Zhirinovsky Goes California Dreamin'

December 22, 1993|By FRANK BOURGHOLTZER

Santa Monica, California -- Even a slick Hollywood lawyer would have a tough time getting to first base with Vladimir Zhirinosky claim that Alaska should be returned to Russia, but an ''L.A. Law'' hot-shot might have a ball with a claim against the Central Valley of California, and the capital, Sacramento.

Such a legal whiz might even induce Mr. Zhirinosky (the new mover-and-shaker in Russia's new parliament) to move in, with two or three dozen of his bully-boy ex-KGB friends, to the sleepy little resort town of Fort Ross, 80 miles north of San Francisco, where he could run up the Russian flag and call for United Nations protection.

The fort was, after all, Russian territory until a mere 154 years ago, a colonial outpost set up to support the Russian fur trade in the waters off North America. The rest of California was a Mexican colony. Fort Ross was supposed to be a base of operations for seal and sea otter hunters, as well as a source of food supplies for other Russian bases in Alaska.

The fur hunters were not exactly students of ecology, and in short order they ran out of seals and sea otters. Besides that, the would-be farmers at Fort Ross were unable to make much of anything grow, and lost most of their farm animals to wolves and coyotes. The word went 'round the Sacramento valley that Fort Ross was for sale.

Enter, with his usual swagger, the infamous John Sutter, an ambitious settler who was busy building a little empire around his own fort, which he called New Helvetia. He signed a contract with the Russians to buy Fort Ross, the land, the buildings, the livestock, the armaments -- including a couple dozen French muskets supposedly salvaged after Napoleon's catastrophic retreat from Moscow.

And here's the fun part -- he gave them a mortgage on all of his own property. If he failed to fulfill the terms of the contract, the Russians could take New Helvetia and all the rest.

Sutter is most remembered for his little sawmill, which he ran with the help of a mountain stream that made the mill wheels go around. When one of his workers found gold in that mill stream, everything changed. And everyone, it seems, got rich except for John Sutter, who began to go deeper and deeper into debt.

At one point, Mexican governor Pio Pico, teed off by Sutter's efforts to mount a California independence movement, tried to get the Russians to sell them Sutter's mortgage, after which they would be able to invoke the contractual claim on Sutter's property and put him out of business. The Russians said ''nyet.''

Unfortunately, the historical record becomes rather fuzzy at this juncture, but there is at least the basis for an argument that Sutter never did fully pay his debt to the Russians. One story says he gave the final payment of $15,000 to a supposedly trustworthy agent, who disappeared with the cash, never to be seen again.

Thus, if it could be proved that Sutter really didn't fulfill the contract, the ownership of Fort Ross and all of Sutter's property could be said to have reverted, under the contract, to the Russians. Mr. Zhirinosky could take over not only Fort Ross, but also New Helvetia, which today is called Sacramento.

At the same time, Vlad Zhirinosky, now that he's in the throes of that painful transition from office seeker to office holder, may want to consider legal advice in a different direction. His game of ''that used to be mine so I want it back'' can cut two ways.

He also says he wants to reclaim the Baltic States, Finland and the Ukraine.

Going back a few years farther in history, like, say, a thousand years, he could be reminded that, in the beginning, the land of ''Rus'' was centered in what is, today, called Ukraine. Kiev was the capital of that Russia, when it was beginning to be someplace. All the tsars of Russia, up to the Romanovs, claimed with great pride their direct descent from old Ryurik, who is supposed to have started the whole Russian thing.

So, when Vlad says he wants Ukraine, for example, to come back under Russian domination, the folks in Kiev might file their prior claim, and demand the return of Russia -- to Kiev's domination.

Frank Bourgholtzer is a free lance.

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