Russian San Francisco Highlights

"First in America" - Russian American Co.

San Francisco, nowadays a shining jewel of the American Pacific Coast, was founded by the Spaniards on the land that belonged to Yelamu Indians. And yet, town’s early history, as well as the history of the entire Northern California, is closely associated with that of Russia - or rather of Russian settlers. In fact, the first Russian settlement in America, save for that in Alaska, is the now famous Fort Ross, founded by the Russian American Company in 1812, less than 40 years after Spaniards established Presidio of San Francisco, and just 100 kilometers north from it. Russians of Fort Ross, who had lacked provisions and resources but were believed to possess more cannons and firearms than all the Spanish troops in the region, maintained a delicate balance in their political, trade, and social relations with Spaniards of San Fran. That is, until USofA bought Fort Ross territories from the Russian American Co in 1842. For anyone interested in Russian American history, a visit to San Francisco is not complete w/o a day trip to Fort Ross, which is especially lively on holidays such as Independence Day, when old Russian cannons, used to keep Spaniards at bay, are fired by US rangers wearing Russian traditional military uniforms of the early 19th century.

Hills, Trams, and the Cemetery.

San Francisco has always been a popular place to live. Few areas have ever been as prestigious as Russian Hill in the historic north-eastern part of the city, where prices for its sought-after Victorian villas and mansions are sky-high. Even if you are not in the business of buying real estate in California, be sure to visit the neighborhood during your stay in the Bay Area. Board the San Francisco’s iconic Cable Car downtown, and have a ride through Russian Hill on your way to the famous Fisherman Wharf. While there, you will certainly want to stroll up - or rather down! - the beautifully crooked and world renowned Lombard Street, and conquer a few of the neighborhood’s amazing public staircases. You should also walk along Vallejo street - not only because its vista points provide breathtaking views of the city, but also because this is where the old original Russian cemetery was discovered during the Gold Rush era. Russian ships frequented San Francisco ever since 1806, and a number of deceased crew members and seal hunters were buried here. While the cemetery itself has since been moved to give way for new developments (have we mentioned the real estate prices?), the “Russian” title stuck with the area and a small park on the top of the hill (on Vallejo street) is now boasting a memorial plaque placed by the Russian Government and dedicated to early Russian explorers of California.

Different Cultures, Same Language.

Members of several branches of the Russian Orthodox Church arrived in California and San Francisco through 19th and early 20th centuries. Some settled here when Fort Ross and Alaska were sold by Russia to the US; some came before the Russian Revolution of 1917, seeking religious freedom, others came after it, running from drastic social change, arriving via Europe or Asia. Many members of the Californian Orthodox community live outside of San Francisco nowadays. Those who live in the city tend to stay in Potrero Hill or, mostly, in the ethnically rich Inner Richmond district, where they own various business including restaurants and cafes, serving a traditional Russian food such as golubtsy, pelmeni and borsch. Among these establishments is the award-winning Katia's Tea Room.

The other populous Russian-speaking diaspora is comprised of emigrants from the former Soviet Union, who escaped communism and oppression, coming to live in California in 1970s through 1990s. Most of these emigrants are ethnically Jewish - and many are observant, attending events held by local congregations and the progressive JCC of San Francisco. The cultural background of these people is often diverse and reflects traits of tradition common to the various regions of the former USSR from which they arrived. Among other things, this diversity is manifested in the ethnic (Central Asian, Caucasian, Russian) food that’s served in various restaurants owned by members of this community - or, in our case, frequent! - particularly, in Outer Richmond district where the older generation of this diaspora tends to live.

Where Hippie meet Hip.

San Francisco is a laid-back town, a sunny bastion of hippies, leftists, anarchists, you name it. Or, at least, it used to be. Today, it is also all about being hip, cool, and well off. It is impossible to say where hipster movement originated, but few cities embrace it as much nowadays as does San Francisco. Young professionals wearing beanies, 80's jackets, mom's scarfs and skinny red jeans, work their Macs all day long in groovy new coffee shops that pop up daily to serve cortados and gibraltars made with beans from fashionable local roasters, the likes of Ritual and Blue Bottle. One area where old hippie and new hipster meet is the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. A tourists' must, Hashbury, beloved by Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead and the likes, was a home to a grand hippie experiment and the 1967's Summer of Love. Much like St Mark's of New York, Hashbury still preserves a good deal of bits and pieces of the original counter culture. Today it is also a hipsters' playground with modern coffee bars, organic markets, and vintage clothing stores. One of these new-breed establishments is "Ay Da Piroshki", a part of industrial design "Second Act" business space and a hipster variation of a traditional Russian food store. On your mandatory walk from Hippie Hill of Golden Gate Park, where smell of medical marijuana reigns to the party scene of Molotov's bar of the Lower Haight, make sure to stop by, get some ol' traditional Russian goodies, heat it up DIY hipster style in the Second Act's common space and enjoy! And yes, please say 'Hi!' from us.

New Giants of Silicon Valley.

San Francisco has always been the center of innovation -- perhaps more so than any other place in America. Except, perhaps, for its own "suburbs". A great number of progressive forward-thinking engineering and software companies call San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, known in popular culture as the "Silicon Valley" - home. And a good number of these companies are not only employing, but also are founded by young and energetic Russian Americans, many of whom grew up or were educated in California, who love to live and work just outside its most famous city. Everyone knows of Sergey Brin, a native of Moscow and a co-founder of the software giant Google, and Jan Koum, a native of Kiev and co-founder/CEO of a phenomenally successful WhatsApp Inc. Yet, there are many more innovative companies lead by Russian-Americans in San Francisco and the Bay Area, such as the biotech Invitae, co-founded by a former Muscovite Alex Furman, or, a maker of vanguard professional messaging system, founded by Andrei Soroker of Novosibirsk and Peter Hizalev of Lviv. It may not be everyone's interest to visit those companies' HQs per se but, while in San Francisco, do yourself a favor and share a ride with Silicon Valley's professional geeks on a local commuter CalTrain to Palo Alto, a home both to many software startups as well as to Stanford University, the most prestigious of all California schools, whose beautiful grounds, sculpture gardens and museums are on every tourist's must-see list. (And if you are lucky enough to have a friend at Google, make your way down to Mountain View and ask them for an invite to the famous Google Cafeteria, where amazing selections of superb gourmet foods are served free all day long.)

Work Hard. Party Hard.

We all know Russians love to party! And while the Russian party scene in Bay Area is not as strong as, for instance, in New York, it is diverse and very appealing. There are established outfits that regularly bring big-name stars from Russia. These stars include the likes of Chizh and Nochnye Snaypery, and famous Russian bards such as Mikhail Scherbakov and Timur Shaov. There are venues, such as popular Rickshaw Stop, that are accustomed to work, on a regular basis, with local Russian rock bands, the likes of Attik Door, and electronic music DJs, whose popularity and prestige starts to grow with all-American audiences, and who also have a strong following among Bay Area’s Russian speakers.
And, of course, there are the famous Californian Open Air Festivals, among those the likes of Red Marines and Poluostrov, produced, managed, and/or attended by Russian Americans.

Igor Zheleznyak
Travel and History have always been Igor Zheleznyak's true passions, even though he was trained as and received a degree in Math and Computer Science. Over decade and a half he has lived, worked, and traveled through the US, Canada, England, Continental Europe, India, Africa, Mexico and South America. In 2010, Mr. Zheleznyak started his travel business, Comandante Zhe's Irregular and Amazing Adventures, specializing in leading small groups of globetrotters to the unique off-the-beaten-path places in Mexico and Ecuador and helping to arrange independent travel all over Latin America.


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