San Francisco, Sacramento, Soapweed — the travels of a Russian in California.
Nikolai Konstantinovich Sudzilovsky came to California in 1891, but not under that name. When he left Russia, he adopted the English-sounding name Nicholas John Russel, the surname being a nod to his homeland. His description of his travels in California, written in Russian for a Russian audience, was never published in his lifetime — indeed, he never completed it. It languished among his papers in a Moscow archive until discovered and translated by Terence Emmons.
Around California in 1891 was published by the Stanford Alumni Association in 1991. I picked the book up in a used book store, another one of those serendipitous finds.
Russel (I’ll call his that, since it is easier to type and the name he used most often) was born in Belarus in 1850. He studied medicine at Kiev University, where he also got deep into revolutionary politics. When the political situation became too heated for the young rebel, he left for Bucharest, where he completed his medical education and continued his activities in left-wing politics. Expelled from Romania, he bounced around Europe until 1887, when he emigrated to the United States. Wherever he went he wrote travel articles for Russian magazines that were published under pseudonyms.
In 1887 he came to California and for a few years practiced medicine in San Francisco. In 1891 he decides to go to the mountains for a summer vacation. He begins his account with these words:
Surely, one of the unique features of American life worthy of imitation is the widespread practice of spending summer vacation in the wilderness camping or wandering. . . . “Camping,” “tramping,” and “roughing it” as the Americans call this custom of summer traveling, will not lose their poetic charm and will continue to be the inexpensive and popular source of a multitude of healthy and varied pleasure.
And here we are, over 100 years later, still taking our family camping trips and enjoying the wilderness.
The business man and the “aristocrat,” though, will not be found enjoying the summer in the rural isolation. Americans, according to Russel, are obsessed with getting rich, and the man of business does not have time for leisurely vacations.
As he travels, he remarks on the ubiquity of advertising, “whether on the railroad, ferry boat, or country lane, it flies into your ears and nose like mosquitoes in the swamp or woods.” He doesn’t forget his socialist roots — he is sensitive to the excesses of American business and “the predators of capitalist feudalism.” But to be fair, it was the Gilded Age of the robber barons and the “Big Four.” There was plenty to criticize.
Russel starts his travels in San Francisco, takes the ferry to Oakland and then the train to Sacramento, describing all the sights, sounds, and smells along the way. His object is the mountains — he plans to spend the summer among the pines. To this end he had put an advertisement in the papers, looking for a place where he and his traveling companion could stay for the summer and do some hiking and fishing.
He ends up with a Mrs. Golden, who “offered us, for a reasonable price, room and board in a comfortable apartment with a small family at the elevation of 3,000 feet, in a forested, healthful area covered with mountain streams.” Sounds inviting!
The rest of his unfinished account is a description of their summer at Soapweed. There is no town of Soapweed now (if there ever was), but there is a Soapweed Creek, about 16 miles from Placerville in the El Dorado National Forest, and that is where he enjoyed California country life.
Russel never completed the book. After a dispute with the Russian Orthodox bishop of San Francisco (thoroughly covered in the book in an article by Terence Emmons), he went to Hawaii, where he became the first president of the Hawaiian Senate, under the name Kauka Lukini!
Never one to settle anywhere, he traveled to Japan, and then to China, where he died in 1930. His papers eventually made their way back to Moscow.
The book is too brief to tell us much about life California in 1891, but it gives an idea of how the Golden State looked to the eyes of a revolutionary Russian.