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Russian lawmaker suggests reclaiming Fort Ross on Sonoma Coast as payback for US sanctions

The remark came from a high-profile Russian lawmaker on state television earlier this week. His proposal: Russia should demand the return of Fort Ross, its former southern outpost in North America, along with all of Alaska.

And he signaled Russia ought to make the demand of the United States under threat of using nuclear weapons.

While outrageous and the subject of ridicule by American politicians, the moment was an ominous reminder amid the expanding war in Ukraine of Sonoma County’s historic ties to Russia, including the former fortified settlement 45 miles northwest of Santa Rosa.

Built in 1812 by a colonial trading company on a coastal bluff west of present-day Highway 1, Fort Ross marked the southern terminus of Russia’s 19th century expansion in the Americas. In Sonoma County, they occupied ancestral land of the Pomo people.

The Russians stayed until 1841, when the fort was sold to John Sutter, the Sacramento Gold Rush-era tycoon. It became a state park in 1909.

Under the stewardship of the nonprofit Fort Ross Conservancy, which partners with California State Parks to fund programming and renovations, it has served as a slender strand of shared heritage between two superpowers squared off through much of modern history.

The funding of the state park was a struggle, however, coming out of the Great Recession and California’s last budget crisis. That’s when Russian interests stepped in, with donations that a State Parks spokesman a dozen years ago called “a game-changer for Fort Ross,” funding projects and enabling a host of historical, cultural, natural and educational programs.

Russian folk singers were on hand to witness a 39-foot windmill set into action to operate in the wind at Fort Ross State Park, Saturday Oct. 20, 2012. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012
Russian folk singers were on hand to witness a 39-foot windmill set into action to operate in the wind at Fort Ross State Park, Saturday Oct. 20, 2012. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

Those financial ties between the scenic 3,000-acre park on the Sonoma Coast and Russian oligarchs and state businesses — including some now under U.S. and European Union sanctions — raised eyebrows even as they were hailed more than a decade ago.

Now they are more grist in the renewed geopolitical standoff between Russia and the United States as Russian President Vladimir Putin conducts an increasingly brutal war on neighboring Ukraine.

On Sunday, Oleg Matveychev, a member of the Russian parliament, suggested on state television that Russia should also look east, back to its former claimed territories in North America, and demand their return.

“We should be thinking about reparations from the damage that was caused by the sanctions and the war itself,” Matveychev said on a state talk show program, according to an account in The Daily Beast.

Among those reparations, he suggested, “the return of all Russian properties, those of the Russian empire, the Soviet Union and current Russia, which has been seized in the United States, and so on.”

The show’s host asked if he meant to include Alaska and Fort Ross.

Yes, Matveychev said, along with the Antarctic.

“We discovered it, so it belongs to us,” he said.

The threat is not new from bombastic Russian politicians, Fort Ross Conservancy director Sarah Sweedler said in an Wednesday interview.

“It’s just click bait,” she said.

While a California State Park site, both Fort Ross and the adjacent Salt Point State Park are stewarded by the conservancy, which raises money for maintenance, staffing and site improvements through educational programming and sales at an on-site bookshop.

The site also has benefited from Russian individuals and enterprises now under the cloud of sanctions.

In 2010, the conservancy began accepting donations from a Russian oligarch and two companies after California put Fort Ross on a list of state parks it intended to temporarily close amid a budget crisis.

The proposed closure bothered Russian government officials, who negotiated with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to remove the park from the list, according to news accounts at the time.

Renova Group, a Russian company with interests in metals, energy and other industries, created a nonprofit called the Renova Fort Ross Foundation to support the park. Renova Group is led by Viktor Vekselberg, whose personal worth is estimated as high as $6 billion and who U.S. officials consider closely tied to the Kremlin.

The U.S. government first sanctioned Vekselberg in 2018 for Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and other wrongdoing. Those sanctions froze up to $2 billion in estimated assets.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, left, greets Russian Federation Ambassador to the United States Anotoly I. Antonov before the dedication of the historic cemetery at Fort Ross State Historic Park, near Jenner, California, on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. (ALVIN JORNADA/ PD)
California Gov. Jerry Brown, left, greets Russian Federation Ambassador to the United States Anotoly I. Antonov before the dedication of the historic cemetery at Fort Ross State Historic Park, near Jenner, California, on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. (ALVIN JORNADA/ PD)

Before those sanctions were enacted, the Renova Fort Ross Foundation spent around $1.5 million on the park and the conservancy’s programming, according to a list of sponsored projects posted to the foundation’s website.

In October 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown greeted then-Russian Ambassador Anotoly Antonov at an event on the site.

Because of the sanctions, Renova had to stop donating to Fort Ross the same year, Sweedler said.

Vekselberg attended the dedication of a Russian-funded and built windmill at Fort Ross in 2012.

Viktor Vekselberg and State Park Superintendent Liz Burko during a ceremony at Fort Ross State Historic Park. (PAUL C. MILLER)
Viktor Vekselberg and State Park Superintendent Liz Burko during a ceremony at Fort Ross State Historic Park. (PAUL C. MILLER)

The Fort Ross Conservancy holds an annual conference called the Fort Ross Dialogue that is pitched as an opportunity for discussion and collaboration between high-level Russian and American business people and diplomats. Its 2021 Dialogue, for example, was touted as “a platform for cooperation and exchange between Russians and Americans amid severe challenges in relations between Washington and Moscow,” according to the conservancy’s website.

The conference, held last November, was sponsored by Russian oil pipeline company Transneft and shipping company Sovcomflot. The federal government sanctioned both firms last month.

Held virtually because of the pandemic, it featured a speech from Russia’s U.S. Ambassador Anatoly Antonov and a panel called “The Spirit of Geneva: A New Chapter in US-Russian Relations.” Past conferences have featured panels on energy exploration and trade partnership opportunities.

In 2018, Sweedler stood on a stage at the Kremlin with Putin. She received an award for her work preserving and promoting Russian culture abroad.

Critics, however, have painted the involvement of Russian interests at Fort Ross as insidious. In a 2019 report on Russian oligarchs’ philanthropy in the New York Times, a former National Security Council adviser to President Barack Obama called Renova’s financing of Fort Ross “part of a soft power operation.”

There has been local criticism, too, as some involved in the park have worried about its reputation.

“In the minds of some, (Fort Ross Conservancy) is associated with Russia due to these activities, and it has gained a reputation for being run by Russian money,” former board member and park volunteer Susan Rudy wrote in a 2017 letter to the conservancy board that was obtained by The Press Democrat.

“I think we must all agree that the Russian (government) is no friend of the U.S., particularly following this past election,” she wrote.

But Sweedler called it “absolutely misguided to say that our programs are funded by Russia.” Funding from Russian sources has made up less than 20% of the small nonprofit’s revenues, she said.

Last year, the conservancy received $50,000 from two Russian companies, out of roughly $570,000 in total revenue, according to Sweedler. The U.S. government sanctioned both companies after the Ukraine invasion, she said. She did not respond to a request to name the companies by press time.

The conservancy promotes goodwill between the nations through its conference and hosts Russian high school students in visits to the fort each year, she said.

“It’s cultural exchange and understanding that we’re all sharing the planet,” she said.

The Fort Ross Conservancy has not issued any statements and the board has not taken a position on the war in the Ukraine, Sweedler said. She questioned whether the organization should or would take a stance.

“We don’t have a role here,” she said. “We support the running of a park.”

Personally, she added, she opposes the war.

At the park, since the war began, staff have seen Ukrainian and Russian visitors, she said, and “everyone is gracious.”

Sweedler laughed off Matveychev’s threat of Russia taking the fort back as political theater. “How would that work?” she said.

The response from Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy was more warlike.

“Not if we have something to say about it,” Dunleavy wrote in a Twitter post. “We have hundreds of thousands of armed Alaskans and military members that will see it differently.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom did not issue a statement.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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