The long-shot plan to transform a pile of rubble into a re-creation of one of Kauai’s 19th-century Russian forts started with a drunken bet.
Fired up on beer and Buckminster Fuller-inspired futurist theory, a Honolulu admiralty lawyer with steely determination wagered that he could meet Vladimir Putin.
“In this world, you can meet anyone,” declared Jay Friedheim.
His Russian-accented senior paralegal, sipping vodka beside him, was skeptical.
So Friedheim bet the paralegal another round of drinks that he could do something so monumental that it would capture the attention of Russia’s president — and persuade him to meet.
His resolve didn’t fade with his hangover.
A decade later, Friedheim and his paralegal have lobbied impressive support from Russian and Russian-American diplomats and scholars from San Francisco to Sibera in a rebooted effort to build a replica of an old Russian fort on Kauai’s west side.
With the motivation of becoming power-brokers in building U.S.-Russian alliances — and, of course, meeting Putin — the duo has traveled the globe with a polished business pitch, gifts of judo books for Putin and architectural concepts for the remaking of the neglected Hawaii State Park known as Russian Fort Elisabeth, also sometimes spelled Elizabeth. Years of politicking has paid off in the form of partnerships with officials in the Russian Embassy, bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church and influential leaders in the Russian government.
Along the way, they say they’ve battled Russophobia, rubbed elbows with dignitaries from Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made efforts to disclose to the FBI their unconventional relationship to a foreign government and discovered just how high emotions can fly when history goes misunderstood.
“It was more than me just wanting to meet this guy because he likes to ride horses and do judo, which are, in fact, reasons I wouldn’t mind meeting him — especially the judo thing,” Friedheim said.
“I also just thought that Putin is this really cool guy that has done a lot of things that I really admire. But I’m not hiding the fact that I would love to help the people that will eventually make this happen. I like what I do, but I would love to get the Russian Republic as a client.”
Friedheim and his paralegal Mihail Gilevich aren’t the first to champion the restoration of the 1817 fort, which was abandoned after 40 years of use by royal Hawaiians and now resembles little more than dusty rubble. But no other entity has been able to drum up the amount of money and critical mass pledged by the Russians they’ve wooed.
Friedheim said he hasn’t accepted any money from the Russians. But he claims members of the Russian Foreign Ministry are eager to bankroll the project.
“At first they figured we were a little nuts, but now the Russians like where we’re going with this,” Friedheim said. “And they’ve offered to give us everything. The Russians said they would send us a boat full of lumber and all of these workers — strong Russian guys that would come down here and work.”
There’s just one Russian bear-sized problem: Russians never garrisoned the fort. They didn’t build it, either. Technically, it was a Bavarian doctor working for a fur-trading company partially controlled by the Russian government who gave the fort its most Russian contributions: Its name and its Italian-style design.
Peter Mills, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who has studied the fort extensively, said he is encouraged by growing momentum to enhance the site. But he is bristled by some of the Russians’ desire to brand the site as their own without acknowledging its intrinsic role in Native Hawaiian culture and history.
The fort’s import to Native Hawaiians has long been buried under more vague Russian connections, embellished by the Cyrillic script on the fort’s official signage.
Mills said he wants to correct the historical discrepancies, not etch them deeper into public consciousness.
“I really think that their agenda to create something that Putin will just love is something that we need to protect against,” Mills said. “I think if there’s something I want to fight against it’s the image that someone picked up a Russian fort in St. Petersburg, brought it over here and plopped it down in Waimea.”
As Mills and some local residents push to rename the site to better represent its long usage by Hawaiian royalty, foreign interests that could bolster a common goal of tidying up the site remains tied to the fact in dispute: The fort’s Russianness.
When Russian Fort Elisabeth became a state park in 1970, it was in a state of disrepair. The state outfit the site with some minimal signage, but the historical interpretation reflected on those signs was based on false history perpetuated by a troublesome 1885 map.
Drawn up by a Hawaiian government surveyor, the fort on the map includes dubious features, such as redwood buildings, glass-paned windows and a trading house. These labels amount to little more than fanciful guesswork, according to Mills.
“The surveyor drew the fort as he imagined it looked at the time the Russians were there, which, of course, is an event that never happened,” said Mills, whose book “Hawaii’s Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History” is an editor’s note to history misinterpreted.
Today the fort still bears the misguided signage. Visitors trying to make sense of the place are more or less out of luck.
“People pull in to the fort and see a lot of weeds and dust and rocks in this unkempt looking place,” Mills said. “At most, I can sort of envision this conversation between two mainland tourists from the midwest: ‘Russians in Hawaii? Martha?’ And they pull in and pretty soon they are going to leave again without knowing anything more than they knew when they first went in.”
The story of the fort, as told by Mills, begins in January of 1815. That’s when a Russian-American fur-trading company vessel wrecks in front of the royal compound of King Kaumualii, Kauai’s last independent chief.
Claiming salvage rights, Kaumualii collects the provisions, including guns and ammunition, aboard the company ship.
The traders retreat to Alaska. That’s where a leader of the Russian-American Company deploys Georg Anton Schaffer, a doctor from Bavaria, on a diplomatic mission to Kauai. Schaffer is tasked with negotiating for the recovery of the lost provisions. If he succeeds in establishing good relations, he is assigned to make a trade deal with Kauai’s chief for the island’s sandalwood.
Kaumualii agrees to return the company’s munitions. And he gives Schaffer a monopoly on sandalwood in exchange for the Russian-American Company’s protection.
Within weeks, Schaffer and Kaumualii sign a secret treaty in which Schaffer swears to provide the chief with the backing of the Russian military for his efforts to maintain control of Kauai and conquer additional islands.
As they work together to fortify the island, Kaumualii hands the district of Hanalei over to Schaffer, who builds two forts of his own in Princeville and becomes the region’s de facto alii.
In Waimea, Schaffer designs an outline for the construction of a fort inside of Kaumualii’s royal compound. Hundreds of Native Hawaiian laborers, including some of Kaumualii’s wives, carry rocks to build the fort on the Waimea river’s east bank, a place Native Hawaiians considered sacred.
In 1817, about 10 weeks after the Waimea fort’s completion, Kaumualii boots Schaffer off the island. He does this upon learning Schaffer lacks the support of the Russian government and therefore the military power to help him overtake more of the archipelago.
For 40 years the fort played an integral role in the royal government, including the last major battle in the unification of the Hawaiian Islands in 1824.
“I’m quite certain that Schaffer, who named it Fort Elisabeth, thought it was going to be his fort,” Mills said. “I’m positive that Kaumualii saw it as his fort.”
“When Kaumualii’s grandson died at an early age,” he said, “he was buried inside of it. Eventually six other people were buried inside it after a battle, so it sort of becomes a cemetery of chiefly history on the west side of Kauai, which is a very bizarre way to use a Russian fort. But it’s a very rational way to use something that has been tied to chiefly lineages and that was a kapu space since before Captain Cook showed up.”
Hawaiians called the fort Pā ʻulaʻula, a name that evokes Waimea’s red dirt.
In November, Russians and Russian-Americans traveled to Kauai to celebrate the bicentennial of Russian Fort Elisabeth with a three-day forum and fort visit.
The event attracted representatives of the Russian government, Hawaii and Russian academics, a descendant of King Kaumualii, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho and members of the Congress of Russian Americans.
The forum made headlines in the largest Russian news agency TASS and other Moscow media.
Oleg Malginov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s department for relations with compatriots abroad, told a TASS reporter that the fort is emblematic of Russia’s achievements in 19th century cultural diplomacy.
“Quite naturally,” Malginov said, “it should be studied and made accessible for the people of Russia.”
But the forum itself has done little to yield a consensus over the site’s future.
One point everyone seems to agree on is that the fort should have a visitor center. What version of history that center should tell, however, remains open for negotiation.
Gilevich, the paralegal, said he sees it as his role to propel the project out of stagnation by forcing a compromise. Almost any action at the dilapidated site, he said, is better than nothing.
“I worry about heritage,” said Gilevich, who has Russian roots. “Nobody named this place before the Russians. Nobody created this place before the Russians. I would like to reunite all the Russian-speaking people on the island and show them that the Russians were here in Hawaii.
“And I would like to share with everybody else that we aren’t bad people. We are just normal.”
Then there’s the dispute over what the fort should be called. There’s a local groundswell to rename the site Pā ʻulaʻula. But most of the Russians aren’t biting.
“The biggest emotional obstacle is to get the Hawaiians to make it OK to be the ‘Russian Fort,’ because the Russians get all in a huff if it’s not going to be called that,” Friedheim said. “They’re really proud of it. It’s like Mount Rushmore to them.”
Aletha Kaohi, a historian and a descendent of Kaumualii, said she is open to compromise.
Afterall, it was a trade off between Kaumualii and Schaffer that sparked the fort’s creation in the first place.
“Why not call it, ‘Pā ʻulaʻula Fort Elisabeth?’” Kaohi said. “I mean, if the Russians are going to help us, shouldn’t they have some recognition?”
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to email@example.com and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.