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Students Relive Russia's Colony in California

November 20, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

FT. ROSS STATE PARK, Calif. — The 29 years that Russia had a colony in California are relived almost every Thursday and Friday by children dressed in Russian costumes at this historic fort perched on a remote Northern California headland.

Thirty elementary school boys and girls from throughout the state each week spend two days and a night inside the 15-foot high redwood walls, turning back the clock to the years 1812 to 1841.

"It's especially exciting for me because I am of Russian descent," said Bohdan Hladky, 11, wearing a fur hat and a 19th-Century Russian militiaman's uniform and carrying a flintlock musket.

The sixth-grader was looking forward to patrolling the fort on midnight watch for 1 1/2 hours "circling the inside of the stockade making sure the gates are closed and changing candles in the lanterns."

Three Weeks of Study

Hladky was one of 30 first- to sixth-graders who had been driven from the Bolinas-Stinson School in Bolinas, 65 miles south of here, with 10 parents and teacher Kathie Sweeney, 36.

"They study the history of Ft. Ross for three weeks before coming here," Sweeney explained.

The students slept in the Russian commandant's house in sleeping bags. They cooked Russian meals over an open fire. They made beeswax candles and leather pouches and gathered apples and pears from trees planted 150 to 175 years ago.

The schoolchildren were among the estimated 200,000 annual visitors to this outpost. They include vacationers, historians, Russian Orthodox church worshipers on pilgrimage and a good number of Soviet tourists.

While the story of Ft. Ross is little known across the United States, it is widely recounted in the Soviet Union where it is part of the school curriculum. The California outpost was Imperial Russia's deepest penetration eastward.

The Russians came to California to hunt seals and sea otters, to grow vegetables and fruit and raise livestock to support their outpost in Alaska. Ft. Ross also was the first shipyard of any size in California.

Russian scientists came to Ft. Ross to study the Indians, the plants and animals. Kashaya Pomo bows, arrows, baskets, feathered capes, ornaments and crafts collected by Russian scientists are on display in museums in Moscow, Leningrad and Siberia. Port Rumiantsev, now known as Bodega Bay, 20 miles south of Ft. Ross, was the Russians' principal port in California.

But the seals and sea otters were depleted by the Aleut hunters brought to Ft. Ross by the Russians, and farming was at best marginal. Additionally, the United States, Spain, France and Britain objected to the Russian presence, so in 1841, Czar Nicholas I ordered his colonists home.

Indian Brides

When they returned, many of the Russian soldiers took back with them Kashaya Pomo Indian brides who had lived in villages near the fort. Others left Russian-Indian offspring in California, and to this day Kashaya Pomo Indians in California have Russian words in their language and Russian-Indian bloodlines.

Since the turn of the century, members of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Congregation of Palo Alto have made a pilgrimage each year on Memorial Day to hold services in the Russian Orthodox Chapel at Ft. Ross. The Orthodox Church of America in San Francisco holds services in the chapel each Fourth of July.

Constructed in 1824, the redwood chapel inside the stockade burned to the ground in 1970 and was rebuilt.

"Ft. Ross chapel has great meaning for us," said Father Vladimir Derugin, 38, pastor of the Palo Alto church. "It is the nexus of the coming together of the East and West spiritually and culturally (and) . . . mother church in the Lower 48 states.

"Two of our saints worshiped at the church when Ft. Ross was a Russian colony--St. Innocence the Apostle, who was there in 1836, and St. Peter the Aleut, a hunter and gatherer at the fort in 1816."

Leading Expert

Perhaps the leading expert on the history of Ft. Ross is Nicholas Rokitiansky, 69, a teacher of Russian and history at De Anza College, a two-year school in the San Jose suburb of Cupertino. Rokitiansky first heard of Ft. Ross as a student in Manchuria in 1929. He came to the United States in the early 1930s and spent eight years as a librarian in the Russian section of the Library of Congress. Then he moved to California and has had an active interest in Ft. Ross ever since.

Rokitiansky, known as Ft. Ross' "Russian Connection," has made a dozen trips to the Soviet Union visiting historians who are experts on the Russian colonies in Alaska, California and Hawaii, and gathering data about Ft. Ross from Soviet archives.

When Soviet historians, scientists and others come to California, Rokitiansky often accompanies them on visits to Ft. Ross. In July, he drove a Soviet journalist to Ft. Ross to help him prepare a story for Pravda.

"I keep returning to the Soviet Union, for there is still much to learn about the history of the 29 years Russia owned a piece of California," said Rokitiansky, who in 1976 delivered the U.S. Bicentennial lectures at Moscow Academy of Sciences on "Ft. Ross and the Russian Settlement in California."

Commemorative Medallion

This year, Rokitiansky marked the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution by designing a commemorative medallion for the California History Center at De Anza College. The medallion celebrates the constitutional icentennial on one side with a depiction of the Great Seal of the United States. The other side commemorates the 175th anniversary of Ft. Ross with the Russian imperial double eagle flag.

The medallions are doubtless the only ones issued in the United States that commemorate the Constitution in both Russian and English.

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