Rooskies Leave Giant Footprints in Santa Barbara

Russian Influence Exerted From City's Founding to 2009 Mayor's Race

PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC: For the record, I never had lunch with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. If I did, it is currently in the process of slipping my mind. If I lied, such deceit was unintentional and no doubt the fault of an imprecisely asked question.

Given what appears to be fact, it’s hard not to get too hysterical about the Russian cyberattack of the Democratic National Committee. Clearly, such an attack took place at the direction of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It was launched with the even clearer intent to get Donald Trump elected. Whether it proved pivotal remains to be seen, but the sustained drip-drip-drip of inside campaign info ​— ​who was bickering with whom ​— ​proved embarrassing and destabilizing to Hillary Clinton’s otherwise less-than-stellar effort at a time she could afford neither. Just as Democrats now find themselves embracing such Republican Holy Grails as “states’ rights,” they likewise have become born again in their fervor over the Russian boogeyman. The Alice in Wonderland effect has grown so intense that even Trump has taken to screaming about witch hunts and “McCarthyism.” I say “even” because Trump’s key political mentor, Roy Cohn, was McCarthy’s witch-hunter in chief during the Red Scares of the 1950s.

If it turns out that Putin authorized the cyberattack as payoff for the Republican Party dropping proposed language from its convention platform this past summer in support of Ukrainian rebels fighting Russian invaders ​— ​and equipping them with lethal force ​— ​that would qualify as a Very Big Deal. And frankly, the circumstantial evidence reeks. Trump’s campaign manager at the time, Paul Manafort, had worked as campaign manager for Ukrainian klepto-thug Viktor Yanukovych ​— ​political puppet of Putin. How much more blatant can it get? If, however, your lily needs further gilding, there are the meetings Lt. General Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions forgot to mention with the oversized Russian ambassador and alleged spy master Kislyak. If all that seems too intricate and remote, try this on for size: Who but a Manchurian candidate names their daughter Ivanka?

For those of us excited into orgasms of moral apoplexy by the mere thought of Donald J. Trump, some perspective is strongly advised. No, it’s not okay that our election was hacked. But the United States, it should be noted, has meddled with the internal elections of other sovereign nations at least 81 times between 1946 and 2000.

As Santa Barbarians calibrate the emotional velocity of their response to the onslaught of Russia-related revelations, it’s worth reflecting on the profound impact the Russian Bear has had on California’s Bear State in general and Santa Barbara in particular. In fact, Santa Barbara as we know it would not exist today were it not for Spanish fears in the 18th century about Russia’s colonial curiosity extending down the coast. The fortress out of which Santa Barbara emerged ​— ​El Presidio, built in 1782 ​— ​was specifically designed to ward off Russian intervention. El Presidio did nothing, however, to slow down Russian fur traders ​— ​and the Kodiak Indians they brought with them ​— ​who hunted sea otters into near extinction for their fur (sold to China) in the first decades of the 1800s.

Not only did the Kodiak introduce the kayak to this region, but their bloody conflicts with native inhabitants of San Nicolas Island proved so violent that the island was totally depopulated by 1835, famously memorialized in the book Island of the Blue Dolphins. The details of that conflict are murky, but the Nicoleños killed some of the Kodiaks; the Russian retaliated with a wholesale massacre. The Spanish arrested the Russians and sought to convert the Kodiaks to Catholicism. When that failed, the Spaniards chopped off the fingers of one Kodiak, then his arms. When that proved unpersuasive, they disemboweled him. Those in the fishing industry are still dealing with efforts ​— ​some undeniably absurd ​— ​to restore and protect sea otters; they can thank the thoroughness of the original Russian fur traders.

In 1959, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited Santa Barbara in an 18-car whistle-stop train tour. Khrushchev got out for 13 minutes, passed out hammer-and-sickle lapel pins, and shook hands with the mayor, who proved far more welcoming than his counterpart in Los Angeles. This visit helped propel that creation of a Santa Barbara chapter of the John Birch Society, so paranoid in their ultra-right anti-communism they believed President Eisenhower was a witting stooge of the Kremlin. Santa Barbara News-Press publisher T.M. Storke famously won a Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for his crusading editorials against the Birchers, who had taken to hanging Storke and his good friend Earl Warren, former governor and then Supreme Court Justice, in effigy around town. Less well-known was the deployment of wiretaps by law enforcement against the Birchers without benefit of warrants. No uncomfortable questions about civil liberties were ever raised at the time. Storke sold the paper two years later.

Fast-forward to 2009 when Russian tycoon investor Sergey Grishin indirectly helped Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider  get elected. Schneider was running against conservative city councilmember Dale Francisco ​— ​then backed by a Texas billionaire named Randall Van Wolfswinkel, who spent more than $700,000 trying to take over the city council ​— ​and former Chamber of Commerce czar Steve Cushman. In that race, Cushman played the role of the spoiler, siphoning off votes that might otherwise have gone to Francisco. A big reason Cushman was effective is the $50,000 check Grishin ​— ​who owned the estate where the movie Scarface was shot ​— ​gave him. Wolfswinkel sought to tag Cushman a commie stooge, but Cushman ​— ​a big bear of a guy ​— ​effectively laughed it off. Schneider would have likely won anyway, but her margin of victory would have been uncomfortably tighter.

In the meantime, Ambassador Kislyak, my calendar’s wide open; let’s do lunch.


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