San Francisco History

San Francisco's Foreign Colonies:
No. 7 — The Russians

By Robert H. Willson.

Thousands of Cultured Expatriates Now Coming to Make a New Life in America; Good Citizens.

Before setting out on a visit to the Russian colony of San Francisco it might be well to have the car washed and polished by a Russian duke, who is an exceedingly able and thorough man, having been a superintendent of heavy artillery construction at home. He appreciates the value of detail and deals respectfully with millimeters.

Thousands of Russians in America occupy a most unique and dramatic position. Accustomed to wealth, power and intellectual or artistic pursuits they find themselves suddenly left to confront the necessity of bread with a pair of hands.

"From the hand to the mouth—that is the story of Russian life in San Francisco today," said a former high official.

There are two kinds of Russians in this strange and picturesque colony—the immigrants who came first to escape the monarchists and the refugees who have come recently to escape the bolsheviki.

"They mix just like fire and water," said a former consul.

But they have one institution in common, the Russian Orthodox church at Van Ness avenue and Green street, where they will celebrate old Christmas on January 7.

Romantic Story.

The story of the first Russians in San Francisco is so fascinating and romantic that it insists upon more than a casual reference, although the connecting links between them and now hang upon the slightest of threads spun over a long space of time.

Bering discovered the Pacific Coast for the Russians in 1741, and they began to settle Alaska. Rezanoff came to Sitka to inspect the Russian colonies in 1805. Tempted by stories of a country to the south where there was much grain, a commodity which the Alaska Russians were greatly in need of, he sailed down the coast, and arrived at San Francisco bay in April, 1806. Here he had a doubtful reception. Spain at that time having forbidden trade in California with other nations. Rezanoff worte a letter and dispatched it by messenger to Governor Arillaga at Monterey. He responded by coming to San Francisco.

The first Russian colonists probably were two sailors who escaped from this ship, finding their way to an island. History does not say which island, but perhaps it was Angel Island, where so many have since waited for admission to the land of opportunity. These first two enterprising sailors met the fate of many others. They were eventually taken prisoner and returned to Alaska.

Arillaga was an honest and conscientious governor and would listen to no plan for the evasion of the Spanish edict against trade with foreigners. Rezanoff had brought a cargo of most desirable goods for barter, and was loath to return to his people, suffering from lack of proper food and the consequent scurvy and disease without making every possible effort.

The novelist or the poet might well revel in this early California romance. The Commandante at San Francisco at this time was Arguello, and his sister, the Donna Concepcion [sic], was known as one of the beauties of all California. Rezanoff was made a welcome guest in the Arguello home, and as distinguished visitors in those days were few, he was entertained with more than the typical Spanish hospitality towards all strangers. The beautiful and much courted Donna Concepcion fell in love with the Russian official. Was it love or diplomacy that stirred him to an ardent suit for her hand? That may be left to the imagination of the historian. There seems to be a difference of opinion.

Love Succeeds.

At least love succeeded when diplomacy had failed. The Donna Concepcion pledged her hand to Rezanoff, and the Governor Arillaga found it impossible to refuse the prospective son-in-law of his old friend Arguello, a request which was perfectly fair, and also humane. It was arranged that the people of San Francisco might purchase the cargo of the Rezanoff ship, and in turn sell him their grain.

On May 21st Rezanoff said good-bye to his beautiful fiancee, and set sail for Alaska. He was to return to his own country, report to his government, and the next year return to claim his bride.

Digressing for a moment from the story of the Russians in San Francisco, it would not be fair to leave the Donna Concepcion waiting endlessly in San Francisco for the return of her promised husband. She was, however, to wait for many years in hope and doubt, since in those days there was no ready means of communication. Rezanoff died in a remote part of Siberia on his return journey to the Russian capital, and it was only by indirect means that the Donna Concepcion learned of his fate. She, however, remained faithful to her pledge through a long and useful life. She took the veil, became Sister Concepcion, noted for her piety and works of charity, and died highly respected and honored at the Convent of Saint Catherine in Benicia, in 1857.

Nor does the story of the Russians in California seem complete without reference to the Russian river, now a summer playground, and Fort Ross, the first Russian settlement just north of its mouth. On January 3, 1809, Kuskof landed at Bodega Bay and started the settlement there. In 1815 Jose Bolcof was baptized at Soledad and is recorded as the first permanent settler. On September 16, 1816, a bear and bull fight was held at the Presidio in honor of Otto von Kotzebue of the Russian navy, whose ship was in this harbor. Fort Ross was dedicated in September, 1812, and the colonists there struggled on against many adversities and difficulties in attempting to establish trade with the Spanish in California until 1841.

Baranoff's Grandson.

Count Vladamir Baranoff, a resident of San Francisco today, very nearly bridges the gap between then and now. He is the fifth grandson of Governor Baranoff of Alaska. He came to San Francisco in the sixties and remembers the beginnings of the present Russian colony here. The first Russian church was established in 1870. The church in San Francisco is entitled to a certain sense of importance in that the former Bishop Tikhon, who was here in the early nineties, is now Archbishop and head of the church in Russia. Platon, the 'present' Metropolitan of the church, is also well known in San Francisco, having been a resident here.

The Russian colony in San Francisco is estimated at about 10,000 at the present time. The influx since the war has been limited only by the restrictions of the United States immigration laws. Thousands of Russians are now waiting at Harbin for passports, hoping to be counted in the quota that will be allowed entrance during the coming year. In the background hovers the fear that there may be still further restrictions before those who are already on the way have completed their journey. There are members of families in San Francisco who came across the Pacific engaged in the most desperate efforts to secure the admission of wives, children, fathers or mothers, who are seeking to come across the Atlantic and through the port of New York.

A large proportion of the Russians here have taken out their first citizenship papers. Frew of them see any hope in the situation in Europe of returning to their own country. Many of those who were prominent and influential in Russian affairs under the Czar's regime realize that if any change should ever come at home they might be too old to resume an active part in affairs, and it is quite certain that these who left proprety, estates and business interests will not again have the opportunity of stepping back into their former places. Consequently the Russians are making the best of things as they find them in a new and strange country, and going patiently and consistenly to work to establish themsevles in new homes. They are natural linguists and progress rapidly with a strange tongue, which is the first obstacle to be met by the newcomer. It is difficulty with the language that bars those who are accustomed to intellectual or business pursuits from many kinds of employment, and turns them for a beginning to manual labor. That is how you may find an inventor and a man of the highest technical education washing automobiles, pro tem for those who may be far inferior in education but have the advantages of acquaintance with their surroundings.

With artists and musicians it should be different for theirs is a universal language. But the rewards of the art are slow. A good artist at home is by no means a successful one. There are both musicians and artists in the colony here who give concerts and exhibitions which enlisted the most enthusiastic admiration—together with a minimum of compensation. The "hand to mouth" existence is a common experience among all classes of the newly arrived Russians.

It is not an uncommon experience among those who are born and educated in this country to spend half a life time or more in finding the most suitable and profitable occupation. It is all the more remarkable then when foreigners in a few years are able to adjust themselves and become notably successful. Among the Russians, for example, there is the case of the two young men who came here quite a number of years ago, depending upon their knowledge of chemistry and metallurgy to find something interesting in the mining activities of California. Mining was not particularly promising at that time. The Selby smelter, famous in the western mining world, was about to close down because it had failed to pay; the two Russians went down to look it over. They saw that by improved processes, it was possible to extract a larger percentage of precious metals from the ore and by working over the tailings for the gold that had been lost and introducing new scientific processes in the operaiton of the plant, it might be made to pay. They were able to persuade the Bank of California to finance them in an experiment that did not require a great deal of time or capital. In a short time they had the smelter on a paying basis, and it was also profitable to those who were engaged in individual mining enterprises. One of these men is now among the very few of the wealthiest and most successful members of the Russian colony in California. Many others are here who probably have an equal equipment in technical education and qualifications, and it is only a question of time until they will find places of usefulness and importances in larger enterprises.

House Managers.

One of the businesses that has appealed first to the few Russians who were able to escape from the war and revolution in their own country with a little capital, is apartment house ownership and management. The business men in the Russian colony, not serving as employes or wage earners at this time, are chiefly in the apartment house business.

In Berkeley the students at the University of California have found it possible to establish a small club of their own and life has its gayer as well as its serious aspects. The white Russians are noticeably intellectual. A majority of the students here are working their way through school, serving as waiters in restaurants, or at other irregular employment in their spare time. But even the strenuous combination of the labor and study does not prevent them from having their evenings of music and festivity.

The holiday season for the Russian colony in San Francisco began with the American Christmas and will not end until the Orthodox Russian Christmas at the church is completed in the first fortnight of the new year. An effort is being made to unite the Christian churches of all the world in one calendar, but this has not yet been accomplished, and Orthodox Russians are still bound to the traditions of their church which brings the Christmas festival two weeks later than ours.

The big, popular festival of the Russians this year, however, was celebrated in the Civic Auditorium on the evening of December 23. Here, through the interest of many friends and the general spirit of Christmas giving, the Russian children and their parents were provided with a Christmas tree, gifts and an entertainment.

There is a possibility that American citizens of Russian parentage or descent may yet claim some of that part of the California coast upon which the early Russian explorers first centered their attention. A large number of the Russian immigrants coming in recently are said to have gone into the northern coast counties where they find familiar occupations and surroundings in the big logging and lumber enterprises. The extensive dairy opportunities in Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte, also have an appeal to Russians from the country.

Among the Russian colonists are a number of small groups almost as foreign to the rest of their countrymen as they to Americans. The small sect of Holy Jumpers on Rincon Hill have little contact with their countrymen. The Molokanes have established a number of small settlements where they may carry out their own peculiar customs and ideas of religion.

In all the history of the United States, with its doors open to political and religious exiles from all parts of the world, it would be a difficult point to any occasion when it has been the goal of such a general exodus from any one country as now is the case with Russia. The artists, the musicians, the dancers, the business men, the old military, the nobility and even many of the professions found themselves, regardless of their personal convictiosn or prejudices, considered part of a class that was to be practically banished under the new regime at home. Russians by the tens of thousands are waiting in what are practically refugee concentration camps for the first possible opportunities to come into this country.

The best informed Russians here say that the local colony has increased by more than two thousand in the past two years. The Russian church has felt this sudden influx to such an extent that it has recently secured a permit to enlarge its present dwelling. The Russian church accomodates a large number of worshipers because it is the accepted custom to come and go throughout any of the services. This practice is more readily understood when it is remembered that the church has no seats or pews, and one must stand or kneel through all the ceremonies. A two hours service, consequently, finds a constant shifting in the attendance.

A Russian relief society has its headquarters at 24 California street, where the Russian consulate is located. Under present conditions the colony there is naturally a heavy demand upon it, especially as an agency for obtaining employment. A number of large corporations have been interested in this society and are able to offer what is more needed than small charities for indivdual cases, the opportunities of earning a livelihood.

As for the shops, restaurants and places of entertainment, typical of other foreign colonies in San Francisco, the Russian colony  is almost void. The people are scattered, many of them in homes which they consider temporary until they are established in more permanent employment. The samovars about which the Russians are accustomed to gather for social intercourse are moved from place to place, as they are in demand. The old Russian of the cities was a cosmopolitan. The students, artists, business men and military are of this inclination. They will become world citizens with little racial or national prejudice as rapidly as possible, rather than to attempt the establishing of a distinctive colony of their own.

Quick and Adaptable.

The quickness and adaptability of the Russian mind very much resembles qualities we have been claiming as characteristic of Americans.

A Russian officer brings back a story which illustrates the mental alertness which grasps whatever comes within reach. He was examining newly enlisted troops in a training camp on matters in which they had been educated for service. Finding them fully prepared he thought to venture further and see what general education they might have been acquiring.

"Dost thou know anything of Socrates?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," replied a young trooper instantly.
"Well, what about him?" the officer pursued.
"He is the left forward horse in the troyka with the sixth gun in the third battery who wants shoeing, sir," answered the trooper promptly.

This story might interest an employer. it is the kind of mental activity that is as much appreciated in the business world as a knowledge of the classics.

Source: San Francisco Examiner. 30 December 1923. K5. Pictures not included: Russian Orthodox Church, children during Christmas, Russian men, and a pianist.

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