Rowboat Diplomacy

Author: John Middleton

The following article recounts a Russian-American episode of citizen diplomacy, which, unlike other examples of late 20th-century interaction between citizens, interacted with the military of the nascent Russian Federation and the United States. It describes the use of Russian naval longboats and the exchange of crews in Russia and the U.S. to further understanding and cooperation between the two militaries.

The phrase “Rowboat Diplomacy” is an ironic twist to the 19th century phrase “Gunboat Diplomacy” which indicated the use of military aggression to carry out mostly imperialist aggression against those nations unwilling to accept other diplomatic overtures. The idea of using such small vessels for diplomatic ends is not new, according to the excellent 2014 article by Jebenham recounting both contemporary and ancient use of small boats for such meetings. The following is part one of two: the second part will describe the visit of the Russian Naval officers and cadets who traveled to California in 1998 to fulfill the original exchange.

Part 1

Russian row boats anchored below Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, California, 1996

While waiting in the anteroom of the director of the St. Petersburg Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, the MAE (Kunstkamera), I found myself seated next to a naval officer in uniform also waiting for the museum’s director.

He turned to me and introduced himself: “Anatoly Razdolgin, acting director of the Central Naval Museum.”

“Anatoly Razdolgin ? Author of the On the Rhumb Lines of Sea Glory? I have your book!” I said.

“John Middleton, Fort Ross Interpretive Association,” I said, introducing myself.

“John Middleton? I’ve been following your work at Fort Ross! We have to talk!”

It turned out we were both there for the same reason: the Russian Navy’s exploration of the North Pacific in the 19th century.

He to discuss his Naval Museum’s recent exhibition in Nagasaki, which described early diplomatic relations in Japan and included many artifacts from the MAE’s collection, and I to discuss the use of images in the MAE’s extensive collection of paintings and drawings of early 19th-century California by Russian Ethnographers.

The images were to be used in an upcoming traveling exhibition created by the Nautical Heritage Society titled “The Russian Exploration of California,” employing a series of “Living History” encampments along the Californian coast tailored towards California’s school curriculum focusing on local history studies.

Student groups from local schools would be brought to the encampments to gain an impression of the living conditions of the Russian seamen and naturalists, view examples of their work (through reproductions supplied by the MAE), and learn about the type of flora and fauna collected by the Russian naturalists, with images of California’s native people recorded by Russian ethnographers, all within the framework of naval exploration.

Fort Ross cove Memorial Day, 1996

The centerpieces of the shoreside camps were two Russian Navy longboats, which had been donated by the Vladivostok State Maritime Academy to the Nautical Hermitage Society the year before through the offices of the Academy’s Professor Leonid Lysenko, who had visited Fort Ross on the Academy’s yacht during the 250th anniversary of the Bering-Chirikov expedition.

Captain Razdolgin immediately envisioned coordinating this event with the celebrations surrounding the 300th Anniversary of the Russian Navy in 1996, and tying it to the beginning programs of the 150th Anniversary of California’s Statehood in 1999. The very first program of the sesquicentennial was to be the 150th Anniversary of Sloat’s Landing, the U.S. Navy’s seizure of Monterey, California in 1846, which involved landing parties of seamen and Marines in longboats much the same type as had been supplied by Vladivostok.

But Captain Razdolgin, being quite a visionary, realized that the two four-oared boats would be insufficient for our needs, and more and bigger boats were required. Charged with enthusiasm for the project, he contacted Sergei Iriutin, the Chief of Staff of the Naval Engineering Institute (back then called “school”) in Pushkin, who was responsible for the school’s boating program, a traditional and important part of the young officer’s maritime training in the basics of seamanship, dating back to Peter the Great whose own “Botik” (small boat) served as the model for the navy’s primary training vessel, the six-oared boat.

Captain 1st Rank Sergei Iriutin. Chief of Staff of the Pushkin Naval Engineering Institute, Pushkin

And it was this type of boat, the “Yal-6” that Captain Razdolgin set his sights on. Working with Iriutin, they convinced the Russian Navy’s High Command that this was a worthwhile project to be involved in; the intertwining of Russia’s 300th Anniversary with California’s 150th. And it shouldn’t simply involve boats, but the exchange of sailors and officers too, with Russians participating in California’s programs and Americans taking part in Russia’s anniversary celebrations.

The six-oared boats carried crews of eight (six oarsmen, a bowman, and a coxswain), so the Russians proposed sending sixteen sailors and officers to California, while inviting sixteen Americans to Russia.

Sending the boats turned out to be easier than including the crews: The Engineering Institute arranged for a Russian shipping company to provide a container for the two boats and ship them from St. Petersburg to Houston, Texas.

Jerry Aspland, president of the California Maritime Academy (and also vice-president of the Nautical Heritage Society) used his extensive connections with international maritime shipping companies to have the container trucked from Houston to Monterey, California, the site of the 1846 Sloat Landing. The boats arrived on July 2nd 1996, four days ahead of the opening celebrations of California’s 150th anniversary.

The Russian crews, however, did not fare so well. The Engineering Institute was contacted by the Russian-American Society in Moscow, who offered their assistance and contacts with their non-profit association to find sponsors to help the Russian crews to reach America. Aeroflot Russian Airlines became a major sponsor, agreeing to fly the crews to and from California, and various Russian corporations joined in the effort with sponsorship.

Just when everything seemed set, a not infrequent crash of the banking system sent ruble prices in a free fall causing Aeroflot to regretfully withdraw their offered sponsorship.

Now, with no Russians and with only four days until the event, the Nautical Heritage crews scrambled to train new rowers to man the four boats (the two four-oared already in Monterey and the two newly-arrived six-oared boats) for the July-6th event. The more experienced four-oar crews were distributed among the new boats to help with training, and on July 6th, 1996, the first event of California’s sesquicentennial celebrations was admirably launched into State history, with the assistance of the Russian Navy!

Three weeks later, four crewmen representing the NHS (the Nautical Heritage Society) American contingent arrived in St. Petersburg for the 300th anniversary of the Russian Navy. Much diminished from the 16-member crew the Russians expected, the American contingent found that scheduling conflicts, the two-week commitment for the Russian trip, and the lack of sponsors (we had to pay our own way) substantially reduced the enthusiasm of the American crews.

The four of us – all Americans, were all over forty, and not in the peak of physical fitness. There was one assistant professor from Oregon, one attorney, one Topsail Schooner captain, and one art restorer. With the exception of the Oregonian, all the rest were from California.

We were met in the Pulkovo (St. Petersburg) airport by two Russian Navy Captains of the First Rank, who gathered our bags and drove us to an undisclosed location in the middle of the night. The location was a “Baza otdykha” somewhere in Pushkin, the suburb of Petersburg, but we were too tired from our twenty-some hour flight to pay much attention to what surrounded the modest 18th-century hotel in the middle of the darkness.

When we awoke, we found ourselves on the grounds of the Catherine Palace, in the former servant’s quarters which had been turned, after the revolution, into a “rest base” for the proletariat so they could enjoy what had previously only been available to the Empress and her family; the park and palace of Tsarskoe Selo – the “Tsar’s Village”. The four of us arrived on that warm July night with little idea of what to expect.

Well, that’s not entirely true… We did expect there would be parades (so we brought dress uniforms), banquets, so we brought our appetites, and the chance for 300th-Anniversary souvenirs, so we brought our wallets.

What we didn’t expect was to be put to work. The first thing early the next morning we were awakened by one of the Captains who informed us that rowing practice would begin at 8:00 at the boat dock in the park. We, of course had a vague idea where the park was (right outside) but then arrived late at the boat house after wandering around the quite spacious park, only coming to the realization that perhaps the boat house might be down by the lake.

Preparing for our first “practice“

There we found eight crews preparing nine six-oar navy row boats, the type used for training Russian cadets in team rowing and traditional maritime skills, such as knot tying, sailing, navigation, and what is referred to as “marlinespike seamanship”. The boats themselves are wooden clinker-built (lap stake) boats typical of European ship’s boat construction of the 18th century – 20 ft. long by 5ft. wide with a bluff bow and transom stern. Six oarsmen row, while a coxswain sits in the stern, steers, and gives commands. The nine boats and eight crews should have given us a clue of what was to happen next: we were the ninth crew.

I did mention that originally there were sixteen of us invited; with only four there wasn’t enough of a rowing crew for a six-oar boat. But Captain Razdolgin had already thought of that and supplied his son-in-law and a friend to make up two missing oarsmen. The Naval Engineering Institute supplied the coxswain. So now we were a real Russian-American crew, and in recognition we flew the flag of the Russian-American Company (the flag used by Fort Ross in California) on the stern of our boat rather than the Russian Navy flown on the other boats.

Our two Russian crew members provided by Captain Razdolgin

We looked around at the other eight boat crews, all cadets from the Naval Institute. Not one oarsman was over twenty. Not one was overweight. All looked confident and healthy. We did have two young rowers in our boat and an experienced coxswain (so we were told) but we were beginning to have doubts not only about this “rowing practice” but also about the whole direction in which the celebration was going.

We were not mistaken. All the boats lined up along a rope across the water, what appeared to be a starting line. We were informed that the course was to be around the island at the far end of the lake, back to the marker by the pavilion, and around the island again for a second lap then straightaway to the finish line. This was a race!

At a signal all the other crews pulled off their shirts revealing their blue and white striped tank tops. We weren’t told there was a dress code! Then someone fired a signal pistol, and the race was on.

From the start we were dead last, the younger crews pulling strongly towards the island. It was clear they’d had a lot of practice at this, as well as whatever the Navy puts young cadets through in the way of physical training. But as they began their turn around the island, the boats all bunched up, tangling their oars, and coming to a dead stop. Our coxswain, whose skills we were beginning to admire, deftly steered us around the tangle, and emerging from the far side of the island we found ourselves in second place!

The pull through the straightaway to the finish line was both exhausting and intimidating, as facing aft, we could see the other seven boats gaining on us while not knowing how far ahead the lead boat was. We managed to cross the finish line in second place, arms trembling, lungs bursting, and thought, “not so bad for a bunch of old guys from California (and Oregon)”!

We went back to our servant’s quarters on the palace grounds and slept for the rest of the day.

The next morning, barely able to move, we were awakened again soon after dawn for “boat practice”. This couldn’t be happening again! Where were the parades? Where were the banquets? Again, we reported to the boathouse and the excited faces of the other eight boat crews. But this time we came in last. And came in last for each and every “boat practice” that was disguised as a race obviously intended to depress and demoralize us. Psychological warfare, we decided. The Cold War wasn’t over.

Every evening we could barely move, and spent most of our time looking for places to find hot water to wash, with the central water-heating system being shut off during the summer for maintenance. With sore, aching muscles the prospect of a cold shower each evening became less and less attractive. Until we found the “Banya” (Sauna) in town, we tried corralling every electric kettle we could find in the “Baza otdykh” to warm enough water so we could stand in a large pan and wash Degas-style with a cup of hot water poured over our heads.

The night before the “Big Race,” the focal piece of the 300th-anniversary celebration which was to be held on the Catherine Palace “pond,” we were invited to a special anniversary concert held in St. Petersburg. At last, something which didn’t entail arm-wrenching, back-breaking, lung-bursting physical and psychological torture, where we could dress up, sit back, and enjoy the show. There might even be hors d’oeuvres!

The first thing that went wrong happened in the foyer before the concert began. Our Oregon College Professor spotted what he thought to be an American Navy uniform among the crowd gathered. Before I could stop him, he rushed over to introduce himself to a U.S. Navy Vice Admiral, evidently feeling deprived of American companionship other than the sullen and sore compatriots he was currently stuck with. He returned with the news that the Vice Admiral was the head of the American delegation, along with the U.S. Secretary of the Navy and the U.S. Ambassador’s wife to attend the festivities at the Catherine Palace the next day, of which our little boat race was to be a main event.

And better news; not only was the American delegation going to be there, but Admirals and Ambassadors of every major naval power in the world!

So, I told our Oregonian, we won’t just embarrass ourselves in front of our own countrymen, but in front of the entire world! Before you introduced yourself, Oregon, we could have just been one anonymous little rowboat full of bumblers coming in last; pitied, perhaps, but not having to explain to everyone else at the palace reception why America couldn’t have fielded a better team!

The U.S. Navy’s band playing the “Stars and Stripes Forever” was the hit of the concert and had everyone in the audience, with one exception, standing and cheering while the band marched up the aisles past ranks of be-medaled Russian Admirals, clapping and stomping in time to Sousa’s march. Only Oregon remained seated, the enormity of his mistake dawning on him.

The march to the boathouse the next morning was more like prisoners shuffling off to board trains to Siberia than participants in an international event. (Where were the parades, the banquets?) We took our places in the boats, backed the boat up to the starting line (which holds the boat in place until the signal to start, when the rudder is lifted to free the boat from the line), at the signal pulled off our shirts to reveal our new striped tank tops, and turned to shake one another’s hands, more in a resigned “We who about to die salute you” attitude than anything resembling hope.

Then we were off. I don’t remember the signal gun, only the strain of sore muscles with heavy oars, blood pounding in our ears and only the sound of our heavy breathing in rhythm with the clicking of the oarlocks. Our only hope was to not come in so far behind the last boat that it would be an embarrassment to all watching.

I did turn around just long enough to see the last boat in front of us begin its turn around the island.

Boat No. 9 speeding (?) towards the finish line on the Catherine Pond in Pushkin

Then the miracle happened. Like all miracles, I suppose, you’re not sure what you’re seeing at first, it seems so incongruous.

Around the back side of the island, obscured from the view of the grandstands in the pavilion, seven boats sat still in the water, their oars at rest, with seven boat loads of smiling faces as we sped (well, as fast as we could go) past, our coxswain once again deftly maneuvering us through the stationary boats. The lead boat around the other side of the island began to pick up speed as we approached, but only fast enough to keep a couple of boat lengths between us. The other seven boats, now astern, began to pick up the pace, but carefully kept a distance behind us. Their crew dramatically (and convincingly, for we could see them) pretending to strain at their oars.

At last when we figured out what was going on, it actually gave us a little burst of energy we thought we didn’t or couldn’t have. We began to close on the lead boat, and they in turn set to their oars to maintain the distance: when we crossed the finish line in second place, we were only a boat length behind. I do remember cheering, standing crowds, people rushing down to the dock to embrace and congratulate us; the disbelief that we had managed not to disgrace ourselves, the sun still shone, and all was right with the world. But what I remember most are the grinning faces of the cadets of the other seven boats as they crossed the finish line after us. They didn’t look to their admirals or officers; they turned their faces to us and smiled. They seemed to be proud of us. We had a little time to return to our rooms and clean up and change before the reception in the palace. Never had a cold shower felt so good. We put on the dress uniforms we had brought for the parades, gathered our invitation envelopes, and walked the short distance to the palace.

Attorney Rodger Bolles, Prof. Mark Hanus, Olga Razdolgina, Captain Anatoly Razdolgin, and the author toast the “silver-medal” win

Inside the gold and mirrored hall were finally the banquets we had hoped for. Surrounding the tables were Admirals whose uniforms and decorations rivaled the gilt and glitter of the room itself. I recognized many of the Heroes of the Soviet Union, who, only a few years before, had been the Cold War enemy, now jostling for position at the hors d’oeuvre table.

The Vice Admiral from the previous evening immediately came over to graciously congratulate us on our “silver-medal” effort. A U.S. Navy commander with an aigrelette respectfully waited until a pause in our conversation to say the Secretary of the Navy would like to have a photograph with the U.S. “team.” After the photo, the same commander asked if we might meet with one of our “admirers”.

I was introduced to a very charming lady whose name I didn’t catch, and we had a pleasant conversation about our boat race and our time in St. Petersburg. I asked her what she was doing in Russia and she said she lived in Moscow. I asked her what she was doing in St. Petersburg, and she said, “I’m representing the United States; my husband’s the Ambassador.” I’m sure I must have seemed flustered at obviously not knowing who she was. To make me feel more at ease, and to properly represent the United States in an appropriate manner she said: “It was very diplomatic of you to let the Russians win.“


Photographs acquired from the personal archive of John Middleton. Used with permission.

Cite this article as: John Middleton, “Rowboat Diplomacy”, in New Age in Russia, 15/03/2021,

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Daria Shevtsova (March 15, 2021). Rowboat Diplomacy. New Age in Russia. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from

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