Debates: Participants in the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF) explain the role this symbol of the shared history plays in connecting countries and cultures.

Delegates of the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF), a grassroots exchange program, in the Fort Ross, a former Russian settlement in California. Photo: Fort Ross Conservancy

Fort Ross is not just a symbol of the common past shared by the U.S. and Russia — it is also a landmark that each year hosts participants of different exchange programs, including the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF).

Each year, SURF brings together students from some of the world’s top universities — Yale, Stanford, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of California-Berkeley (UC-Berkeley), Lomosov Moscow State University (MGU), the Higher School of Economics (HSE), the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University) — for meetings in the U.S. and Russia.

The first part of the conference usually takes place in Moscow in the fall, introducing the 20 Russian and 20 American participants to each other. The students then work together on collaborative research projects over the next four months. In April, students travel to Stanford University to present their findings and meet with high-profile experts, academics and politicians. At the end of their time at Stanford, the participants go to Fort Ross, where they meet with prominent environmentalists, scientists and local leaders from the Kashia Tribe of Pomo Indians. The Fort Ross visit has been an important part of the SURF program from the very beginning.

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At Fort Ross, the SURF delegates take part in preservation projects, such as rebuilding hiking trails and contributing to marine conservation. These joint efforts help build lasting relationships among the Russian and American participants.

“We are honored to enable these young bright minds, from both of our countries, to learn firsthand about our common historic and cultural ties here at Fort Ross,” said Olga Miller of Renova USA and the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, which has supported SURF at Fort Ross for the last five years, starting in 2011 with just half a day of volunteer community service at the Fort, and now allowing the delegates the experience of staying two full days at Fort Ross.

A number of SURF alumni shared their memories of Fort Ross and how it changed their views on U.S.-Russian relations.

Kenneth Martinez, Stanford University, Fulbright alumnus and an organizer at the SURF program

It is hard to imagine the challenges of basic survival that Fort Ross’s serene landscape imposed on its earliest Russian settlers. The newcomers arrived in an unfamiliar land and had to understand how to navigate relationships with the local inhabitants of the region. Today’s Russians visit Fort Ross in much the same manner, uneasy about how to deal with the natives. The actors are different, but the conversation is the same: How to manage our relationship when there is much potential for conflicting interest?

Fort Ross, however, has continually brought Russians and Americans together. In recent years, the 200-yearold settlement has inspired many cultural, academic, and historical events. It has been the subject of essay competitions by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, served as the focal point of investment in Russian-American heritage by companies like Renova, and inspired the reunification of American descendants of the settlement’s Russian and indigenous residents with their relatives across the Pacific. These interactions bring positive impressions of one another to many Russians and Americans who may otherwise have had little or no contact. What is most promising is the potential Fort Ross has to transform state-to-state relations. It stands today, physical and tangible evidence of a relationship that was once rather different. It is, most saliently, a symbol. But the Fort’s value extends beyond this rich symbolism. It lies rather in the pretext for engagement. Removed from ministries and capitals, politics and pundits, the Fort is a place to convene, supported by leaders in both countries.

Kira Tverskaya, alumna of the SURF program (2011-2012) and organizer of the Forum (2012-2013)

My history with Fort Ross started five years ago with the SURF conference, which on its last day brought me there in a bus full of fellow students. The flow of fresh salty wind from the ocean, the endless green of the hills covered in wild spring flowers, the cliffs with their stunning overlook on the Pacific — the landscape and the Fort itself instantly won a place in my heart.

In my daily life, there’s a part of me always wanting to go back to Fort Ross. I took every chance I had to come back: first it was volunteering at the Fort’s bicentennial, then at a conference based there, and then at another annual celebration. I met all the staff, the board of directors, the park rangers, and many volunteers. The Fort brings people together today just as it did 200 years ago, when the Russians worked along with the Alaskans and the Spanish and the Native Americans. The role of Fort Ross in peacemaking is hard to overestimate.

It will always be a great place to hold effective negotiations between the U.S. and Russia. The history and the atmosphere of the place make you think. It’s a great reminder that the most successful solutions to conflict are peaceful ones, reached through direct communication. It’s important for people of both countries to know about Fort Ross — not just as “that Russian settlement in California…have you heard of it? That’s so weird,” but with its fascinating historical context. If you dig deeper into how the Russian-American Company came to be, how the Fort and other Russian colonies were founded, how the settlers lived and interacted with their neighbors, you can see that there’s much more to Fort Ross than meets the eye.

Yury Barmin, SURF alumnus (2010-2011) and former officer of the forum (2011-2012)

As a kid, long before I visited Fort Ross for the first time, I was enchanted by the 19th century love story of Russian explorer Nikolai Rezanov and the daughter of the governor of Spanish California, Concepcion Arguello — a tragic drama that is known to most Russians. Ever since learning that story, I have considered San Francisco a link that connects the two nations. My first trip to Fort Ross, a colony that General Rezanov recommended setting up in Bodega Bay, was akin to finding myself in the very setting where the love story took place, so carefully and lovingly was it preserved. The fact that these two pieces of historic heritage are cherished in both Russia and the United States goes to show that we are much closer than it seems.

The Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum in this regard is a unique undertaking whose objective is to nurture our joint heritage and enlighten the younger generation about our shared past. Having participated in the project, I have always felt part of this cultural space. The relationships that I have built with people at SURF have developed over time and have proven to be exceptionally strong. In these turbulent times for Russia-U.S. relations, Fort Ross is one of the few things that connect us rather than alienate us from one other. Fort Ross helped me once to develop a deep affection for the United States and its heritage; it can continue to do the same for younger citizens of both countries

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Zach Witlin, alumnus of SURF (2011-2012) and the Alfa Fellowship Program (2013-2014)

Fort Ross was one of two highlights of my time as a delegate in the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum. In spring 2012, we took a nature trip to Fort Ross. Spending time at the Fort, by the ocean, and among the redwoods was an incredible bonding experience. The most memorable part of that visit was when we sat by the campfire after dinner. One of the delegates brought a guitar, and it turned out that we had some talented musicians among both the American and Russian students. So we took turns passing the guitar around, and we alternated singing along in English and Russian. Speaking abstractly, it was not inevitable that Fort Ross would have anything to do with U.S. -Russia relations today. This is a Russian trading post that closed down in the 19th century, before the Bolshevik revolution, the Cold War and post-Soviet Russia. But people everywhere tend to turn to history either to better understand themselves or to revise the context of their modern selves. In that sense, Fort Ross offers an important opportunity to muse on U.S.-Russia relations and look for a shared moment in our past.

Painting Fort Ross as part of a tradition of U.S.-Russia cooperation is a reminder that our countries are capable of turning to diplomacy and seeking to understand one another. Just understanding this won’t ease the tensions in our relations — those come from conflicts in our perceived interests — but that historical legacy can demonstrate good faith in managing those tensions. And, perhaps more importantly, that legacy helps ground person-to-person contact among Russians and Americans.

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