Russian Sailors Buried on Mare Island (near Vallejo)

Rev. Silas RUARK

Few Orthodox Christians in the Western American Diocese know that eight Russian Orthodox sailors who died in 1863 and 1905, are buried on Mare Island (near Valejo, California). Here is a brief account of these men, who are part of Orthodox America's historical heritage.

1863

In October 1863, at the invitation of the US Federal Government, the Russian Imperial Pacific Fleet was invited to winter in San Francisco at Mare Island. This allowed the Russian Fleet to undergo repairs, and provided an opportunity for the Federal Government of the United States to offset British and French Naval fleets also harbored in San Francisco fleets whose governments may have been inclined to support the Confederacy.

Within just days of the arrival of the Russian Fleet, and before sailing to Mare Island, on the morning of Friday, October 23, 1863, a fire broke out in what is now the Financial District of San Francisco.

An article written by Albert P. Wheelan in November 1863, notes:
"The [city] firemen say they were losing the battle, and that unless they conquered the fire the city would be doomed. The firemen began to succumb through the hard work they were forced to do with the hand engines and the great heat. They dropped from their places one by one and several engines went out of commission.

"Suddenly the spectators began to cheer, and to cheer again and again. A thousand throats took up the cheering. The firemen were electrified when they observed boat load after boat load of Russian sailors and their officers landing with buckets and other fire fighting instruments. . . They took the places of the tired and exhausted firemen and worked hard and long at the pumps and finally conquered the fire. "

On October 25, 1863, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors officially recognized Russian Admiral A. A. Popov, Captain Tachelisacov, and Lieutenants Skryaggin, Echren and Machov, as well as the Russian sailors injured while fighting the fire.

While no documentary evidence has yet been located to establish it as fact, it has long been believed that the six Russian sailors buried at Mare Island in 1863, and whose graves remain there to this day, were sailors who were either killed in or died as a result of injuries sustained while fighting the October 23rd fire.

Besides three tombs marked "Unknown Russian Sailor" are the tombs of Russian Sailors Artemy Trapeznekov, Yakov Butorin, and Karl Kort. The original grave stones of all six sailors have long since been damaged and disappeared.


1904-1905

On September 11, 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, Captain A. Berlinsky steered the Cruiser Lena of the Imperial Russian Navy into San Francisco seeking repairs.

He had sailed from Vladivostok to raid Japanese fishing fleets in the Sea of Okhotsk, and ended up getting cut off from his base by Japanese cruisers.

Because President Theodore Roosevelt had proclaimed American neutrality in the Russo-Japanese War, Captain Berlinsky, the Lena and her crew, had to depart within forty-eight hours or be detained in America for the remainder of that war.

Captain Berlinsky claimed his boilers were in bad shape, and major repairs were needed before the Lena could return to the open seas. A US Navy inspection of the Lena confirmed Captain Berlinsky's claim, and the Lena was escorted to Mare Island at Vallejo, California, where she remained until the end of the war. The Lena and her crew were disarmed, her guns dismantled, and ammunition removed. Lena's officers signed agreements not to leave the area without the permission of President Roosevelt. Each crew member was given a similar parole.

Local newspaper accounts of that period reflect that the Lena, as well as her officers and crew, were often the subject of considerable interest during their stay at Mare Island.


A Russian Sailor Dies on the Lena

On November 1,1904, Russian Sailor John Peskov fell to his death while performing duties on the Lena.

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The Vallejo Evening Chronicle of November 2, 1904, gives this account of the Orthodox funeral service given Peskov at the Mare Island Naval Cemetery: "The hearse was followed by a file of shipmates of the deceased, the officers in full uniform, and Captain Berlinsky in the carriage of [US Navy] Admiral McCalla. Sailors carrying immense wreaths preceded the ship's chaplain who was arrayed in the flowing robes of Orthodox Clergy, a long tunic of black velvet, trimmed in broad silver braid, with black stole, and black head gear. The priest carried a large crucifix of dull gold. Following him came the Lena's crew, while another company of US Marines formed the rear of the procession."

Another article of the event described John Peskov (or Peskoff) as "first sergeant of the marines" on the Lena.

Over the days, weeks, and months that followed, US Navy and Russian sailors from the Lena entertained the public and themselves with rowboat races, official functions, and even the occasional newspaper account of misdeeds, their own victimization at the hands of locals in Vallejo, and other events including the breaking of parole by several of Lena's officers and crew some of whom had to be returned from Russia.

Some of the officers even arranged for their wives and families to join them in California, and rented apartments in Vallejo where they lived until it was time for their return to Russia after the Russo-Japanese War.


Another Sailor Dies

Sometime during 1905, Lena crewman Peter Loboda died and was buried near his shipmate John Peskov. While the cause and date of his death have not yet been determined, there is little doubt that he too was given an Orthodox funeral by the Lena's Orthodox Chaplain.

Lena Refitted and Repaired

In May 1905, Captain Berlinsky returned to Russia and was replaced by Commander A. Ginther of His Imperial Majesty's Navy. Earlier in April, permission had been given the Russian government to have the Lena repaired near San Francisco at the Union Iron Works.

On August 9, 1905, the Lena, under the command of Commander Ginther, left the San Francisco Navy Yard on a trial trip after her extensive repairs at the Union Iron Works. She was escorted by US Navy torpedo boat Fox. She then returned to Mare Island for reloading of crew, the families who came to live in Vallejo, and other goods prior to her departure from California and the United States.

The San Francisco Call of Saturday, October 28, 1905, noted that, "For the first time since she ran away from the Japanese and sought refuge in this harbor, the Russian cruiser Lena looks like a smart warship... . Newly painted and with her brasswork and guns brightly polished, she floats proudly..."

The Lena was scheduled to sail for Russia on Sunday, October 29, 1905.


A Sad and Unexpected End

"Father Vasill [Basil] Osipov, Chaplain of the Russian cruiser Lena, died on board the war vessel at 4 'clock yesterday morning. " So noted the Sunday, October 29, 1905 issue of the San Francisco Call.

The departure of the Lena was delayed until Wednesday, November 1, 1905 one year to the day after the death of Lena's crewman John Peskov to enable Father Basil to receive the same Orthodox funeral service he provided Lena crewmen Peskov and Loboda.

The funeral service was held at the Russian Orthodox Church (at that time on Powell Street) in San Francisco. Fr. Basil's grave is in the Serbian Orthodox Cemetery south of San Francisco. Fr. Basil never returned home to Russia, he never left America.


Memory Eternal!

For the past several years, on a Saturday between October 23rd and November 20th , Orthodox Christian clergy, choirs, laity and dignitaries from the Russian Consulate, Russian Veterans Society, the Vallejo Naval and Historical Society, and other guests, gather at the Mare Island Cemetery to conduct a Memorial Service (Panikhida) for all the departed Russian sailors.

The dates of October 23rd and November 20th encompass the date of the 1863 San Francisco fire when some of the Russian sailors were injured, the date of death of Artemy Trapeznikov and Yakov Burtorin (October 27th, 1863), the date of Fr. Basil's death (October 28th, 1095), the date of John Peskov's death (November 1st), Veterans Day, and the known date of the death of another of the 1863 sailors (November 20th) Karl Kort.

A sad irony connecting the 1863 and 1904/05 visits of the Russian Navy, is that the famous Russian Admiral Makarov who was killed during the Russo-Japanese War, in which Lena took part, was a midshipman on one of the ships at Mare Island during the 1863 visit.

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