The Russians in AmericaThe Russian presence in the North America was of unique nature in the history of this continent since 17th century, but the most active exploration and reclamation of the continent began under the Russian Tsar - and then Emperor - Peter I the Great. In 1725 he undertook the first practical step, having decided to organise the naval expedition to the shores of this distant and mysterious land.

In 1728 Russian courageous voyager and explorer of Danish origin, Vitus Bering, in accordance with the Imperial order, started his journey to research maritime tract between Russia and America. He was the first person to pass through the strait, between two continents, which nowadays bears his name.

But only by the year 1741 V. Bering and Captain-commander Alexei Chirikov reached the West Coast of the North America.

As soon as it was discovered that the land is rich with furs and peltry, many entrepreneurs, adventurers and explorers "headed East in pursue of "soft gold". Some of them reached the islands of Unalaska and Kodiak.

The Russian Empress Catherine II, upon succeeding the throne in 1762, decided to establish monitoring over those Russian settlements.

In 1764, in compliance with Her Majesty’s behest, the first official cartography expedition was organised to determine the borders and frontiers of the Russian possessions.

In 1799 the son of Catherine the Great, Paul I, ordered to reorganise earlier established fur trade company of the Russian entrepreneur Gregory Shelekhov into Russian-American Company, which received a monopoly for trade all along the west coast of American continent.

Mr. Shelekhov established the first Russian settlement on the Island of Kodiak in 1783 and was also a head of the first Russian agricultural colony "the Glory of Russia" (now Yakutat).

The Russian-American Company, like other European joint-stock companies, was given tasks to perform that went beyond the realm of trade. It was authorised to use the coastal areas of North America south to 55’ north latitude and explore and colonise unoccupied lands. In effect, it became the "right arm" of the Russian Government in the American Hemisphere.

By 1818 Russian-American Company reached such distant places as Prince William Gulf, Alexander Archipelago and even North California, where the Russian fortress, named "Fort Ross", was established in 1812.

In 1808 the Company headquarters were relocated from St. Paul harbour of Kodjak Island to the new centre of the Russian America – New Archangel built in 1804 (now – Sitka).

During nearly 50 years, the administration of the Russian colonies was conducted by the Russian Imperial Navy. Starting with 1818, all the governors here were the naval officers.

This period in the history of Russian America bears enlightenment and interpretative mark. New naval administration encouraged education, spiritual upbringing and public health service among the native population.

Unlike the other colonising nations, the Russians treat the native Americans with much more humane attitude. Starting from 1741 and up to 1867 Russian cartographers, linguists, ethnographers, botanists, teachers, medics, priests and administrative persons had lived and worked amidst the Native Americans.

When they went home for good, the Russians left decent and good-natured image of themselves in the hearts of the native population. The roots of such warm relation are hidden in the official policy of the Russian-American Company. Its Charter of 1821 forbid the exploitation of the native Americans and provided the often checks and verifications of observance of this requirement. The native Alaskans used to study and receive Russian education and could count upon a progressive raise on the Russian service. For example, famous explorer and hydrographer D. Kashevarov, who was of Aleut-Russian origin, retired from the service as Captain 1st rank (Commodore).

Having received the education in Russian schools and being on the Russian service, a lot of Native Americans became ship-builders, carpenters, teachers, medics, blacksmiths, artists and explorers. It’s noteworthy that in the schools of Russian America the teaching was conducted not only in Russian but also in native languages.

Up till now in many towns and villages, which were under Russian administration in the last century, the Russian customs and traditions are being kept. Russian America still lives in their language, culture and everyday life, even now, more then 130 years after the Russian Empire sold all its north American possessions to the United States of America, and the Russian America became another integral part of the nation of America.

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The venture of the Russian-American Company was short-lived. However, the memory of it has lingered long, preserved in the buildings and the stockade at Fort Ross, in the place names of scattered creeks and coves along the northern coast and of the largest river in Sonoma County. The Russians were the first to explore and map parts of Northern California, and they were also the first to call Mt. St. Helena by its present name.

In retrospect, the withdrawal from American continent signalled a turning point in the expansion of the Russian Empire. As the world’s largest nation, Russia choose to redirect its energies and consolidate itself on only two continents instead of three.

Consulate General would like to express its gratitude to Mr. Daniel F. Murley for his contribution into this article.

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Russian Influences Were Felt In The Bay Area Before San Francisco Was A CityBy Alex Brammer, Nob Hill Gazette, San Francisco, December 1992

...The first Russian ship sailed into the Bay in 1806. One of California's most famous love affairs developed then between Count Nicolai Petrovich de Rezanov and Concepcion Arguello, the beautiful daughter of the Commandante of the Presidio. Gertrude Atherton told the entire story in "Rezanov," and Mrs. Fremont Older wrote about the couple in "Love Stories of Old California." Bret Harte wrote a poem about Concepcion. After many dances at the Presidio and many talks together, the dashing count and the young girl exchanged pledges. Then, at the shrewd instigation of the postponing padres, Rezanov sailed away to secure permission for the mixed-faith a marriage from the Russian Church and the Catholic Church. No word was heard from him for 36 years until Sir George Simpson brought news of his fate. Not realizing that Rezanov's fiancee was listening, he told the story of Rezanov's death on the steppes of Siberia on the very journey that had taken him away from his betrothed. "But his inamorata is here in the room," said one of the group. "No," said Concepcion, "she died too."

..The Russian cemetery that gave Russian Hill its name was located on the crest of the hill above Taylor between Green and Vallejo. The exact site is now a ramp and staircase on the corner of Jones and Vallejo. There has been much speculation as to the origins of this cemetery and why the Russian Fur Company chose this spot to bury their dead in the 1830s. The cemetery was San Francisco's second burial ground; the first was at Mission Dolores. The Russian cemetery was used during Gold Rush times, but was gone by 1860. In 1917, workmen excavating the Leavenworth Street slope are said to have found human bones there....

...One of San Francisco's great events of the Civil War period was the Civil and Military Ball for the Officers of the Russian Fleet. As a symbol of friendship for the Union, Russia had been keeping a fleet anchored in the waters of San Francisco Bay. The very elite City Guard gave the ball in recognition. Tickers were offered to the officers at the Presidio, to the most distinguished officials of the community and to the "bon ton" for as much as $100 apiece. All the officers of the Russian fleet were invited as guests. The banquet consisted of 68 courses from the customary preamble of raw oysters, pickled oysters, fried oysters and oyster patties to the final ices and French cakes. Every ball gown in San Francisco had been bought up for the occasion. The ladies were as well dressed and as beautiful as those at the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg. The ball was a full-scale cosmopolitan affair that did much to advance San Francisco's social reputation...

...The ornate Byzantine-style cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky, the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church for the entire United States, stood at the North Beach foot of Russian Hill for about 30 years until the great fire of 1906 leveled it. Located on Powell Street between Union and Filbert where the Pagoda Theater now stands, the sound of its bells always drew people to the church. The bells, which had been presented by Tsar Alexander III, had been taken from the tower for repair work a few days before the disaster and were saved. Now they ring from the bell tower at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity on Green and Van Ness, still lending the sound of Mother Russia to the city...

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Russian sailors buried on mare island Prepared by Fr. Silas Ruark, St. Timothy Orthodox Church, Fairfield, California

In October 1863, at the invitation of the US Federal Government, the Russian Imperial Pacific Fleet was invited to winter in San Francisco at Mare Island. This allowed the Russian Fleet to undergo repairs, and provided an opportunity for the Federal Government of the United States to offset British and French Naval fleets also harbored in San Francisco — fleets whose governments may have been inclined to support the Confederacy.

Within just days of the arrival of the Russian Fleet, and before sailing to Mare Island, on the morning of Friday, October 23, 1863, a fire broke out in what is now the Financial District of San Francisco.

An article written by Albert P. Wheelan in November 1863, notes:

"The [city] firemen say they were losing the battle, and that unless they conquered the fire the city would be doomed. The firemen began to succumb through the hard work they were forced to do with the hand engines and the great heat. They dropped from their places one by one and several engines went out of commission.

"Suddenly the spectators began to cheer, and to cheer again and again. A thousand throats took up the cheering. The firemen were electrified when they observed boat load after boat load of Russian sailors and their officers landing with buckets and other fire fighting instruments. . . They took the places of the tired and exhausted firemen and worked hard and long at the pumps and finally conquered the fire. "

On October 25, 1863, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors officially recognized Russian Admiral A. A. Popov, Captain Tachelisacov, and Lieutenants Skryaggin, Echren and Machov, as well as the Russian sailors injured while fighting the fire.

While no documentary evidence has yet been located to establish it as fact, it has long been believed that the six Russian sailors buried at Mare Island in 1863, and whose graves remain there to this day, were sailors who were either killed in or died as a result of injuries sustained while fighting the October 23rd fire.

Besides three tombs marked "Unknown Russian Sailor" are the tombs of Russian Sailors Artemy Trapeznekov, Yakov Butorin, and Karl Kort. The original grave stones of all six sailors have long since been damaged and disappeared.


On September 11, 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, Captain A. Berlinsky steered the Cruiser Lena of the Imperial Russian Navy into San Francisco seeking repairs.

He had sailed from Vladivostok to raid Japanese fishing fleets in the Sea of Okhotsk, and ended up getting cut off from his base by Japanese cruisers.

Because President Theodore Roosevelt had proclaimed American neutrality in the Russo-Japanese War, Captain Berlinsky, the Lena and her crew, had to depart within forty-eight hours or be detained in America for the remainder of that war.

Captain Berlinsky claimed his boilers were in bad shape, and major repairs were needed before the Lena could return to the open seas. A US Navy inspection of the Lena confirmed Captain Berlinsky's claim, and the Lena was escorted to Mare Island at Vallejo, California, where she remained until the end of the war. The Lena and her crew were disarmed, her guns dismantled, and ammunition removed. Lena's officers signed agreements not to leave the area without the permission of President Roosevelt. Each crew member was given a similar parole.

Local newspaper accounts of that period reflect that the Lena, as well as her officers and crew, were often the subject of considerable interest during their stay at Mare Island.

A Russian Sailor Dies on the Lena

On November 1,1904, Russian Sailor John Peskov fell to his death while performing duties on the Lena.

The Vallejo Evening Chronicle of November 2, 1904, gives this account of the Orthodox funeral service given Peskov at the Mare Island Naval Cemetery: "The hearse was followed by a file of shipmates of the deceased, the officers in full uniform, and Captain Berlinsky in the carriage of [US Navy] Admiral McCalla. Sailors carrying immense wreaths preceded the ship's chaplain who was arrayed in the flowing robes of Orthodox Clergy, a long tunic of black velvet, trimmed in broad silver braid, with black stole, and black head gear. The priest carried a large crucifix of dull gold. Following him came the Lena's crew, while another company of US Marines formed the rear of the procession. "

Another article of the event described John Peskov (or Peskoff) as "first sergeant of the marines" on the Lena.

Over the days, weeks, and months that followed, US Navy and Russian sailors from the Lena entertained the public and themselves with rowboat races, official functions, and even the occasional newspaper account of misdeeds, their own victimization at the hands of locals in Vallejo, and other events including the breaking of parole by several of Lena's officers and crew — some of whom had to be returned from Russia.

Some of the officers even arranged for their wives and families to join them in California, and rented apartments in Vallejo where they lived until it was time for their return to Russia after the Russo-Japanese War.

Another Sailor Dies

Sometime during 1905, Lena crewman Peter Loboda died and was buried near his shipmate John Peskov. While the cause and date of his death have not yet been determined, there is little doubt that he too was given an Orthodox funeral by the Lena's Orthodox Chaplain.

Lena Refitted and Repaired

In May 1905, Captain Berlinsky returned to Russia and was replaced by Commander A. Ginther of His Imperial Majesty's Navy. Earlier in April, permission had been given the Russian government to have the Lena repaired near San Francisco at the Union Iron Works.

On August 9, 1905, the Lena, under the command of Commander Ginther, left the San Francisco Navy Yard on a trial trip after her extensive repairs at the Union Iron Works. She was escorted by US Navy torpedo boat Fox. She then returned to Mare Island for reloading of crew, the families who came to live in Vallejo, and other goods prior to her departure from California and the United States.

The San Francisco Call of Saturday, October 28, 1905, noted that, "For the first time since she ran away from the Japanese and sought refuge in this harbor, the Russian cruiser Lena looks like a smart warship... . Newly painted and with her brasswork and guns brightly polished, she floats proudly..."

The Lena was scheduled to sail for Russia on Sunday, October 29, 1905.

A Sad and Unexpected End

"Father Vasill [Basil] Osipov, Chaplain of the Russian cruiser Lena, died on board the war vessel at 4 о 'clock yesterday morning. " So noted the Sunday, October 29, 1905 issue of the San Francisco Call.

The departure of the Lena was delayed until Wednesday, November 1, 1905 — one year to the day after the death of Lena's crewman John Peskov — to enable Father Basil to receive the same Orthodox funeral service he provided Lena crewmen Peskov and Loboda.

The funeral service was held at the Russian Orthodox Church (at that time on Powell Street) in San Francisco. Fr. Basil's grave is in the Serbian Orthodox Cemetery south of San Francisco. Fr. Basil never returned home to Russia, he never left America.

Memory Eternal!

For the past several years, on a Saturday between October 23rd and November 20th , Orthodox Christian clergy, choirs, laity and dignitaries from the Russian Consulate, Russian Veterans Society, the Vallejo Naval and Historical Society, and other guests, gather at the Mare Island Cemetery to conduct a Memorial Service (Panikhida) for all the departed Russian sailors.

The dates of October 23rd and November 20th encompass the date of the 1863 San Francisco fire when some of the Russian sailors were injured, the date of death of Artemy Trapeznikov and Yakov Burtorin (October 27th, 1863), the date of Fr. Basil's death (October 28th, 1095), the date of John Peskov's death (November 1st), Veterans Day, and the known date of the death of another of the 1863 sailors (November 20th) Karl Kort.

A sad irony connecting the 1863 and 1904/05 visits of the Russian Navy, is that the famous Russian Admiral Makarov who was killed during the Russo-Japanese War, in which Lena took part, was a midshipman on one of the ships at Mare Island during the 1863 visit.

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For More Information.

. . . about early Russian Orthodox history in Northern California, contact V. Rev. Victor Sokolov, Holy Trinity Cathedral, San Francisco, California.

. . . about early Naval and Russian history in Vallejo and other areas of Northern California, contact Mr. James Kem, Executive Director, Vallejo Naval & Historic Museum, Vallejo, California.

. . . about the information in this brochure, contact Rev. Fr. Silas Ruark, St. Timothy Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, Fairfield, California (tel. 707-864-6236).

. . . about Orthodox Christianity, contact your nearest Orthodox Christian Church.

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Useful links

St. Nicholas Cathedral in San Francisco
Russian Center of San Francisco
Fort Ross State Historic Park
"SLAVYANKA" Mens Russian Chorus
Congress of Russian Americans
Boat Base Monterey
Empire that was Russia

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