article picture

The Russian Connection in San Francisco

by Jack Leibman

We all know about Fort Ross in 1830, Sebastopol, the Russian River, and Russian Hill, where artifacts of buried Russian sailors have been found. Perhaps we also know that the founding of the Presidio may have been inspired by Charles III of Spain because of concern about Russian incursions from the north. A few of us know about the Russian exploration of San Francisco Bay in 1812, when the Russian-employed botanist von Chamisso first described the California poppy, took a specimen back to St. Petersburg, and enshrined it in the Russian Museum, where it still resides as the “type specimen,” the original.

Most of us have heard the romanticized love story of Count Rezanov and Concepcion Arguello. In 1806, after the Juno sailed into the Bay, desperately seeking supplies for the Russian settlement at Sitka, Count Rezanov was invited to a reception by Arguello. Legend has it that Rezanov and Concepcion fell in love, but he died enroute to Moscow to seek permission to marry outside of his Orthodox faith. Rezanov's memorial statue in Siberia is revered as a symbol of eternal love.

Russia again entered the chronicles of San Francisco in September 1863 when a Russian squadron of six vessels arrived in San Francisco as a gesture of support for the North during the Civil War, with the intention of warding off any possible intervention by England or France. Parts of the fleet cruised Hawaii and the South Pacific, and were based here until August 1864.

Now, over 200 years after Rezanov's visit, the Russians have returned to the Presidio. For the past five years the Olympic Adult Day Care Health Center has occupied a building about 100 feet from the Officers Club, the site where Rezanov was received by Arguello in 1806. This busy facility serves a mostly Russian senior immigrant population residing in the Richmond district. Transportation and a full complement of medical, pharmaceutical, and rehabilitation services are provided. On its entry are mounted two Russian posters. On a recent visit, scores of seniors were grouped about, all conversing in Russian or enjoying a Russian accordionist.

This interesting experience led to more reflections about our important and frequently renewed Russian connections, which have such ancient roots. The three Russian Orthodox cathedrals are familiar landmarks. However, the major repository of Russian culture in San Francisco is The Russian Center at 2450 Sutter Street.

The Russian Center is a stately building of four stories built in 1913 in the neo-baroque style. It was originally the German Club, superseded by its present tenant in 1939. The main entryway opens on a grand staircase, leading to a variety of well-maintained and inviting spaces. There are several banquet rooms with fully-equipped kitchen facilities, and a long wooden bar, mirrored at one end. An attractive large theater space, seating 550, with stage and the largest free-standing balcony in the city, is used for theater, opera, recitals, choirs, and receptions. The gymnasium is utilized by various Russian youth groups, gymnastics, the Drew School, the City Church, children's daycare, and karate and swing dance classes. A classic mirrored dance space is equipped with barres and is used by children's and adults’ dance and ballet classes.

The hallways are covered by framed photographic displays of the annual Russian Festivals. The 20th annual Festival will occur in February 2009. The three-day festival, which drew 4000 attendees this year, includes ethnic costumed dances, traditional Russian foods, a vodka bar, theater, and art displays. The Russian Center is privately incorporated, owns the building, and rents spaces to community groups. It sponsors a Russian children’s daycare center, a weekly Russian newspaper, and the Congress of Russian-Americans. The library, museum, and archives, staffed by volunteers, are on the third and fourth floors. Center membership dues are $45. The Russian Consulate is in frequent contact about cultural and ethnic matters.

Bay Area Russian "compatriots" number at least 200,000. Several waves of immigration have produced this total, the first in 1917 after the Revolution, again after World War II, and more recently after Glasnost and the Soviet collapse. Since 1979, over 40,000 Russian Jews have settled in the Bay Area. An extensive network of services has evolved for these diverse communities, the latest links in a tradition begun in 1806.

Photo courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

article picture

Early photo of what is today the Russian Center

Send comments and questions to
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.