This time Russia stepped in to bail out a California state park

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It almost sounded like a joke. Oleg Matveychev, a member of the Russian parliament, went on television a few weeks ago to propose that the United States pay reparations for the cost of the Ukrainian war by returning former Russian properties “seized by the United States”. United”, including Alaska and Fort Ross, the former Russian colony on the coast of Sonoma County.

“As well as Antarctica,” he said. “We discovered it, so it belongs to us.” It all sounded ridiculous, especially on social media. “Good luck with that,” Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy said. “This will never, ever happen,” Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski tweeted. Others called the idea “crazy” or silly.

But that was no joke to many in the Bay Area’s Russian-American community who feel a strong affection for Fort Ross, the colonial settlement 90 miles north of San Francisco that once marked the most away from the Russian Empire. Fort Ross was only Russian territory for 30 years, and that was a long time ago. The Russian flag was hoisted in 1842. But the small fort has a disproportionate place in American-Russian history. “It was our little bond with Russia,” said Natalie Sabelnik, a San Franciscan from Russian emigrants.

Fort Ross is more than that. In recent years, it has become a symbol both for the 52,000 Russian Americans in the Bay Area and for the Russian government. Based on directives from what has been described as “the highest level” of the Russian government, Russian organizations came to the rescue of Fort Ross State Historic Park during a budget crisis in California.

The Russians sent their ambassador from Washington to Sacramento to strike a deal with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The deal turned out to involve financial support for Fort Ross from Renova Corp.

Renova has donated more than $1 million to Fort Ross to repair buildings, restore a historic orchard first planted by the Russians two centuries ago, restore California’s first windmill and provide financial support for a series of conferences and high-level cultural exchanges. One financially supported event was a trip by dancers from the Kashia Pomo tribe, the indigenous inhabitants of the Sonoma Coast, Siberia and Moscow.

The series of events was part of a bold and ambitious project – and participants on several occasions included Stanford University, Chevron and Cisco.

The projects were coordinated by the Fort Ross Conservancy, a Sonoma County nonprofit corporation. The Russian government took the Fort Ross project so seriously that Sarah Sweedler, the reserve’s executive director, was awarded the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin himself.

Dealing with Russia is complex. Much of the money for the Fort Ross effort came from the nonprofit Renova Fort Ross Foundation — and Renova’s chairman is Viktor Vekselberg, one of Russia’s oligarchs and a close associate of Putin. In 2018, Vekselberg was sanctioned by the United States following Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Renova’s involvement with Fort Ross and the Fort Ross Conservancy, the park’s nonprofit partner ‘State, has come to an end.

And now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added a layer of complexity — and sadness — to Russian Americans. Sabelnik’s family fled two revolutions – in Russia and China. She was born in Shanghai. “I know what it’s like to be a refugee,” she says. She came to the United States as a child during the Cold War. The other kids at his first school in San Francisco were cruel. “When they found out I was Russian, they called me coco and rouge. Can you imagine saying that to a child? she says. Now, after the war in Ukraine, she sees anti- Russian on the Internet – a petition to change the name of the Russian River or rename Russia Avenue in San Francisco.”It’s sad,” she said, “It’s hysteria.”

She also finds the war disturbing. “We still feel the pull of Russia,” she said. “We are also mixed,” she said, like a family with connections on both sides, in Ukraine and in Russia. “A bit like a civil war.”

Nicholas Sluchevsky was born in San Francisco and has deep roots in Russia. His great-grandfather was Pyotr Stolypin, Prime Minister under Tsar Nicholas II and a famous figure in Russian history.

Sluchevsky lived for a time in Russia and taught university courses there. He also participated in conferences, festivals and academic seminars which were part of the programs developed with the Fort Ross Conservancy. The turn of relations makes him sad. The war in Ukraine angers him.

“This is Putin’s war, and only Putin’s war,” he said. “This is not Russia’s war. Nothing justifies the invasion of Ukraine.

Sluchevsky believes that the war is a defining moment both for relations between Russia and the West and within Russia. “What we have now is not just financial and commercial globalization, but cultural globalization,” an exchange of ideas that cannot be stopped. Young people and global technology are contributing to this, he believes. “What Putin did was open a Pandora’s box. What comes out cannot be put back.

Sluchevsky believed that the programs developed around Fort Ross by the Fort Ross Conservancy and its partners over the past few years were an important element in creating a better understanding with Russia. “They were on top.”

It turns out that the Russian government’s cultural effort at Fort Ross may have been part of a deeper strategy, “a charm offensive,” as the CNBC network once called it. “Would I accept a friendship order today?” said Sweedler from the reserve. “No I will not.”

The war in Ukraine changed everything, but wars eventually end. Sluchevsky and others involved in the Fort Ross project have plans. “We will absolutely keep the project alive,” he said.

Carl Nolte’s column airs on Sundays. Email: cnolte@sfchronicle.com

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