The Donald Trump administration plunged US-Russian relations to their lowest point since the height of the Cold War with its decision to order the Russian Consulate-General in San Francisco closed within 48-hours. The move by the State Department followed increased sanctions placed on Russia by the US Congress. The decision by Washington to give the Russian government a scant 48-hous to close the mission resulted in consular staff being forced to burn sensitive blank visas, files containing personal data on US and Russian nationals, and other sensitive material as San Francisco thermometers reached triple-digit temperatures.
The closure of the consulate-general and Russian trade missions in Washington, DC and New York was the latest skirmish in a diplomatic and commercial cold war instituted first by the Barack Obama administration and ratcheted up under Trump. The consulate-general in San Francisco, located at 2790 Green Street in the Cow Hollow neighborhood, has served as a cultural center for San Francisco’s Russian-American and Russian community in San Francisco. The decision by Washington to close the Russian consular office in San Francisco was as much a cultural slap for an American ethnic group as would have been the expulsion of the Irish consulate in Boston, the Israeli Consulate-General in New York, the Mexican Consulate-General in Los Angeles, or the French Consulate-General in New Orleans.
The history of the Russian diplomatic presence in San Francisco goes back to 1852 and the first Russian diplomatic envoy in the Bay Area, Vice Consul Peter Kostromitinov, also served as the chief administrator for Russian settlers in Alta [northern] California.
Kostromitinov also served as the chief agent of the Russian-American Company, which, in 1812, established the Russian settlement of Fort Ross, «Ross» being a shortened form of «Rossiya». Fort Ross, which was built on the Gulf of Rumyantsev, now Bodega Bay, served as a hub for other Russian settlements in northern California, along with a sealing station on the Farallon Islands, which lie outside of the approaches to San Francisco Bay.
In 1849, the Fort Ross settlement was no longer needed to supply agricultural goods to Russian settlements in Alaska. The Russian-American Company agreed to sell the settlement to a Mexican national of Swiss origin, John Sutter, for a sum between $20,000 and $30,000. The actual amount remains in question since some historians believe that Sutter, who spurred the «Great California Gold Rush» of 1848, reneged on the deal with the Russians. If there was truly a «no sale» resulting from commercial fraud on the part of Sutter and the Russian-American Company’s pro-slavery agent – former Comptroller of the US Treasury, William M. Steuart of Maryland – the northern California coast, stretching from Point Arena to Tomales Bay, including Bodega Bay and much of the area surrounding the Russian River, including Sebastopol, Santa Rosa, Forestville, and Healdsburg, legally belong to the Russian government.
Ironically, the successor agent of Alexander Baranov, the Russian-American Company founder of Fort Russ, and Nikolay Rezonov, the Russian ambassador to Japan and director of the Russian-American Company, who could legally take possession of the former Russian territory in Alta California for the Russian Federation, is the senior Russian diplomat assigned responsibility for northern California, Sergey Petrov, recently expelled along with the other diplomats assigned to the San Francisco consulate-general.
In September 1863, Tsar Alexander II, at the behest of President Abraham Lincoln, dispatched the Russian Far East fleet to San Francisco to protect the port and the city from raiders of the rebellious Confederacy. At the same time, the Russian Baltic Fleet was dispatched to protect New York City. US Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells, who was free to use his Union ships to attack Confederate ports and blockade runner as a result of the Russian assistance, declared, «God bless the Russians!» in reaction to the Russian assistance to the Union. Alexander II, who had freed Russian serfs, sympathized with President Lincoln and his emancipation of the slaves. Alexander II was also keenly aware that Britain, France, Spain, Austria-Hungary, and his arch-enemy, Poland, were all supporting the Confederacy against the United States.
In 1864, the Russian Navy commander in San Francisco ordered his forces to attack, on sight, the Confederate raider, «CSS Shenandoah», the former British «HMS Sea King», if she attempted to enter San Francisco Bay. After the US Civil War, the lawyer, Civil War veteran, and future US Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously declared that Russia «was our friend when the world was our foe».
The Russian Consulate-General in San Francisco has tried to maintain the memory of the Russian naval personnel who helped to protect the Union. In 1863, six Russian sailors died while battling a raging fire on the San Francisco waterfront. It has never been determined what caused the fire, but Confederate saboteurs, who arrived clandestinely in the city from Confederate pockets in southern California and Arizona, may have been the culprits.
In 2011, the consulate-general, working with the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation and local Russian Orthodox Church officials, repaired grave markers at the final resting places of Russian sailors A. Trapeznikov, K. Kort, Y. Bootorin, and three unidentified Russian seamen. After they perished in the waterfront fire in 1863, the Russians were buried with full military honors in the Mare Island naval base cemetery, which was closed in 1921. The cemetery fell into a state of disrepair, mostly thanks to US Navy inattention. In 1995, the Navy closed its Mare Island base in Vallejo. After the head stones were repaired by the Russian government, the city of Vallejo charged in 2011 that the Russians, church officials, and other local personnel committed «graveyard vandalism». It appears that the Vallejo City Council received its «marching orders» to complain about the grave marker repairs because of «outside» coercion from parties far away from the Bay Area, in places such as Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia and «gay rights» interests in Washington, DC. Vallejo attempted to have the new markers removed because of «paperwork» infractions.
In 1852, Tsar Nicolas II appointed William M. Steuart, the same grifter who may have fleeced the Russian-American Company out of its California lands on behalf of gold rush king Sutter, honorary vice consul for Russia in San Francisco. Steuart’s role did not last long, which was fortunate considering his later pro-Confederate leanings.
On December 28, 1853, Steuart was fired and Kostromitinov took over as the first native Russian vice consul. From 1862 to 1975, Martin F. Klinkovstrem served as vice consul and was present for the Russian Far East fleet’s protection of San Francisco from the Confederacy.
Gustav Nyubaum, the owner of the «Alaska Merchants» company, which succeeded the Russian-American Fur Company, replaced Nyubaum. The Russian consulate was located in a Russian architecture-style building on California Street. In 1915, Artemy M. Vyvodtsev became the first Consul General of the Russian Empire in San Francisco. After the 1917 Revolution in Russia, Vyvodtsev continued to serve as senior Russian consular officer for San Francisco but soon returned to Russia to serve as a diplomatic representative for the counter-revolutionary government of Omsk and Vladivostok. After the Russian Civil War, Vyvodtsev returned to San Francisco, where he served as an unofficial Russian representative as Chairman of the Joint Committee of the Russian National Organizations. The Russian mission was forced to close in 1924 due to the lack of operating funds. During the period of non-recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States, Vyvodtsev and another Russian, Arthur Carl von Yulevich Landesen, served as volunteer consular agents for Russia in the San Francisco area.
Vyvodtsev stated in 1924, «At this point, I consider it as my duty to bring to the memory of our fellow citizens, that I recently headed still the Consulate General in San Francisco, and although in the era of the seizure of power left the post, but still retained informally the friendships with foreign consuls, colleagues, and it gives me an opportunity to offer my services through the Italian-American Bank, a special Russian department for all those who are in need of different certificates, advice, directions, possible assistance, translations and legal advice. Come to me like children to their father in all cases of doubt and perplexity, and I’ll give you all my experience gained during 45 years of consular services in almost all countries of the world as the true representative of Russia».
Upon the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Soviet Union in 1933, Moses G. Galkovich took up the reins of Consul-General of the USSR in San Francisco. The consulate-general was located on Divisadero Street. In 1948, the Soviet Consulates General in San Francisco and New York were closed amid Cold War tensions. On June 1,1964, the Soviet-American Consular Convention paved the way for the reopening of the Soviet Consulate-General in San Francisco, but it was not until 1971 until Alexander I. Zinchuk arrived to take up his post. The Green Street consular building opened in 1973.
The closure of the Russian Consulate-General by the Trump administration ends a long history of Russian diplomatic, consular, cultural, and historic preservation activities in not only San Francisco, but the former Russian-America colonies in Alta California and Oregon. What is particularly galling at a time when Trump has shown his sympathies for neo-Confederates and other racist groups, he has overseen the closure of a consulate-general with a history dating back to the protection of the Union from Confederate forces and the firing of Steuart, a supporter of slavery and the Confederacy, as Russia’s honorary vice consul in 1853.