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Californians Get a Call from Totma
Photo: A. Korkka
Last weekend, Totma—a small town even by the Vologda Region’s standards—marked its 880-year anniversary and celebrated a traditional Russian America Day. The city once prided itself on its salt making and the seafaring merchants who traded in Siberia and America. It was a native of Totma, Ivan Kuskov, who founded Fort Ross in California, and today the town is visited by official delegations from the USA and representatives of indigenous American groups.
On the Way to Totma
The two hundred kilometers separating Totma and Vologda feels like five hundred when you visit. At times, you don’t ride so much as sneak around the potholes. A good kilometer will give you two good jolts. But there’s nothing to be done about it: one needs to drive, since there’s no other way to get to Totma. There is no railroad or airport in the city, and the local rivers are not equipped for serious boat traffic (despite the city’s fame for sailors).
Nonetheless, the residents of Totma have never had an isolated outlook. Foreign tourists are no novelty here (in many places you can find signs in English—very few regional centers could boast of such openness to the world), and what’s more, walking down the street one might even run into the legendary traveler Fyodor Koniukhov, who has a residence in Totma and holds classes for children between expeditions.
In terms of museums per capita, the 10,000-person town of Totma is probably one of the leading locations in Russia: there’s a marine navigation museum, a house museum for Ivan Kuskov, a museum of church history, and a house museum of the poet Nikolai Rubtsov (who studied here).
Totma Churches Resembling Ships. Photo: A. Korkka
More than ten thousand visitors gathered in little Totma for the joint celebration for the 880-year anniversary of the first mention of Tomsk in a Novgorod chronicle and the 205-year anniversary of the founding of Fort Ross by Russians. Over the course of three days, the town’s open spaces hosted concerts, festivals, feasts, and adventure games. Actor Dmitry Kharatyan, a guest of honor at the festival, presented an adventure film about Fort Ross.
“Good morning!” – “Dobryi vecher!”
By the way, the historical reality is more interesting than anything filmmakers can think up. Totma native Ivan Kuskov somehow ended up in Alaska, and he traveled there with the merchant Alexander Baranov from Arkhangelsk, who would later command the Russian settlements in North America. Baranov sent Kuskov to California to found settlements and set up trade with the Spanish—which was communicated to his countryman by Count Nikolai Rezanov (famous among Russians as a character in the popular rock opera Juno and Avos).
Kuskov made five naval trips to California. On 30 August 1812, the flag of Russia was raised over the completed Fort Ross near what is today San Francisco. Kuskov was able to buy the land where they built the fort for three blanks, three pairs of pants, two axes, three mattocks, and several strings of pearls. The fort was erected in half a year. Ten years later Ivan Kuskov went home, arriving there in 1823 with an Aleut wife. He bought a home, where he died several months later, as the long journey had damaged his health.
House Museum of Ivan Kuskov. Photo: A. Korkka
Now Kuskov’s former house has been made into a museum full of objects from his California adventures brought by friends of the museum. There is a long-standing friendship between the Totma regional experts and the workers at the Fort Ross museum. They met each other back in the mid-1970s and have always supported each other since. In the 1980s, Americans assisted with the displays for the museum, which was opened in a former communal apartment. And in 2010, when there was a danger that For Ross would be closed due to unprofitability, the residents of Totma asked the governor of the Vologda region to meet with California’s then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on the behalf of the museum. They did meet, and the “terminator” turned out not to be made of iron.
On a warm August evening, the townsfolk of Totma made contact with Californias via the Internet. The tradition of ringing bells in exchange with each other was begun many years ago, and now it was reinforced with an image. In Totma, it was eight at night; in California, ten in the morning. “Good morning!”—“Dobryi vecher!” [“Good evening!”]
Russian American Day is celebrated by the whole city
More than three hundred people gathered on the central square of Totma for the bell ringing, including the municipal government, museum representatives, folklore collectives, Totma residents and guests of the festival. There were just a few people on the American camera: the staff of the little museum. (Fort Ross wasn’t full of visitors yet on account of the early hour.)
The California assembly included the president and CEO of the Fort Ross Conservancy, Sarah Sweedler, and sitting near her were the Fort’s program manager, Hank Birnbaum, and representatives of the Kashaya Pomo Indian tribe. Several years ago, Totma was visited by a large delegation from this tribe, who greatly respect Ivan Kuskov. One evening, these visitors performed an intricate ritual on the supposed burial spot of Kuskov.
The conversation during this video call was not restricted to greetings. They spoke about the weather (it was finally warm in Vologda), current events, visitors, and cooperative programs. And then the bells entered into dialogue—twelve from the Totma side, and one from California (albeit, a large one).
Ringing of the bells. Photo: A. Korkka
The workers at Fort Ross came to Russia not long ago and participated in the Russian-American forum “A Dialogue on Fort Ross.” According to Sarah Sweedler, an additional communication channel between the USA and Russia is especially needed right now in order to “balance the rising and falling tides.”
The bridge built by Kuskov between these two countries may be narrow and unsteady, but it still hasn’t fallen.
American Fox on the Shores of Totma
Most cities in Vologda have elk or bears on their emblems. But a black fox trots across the emblem of Totma, one that comes from Alaska and never lived in the local forests. The fox was added after some Totma merchants in the mid-18th century presented furs caught in Alaska to Catherine the Great, joining them with maps of newly discovered lands.
250 years later, a black fox made it to Totma. On Saturday, a monument was established to the Alaskan fox, which sat quietly on a wooden stump with its tail laid across its paws like a cat (rather than trotting as on the emblem). Funds for this art object were gathered all over the world, and the world responded. Donations came not only from the most distant regions of Russia, but also from the USA, Ukraine, and other countries.
At the Festival you can read about Russian America. Photo: A. Korkka
On the town streets, it’s not only the black fox and signs in English that remind one about America and the trade expeditions made by Totma natives. On the way into the town, a roadside campsite called “Alaska” has been set up, and downtown they’ve opened a children’s café called “California.” The attitudes of Totma catering toward American cooking might cause a smile (the local hamburger looks more like an open-face sandwich, and the menu claims that herring with bread is an ancient American Indian dish), but the establishment is rarely empty.
A Town Worth Its Salt
The town’s distance from the world’s oceans doesn’t stop the flourishing of a cult of salt-makers, seafarers, explorers, and enterprising merchants. Back in the Middle Ages, the city got rich on salt; those living in Totma were among the first in Russia to learn how to find and boil salt, which, in old Rus, was worth its weight in gold.
Totma still hasn’t totally lost its salt to this day. Accompanied by the young director of the Totma museum association, Aleksei Novoselov (who went to Saint Petersburg after finishing high school but returned to elevate culture in his home city), I left the holiday festivities around twilight and went out to the outskirts of town, in the Varnitsy region. We made this trip in order to taste the historic salt around which this town grew up. Passing through dozens of alleyways, where dogs barked from behind the fences, we reached a small pond with a log sticking out of it. This log was driven in a century ago. It is hollow within and works much like a pipe, bringing water up to the surface from the saline springs below. The water tastes lightly salted, similar to mineral water. “The women of Totma salt cucumbers with it, and it makes for freshly-salted, crunchy pickles,” says Aleksei Novoselov.
Saltwater Spring. Photo: A. Korkka
In the 18th century, when other sources of salt were found and the product got cheaper, local capitalists started looking for new business schemes. For some reason, they didn’t stop making their crunchy pickles even after they started trading with far-off lands. In 1747, the merchants Fyodor Kholodilov and Nikifor Trapeznikov outfitted and sent out the vessel Johann on a business voyage to the shores of the Bering Island. This began the process by which Totma residents took possession of the lands that would later be called Russian America.