seized with alacrity. But there exists in America, thanks in part to a now-sanctioned Putin-allied billionaire, the most genuinely Russian landmark in the Lower 48. It’s called Fort Ross — or Fort Russ, as the Russians called it, way back in 1812, when it was founded. Today it’s a California state park and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean from high, craggy cliffs, the nigh-forgotten outpost — a challenging two-hour drive north from San Francisco — has lately garnered more attention than usual as something of a historic curiosity. It boasts a replica vintage Russian windmill, courtesy of an oligarch named Viktor Vekselberg.dd

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 when hiking Fort Ross when I lived up the road, I encountered more than a few Russian visitors who told me so in those terms. They were serious about connecting with their country’s history in America. The Golden State and Russia go back a long ways, and not just because of necessary alliance in World War II.

The Russian navy sailed into San Francisco Bay as a combatant Union ally in 1863. Lest the Confederacy open a maritime Pacific front, Czar Alexander II put one of his naval squadrons at Abraham Lincoln’s disposal. During World War I and the Russian Revolution, it was the California-heavy element of the American Expeditionary Force in Siberia that covered the anti-Bolshevik Russian escape along the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1918-1920.

Political revolts and murderous strongmen come and go — with requisite tragic results. Refugees are a constant. After the Communists came to power, many fleeing Russians settled in California. Some years ago, I sat sipping coffee with a friend in western Marin County who pointed out some famous local denizens, including the heiress to a major industrial fortune, a prominent movie star in semi-disguise, and, lastly: “a Romanov of the Russian royal family.”

It was indeed Prince Andrew Romanov, at the time still enjoying life as a carpenter whose handy man skills also extended to crafting hash pipes. (He died in January.) It was an echo of the Palo Alto Safeway farther south, where Alexander Kerensky, last leader of pre-Soviet Russia, shopped until his death in 1970, when he wasn’t lecturing at Stanford University. In this context, given the long entwinement of California and Russia, Google co-founder Sergey Brin is a relative latecomer.

Recently Fort Ross blipped into the news when a Russian legislator named Oleg Matveychev demanded that the United States return the historic settlement — as well as the entire state of Alaska — as reparations for supporting Ukraine. This was nothing new, it turns out.

Russian officials make this demand every few years, Sarah Sweedler, chief executive of the Fort Ross Conservancy, told me. (The group manages the 3,393-acre park as one of about 80 local nonprofits that, via agreements with the state, plan, execute and raise money for the fort’s programming.) “Sorry, but it’s not Russia’s to take back,” she says. “The Russians leased it from 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, headquarters of the Russian-American Company, lasted 30 middling years before the Russians gave up on it entirely. (Good for wine grapes and cattle grazing, the land was never destined to be anyone’s prime pantry supplier.) This failed start-up might also be seen, in retrospect, as a preview of Russia’s shortsighted unloading of Alaska to the United States in 1867.

Greg Sarris, an author and chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, says his tribal ancestors were a bit sad to see the Russians leave, noting that his great-great-great-grandmother lived at Fort Ross as a refugee from slavery under Mexico’s Gen. 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 now-decimated local sea otter population perhaps speaks to more dubious European legacies.)

Established in 1909 as one of the first entries into the California State Park system, today Fort Ross scrapes by with a staff of 11 and a budget of about $500,000. It is, in tandem with nearby Gerstle Cove in Salt Point State Park, long a favored family or school field-trip destination for Northern Californians. (The conservancy also manages Salt Point.)

But what about the interesting oligarch connection?

Between 2011 and 2018, a little more than $1.4 million in donations came from the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, a nonprofit that is part of the larger Moscow-based Renova Group, helmed by longtime Putin comrade Vekselberg. The oligarch’s most obvious contribution: underwriting the construction of the windmill. Most of his other donations 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 college students run by Stanford University.

Already subject to one set of sanctions since 2018, a few weeks ago Vekselberg was hit with new public and private sanctions, including virtual exile from the art world in which he’s long been a major collector. Vekselberg and his connections with Fort Ross have hardly been a secret. Sweedler says that although Vekselberg did make quite an entrance the only two times he visited — arriving by helicopter with an entourage only to quickly depart — he’s not so much an international man of mystery as he is just another faceless grantmaker from afar.

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“We would pitch an idea, we’d write a grant, there’s the usual back-and-forth,” she says. “Like, we wanted to grow our marine ecology program and get maybe 30 binoculars that are fit for young children. [Renova] got 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. “The conservancy follows all laws, and when they were sanctioned in 2018 … we stopped communication and haven’t received any more money.”

Two Russian energy companies, Transneft and Sovcomflot, have also been forced to withdraw funding per recent sanctions as co-sponsors with Chevron for a Fort Ross-related program. But if there’s ever again room for detente between the Russians and Uncle Sam after Ukraine, that program may play a part. Developed out of an idea originally floated by former California governor Jerry Brown, since 2012 an annual Fort Ross Dialogue brings an A-list of Russian and American politicians, civil servants, chief executives, academics, scientists and activists to the Bay Area for a few days of panels that are a policy wonk’s dream.

“This isn’t about kumbaya,” retired Army Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, a former defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told me. “It’s about having seasoned practitioners … who are antagonists being able to discuss consequential issues that might be just too hard to do in the Kabuki world of choreographed high diplomacy. People speak frankly and disagree, but people also sit down and have drinks and talk and engage.”

In Washington, in late February, somebody smashed the Russia House restaurant’s windows, evidently in protest of the Ukraine invasion. Sweedler maintains a watchful eye on Bay Area vandalism targeting all things Russian, but characterizes her concerns as low-level. “We have gotten a few weird emails,” she says. “But we’ve also gotten some supportive emails. Hopefully common sense will prevail. … Fort Ross is a rich story that goes way beyond the Russians. It’s a part of California history that’s ours — everyone’s.”

Jason Vest lives in California.

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