Earlier this month a delegation of Native Americans and U.S. park officials visited Russia to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Fort Ross. The Moscow Times had an article about it.
Fort Ross was Russia’s southernmost North American colony, located approximately 73 miles north of San Francisco. It served as a hub for Russian trappers and agriculture in the region along the Russian River in Sonoma Valley. The chief agricultural purpose was supplying the vast Russian colonies in Alaska. The Russians withdrew from the area by 1849, having outsourced the supply of foodstuffs for its Alaskan colonies to the Hudson Bay Company.
Typical of Russian colonial history, the relations between the Russians and the local Kashia Pomo indian tribe were relatively harmonious. Lester Pinola, A Kasia tribal elder, favorably compared the relations with Russians to the later relations with English-speaking colonists. “They didn’t force us to talk Russian. When the English came… [we] were forced to talk English, otherwise [we] were beaten.”
The Russians proactively engaged with the Kashia Pomo Indians. Records show that some Kashia women married Russians and returned to Russia. When smallpox and measles devasted American Indians throughout North America, it was a Russian doctor at Fort Ross who conducted the first vaccination program in California history. The Russians’ disease prevention policy also included quarantining ships that came from regions known to carry diseases for which the local Indian’s had no immunological defenses.
Of the great empires in world history, Russia’s relations and integration with non-Russian populations are exceptional. In fact, the roots of the Russian Empire go to the 9th century, when leading Russian princes invited the three Rurik brothers from Sweden to come and rule them using modern governing techniques.
The Rurik Dynasty lasted until the late 16th century, followed by the Romanov Dynasty. Catherine The Great was in fact a minor German Princess who married into the Romanov family, becoming Empress after murdering her weak husband. The great grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, the giant of 19th century poetry, was a black African “page” raised by Peter The Great.
Many of the key Bolshivek / Soviet leaders were not Russian either. Stalin and Beria were both Georgians who spoke Russian with an accent. Trotsky was Ukrainian; Dzerzhinsky, Polish. And today, it only takes a short walk in Moscow to see the large role that Asians play in Russian society, having come from the vast central Asian territories of the empire.
Further, the claims of rampant Russian anti-Semitism often repeated in the West do not mesh well with how many political and business leaders are Jewish. Trotsky and Dzerzhinsky were both Jewish. Lenin’s grandfather converted from Judaism to Christianity. Many of the so called Russian Oligarchs who became instant billionaires in the 1990s are also Jewish, including Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Fridman, Viktor Vekselberg, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovksy, and Vladimir Gusinsky.
It’s ironic that Russia had such a great impact on the 20th century American psyche, and yet Americans know so little about Russia. They know little about Russia’s rich contributions to science, the arts, education, and the European political order.
The Fort Ross 200th anniversary commemoration is a good opportunity for Americans to learn more about Russia’s inclusive culture. It is time to begin building better bridges between these two great melting pots.