The Kauai delegation to Russia was enriching and successful.
The seven-member team attended a conference called the Fort Ross Dialogues that was held in the northern region of Vologda, Russia, June 2-4, 2019.
This was the seventh year of these dialogues, representing viewpoints from education, industry and science that are intended to strengthen U.S.-Russian relations through citizen-to-citizen diplomacy, and are held in both California in the fall and Russia in the summer.
The focus is global problems that need global solutions with deeply-experienced participants from both countries. In October 2017, a similar event was held on Kauai by the Congress of Russian Americans following the California Fort Ross Dialogue with an intention of returning for another event October 2019. The word “dialogue” has the same meaning in both Russian and English.
The Vologda event was organized by California’s Fort Ross Conservancy and Washington D.C.’s Kennan Institute, with sponsorship by Chevron, Transneft and Sovcomflot.
The cost of the Kauai delegation’s participation was funded by Russia Center New York and American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation, with a commitment toward fostering peace between both nations that is dear to American citizens of Russian ancestry. These dialogues begin with a framework of understanding about our shared history.
The Kauai delegation included two speakers: Peter Mills, professor of anthropology from University of Hawaii, and Alexander Molodin, Russian language professor who also teaches architectural history.
Accompanying them was Hawaiian cultural practitioner kumu Ka‘eo Bradford, who has a direct family connection to King Kamualii; Lana Anderson of the Russia Kauai Association; County Councilmember Felicia Cowden; Elena Branson of Russia Center New York, with additional assistance through interpreter John Varoli.
In the early 1800s a fur-trading operation known as the Russian American Company had its exploratory origins in the Vologda area and found its path across the Bering Straight through the Aleutian Islands, Sitka, Alaska, and down to California, with an outpost known as Fort Ross above what is now San Francisco.
American ships from the Boston area were partners in the effort. This trade established diplomatic relations between Czar Alexander of Russia and American President Thomas Jefferson, generating later intersection with both Hawaii’s King Kamehameha and Kauai’s King Kaumualii as the Russian American Company made its way through Hawaii.
The RAC ship, the Bering, ran aground in Waimea in 1815, which began a roughly two-year presence on Kauai at the time of King Kaumualii.
All politics is local. Every region has its conflicts. The Hawaiian islands were in internal conflict at the time of the arrival of the Russian American Company.
For a few short years, there was an outreach to Czar Alexander and the collaboration of the building of the Waimea Fort Elizabeth around a home and sacred areas of King Kaumualii, called Pa‘ula‘ula, in what can be seen with a similar design and intention of a kremlin in defense against the aggressive leadership of King Kamehameha, who was in the process of claiming rule over the full chain of islands.
A continuing political alliance between the czar and the king did not fully materialize, but the names and the stories remained. Fort Elizabeth is in Waimea. Fort Alexander is on the north end in Princeville. The forts had a Russian shape to adapt for cannons, but were built with Hawaiian stone designed by Hawaiian people. It was a unique collaboration of technologies. King Kaumualii finished and utilized this location long after the Russians had left.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of State Parks has been holding community meetings regarding the state park known as Russian Fort Elizabeth. There have been recent conversations about removing the Russian historical reference to the location. The Russian-American community is hoping to be able to retain a reflection of the special window of time of shared history and experience. Also important has been the fostering of a positive connection between Russia and Kauai with the intention of the hosting of another event this October.
Cowden has been attending some of the park meetings and working to soften some tension that has developed over the name. Cowden chose to attend as a citizen, as this does not have a direct county application.
An invitation to the June event in Vologda, Russia, was extended for deeper inclusion and understanding. The experience in both Moscow and Vologda has value in bringing Kauai into being more than a location of a past event but included as an additional partner in needed dialogues for broad cultural sharing with an intention for an increasingly safe and peaceful future for our planet.
This is an opportunity for the culture of Hawaii, with our strengths in resilient land management, to have an influence if we so choose.
What was learned?
While holding the understanding that there are significant political differences and tensions between the United States and Russia, the week experience revealed how much is shared in common between our people. The British Airways flight was dominantly filled with visitors. The city of Moscow is remarkably clean and green, with 50% green footprint around the city-scape. A trip to the Moscow Office of Economic Development showed similar goals as Kauai for promenades, shared multi-modal pathways, green park space celebrated with prominent art.
There was a remarkable absence of smoking and trash. The food vendors have moved away from disposable dish-ware, Zumba was bouncing in the parks, tourist boat rides abounded. There was a large marathon fundraiser for children’s health sponsored by a bank within the Kremlin area. American praise-and-worship music was the first song heard on Moscow radio in the ride from the airport.
We were blessed with our accommodation in the Hotel National directly across from the Kremlin that not only housed the aristocrats in the time of the czars but was also the headquarters of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918.
Lenin’s room was four doors away from my own, all operated by the Marriott. American and international brands were prominent in many places. There was beautiful, unexpected irony in abundance. The gold-plated domes of Russian Orthodox churches were prevalent everywhere we went in the nation. The Soviet-era buildings were being systematically replaced with culturally and artistically rich facilities. English was an easy second language in all the places we visited in Russia. We were received in the beautiful, cultural locations with warmth, aloha and competence.
In Vologda, the cultural outreach was especially rich, as that shared experience is an inherent aspect of creating peaceful connection between nations. The hardships they endure to adapt to nine months of intensive winter help me to understand why the Russian people, like the Polynesians who were short on land, were intensive explorers, though for different reasons.
Strikingly, the emergence of the United States, the post-contact era of the kingdom(s) of Hawaii, and the cosmopolitan emergence of Russia happened nearly in the same windows of time. From jewels to lace to art to foods to spiritual sites, the fine capacity of workmanship was evident over the Russian centuries.
For most of history, Russia had to struggle to survive the heavy winters. Hawaii was able to take the ability to thrive in the environment to a fine art. If Kauai is to choose to host a similar event here, as is the hope by the Russian-American community, we have wisdom to share to the world relative to resilience and to open the deeply needed discussions on caring for our oceans, and adapting to the increasingly evident climate crisis, among other potential topics.
In Vologda, what was striking in the conversation is the need for a collaborative approach to manage new viruses and movements of insects and other bio-hazards as the ice continues to melt, along with extinctions and problems with the bio-sphere and how that relates to business and education.
The significant potential crises surrounding global economic political choices underway were an alarming conversation for me just ahead of seeing the speakers leaving for the global economic forum in St. Petersburg.
Artificial intelligence with respect to weaponry was perhaps the most scary of the conversations. All of the above issues are worthy of a deep story and overlap with topics of county conferences I have also been attending. What was clear to me is that both sides of the dialogue and the people of Russia fear we are escalating to war after their turbulent century and rebuilding of a nation. No one wants that. The citizens of all the strong nations are needed to engage to soften and stop the escalation underway.
A Kauai dialogue we need to have locally is surrounding our interest in hosting a further conversation here this fall. It needs to be an event welcomed and supported by a much larger group than our delegation. We have merely been messengers.
Felicia Cowden is a Kilauea resident and county councilmember elected in December 2018.