Restored cemetery at Fort Ross draws praise from Gov. Brown, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov

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On the foggy cliffs of the Sonoma Coast on Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown was glad to stand on dirt with a high-powered delegation of Russian officials to commemorate the restoration of a historic cemetery at Fort Ross.

While tensions between the two countries are taut after U.S. officials have accused Russia of interfering in elections and launching a global hacking campaign, the governor of California and the Russian ambassador to the United States joined church leaders, Alaska Natives, Kashia Pomo Indians and preservationists to celebrate a project of mutual interest.

“This site at Fort Ross is a good time to remember that Russia and America, together, won World War II. And we didn’t like the guy who was in charge of Russia then, but we worked with him and we defeated the Nazis,” Brown said to the crowd. “So let’s learn from the horrors of the past to create the beauty of the future.”

The cemetery restoration included a new 14-foot-tall, eight-point Russian cross structure made from redwood trees, new boulders inscribed with a description of the cemetery in multiple languages, interpretive panels, a bench and maintenance of a wooded half-mile trail between the cemetery and Fort Ross, a former Russian settlement. It’s a project that brought together a diverse range of groups with a shared history, and for many who attended the ceremony, a hope for a shared future of peace.

Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov acknowledged the area’s history — the first Russian Orthodox church in the U.S. was built at Fort Ross — and the strained relationship between his country and the United States.

“Preserving the memory of our common past has played an important role in strengthening trust and mutual understanding between Russia and the United States. We hope that this work will be continued, regardless of the current political turbulence,” Antonov said.

Antonov also mentioned he spoke with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis about the initiative to restore the cemetery, and Mattis sent him a letter of support.

“I hope that General Mattis will not be fired tomorrow,” Antonov joked to the chuckling crowd, which included Vassily Nebenzia, Russian representative to the United Nations.

The project to restore the cemetery began in February and recently finished, according to Leslie Hartzell, chief of the cultural resources division at the state parks department.

“There are so many people who share a history to this place and their cultural traditions are still anchored to Fort Ross, and it’s very important to be a place where people can continue to come and celebrate their cultural history and carry on their cultural traditions,” said Hartzell, who facilitated cultural dialogue between the groups and got their input for appropriate improvements in the interpretive area.

About 130 people were buried from 1812 to 1840 at the Ross settlement, which included Russians, the Kashia Pomo, Miwok, Spaniards and Mexicans. The majority buried are women and children, and the different groups intermarried.

Sabrena Rosenberg, Unangax for Unalaska and Fort Ross Conservation Center board member, is from Sonoma County and has Native Alaskan ancestry, including a relative buried in the cemetery.

“So it’s very sacred land to me and it matters very much,” said Rosenberg, who spoke at the ceremony Saturday about her appreciation for the renovation efforts.

Brown spoke about learning from the past. The Kashia Pomos lived in the area for more than 12,000 years. He recalled the first governor of California wanted to “exterminate” Native Americans, a dark time in the state’s history.

“In California, we believe in diversity. We believe in hospitality, and we believe in respecting our ancestors and those who got us here and we want to build on that diverse spirit for even a better future. A future of inclusion and diversity and creativity, that’s what it’s all about. And it all starts with standing on this dirt and making it all work for us,” Brown said.

Dino Franklin Jr., tribal chairmen of the Kashia Pomo Band of Indians of the Stewarts Point Rancheria, said the Russian cross at the cemetery was known to his tribe’s dreamers long before, and they saw it as an important symbol.

“I’m grateful that we, the Kashia people, have dreamed about this symbol and the power it has even before contact. It’s a symbol of hope, peace and love,” Franklin said.

Fr. Alexander Krassovsky of Saints Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church in Santa Rosa took part in the religious blessing of the new cross. As a Russian American raised in the Bay Area, the cemetery has special meaning to him.

“I think that Fort Ross, altogether, is an example of what Mahatma Gandhi once said, that it is possible to live in peace,” Krassovsky said. “We’ve come to this point today where it is very, very possible that we all have a great deal in common, maybe more than some of our politicians like to think.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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