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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Sabelnik’s group got the word out about Fort Ross. They circulated petitions and sent them to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with several thousand signatures from Russian émigrés living as far away as South America.

Word of Fort Ross’ plight soon made it to the Kremlin, and in mid-2009 the Russian government dispatched its ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, to the park for a well-publicized visit. Kislyak wrote letters to Schwarzenegger, imploring him to keep Fort Ross open; the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the trip and on Kislyak’s appeals.

And that is how Olga Miller, CEO of the New York office of the Russian conglomerate Renova, first learned about the plight of Fort Ross. “I was told by Renova Moscow that this was something we should look into,” says Miller. “They knew more about it in Russia than we did here—it was an interesting paradox.” 

Renova Group, a sprawling private company, has operations in mining, energy, technology and finance. Its primary shareholder is Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, worth more than $8 billion and best known in the United States for buying up a trove of Fabergé eggs from the Forbes publishing family in 2004.

With business interests around the world, Renova was interested in improving relations between Russia and the United States, and saving Fort Ross seemed to fit that mission.

In 2010, Renova signed an agreement with Governor Schwarzenegger, and since then it has put more than $1.2 million toward preserving and improving the park.

At first, Renova simply wanted to help keep the park open, which costs about $800,000 a year. But they soon learned that Fort Ross needed more than that. Despite its devoted membership, Miller says, the Fort Ross Conservancy was struggling to build support and name recognition for the isolated site. The park’s small museum and visitors’ center needs to be updated, and some of the historic buildings are badly in need of repair. And because it is too expensive to staff the park every day, Fort Ross is currently open only on weekends and holidays and on Fridays during the summer.

“We are trying to create a master plan, if you will, and working with state parks and [the conservancy] to create a sustainable future for the park,” Miller says. “We feel it is very important to bring Fort Ross to a higher level.”

That has not been easy, Miller admits. Coming from the corporate world, she and other Renova officials expected to see results quickly. But California’s government does not work that way, and in the U.S. any change to a historic site requires layers of approvals and impact studies.

“It’s a very bureaucratic system—even more bureaucratic than anything I’ve seen in Russia,” Miller says.

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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