Colluding with California’s Russians is eye-opening

A sign post with Russian cities marks a bridge crossing the Russian River at Jenner.
A sign post with Russian cities marks a bridge crossing the Russian River at Jenner. Zócalo Public Square

Take my guilty plea, Mr. Mueller. Because this Californian is colluding with the Russians – especially that most alluring of Russians, the Russian River, which seductively winds through Mendocino and Sonoma counties to the Pacific.

Traveling the river reminds you that California and Russia are too intertwined for scandal to keep us apart. Russian interference in California is older than the state itself. Our state’s top industries, entertainment and technology have been defined by Russian emigres from songwriter Irving Berlin to Google’s Sergey Brin.


Then there is the mystical connection between California and Russia, two of earth’s greatest puzzles. Each territory is too vast, and its people too strange, to ever be fully understood. Winston Churchill called Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The same goes for California.

On a recent excursion, I stopped at Fort Ross, a Russian settlement established in 1812, an eventful year for invasions, with Britain fighting the U.S., and the Russians repelling Napoleon – a victory so great that Tchaikovsky’s overture about it is performed annually at the Hollywood Bowl.

Joe Mathews (1)
Joe Mathews, co-author of "California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It," is California editor for ZÛcalo Public Square.

The Russian-American Company, which established the fort, constructed the first windmill and first ship ever built in California. But the Russians, like other California fortune seekers, found the cost of business too high. So in 1841 they sold Fort Ross, like a failed startup, to John Sutter, who had all the assets hauled to Sacramento.

Ever since, the cover story has been that the Russians abandoned California to Mexicans and then Americans. But California actually turned the place into a state park and expanded it. These days, with tens of thousands of tourists visiting from the motherland, Fort Ross sees more Russians than it ever did under Russian rule.

The connection to Russia isn’t all in the past. Overlooking the river in Jenner sits a restaurant, Russian House #1. Its founders, Tatiana Ginzburg and Polina Krasikova, are Russians who split time between Sonoma County and St. Petersburg.

Ginzburg, a psychologist, explained that the restaurant is really “a space for dialogue between two great cultures and peoples.” It also challenges capitalist thinking. It has no menu, no prices and no bill; you pay what you think is right, in a bowl by the door.

Ginzburg’s work draws from the 20th-century Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, who taught that humans are automatons easily manipulated into thoughtless horrors, like war. But through work, humans can ascend to a higher state of consciousness.

The restaurant has a piano, harp, chessboards and puzzles of various kinds. “Our intention is to create a new type of being,” she said. “There is a connection here on the river, between Russia and this place.”

I thought about connections as I followed the river to Guerneville. There is a magic in the massive Russian landscape, but also in California’s giant redwoods. Russian dachas might be wine country estates here. And while Russia runs on vodka, the Russian River flows on wine.

As I drove, radio news reported again on Russian interference in American democracy, which put me in mind of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the Russian novel of that 1812 French invasion. “Those whom God wishes to destroy he drives mad,” Tolstoy wrote.

He also wrote about love and enemies: “Someone dear to one can be loved with human love; but an enemy can only be loved with divine love.”

I don’t love authoritarians who attack democracy and innocent people. But Vladimir Putin is not Russia, and America is not Donald Trump. At least I was questioning my consciousness, as the women at the Russian House advised.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I reached Healdsburg, but I soon found myself on a beach beside the river. I removed my shoes and waded into the Russian River. The water was warmer and deeper than I had expected.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at