Russian-Speakers Abound in City By the Bay

Sep 25, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Russians often call San Francisco the most Russian city in America, even though the city's population of Russian-speaking people is smaller than that of New York City. A crew from VOA's Russian Service recently walked around San Francisco to explore its Russian connection.

Russian Hill — one of the highest points in San-Francisco — is the place where the future city was born.

"This is the center of the city." It was here, says historian Andrew Zabegaylin, a small cemetery was discovered in the mid-19th century during the Gold Rush days. The cemetery was believed to be the final resting place for sailors and traders from the Alaskan Russian American Company.

Years later it was moved to a different location.

There are many other symbolic places in the Paris of the West, as Russians sometimes call San Francisco — a city built on countless hills. If you look this way, you will see the The Holy Virgin Cathedral, also known as "Joy of All Who Sorrow,” the largest Russian Orthodox place of worship on the U.S. West Coast.

And here, at the Holy Trinity Church, the future Russian Patriarch Tikhon once ministered to a parish. The bells were donated by the Russian Emperor Alexander the Third himself.

"This is the first Russian church in San Francisco, founded in 1857, the year that played a critical role in the first wave of Russian immigration, and the next wave after 1917," said Zabegaylin.

The Russian immigrants who came to San Francisco Bay brought a new surge of creative energy. Many stories of these immigrants are told at the oldest Russian Center in the city.

The local director of the largest museum of Russian culture in the Western Hemisphere, Yves Frankien, said this museum reflects the history of multiple generations of Russians.

"It is a national museum, to which many Russian immigrants from around the world donated their personal and family artifacts. This is a museum which reflects Russian life before and during the Bolshevik revolution and reflects the life of San Francisco's Russian colony since the 1920s," said Frankien.

Today, there are tens of thousands of Russian speakers in San Francisco.

“This generation is not just about the past but the future. We organize events that focus on the youth,” said Zoya Choglokova of the Russian Center San Francisco.

The Russian center also offers a kindergarten, gymnastics, folk dance and ballet classes — where not only Russian-speaking residents bring their children, but also their non-Russian speaking neighbors. This place arguably can be a true reflection of the spirit of a big American city — open to all cultures and to the ocean breeze.