Mayor Gary Paxton may not have spent much time in Russia, but he has read War and Peace — chapter by chapter — a few times. That was one of many tidbits of casual conversation he shared with Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov this morning. The ambassador paid a visit to Sitka on Wednesday (6/19/19). It was one of several Alaska stops on a history and culture tour. City officials welcomed him with a packed day of sightseeing, photo-ops, and more.
“It seems to me you’re only one family, small town life,” Ambassador Antonov said. “Here, you know everybody.”
Which is what it must have been like where he calls home, too. Ambassador Antonov grew up in Siberia where, he says, you cannot suffer from frost because it’s a dry climate. He warned against the humidity in places like Moscow. Or for that matter, Sitka year-round or Washington, DC in the summer.
After the introductions were over, the Ambassador and the Mayor held a photo op in Totem Square. The two parted as friends — with a future date for lunch, Russian-style.
“If you have time to visit for example Washington it will be honor [sic] for me to welcome you in my residence,” Ambassador Antonov said. He promised Mayor Paxton that he would organize a lunch of Russian delicacies so he could compare local offerings to the diplomat-version.
“I will be waiting for you in Washington,” the Ambassador said. “Not in Russia, for a while.”
Mayor Paxton then handed the Ambassador off to Mary Miller, the superintendent of Sitka National Historical Park. Miller led a climb up to Castle Hill, where she briefed the Ambassador on local history with the help of Dave McMahan, the former state archaeologist. Ambassador Antonov was eager to learn.
“Please don’t forget, it is the first visit to Sitka,” he said. “That’s why I don’t know anything.”
Miller explained how the Castle Hill park was originally a Tlingit site called Noow Tlein. The Russian’s took possession of this site and built Baranof Castle. Castle Hill is the former site of Baranof Castle, built on land the Russians seized from the Sitka Tlingit following the Battle of 1804. It’s also the very place where the United States flag was first raised over Alaska in 1867. “It’s the high ground,” Miller said.
Ambassador Antonov seemed to expect something grander. “It’s very interesting that you call it castle,” he said. “Not house. Not fortress. Why castle?”
McMahan, the former state archaeologist explained how Baranof used to sponsor balls, dances, and more. Ambassador Antonov remained unconvinced. “But space, it’s not enough for balls, for dancing,” he said.
The castle burned 125 years ago, and the site is now a small, grass-covered park. Ambassador Antonov nevertheless was intrigued by the remaining cannons.
“Is it possible to use them now?” he asked.
“Anything is possible,” Miller said. Ambassador Antonov explained that there are similar cannons in St Petersburg. “Sometimes we offer it to tourists to show that we’re still alive,” he said.
Although Sitka has no immediate plans to fire up its old guns, the mini history lesson at Castle Hill left the Ambassador thoughtful and optimistic.
“It’s very difficult to understand your history just by the first glance,” he said. He went on to discuss how he sees and feels a lot of common history between Sitka and the homeland.
“I just want that other people have positive attitudes toward Russia toward Russian people,” he said. “I want to convey this message that we would like to be friends, there is nothing drastic between us, just some misunderstanding, what we want, just only more conversation.
And that includes conversation with ordinary American tourists like one visiting Castle Rock who seized the chance to photograph an actual Russian, in the former capital of Russian America.
“Can I take a picture?” she asked.
Ambassador Antonov was thrilled at the request, extended his hand, and the cameras fired away. After his visit to Castle Hill, the Ambassador piled into a car accompanied by aides, Russian reporters, and Sitka officials for a full day of more first glances.