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Sonoma County landmark built by Russians gets financial support


A Russian billionaire's pledge to help Fort Ross State Historic Park is expected to pay dividends for the former Russian settlement.

"This is a game-changer for Fort Ross," said Roy Stearns, a spokesman for California State Parks in Sacramento. "It will allow us to fast track some historical, cultural, natural and educational programs."

Viktor Vekselberg made the commitment in June after he visited the fort. He is the president of Renova Group, a Russian conglomerate with interests in aluminum, oil, energy and telecommunications.

Last week, Renova signed a three-year agreement with state parks and the Fort Ross Interpretative Association for what it calls substantial financial support for the fort and its programs, leading up to its 200th anniversary celebration in 2012.

Although initially touted as a promise of up to $1 million a year, the agreement mentions no dollar amount.

"We have a multi-year partnership here that will add some benefits to the park every year for many years to come," Stearns said. "I haven't seen a figure that boils it down."

The promise of financial support comes after the historic state park's hours were reduced to three days a week as part of state budget cuts.

"We have been in a tough place with less support, financial and otherwise," said Sarah Sweedler, president of the fort's interpretative association. "This gives us an opportunity to grow as a park. ... We will be able to undertake projects we have not been able to take on because there will be some money."

Sweedler said the association would like to have a Russian-speaking guide on weekends, wants to hire an executive director, needs new shelves in the library and has new books to publish.

The agreement between state parks and an international company is unusual, but it is safe and good for everyone involved, said Sweedler.

"We have this common vision, and we share the common ground of Fort Ross," he said. "We have a cooperative between the two countries. The fort is still owned by the state of California, but we are selling it to an international audience."

Russia's state trading firm, the Russian-American Co., established Fort Ross in 1812 as a place to hunt sea otters for their pelts and to raise food for the company's outposts in Alaska.

After the Russians had hunted sea otters to virtual extinction and the fort had failed as an agriculture venture, it was sold in 1841 to John Sutter and later became part of the historic Call ranch.

Fort Ross became a state historical landmark in 1903 and a state park in 1906. It now draws 230,000 visitors a year.

Benefits from the agreement could be as simple as repairing the leaky roof of the Rotchev House, the commandant's living quarters, or recreating the settlement's 32-foot-tall Russian windmill.

Building the windmill could add a new perspective to the park, which was more colony than fort, a community with a fortified center, said Breck Parkman, state parks senior archaeologist.

"By the nature of our reconstruction, we have given the wrong impression of what Fort Ross looked like," Parkman said. "We have only reconstructed the structures that are inside the compound, and yet the majority of the structures were outside ... houses, barns, corrals and windmills."

Igor Medvedev, a Russian historical architect, used an 1842 color rendering to determine that the fort had a distinctive, 19th century windmill with two 19-foot vanes and a top story that would have swiveled on a post to keep the vanes facing into the wind.

The first windmill west of the Mississippi, it was used to grind wheat for bread and pound tan bark for the oil used in tanning leather.

Archaeologists have found its approximate location on a wind-swept knoll between the fort and Highway 1.

"I have seen Russian windmills,"Parkman said. &‘They are beautiful wooden structures. It would be an attention-getter for someone driving up or down Highway 1."