Fort Ross: memories of the future

Robin Joy, an interpretive specialist at the Fort Ross HistoricState Park, displays a sea otter furSource: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Robin Joy, an interpretive specialist at the Fort Ross HistoricState Park, displays a sea otter furSource: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

The wooden entrance to Fort Ross, reminiscent of a village fence, was locked with a padlock that anyone passing by could easily have torn off this picket fence denoting the boundary of a U.S. national park.

Leaving our car by the fence, Yuri Gerasin, the Russian General Consul in Seattle, and I made our way through the thick fog enveloping the first Russian settlement in California. We walked past a small empty house where through the window we could see a cash register, evidently for selling tickets to visitors. We turned away from it toward the ocean and finally, in the thinning mist, made out a few cars.

When we came right up to them, two figures appeared as if out of the air, their uniforms looked like those of police officers. Only upon closer inspection of all the chevrons and stars and the inscriptions on their hats did it become clear that they represented the National Park Service of California. They brought us to the Fort Ross Museum where Liz Burke, a beautiful, smiling woman, was waiting for us. She runs the six national parks located near the Russian River. She took us to the mistress of Fort Ross, by name Robin Joy, who was holding a tray with bread and salt in her strong arms. I only realized what strong arms she had after she took me by the shoulders and kissed both of us three times in the Russian manner. The neatly mown grass, the well-tended forest, the beautifully kept roads and paths, the clean equipment, and the sweet-smelling livestock — all this is the work of Robin, who clearly not only expends great energy here but is nourished by the natural energy of this place. She had, of course, hoped to welcome the Russian president to Fort Ross, but for lack of anything better, she was happy to see us—especially since we were supposed to figure out what the Russian side could do to help maintain and develop this unique monument to Russian and American history which, during the financial crisis, like other national parks on the West Coast, was threatened with closure due to California’s huge deficit. While the park has a minimum budget of $800,000, the state is willing to allot it only $300,000. In any case, after an hour’s conversation with the inhabitants of Fort Ross I realized that, for all their American businesslike approach, they are full of a remarkable idealism and joie de vivre, full of a cheerful romanticism. They don’t quite feel like the Russian missionaries who first saw this marvelous place in 1811 and bought it from an Indian tribe, the Kashaya, in 1812, but something like that. Everything that they do here, they do with pleasure — for themselves and for those who come here to look at Russian America. They also tell wonderful stories about the merchant A.A. Baranov, trusted by a Russian-American company to oversee Russian settlements in America, about Lieutenant Kuskov, who discovered these lands for the Russians, about the Aleuts who came here with the Russians, and about how it was the Russians who first brought grape vines to California, and about much more besides, as though they had been living here for at least 200 years.

Source: Rustem Adagamov/drugoi
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I keep writing “they,” but in fact the only person working at Fort Ross is Robin, and even she is not full-time. Liz Burke and the two rangers are the foresters and firemen in charge of maintaining order in all six national parks in the vicinity of the Russian River. Robin has two permanent volunteers, middle-aged ladies who live nearby. One of them, Marion MacDonald, runs the Society of Living Traditions and all the volunteer organizations working at Fort Ross. She and Robin not only arrange first-class excursions, but also hold educational games in the summer for American schoolchildren who come to Fort Ross for several days at a time, don the costumes of the Russian settlers, assume Russian names and act parts in our common history.

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Robin has worked at Fort Ross for nearly 20 years. I don’t know how she lived during the Cold War when the United States and Russia (then the Soviet Union) referred to each other the “evil empire.” I don’t know what Liz Burke and Marion MacDonald think about politics. For some reason we all felt drawn to one particular photograph from the mid-19th century showing women of the Kashaya tribe wearing the sorts of headscarves that would not have been out of place in Russia’s Tambov or Tula district. The women were all sitting around a campfire with their men, and beside them were Russians, Aleuts, Swedes, Spaniards, Polynesians… All comers found refuge at Fort Ross, built by the Russians to supply foodstuffs to Alaska. The fort’s mission ended in 1867 when Alaska was sold to the United States — it was a fort that never knew war. We all stood transfixed by that photograph and it seemed that this place, this creation of nature and human hands so full of quiet, love and peace, was indeed paradise lost.

Perhaps that is why we should engage in simple labors with local residents. We do not need one more symbol of love. We need genuine love between people and nations. Neither Robin, nor Marion, nor Liz said anything to me about their mission to strengthen Russian-American relations. They simply tried to share their love for Fort Ross, for the people who lived there 200 years ago, for those who live there now and will in the future.

Mikhail Shvydkoi holds a doctorate in art history. He is a former Russian minister of culture.

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