Fort Ross became a Russian colony, at least in spirit, on Saturday, with thousands of Russian and Russian-American visitors attending the historic compound's bicentennial weekend celebration.
The event, which highlighted early Russian history in California, also brought to Sonoma County the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.
"You can't help but think of the closeness of Russia and the United States," Kislyak said. "There are so many important political things that I can take back to Washington from Fort Ross."
Two hundred years ago, Fort Ross was established by the Russian American Company as the southern outpost of "Russian America." Settlers traded with Native Americans who lived in the area, particularly the Kashaya Pomo, whose descendents today often recall peaceful relations.
On the last Saturday in July for the past three decades, Fort Ross State Park has held a Cultural Heritage Day celebration commemorating this history. Saturday's bicentennial event, which cost about $80,000 to produce, has been widely anticipated for years.
In the morning, a half-hour backup formed on Highway1 as cars trickled into the fort parking lot. A state parks volunteer greeted visitors at the entrance, telling them where to park.
"Am I speaking to you in English or Russian?" the volunteer asked.
State and local officials also attended the event, many of them thanking both Russian and American businesses and nonprofit organizations that have contributed money not only for the bicentennial celebration but also for repairs to the aging fort.
The Renova Group of Companies, a Russian multinational with interests in mining, oil, energy and telecommunications, has contributed $1.7 million for park programs, including $160,000 to place the roof on a historic Russian structure.
These and other contributions were prompted by a state budget crisis that threatened the closure of parks across the state.
The controversy that erupted earlier this month after it was revealed the state parks agency stashed away $54million in surplus funds has raised concerns among some Fort Ross supporters.
"It wouldn't surprise me if the sponsors were upset about this news," said Sarah Sweedler, president of the Fort Ross Conservancy. "It makes our job harder, our job as a nonprofit and fundraiser. The worst possible scenario is this revelation drives funders away while Fort Ross still doesn't receive public money. That's a possibility."
But Olga Miller, head of the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, said the group is committed to helping preserve the history of Fort Ross.
When news of the parks scandal broke, "it did make us uncomfortable for a second," Miller said, adding that Renova's contribution by the end of the year will total much more than the $1.7 million it has already spent.
"We are here for Fort Ross. I hope this investigation concludes there was no misappropriation of funds," she said. "We are not stopping our work."
State Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird, who also attended the Saturday's celebration, called the revelations surrounding the state parks agency "disheartening."
"The larger issue still exists," he said, adding that the parks system is saddled with $1.2 billion in deferred maintenance, $1 million at Fort Ross alone.
"We're grateful to anyone that helps with the larger assistance to state parks," he said.
Those in attendance Saturday were in a mood to celebrate the birthday of Fort Ross.