Deeds not forgotten


By Ian Thompson

at the Daily Republic


MARE ISLAND - It was a sound not heard under the oaks of the Mare Island Cemetery for 141 years -- the pleas of a Russian Orthodox priest praying for the souls of six Russian sailors.


A steady rain deepened the somber mood of the small group who came to honor the six who died fighting an 1863 fire in San Francisco while a squadron of the Russian Imperial Fleet wintered at Mare Island Naval Shipyard.


"For so long their names were forgotten, but their deeds were not, said the Rev. Victor Sokolov, who conducted the ceremony. "They died protecting the citizens of San Francisco and according to the Gospel, putting their lives on the line for their neighbors."


The ceremony symbolized the good relations between Russia and the United States, said Sokolov and members of the Russian consulate.


"This ceremony we hold today would have been impossible to imagine a few years ago," Sokolov said.


Interest in the graves heightened this year when Leonid Lysenko, captain of the training ship Admiral Nevelskoi, arrived in San Francisco as part of an around-the-world voyage from the Vladivostok Maritime Academy.


Lysenko knew of the 1863 visit and tracked down the graves' location to visit them.


During the Civil War, Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles invited the Russian fleet to winter in Union ports. One squadron sailed to New York City. The Imperial Russian Pacific Squadron under Adm. A. A. Popoff sailed to Mare Island to winter there from September 1863 to April 1864.


Mare Island was chosen because the Russian fleet lacked bases in the Pacific Ocean where ships could be repaired and overhauled.


The six-vessel squadron lost one ship, the steam corvette Norvick, to the shoals of Point Reyes on Sept. 26, 1863. A tumultuous welcome from San Francisco residents greeted the rest of the fleet.


When a large fire struck the city's financial district Oct. 23, 1863, Popoff ordered his sailors to help battle the blaze.


Six sailors died in the fire and were buried with full military honors in the Mare Island Cemetery.


For the next 141 years, the graves lay almost unnoticed in the cemetery filled with the graves of American Navy service members.


Lysenko, two Russian Orthodox priests, members of the San Francisco Russian consulate, and several residents of the Russian-American community visited the site Tuesday.


Rain fell as priests lighted candles on the graves and held a solemn ceremony honoring the sailors' sacrifices.


Deputy Consul Vladimir Golubkov pointed to the squadron's historical visit as one of "all the good things (that have happened) between the two of us."


The Russian visit provided the United States with badly needed moral assistance during the Civil War because England and France were considering intervening on the side of the Confederacy, Golubkov said.


"Russia was also the first power to recognize the independence of the U.S.," Golubkov said.


Golubkov stressed the need to continue good relations between the two countries.


"I am confident that we can and must be friends," Golubkov said. "We must not turn off that road."


Daily Republic, January 26, 1994