Rowboat Diplomacy. Part Two

Author: John Middleton

Following the reception, I was summoned across the park to the director’s office of the Naval Engineering Institute and ushered through the neo-classical columned halls to the head of the Institute, Rear Admiral Yuri Khaliulin. I was seated across from the massive desk while tea was served and waited while he completed several telephone calls while a translator nervously stood by. Finally, he finished his last call and rose to shake hands while profusely apologizing for the necessity of the calls. It seemed it was the beginning of the new term, and all the calls were from the new cadet’s mothers, concerned that their sons would wash properly and look after their underwear. Far from the image of stern authority reflected by the Imperial grandeur of the Institute with its marble memorial plaques heralding the distinguished alumni of the School, here was a kindly concerned “uncle” wanting to reassure the worried mothers of the freshman class that their sons would be properly looked after while there.

I was immediately struck by the similarity of the two admirals recently encountered, the American Vice Admiral and the Russian, with the impression of compassionate goodwill and concern for their men.

Admiral Khaliulin also complemented the American crew for their “Silver Medal” win and presented me with a “second place” award certificate to share with my crew. We chatted about the celebrations and my experiences while in Russia, and as the conversation lagged he settled back into his chair and asked, “and what about the boats?”

At first I didn’t understand and complimented him on the Russian boat’s handling which led to our second place, but he cut me off by saying “what about our boats in California?”

I told him they arrived in good condition, were at a prominent mooring in Monterey where everyone could see them and were being well looked after by the NHS crew there.

He listened to the translation, slightly irritated that I hadn’t understood his question, and re-phrased his question: “What are we going to do about them now that the Russian crews couldn’t come to California?”

I said I hadn’t thought about it in the long term and said what should have seemed uncomfortably obvious “we don’t have the money to send them back to you”.

“Now here’s the problem” he said. “Those boats are the property of the Russian Navy. They can’t be sold without authorization of the Ministry of Defense, they can’t be given away as they are government property, and we have no authority to give them away anyway.”

“So, what do you propose we do about them?“ he asked.

I honesty hadn’t given any thought to all this, and the kindly, jovial uncle of a couple of minutes ago now looked pretty authoritarian behind his huge desk beneath the imposing Imperial architecture of his office.

“Well, I don’t know” I said. “Perhaps you could appoint an official caretaker from someone in the Russian community in Monterey to look after them”.

“We don’t know anyone in the Russian community – except you” he said. “Would you do it?”

“Well, I don’t know” I said again. “These are older wooden boats, and they need a lot of care. They’re at an exposed mooring now, and will have to be monitored, bailed out after rains, and checked often.

“We’ll give you a rank in the Russian Navy,” he said.

“I’ll do it!” I said, with maybe too much enthusiasm.

So, a second certificate was drawn up, a “Gramota” appointing me Boatswain, a warrant officer rating, in the Russian Navy. Captain Irutine stopped by the “Baza Otdyhka” the next day to drop off souvenirs from our stay, and the insignia of a warrant officer, second class.

A couple of days later we arrived at San Francisco’s International Airport, wearing our new striped blue and white “Telnyashkas” beneath our blue blazers, the badges of the 300th Anniversary of the Russian Navy adorning our lapels. Suitably impressed Security Agents monitoring the arrivals asked us what our “Russian Orders” were. Awaiting me were two official government looking letters, one from the Department of the Navy and one from U.S. Navy Atlantic Command. Secretary of the Navy John Dalton sent the photograph of the crew and he and his wife at the Catharine Palace in a very impressive and official looking folder,  and Vice Admiral Reason sent a gracious congratulatory note complimenting the team on our “Silver medal” effort. I began to see a pattern emerging for the requirements of advancement to flag ranks in navies; evidently one had to embody the qualities of grace and consideration that would inspire those who would follow these leaders. The similarity between the admirals of two different navies was striking.

The boats did need a lot of work and upkeep. Even with a dedicated crew with specialized skills in carpentry and metal work, the prospect of long-term maintenance was daunting. Now, with the two six oared boats and the two four-oared boats it was a small “flotilla”; Admiral Khaliulin had called it a “Boat Base” in my boatswain’s certificate. So, it became “Boat Base Monterey” of the V.I Lenin Naval Engineering Institute of Pushkin, Russia. The boats flew the St. Andrew’s ensign, and were welcomed into the Monterey Harbour community.

The local U.S. Naval Sea Cadet unit of the Naval Postgraduate School was contacted to see if their cadets might welcome a little practical ”on the water” experience to augment their marching drills, and I found an enthusiastic colleague in Lt. Robin Freerks, the unit’s commander. At least once a month the high-school aged Sea Cadets would come and train in the boats, learning practical seamanship and boating skills that the Russian boats were intended to impart. They also provided valuable maintenance every couple of months keeping the Russian boats “ship-shape”. And at the same time, they learned a little bit about the Russian Navy, and the part it played in California’s history. Captain Razdolgin paid a visit to California and made a surprise visit to the awed group of Sea Cadets during one of their training weekends. They lined up and practiced knot tying alongside a real Russian Navy Captain, who taught them the secrets of tying a “one-handed bowline” knot.

In 1997 the boats were hired by “DreamWorks” along with the NHS’ CALIFORNIAN to portray 19th century vessels for the film AMISTAD. Alumni from the 1996 St. Petersburg trip joined the NHS crew and several of the Sea Cadets as extras in the film, supplying rowers for the boats. Their practical seamanship training paid off during long hours at sea in the open boats, with local celebrity as their reward when the film opened locally.

1997 also saw a resurgence in interest in bringing Russian crews to California as Russia’s economic situation improved, and sponsors could be found to underwrite such and expedition. This required a return to Russia to meet with the Naval high Command to convince them that the endeavor was a serious one and would benefit both Russia and California with such a visit.

A seemingly insurmountable problem was that there were neither commemorative dates nor anniversary events in the near future which would tie such a visit to a California event or even to a Russian event in California’s history. A plan was finally formulated to combine the numerous expeditions carried out by the Russian Navy between 1806–1826 in exploring and charting the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Delta rather than trying to commemorate a single anniversary event. The plan was put before Admiral Igor Kasatonov at the Admiralty in St. Petersburg on a snowy winter’s day in late 1997. A bottle of champagne inscribed in gold letters from the head of Korbel vineyards on the Russian River, hoping to remind the Admiral of Russia’s original contribution to California’s viniculture, helped lighten the mood of officialdom. The plan was approved, and the expedition was underway.

On the American side the U.S. Navy Sea Cadets were recruited to act as counterparts for the Russian Cadets. Although much younger, they enthusiastically looked forward to hosting duties, and a network of units from Vallejo (Mare Island) to Monterey was created. The older cadets were tested for their seamanship and physical prowess to take places next to the older Russian cadets in the boats for the trip up the Sacramento River. California’s Maritime Academy at Vallejo came on board to host the Russian Cadets, there being no equivalent military or naval facility in San Francisco to represent the U.S. Navy. The timing of the visit in May fell between semesters at the Academy, so although the dorms were available to house the Russian Cadets, there were no Maritime Academy Cadets to welcome them. The U.S. Navy Sea Cadets and their officers served admirably in this function.

The Cadet Centre of the Russian Veterans of World War I also came forward to welcome the Russian cadets. As descendants of World War I officers and soldiers of the Imperial Army and White Guard they looked forward with true Russian hospitality to welcome the descendants of the Red regime that had driven their families into exile, and to look forward to seeing the new generation of cadets, one of the first graduating classes since the dissolution of the Soviet State, and to see themselves the cadets of the “New Russians”.

The Russian “Kadety” had grown up in organized exile communities in Yugoslavia, France and Germany in the years following World War I, and their fathers had instilled the traditions and values of the regiments of the Imperial Army to which they belonged. The Veteran’s House in San Francisco was like a time capsule to the past, not only a museum of the member’s artifacts and achievements, but a living piece of Imperial Russia, where traditions were kept alive, prayers offered to the Imperial family, and history lectures offered to the members by members. The younger members were also active supporters of the new academies and cadet associations now forming in the Russian federation, passing their traditions and knowledge to a new generation of Russian patriots.

The Officers and cadets of the V.I. Lenin Naval Engineering Institute of St. Petersburg pose with the masts of the CALIFORNIAN in the background. Accompanying them are senior members of the Russian Cadet Society of San Francisco, their hosts in San Francisco along with the Nautical Heritage Society. Vladimir Kolychev of the Moscow Russian-America Society stands far right

With the support of these groups – Sea Cadets, Maritime Academy, Russian Cadet Association and the not inconsiderable assistance of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, the Cadets of the Naval Engineering Institute were met at SF International in May, 1998 to begin their “expedition.” A convoy of cars delivered the crews to their home base about the Nautical Heritage Society’s CALIFORNIAN, the State of California’s Official Tall Ship, berthed at pier 40 beneath the Oakland Bay Bridge. The CALIFORNIAN sailed them to the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, where they were welcomed by the Academy’s president, Jerry Aspland and shown to their dormitories.

Russian and American crews and their hosts pose in front of the Vallejo Maritime Academy’s dining hall. Lt. Robin Freerks stands at far left

As the Academy was dormant between semesters, all teachers, students, and staff were absent, and Jerry Aspland personally arranged for all feeding and housing himself, doing a marvelous job as host to the Russian and American sea cadets. He toured the officers around the campus while the cadets prepared the provisions and boats for the trip. Admiral Khaliulin and Captain Iriutine were very interested in the classrooms, shops, and facilities of the campus, as it was the first opportunity to see the operations of a sister academic institution.

Everything ready, the boats, two of which were trucked up from Monterey, were launched and loaded at the Academy’s dock, charts checked for the trip upriver, and a patrol boat provided by the Academy to insure safe passage through the sometimes-treacherous Carquinez Strait. With Admiral Khaliulin watching from the dock we donned our bright orange life-vests and rowed out into the river. The Russian crews had prepared for sunny California with the issue of tropical uniforms; May of 1998 was a particularly cold one, and the Sacramento River was swollen with snow melt from the Sierras. Luckily after the Carquinez Strait the current lessened and the cold north-west wind abated so the crossing of Suisun Bay was almost balmy. But that presented another problem: sunburn for the light skinned northern Europeans accustomed to a northern sun. Rowing past Concord I pointed out the U.S. Navy’s nuclear weapon facility to Captain Iriutine, and pointed to the blank area on the American chart where the facility should have been. “We already know about it,” he said, showing me the same area clearly marked on the Russian chart brought with him. We decided to swap charts; good souvenirs of our trip up the Sacramento.

We had Russian-English versions of the account written by Captain-Commander Otto von Kotzebue of his ascent of the Sacramento River in 1824 during his over-winter stay in the San Francisco Bay on board the frigate “Predpriate” and we searched his account for landmarks mentioned in his writings and compared them with charts of the northern portions of San Francisco Bay prepared by the cartographers of the Russian ships Otkyitye? and Blagonamerennye produced in 1820–21.

Up the Sacramento! Russian crews in red windbreakers, Americans in white T-shirts. The American flag flew from the bow of the lead boat commanded by Captain Irutin. Russia’s St. Andrew’s ensign flew from the sterns of the two boats

Wind and current were always “on the nose” and it was tough going for the cadets, both Russian and American, who gratefully looked forward to the hot meals and warm bunks of the CALIFORNIAN when we met up with her each night. An escort motorboat was provided by one of the senior Navy Sea-Cadet officers, and on days when the wind whipped up white-caps on the river, or a driving rain, he would tow the boats up stretches of the river where the weather brought them to a standstill. Hypothermia was a real concern. Still, there were lovely calm days, such as the ones on Steamboat Slough, where the boats would pull into a shaded beach for the cadets to cook their mid-day meals, ingeniously preparing kasha in enameled buckets boiled over a campfire.

Captains Bezpalov and Iriutine and Admiral Khaliulin are welcomed aboard the CALIFORNIAN by Captain Christman (on right) in Sacramento

After three days of endless rowing, we finally reached the CALIFORNIAN moored at the Old Town dock in Sacramento, only to find a formal reception was scheduled for California State Assembly members aboard that night. A local hotel kindly offered shower facilities and ironing boards so the disheveled cadets could put on their dress uniforms, shine their shoes, polish their buttons and properly represent the Russian Navy to the State Capitol.

Admiral Khaliulin tours the Assembly Chamber of the State Capitol, Sacramento with officers of his staff

The next day a tour was arranged of the Capitol, disappointment befell the cadets when they learned the State’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, would not be there to welcome them. The disappointment was short lived when they discovered that afternoon Sacramento’s shopping district, the first chance they had to use their allowance of foreign currency in a big American city.

The voyage was a success! Other than sunburn and blisters there were no real injuries or losses, the cadets acquitted themselves as exemplary representatives of the Russian Navy (as did their two American counterparts) and most important, the return trip to Vallejo was down-stream!

Cadets on board CALIFORNIAN near Sacramento. Vladimir Kolychev of the Russian-America Society at far right

So, after two days in the city, rested, feted, and shopped-out, they returned to the boats for the trip back. In Rio Vista they were hosted by the Riverine Museum, where the cadets spent the night aboard the museum’s collection of historic military river patrol boats, and again displayed their bucket camp-cooking skills to the impressed museum’s staff in the museum’s galley. Lt. Freerks and I, after having supplied the canned stew required, snuck off to a Mexican Restaurant in Rio Vista.

The museum kindly and wisely provided one of their impressive P.T. Boats as an escort to Vallejo, concerned that shifting water levels being monitored upstream of Sacramento by opening and closing sluices could pose problems in the straits for us. The CALIFORNIAN had encountered unexpected river heights when passing beneath the Martinez bridge, losing her top mast when hitting the bridge’s underside. A broken oar was the only casualty of the treacherous Carquinez straits, and all safely returned to The Maritime Academy to celebrate the successful ascent.

After two weeks of being confined to the Academy and relentless days of rowing the boats, the cadets were ready to be tourists in one of the most interesting cities in the world, and San Francisco didn’t disappoint. The Russian community was ready too to show them how Russians has influenced the course of history of the great city. The orthodox church treated them to luncheons and shopping, The Russian Consulate put on a lavish reception for all the participants of the expedition, with representatives of the Vallejo Maritime Academy, the Rio Vista Riverine Museum, The U.S. Coast Guard District, and the Cadet Society of the Veterans of World War I. The Cadet Society provided transport throughout the city and hosted an impressive welcome dinner at their Veteran’s House.

Officers and Cadets of the Naval Engineering Institute pose with Vice-Consul Oleg Stepanov and his mother in front of the Russian Veteran’s House in San Francisco

Despite the very best of Russian Hospitality, there were undercurrents of unresolved history: one of the Imperial Cadet members took me aside and asked, with the change of government and symbols of the Russian Federation why the officers and cadets still wore the Soviet Navy uniform and insignia? Scrambling for an answer, I looked around the banquet halls and spied the portrait of Tsar Nicholas II in his naval uniform. I pointed out to the Old Cadet that the Tsar wore the monogram of his father, Aleksander III on his shoulder strap, because that was the Tsar he had sworn allegiance to. I said these officers also wore the insignia of the navy they had sworn their allegiance to, and that these cadets, when taking the oath, would wear the insignia of the new Russian Federation. This seemed to be a satisfactory explanation, and I noticed nodding heads among the old cadets as this explanation spread around the room.

My attempts at diplomacy couldn’t reach everyone. I noticed one of the young cadets with a distressed look on his face, and when I asked him, wasn’t he impressed by all the relics and history still unavailable to him in Russia, he said “these people were the White Guard. They killed my grandfather”. Still he, and the rest, sat down to dinner with these relics of the old regime, and Russian hospitality won out. It was hard not to recall Dr. Martin Luther King’s words how in his dream he saw former tormentors and victims “able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

The Cadets and Officers form a parade to honour the six Russian sailors from 1863 buried at the Naval Cemetery at Mare Island

Other tours were provided by the Consulate, including a trip to Fort Ross, the former colony of the Russian-American Company in Northern California. While interested in the history of the re-created State Park, it was clear what really captured their imagination was the beautiful surroundings of the Sonoma Coast, and the gracious welcome of the President of the Fort Ross Interpretive association and staff, who provided yet another delicious banquet and barbecue.

The next stop was the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. The San Francisco Coast Guard Admiral from the Consulate’s reception provided transport from Vallejo to Monterey. Here the cadets and officers had their first-hand look at a U.S. Navy facility and school, and stayed in the BOQ (Bachelor Officer’s Quarters), courtesy of the U.S. Navy’s Sea Cadet Senior Commander. While there they visited classrooms and labs, met with professors and staff, and had the run of the grounds which were once the grand Del Monte Hotel, one of California’s great 19th century hotels.

A visit to the U.S. Army’s Defense Language school in Monterey was also arranged, where a surprise impromptu “press conference” was arranged by the Army’s Russian department and students. Here the cadets were lined up on a stage in chairs facing the department’s Russian language students in the audience and interviewed. As there was no prior notice given for this arrangement, there was a distinct sense of discomfort felt by the Russian officers seated in the front row, especially as the unscripted questions soon turned political. One could sense unease on the part of the cadets also, as a defensive answer to a provocative question could spoil what was anticipated as a friendship visit to a collegial institution.

Cadet Zhukov

Cadet Zhukov, when asked an especially uncomfortably pointed question about a recent Russian political move deplored by the NATO Alliance, responded by standing and saying that as a Russian he loved his country, and although he didn’t necessarily agree with everything his government did, he was sure that Americans could understand that even when their countries appeared to be mistaken, you didn’t abandon them any more than you’d abandon your family in times of crises. The worried glances between the Russian officers soon changed when amidst a smattering of applause first one American student, then a few, then the whole room rose in a standing ovation to Zhukov’s remarks, and a bewildered and blushing Zhukov took his seat among his now standing fellow cadets, pounding him on his back in appreciation. For the rest of the tour of the school the Russians were followed wherever they went by American student soldiers now treating them like celebrities rather than the adversaries they had first encountered.

I had further reason to admire Zhukov’s innate diplomatic skills when a few days later the Russian Consulate in San Francisco hosted a reception for the Postgraduate School Officers and staff in the tower of Hermann Hall. Amidst a lavish spread put on by the consulate an entire table was covered with various beverages and plates with caviar. Zhukov, as one of two of the English-speaking cadets was assigned as bartender. Admiral Khaliulin asked me if I would act as his interpreter to the American officers. I immediately understood that this could prove to be a disaster, as my Russian was nowhere near competent enough to translate the Admiral’s love of anecdotes, toasts, and jokes, humor being almost wholly idiomatic. Zhukov instinctively understood my dilemma, and as he poured each shot glass for each toast, he paid particular attention to which one was handed to me. As we drank the first toast to Russian-American friendship, I was surprised to find my glass was filled with seven-up, and each subsequent glass too. My head remained clear enough to glance over to a subtly smiling Zhukov as he listened to my translations. I discovered a diplomatic trick of my own during the reception. When the Admiral began his anecdotes, I told the American officers surrounding him that Russian jokes were impossible to translate and to save me and the situation I would either wink or nod my head when I felt the punchline about arrive. I worked perfectly, the Admiral was pleased his jokes were so well appreciated, the American officers outdid themselves with laughter at the precise moment, and Zhukov’ excellent vodka and understanding had saved the day.

The last event of the trip was Lt. Robin Freerk’s change of command ceremony held at the Postgraduate School the day before the expedition’s return to Russia. Lt. Freerk’s turned his command over to his executive officer with a parade of flags and the cadets of both navies turned out in their dress uniforms.

Excited that a Russian Admiral would be speaking at his ceremony, Robin was a little disappointed when the Admiral appeared in a civilian suit. During his speech, however, Admiral Khaliulin made it clear that he was attending the ceremony as a friend of Robin’s whom he had come to appreciate over the course of the expedition, rather than an official representative of a foreign navy. This impressed both cadets and attendees, as it was clear that over the preceding weeks genuine friendships had been made as well as an appreciation of the qualities of each other’s navies.

The Russian and American cadets have switched uniforms: Russians on the outside and Americans in the middle

Several months later I was sitting in a downtown Monterey pub with friends when a young lady approached the table and asked if I was one of the Russian officers from the visit of the cadets earlier that year. When I said I was, she thanked me for the opportunity to meet the Russians while she was a student at the Defense language school.

I said,” did you meet with them after the “conference” arranged by the school?

“Oh no” she replied,” we met here in the pub at night after lights out on base.”

“You snuck out off base to see one another?” I asked.

“Not just me” she said.” There were several of us.”

“And the Russian cadets. How did they get here? It’s all the way across town from the Postgraduate School.”

“They’re sailors, aren’t they? Sailors navigate,” she said.

Despite all the receptions, speeches, toasts and diplomatic arrangements, it was nature itself that had found a way for people to find each other. Rowboat diplomacy had succeeded in an unexpected way.


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

Cite this article as: John Middleton, “Rowboat Diplomacy. Part Two”, in New Age in Russia, 13/05/2021,

Cite this blog post
Daria Shevtsova (2021, May 13). Rowboat Diplomacy. Part Two. New Age in Russia. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from

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1 Response

  1. Steve Bean says:

    Excellent! We need more such diplomacy.

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