Totma-California: Celebrating Russian America Day in the Vologda backwoods

'An American Ball at the Kuskovs.' Source: Olga Lavrova

'An American Ball at the Kuskovs.' Source: Olga Lavrova

Every year on July 26, the small town of Totma in Russia’s Vologda Region celebrates Russian America Day at the same time as Fort Ross in northern California, once the southernmost outpost of the Russian empire in the Americas and founded by Totma native Ivan Kuskov. Vladimir Romanov reports on how Totma marked the event this year.

At first glance, the sleepy old Russian town of Totma, 400 miles north of Moscow, appears little different from any other. But once a year Totma joins the settlement of Fort Ross, thousands of miles away on the coast of northern California, in celebrating a unique link between the two places.

On July 26 Totma honors Russian navigators and explorers and the members of the Russian-American Company who founded a series of settlements on America's western coast in the early 19th century, including Fort Ross, the southernmost Russian settlement on the North American continent, founded by Totma merchant Ivan Kuskov in 1812.

The event is marked on the same day in Fort Ross with a large-scale event dedicated to its Russian past, the Fort Ross Festival. As part of this cross-cultural celebration Fort Ross remembers Russian culture and its influence on the life of the local population.

This year the celebrations in Totma, being held for the third year in a row, was dedicated to the 250th anniversary of the birth of Kuskov. As part of the celebrations, the People's Theater at the Totma Youth Center staged a play titled An American Ball at the Kuskovs, in which Ivan Alexandrovich and his consort welcomed famous captains and navigators who had once "discovered" America to their home for a ball.

A video brige with Fort Ross. Source: Olga Lavrova

The climax of the play was the lighting of candles in honor of all those who did not return from the distant shores of America and the toll of the bell that united Totma and Fort Ross. Simultaneously Hank Birnbaum and Robin Joy from the Fort Ross National Park sounded the bell in Fort Ross, signaling their solidarity with the Totma population. In response to the toll from California, the belfry of the Church of the Lord's Entry into Jerusalem tolled its bells.

In the courtyard of the Kuskov House Museum visitors could acquaint themselves with the traditional culture of North American Indians: shoot from their bows, try on a handmade band from the Kashia Pomo tribe and eat “American Indian food.”

Visitors could try American and Russian traditional food. Source: Olga Lavrova

And once again the two countries were united by the "letters of friendship" that are becoming a tradition to mark the event: Totma residents, both adults and children, wrote poems and drew drawings, which were then sent to Fort Ross as a greeting from the faraway Russian town.


How a Totma merchant conquered America

Totma native Ivan Kuskov was still a young man when he signed an agreement with a merchant from the Kargopolsky District (in the Arkhangelsk Region) named Alexander Baranov on a commercial sea voyage to the western shores of America in 1808. The then-active Russian-American Company had been exploring Alaska and the territories of modern-day California, at the time home to Indian tribes, with a view to finding agricultural lands that could be used to supply the Russian colony in Alaska.

After several exploratory expeditions, Kuskov founded Fort Ross. Under his supervision the colony organized a mixed school for Russian and Indian families. He himself married a Creole girl who converted to Orthodoxy and took the name of Yekaterina Prokhorovna. In 1823 Kuskov returned with his wife to Totma, where he died several years later and was buried at the Spaso-Sumorin Monastery.

Ivan Kuskov and his wife. Source: Olga Lavrova

In 1990 the house where Kuskov spent the last months of his life became a branch of the Totma Museum Complex. It contains items, documents and prints related to the exploration of California. Soon afterwards residents of Totma and Fort Ross established the tradition of showing the tolling of the bells in the churches of Totma and Fort Ross via live video links: Totma usually starts celebrating Russian America Day in the evening when in California it is early morning.


Uniting continents

Indians from the Kashia Pomo tribe, ancestors of the people with whom Kuskov once lived in peace and harmony, have visited the Vologda Region on several occasions. In 2012, in Totma, during the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the foundation of Fort Ross, representatives of the Vologda Region and the Kashia Pomo tribe signed The Perpetual Declaration of Friendship and Cooperation.

Shortly before this year’s event a series of wooden sculptures appeared next to Kuskov's house. It was given to the town and museum by the participants of an international woodworking competition that was being held in Totma. These sculptures will mark the establishment of a “park of living history,” which with time will become yet another landmark of the old Russian town, ranked third in the country for the number of museums per thousand residents.

"Totma is a town of salt workers, toy makers, merchant patrons, a place where many famous people were born, among whom was definitely Ivan Alexandrovich Kuskov," said Alexei Novosyolov, director of the Totma Museum Complex.

"And this town also unites, literally unites, people and continents. No matter what Russian-American relations are like, American delegations regularly visit us, quickly forgetting all the political contradictions between the countries. Looking at the greeting, smiling Totma residents they automatically open up and become cheerful and friendly like everyone else."

Novosyolov added that museum collaborators are currently petitioning the Vologda governor to give Russian America Day official regional status. The first steps in this direction have already been made: Several roundtables have been held with the help of the Russian Geographical Society with the aim of preserving Kuskov's historical heritage, and a series of books about the museum and the foundation and modern status of Fort Ross has been published.


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