Mare Island honors sailors who died in 1863 fire


130 years after S.F. blaze, a memorial service points out new era of friendship


By Tanya Schevitz Wills



MARE ISLAND - Two men dressed in Russian naval uniforms stood at attention and solemnly faced a bouquet of flowers adorned with red, white and blue ribbons during a memorial service at a Mare Island cemetery.


The two images taken together seemed to illustrate the era of friendship and cooperation between the United States and Russia, as sailors and diplomats gathered for a memorial service at the cemetery Tuesday to honor six Russian sailors buried there after they died fighting a fire in San Francisco.


"It is very important for usŠ It is a good sign of the partnership of our countries,˛ said Vladimir Golubkov, deputy consul general of the Russian Federation.


The memorial service came more than 130 years after the sailors were buried in the Mare Island cemetery. During the American Civil War, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles invited the Russian naval fleets to dock in Union ports. While the Czarist Pacific Squadron was stationed at Mare Island between September 1863 and April 1864, the Russian warship Norvick was shipwrecked at Point Reyes.


All but one man from the crew of 160 sailors were saved, but when a large fire broke out in the Financial District of San Francisco on Oct. 23, 1863, six of the Russian sailors died fighting the fire and were buried in the Mare Island cemetery.


It wasn't until this year that the Russian navy discovered that the sailors were buried in the historical cemetery. After Leonid Lysenko, captain of the Admiral Nevelskoi -- currently berthed in San Francisco on the first leg of a global circum-navigational tour -- found out from historians in Monterey that the graves were here, he asked the Russian Consulate to arrange a memorial because the sailors are an important part of Russia's history, he said.


"It is really amazing for us that even in the Cold War years, the people (at Mare Island) recognized that the Russians did something and they maintained the graves in such beautiful condition here," said Sergei Gritsai, vice consul of the Russian Federation, speaking as Lysenko's translator.


The Russian graves, reading simply "Russian Sailor," were interspersed among those of U.S. sailors.


With smoke from an incense burner filling the air, a Russian priest knelt in front of one grave and wiped away leaves and dirt from its face. Rain dripped off the Rev. Fr. Alexander Karpenko's beard as he chanted a Russian memorial song and lit a candle for each of the soldiers.


As the sky released a torrent of rain on the mourners, marking the somber mood of the ceremony, Karpenko said: "For 130 years their names were not knownŠ But their deeds were not forgotten. They died protecting the citizens of San Francisco . ... For us today, when the relations between the United States of America and the new democratic Russia are wonderfully improving, this is one more chance for us to recall what it is like for us ... to be together in things that are essential."


San Francisco Examiner, Wednesday, January 26, 1994.