Alexander Clark Real Estate

‘The Front Steps’: How “Little Russia” Came To the Richmond

Weeks after I first moved to San Francisco for college I was standing in a now-forgotten pizza place, angling for a job.

The owner, glancing at my resume, asked, “Do you have any Russian roots?”

This seemed like an odd question in the context of what I hoped was a job interview, but I answered honestly: Not as far as I knew. He seemed surprised.

Turns out this wasn’t an interview, he was just making conversation. And it wasn’t an unusual question to ask, as longtime Richmond residents know that the west side of SF has long attended not just one but multiple Russian-speaking enclaves, marked by the unmissable standard of the Orthodox church on Geary.

“Little Russia” has sadly been in the news for dispiriting reasons so far this year, with many outlets reporting harassment and discrimination against neighborhood businesses.

(Geary and 18th, 1933. Courtesy FoundSF)

So how did we end up the hotspot for Russian culture in SF for generations? Outsiders would doubtless assume that if SF has a Russian enclave it would be–where else?–Russian Hill.

But the book Russian San Francisco relates that this was simply a burial site for Russian sailors in pre-Gold Rush times, and for some reason that neighborhood never quit the name.

Per the 1998 book Fort Ross, the Gold Rush naturally brought fortune-seekers to SF from Russian shores, just as it did from virtually every other corner of the globe. Fort Ross even credits a Russian-American Company manager with the patent for the first gold washing machine in California.

In 2002, an SF Department of Public Health report noted that much of the Russian-speaking immigration to SF over the centuries was driven by Russian Jews fleeing persecution, measured in four general “waves” beginning in the late 18th century and continuing all the way up until the then most recent wave in the mid 1980s.

The original Russian enclave in SF was not the Richmond but actually the Fillmore, near the oldest Orthodox church in SF, which is still there on Green street.

(Holy Virgin Cathedral on Geary, established in the ’60s. David Yu)

It was the development of vast tracts of cheap new housing in the western neighborhoods that attracted new and longtime Russian-speakers alike to resettle here in the early 20th century, spreading SF’s Russian culture over a much wider area and giving us our first Russian-language corridors in and around the Richmond.

Found SF reports that the original Russian outpost in the Richmond along Clement Street “disappeared” over time, only for another one to pop up nearby along Geary after the decline of the Soviet Union incited even more new immigration.

By the end of the century, SFDPH estimated that some 60 percent of Russian-speaking San Franciscans lived in the western neighborhoods, primarily the Richmond. Perhaps surprisingly, SFGate notes that the “Little Russia” nickname is relatively recent, only really catching on during the ’90s.

As with many other neighborhoods, old-timers report a decline in Russian language, businesses, and culture in and around Little Russia in recent years. But some of the most reliable mainstays still remain–through good times and bad.

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1 reply »

  1. The photo in this article about Russians in the Richmond District was taken some time before I was born in 1950 but this shot of the Alexandria theatre was two blocks from my family home at 18th Ave & Balboa. As a child during the 1950s I knew there were many Russians who lived and worked in the neighborhood. What I remember most vividly was a Russian delicatessen whose name I believe was Tik Tok. I could be wrong on the name but the deli is firmly imprinted in my memory. The smell of the meats, cheeses and breads all mixed together created an unmistakable aroma. What I remember best is the big wooden barrel off to the side of the deli that had these huge dill pickles. Just take the tongs and pick one out for 5cents as I recall. What a great memory for me.


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