San Francisco’s Russian heritage may not be the first thing to come to mind when people speak of the city by the bay, but the area’s Russian roots run deep and include several Orthodox churches, a Museum of Russian Culture and a museum of veterans of World War I.

The Holy Virgin Cathedral opened in 1965. It is located in the Richmond district where most Russians live. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

The first Russian Orthodox parish in San Francisco was established in December 1857. The community was served by priests on Russian ships docking in San Francisco Bay until 1868, when a permanent priest was sent from Alaska. The community’s church changed names several times, but today is known as the Holy Trinity Cathedral. The current building, at 1520 Green St., was constructed in 1909, following the destruction of the original building in the 1906 earthquake. The bell tower of the Cathedral is adorned with a set of five bells donated by Emperor Alexander III in 1888.

A few blocks from the Holy Trinity Cathedral is a place called Russian Hill. During the Gold Rush era, settlers discovered a small Russian cemetery at the top of the hill. The area had been a burial ground for members of the Russian-American Company, many of whom visited the city during the 19th century. The cemetery later was removed, but the name stayed. In 2005, the non-profit organization United Humanitarian Mission placed a plaque in both Russian and English on the hill describing the history of the cemetery.

Today, San Francisco’s Russian community lives mostly in the Richmond District, which is also where the largest Russian Orthodox church on the West Coast is located. Construction on the Holy Virgin Cathedral (6210 Geary Boulevard) was completed in 1965. On Geary Street, there are also a number of shops and cafés run by Russian immigrants.

Sources claim that biggest wave of Russian immigrants came from the Far East and China after 1922. This wave had two distinct parts — one was made up of those who fought against the communists in the Russian Revolution and were defeated in Siberia; the other group was made up of those who were building the Chinese Far East Railway.

During this era, Russians moved to other places on the West Coast, including Seattle and Los Angeles. But San Francisco was especially attractive because the priest of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Vladimir Sakovich, helped émigrés find employment and settle down. 

In 1924, the first organization of Russian émigrés was formed — the Society of Veterans of the Great War (World War I). Ten years later, the Society acquired its own building at 2041 Lyon Street. The building served as a social club, and had a number of apartments available for rent. In 1951, this group incorporated the Society of Russian Cadets and became the Society of Russian Cadets and Veterans of World War I. Visitors are welcome even today, but by appointment only. The exhibits include 100-year-old uniforms, regiment books, old photos, honors, medals, revolvers and information about how many Cadet Corps existed in Russia and abroad.

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The Russian Center in San Francisco is another meeting point (2450 Sutter Street). The center was founded in 1939, but its grand opening took place on May 24, 1940. “The Russian Center is a large, four-story building, probably the largest Russian Center in the U.S.,” explained Natalie Sabelnik, head of the national organization, Congress of Russian Americans. “In addition to being the home of Teremok preschool and Russian folk dancing classes, it also rents out space to our organization’s headquarters office, the Museum of Russian Culture, the Russian Life newspaper, a library, rhythmic gymanastics and ballet classes. That’s why it’s not so easy to count how many people attend it. One of the biggest celebrations is Maslenitsa [A celebration at the end of February involving pancakes — Editor's Note] — then about 3,000 people visit the center just in three days. In 2017, this Russian Festival will be held for the 29th time already,” Sabelnik said.

The Museum of Russian Culture is located on the third floor of the Russian Center. It was opened in 1948 with the goal of replacing an immigrant archive that had been located in Prague, but later taken to the Soviet Union. Petr Konstantinov, a historian and head of the Russian historical society, asked all Russian émigrés to send archival materials to San Francisco, where they would be safe from the Bolsheviks.

“We’ve got 1,020 packages from 27 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Germany, and China,” said Margarita Menyailenko, the head archivist of the museum, describing its holdings. “We have the biggest independent archive of Russian immigration in the world that is funded only by donations and not associated with any other organization. All other archives are at universities, for example the Hoover Institution at Stanford University; the Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary at Jordanville, New York and the Bakhmeteff archive at Columbia University,” Menyailenko added.

The museum space is small, and at first glance, the exhibits seem chaotic, but there are definitely gems in the collection. Made up of documents and possessions of Russian immigrants who came to the United States from the Far East, Siberia and China as well as Baikal Cossacks ans veterans of the Russian Revolution, the exhibits include newspapers, books, diaries, letters, photos and military flags.The exhibit also contains the sign that hung outside the consulate of the Russian Empire in San Francisco with the accoutrements of tsarist power — the scepter, orb and crown — roughly painted over. The sign was bought at a garage sale.

According to Sabelnik, other places of interest are the Globus Slavic book store at 332 Balboa Street, the Russian American Community Services, which serves authentic Russian food to seniors and the St. George Pathfinders of the Organization of Young Russian Scouts, which holds summer and winter camps for kids near the town of Laytonville, California. “I can recommend two Russian restaurants in the city — Katia’s and Renaissance,” Sabelnik added. “Also you can find the homestyle historic Cinderella bakery at 436 Balboa Street. It was established in 1953 and still serves tasty Napoleon Cake and pirozhki.”

The article was initially published in Russia Direct’s special project “U.S.-Russia Shared Frontiers."