When Russia Colonized California: Celebrating 200 Years of Fort Ross

A piece of history on the Pacific Coast was almost lost to budget cuts, until a Russian billionaire stepped in to save the endangered state park

About 90 miles north of San Francisco lies Fort Ross, a site chosen to be the Russian empire's only colony in what would later become the contiguous United States. Pictured is a Russian Orthodox chapel at Fort Ross. (George Rose / Getty Images)

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Konstantin Kudryavtsev remembers feeling immediately at home when he first visited Fort Ross a dozen years ago, soon after immigrating to the United States.

“I liked it from the first sight,” says Kudryavtsev, a Silicon Valley software engineer who dressed for the annual fall harvest festival in a rubakha, a loose-fitting tunic in the style of a 19th-century Russian nobleman.

Kudryavtsev, a conservancy board member, compares the restored settlement, with its rough-hewn wooden buildings, simple chapel and stark terrain, to villages in Eastern Russia.

“It was so similar to the place where I grew up in Siberia,” he says. “The nature is very similar. The buildings smell the same.” 

“When you come to a place where you’re a stranger, it’s natural, trying to look for some traces, some history of people who came from the same country,” says his wife, Geliya Kudryavtseva. “When we found Fort Ross as a family and started volunteering, we found friends.”

The Kudryavtsevs had found a place where Russian-Americans and their children could meet to celebrate their heritage. But they and other Russian-Americans were dismayed when they learned that California was planning to close Fort Ross.

“I felt, my God, I have to ring the bell everywhere. It’s appalling!” says Natalie Sabelnik, president of the Congress of Russian Americans, a nationwide association based in San Francisco that promotes the interests of Americans of Russian descent. “This isn’t just a park, this is a monument and a testament to the Russians that came and their struggles. How can this be taken away?”

Sabelnik, who was born in Shanghai to Russian parents in the 1940s and grew up in a close-knit Russian community in San Francisco, remembers visiting Fort Ross as a child for annual church picnics.

“For many years, you couldn’t visit Russia, you couldn’t write to relatives in Russia,” she says, recalling the cold war years. “But here was a piece of Russia you could touch.”

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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