Fort Ross: Chasing The History

If someone told me three years ago that I would find Russia among the cliffs of Northern California, I wouldn’t have believed it. It sounds unrealistic, crazy even – why would there ever be a Russian settlement in California? And then I found myself there, falling in love.

Two hundred and two years ago two ships of the Russian navy, Juno and Avos, brought an expedition to the shores of Northern California. Their goal was to find a piece of land by the sea to produce food, which was to support the Russian settlement in Alaska called Sitka. Sitka was the first Russian endeavor on the American shores, and was aimed to hunt various marine mammals for fur trade. Unfortunately, the location was not the best place to live; the settlers experienced many difficulties with weather and food supplies. Thus, by the tzar’s order, Juno and Avos made their way down the coast to find a spot in between the Spanish territories.
They found such spot north from San Francisco, and settled around what now is known as Bodega Bay and the Russian river. Count Alexandr Rezanov, the head of the expedition, went to see governor Arguello, the Spanish ruler of the nearby lands. The two agreed upon peaceful collaboration; Fort Ross was to be a place of free trade and neutrality. Arguello also had a comely young daughter.
History is a curious thing – it gives you so many possibilities for interpretation. Whether it was true passionate love or a well-planned political alliance, we do not know; but the fact is that soon after that Rezanov left for Saint Petersburg to ask for permission from the tzar to marry a Catholic woman. He made it to the Russian shores, but caught a really bad infection and shortly died.
We’re talking 1810s here; the news traveled slowly, especially foreign news. Conchita Arguello waited for her Alexander for thirty years. She never believed the rumors of his death and kept waiting until an official statement from the Russian government reached her. She spent the rest of her life in a monastery. I would say that whatever historians may think, if that’s not true love, what else could it be?
Conchita and Alexander’s story laid the basis for the first and most famous Russian rock musical, “Juno and Avos”, that tells it through some beautiful music and beautiful metaphors.
And just a few weeks ago Sarah Sweedler, the current CEO of Fort Ross Conservancy and my dear friend, took a trip to Russia and among other places visited count Rezanov’s burial site. She brought a piece of earth from Conchita’s grave, making all women in the party weep, and drawing a line to the story of two long lost lovers.
Aside from being able to play the main song from “Juno and Avos” on my ukulele, I also have a story about Fort Ross. Even a couple of stories, which includes filming a documentary, doing volunteering work, writing articles and holding baby goats. It all started three years ago with an event called the Stanford US-Russia Forum, which one fine Saturday morning brought me to Reef Campground in a bus full of fellow students. Tired, carsick and drowsy, I stepped out to have a look.
The first thing that reached me was a flow of salty, fresh wind from the ocean. I gulped it in and I wanted more. Around me, the endless green of the hills spread, entwined with the web of wild spring flowers. The smells were heady, as was the view: we were on top of the cliff with a stunning overlook on the Atlantic.
We hiked our way over the hills, down to the little beach called Sandy Cove, and up to the road that led to the Fort. The gates were open, inviting us in. It was all old wood and short sunburnt grass inside of a perfect square. A few small buildings, a watchtower, a well in the middle, two cannons. All very serene and quiet, except for a few “peasants” in historic costumes – local girl-scouts weaving baskets, cooking and patrolling the area.
The Fort itself sits on a cliff, with an old cemetery on the nearby hill on one side and a eucalyptus grove on the other. On the edge of the grove stands the Call house – a reminder of the short ranch era of Fort Ross. If you walk through the grove, you will get to the visitor’s center. A short hike from there is the historic orchard, with some apple trees being as old as 200 years.
The place was small, there seemingly weren’t many sights, and not much to do. Despite all that there was a magic to it, some kind of good energy that makes you feel at home. We got a tour of the grounds, hiked to the orchard, and did some volunteering work mending the fence, cutting dead branches and clearing away old logs. In the evening we were offered some truly delicious meals, we sang some songs by the big fire, and then it was time to go.
I walked out of the visitor’s center and casually looked up to see if there were any stars out. My jaw dropped. Were there stars! The night sky was hanging over my head, shining like millions of diamonds. I could see the big constellations and tiny lone stars that you don’t get to see every day. It was breathtaking. No lights interrupted the view, and it was quiet, very quiet. When I was told to get my ass on the bus, I promised I would return.
So I did, now for the third time in two years. First it was volunteering at the Fort’s bicentennial, then another conference where I was an organizer, and now another annual celebration. I met all the staff, the board of directors, the park rangers, and many volunteers. The Fort brings people together just as it did two hundred years ago, when the Russians worked along with the Alaskans and the Spanish and the Natives. I’ve never seen anyone fight in the Fort, or have an argument. It’s a very peaceful place, sacred for the local Kashaya Pomo Indian tribe. They’ve been friends with the Fort for many years, performing their traditional dances and selling crafts.
Whenever I come to the Fort, I’m full of energy, and my head is clear. I don’t walk, I run everywhere, unable to get enough of that smell of the eucalyptuses, and the sound of the ground under my feet, and the view on the ocean. Each year the Fort celebrates its birthday, and thousands of people come together to get a glimpse of the two-hundred-years-old culture.
Volunteers walk around in historic costumes, perform arts and crafts. There’s Russian and Kashia food offered, there’s a church service, a few song and dance performances, and the traditional firing of the cannons. These cannons are famous for never having been fired except to greet the incoming ships. It’s fun. It’s even more fun when you get to know people for whom Fort Ross is a lifestyle. After the celebration is over, many of them stay and camp, cook Russian food and play music. Many of them are Russian, many of them are not. All of them have a story: a father being a lifelong volunteer, a marriage proposal in the Fort, growing up in the area. I met a lady whose ancestor was a famous Russian poet, and a guy whose wife’s grandfather preserved some precious manuscripts by Pushkin which are now at the Pushkin museum in Moscow. There are people that I only meet at Fort Ross once a year, and it always feels like we all just got together the day before. They have their special roles and tasks, their own routines, their own style. The heart of the Fort Ross spirit is the Kedry ensemble who put up little scenes from the past life of settlement Ross. This year I walked into Rotchev House, the one telling the story of the Rotchev family, long-term rulers of the Fort, and suddenly I was interrupting a tea party. Ladies and gentlemen in 19th century costumes were having a pleasant discussion with a Frenchman, all serious and overly gallant. It was hard to keep from giggling – I knew them from the bicentennial’s performance where they put up a few scenes from Fort Ross life under Rotchev’s rule. These were the volunteers, some of the most enthusiastic ones. Later Marina, who played m-me Rotchev, lined up the dancers and introduced us to a few traditional Russian dances I had no idea about.
Surprisingly, the Fort itself is managed by just a tiny group of devoted people. They manage to do it all by themselves, and do it wonderfully. I love spending time in the office helping with some errands and looking at it from the inside.
This year Fort Ross celebrated its 202nd birthday, as always, last weekend of July. It was much quieter than the bicentennial, and felt very homely. Baby goats were there too, for everyone to hug. I walked around in a historic dress and with a basket that contained my iPhone, camera and a notebook. I felt weird. But being a character, a part of some big play, was nice.
Whenever you find yourself in the Bay Area, check on Fort Ross. They have events all year round. And though it’s not easy to get there without a car, a Facebook group Friends of Fort Ross can help with finding a ride there. It’s so totally worth it.

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