Welcome Address by Ambassador Tefft at the International Fort Ross Dialogue Conference Opening Session.
Towards each other: Russian trailblazers and American Pioneers
by Ambassador John F. Tefft
May 29, 2017
Good morning. I am honored to be with you here today to open the International Fort Ross Dialogue. First of all, I would like to thank the Dialogue organizers for bringing us together for this important and timely conference. And to all the conference participants here today, many of whom I’ve known for years: thank you for coming together to support this initiative and to contribute to the discussion.
I am particularly grateful to Sarah Sweedler and Tim Kelly from the Fort Ross Conservancy for their service and for lending their remarkable professional experience, talents, and network organization skills in strengthening and promoting Fort Ross worldwide. The work they have done together with their colleagues here in Izborsk is a testament to their commitment to preserving linkages between our two countries. This includes partnerships between museums, discussions among people, and exchange opportunities for students and teachers. These people-to-people interactions help build bridges between Russians and Americans, strengthening our understanding of one another through our shared history and our shared culture.
Throughout my 45-year Foreign Service career working on Soviet and Russian affairs, I have been privileged to witness firsthand how cultural exchanges serve the broader goals of facilitating mutual understanding and building trust among people. I have observed the ebbs and flows in the U.S.-Russian relationship, but in the end I would characterize that relationship as a near-constant balance between cooperation and competition. We have thrived as partners and endured as competitors. Woven throughout that relationship over the years are our cultural and historical ties, of which Fort Ross is a shining example.
This year marks the 205th anniversary of the establishment of Fort Ross, the southernmost Russian settlement in what is now the United States. Located in picturesque Northern California, Fort Ross is a testament to the meeting of cultures, a landmark at the point of intersection of Russians, Americans, Spaniards, and American Indians. Although I’ve read about the Fort and heard much from my American and Russian colleagues who have traveled and worked there, I have not yet had the opportunity to attend one of the annual Fort Ross Festivals. Hopefully Mariella and I will be able to attend the festival in person when we are back in the United States. But being here today, in Fort Ross’ partner city of Izborsk, standing in a room with Russians and Americans who all feel passionately about preserving our shared history, makes me realize how deep our ties really go.
One thing is clear: we are stronger when we understand one another and see our commonalities in addition to our differences. People-to-people cooperation is essential to that process of understanding. At a time when the global economy is evolving more quickly than at any point in human history, and the scope of global challenges has never had higher stakes, such cooperation and understanding is now more important than ever.
As U.S. Ambassador to Russia, I work with my team to strengthen people-to-people connections between our two countries. One shining example of this is the Fort Ross Quest Contest. This annual contest run by our Public Affairs Section highlights the cultural ties between Russia and the United States by inviting high- school students to think more about what early life at Fort Ross was like and how the settlement has contributed to the development of U.S.-Russian relations. Every year we send winners of that contest from Russia to California to participate in the annual Fort Ross Festival.
Another collaboration supported by the U.S. Embassy took place here at Izborsk’s open air museum and medieval fortress, bringing together museum staff from Izborsk, Fort Ross, and Colonial Williamsburg to discuss historic interpretation and crafts, and explore future cooperation. Cooperation among museums is key to preserving our shared history and presenting it to the next generation. I look forward to listening to today’s panel discussion on museum development and hope that we can find new and innovative ways of cooperating.
As I’ve traveled throughout the country during my time here in Russia, I have experienced Russia’s rich cultural history and seen the Izborsk – Fort Ross connection first-hand. Last year, for example, I traveled to Irkutsk, one of the cities on the trail from Izborsk to Fort Ross. While there I visited the grave of Grigory Shelikhov, a Russian seafarer and merchant, who led an expedition to the shores of what is now known as Alaska in the 1700s, leading to the first permanent Russian settlements in North America. Imagine the picture: an American from Wisconsin standing in Irkutsk at a memorial to a Russian who traveled to Alaska. It is a small world indeed.
As U.S. Ambassador to Russia, I’ve made it my mission to increase opportunities to highlight our cultural ties through a series of performances and cultural events held at Spaso House, my residence in Moscow. I regularly host concerts with music ranging from classical to jazz, and from solos and duets to popular music revues. In these concerts, Russian and American artists perform together, wowing audiences with performances that are streamed live via our Embassy Facebook page and proving that Russians and Americans can make beautiful music together.
Like these cultural platforms, the International Fort Ross Dialogue Conference is an invaluable forum for discussing our shared interests and discovering our shared values. When our bilateral relations are so challenged – as they are at the moment – it is even more important to continue to create these opportunities to bring Russians and Americans together to discuss differences; to enjoy things we have in common; and to simply embrace our shared culture.