HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A historic park on Kauai is playing a role in the troubled relationship between the United States and Russia.
The Russian ambassador and Russian Americans are fighting to preserve the name of Russian Fort Elizabeth in Kauai’s west side town of Waimea.
But cultural experts and state officials say the site is far more Hawaiian than Russian, and both sides are accusing each other of cultural insensitivity.
More than 200 years ago, a Russian trading company affiliated with the Czar helped built three forts on Kauai at the request of Kauai’s King Kaumualii.
The fort site at Waimea’s Paulaula was preserved as a state park in 1972 and called “Russian Fort Elizabeth." Over the years the fort has become barely recognizable.
“We would really like to see this, our presence and the history of our presence here,” Russian-American Hawaii Resident Mihail Gilevich said.
Gilevich is helping organize efforts to restore the site, which won considerable support.
“We managed to get the Russians to put up all the wood that was necessary to send us a shipload of people do the physical work,” Jay Freidheim, Hawaii Attorney said.
“The idea was to rebuild the fort. We did not know at the time its impossible to rebuild the fort,” another supporter said.
That’s because as experts looked closer, they confirmed that the fort was built with native Hawaiian labor with rocks from a heiau. The Russians left after two years and the people of Kauai used the fortress and cannon to defend the island against Kamehameha’s invasion.
“Many people died. Some of them are buried in that fort so not only is it a fort and a chiefly compound, it is a burial ground and it’s a Hawaiian burial ground,” Alan Carpenter of the State Parks Division said.
Carpenter says he’s glad the Russians kick-started discussion on how to preserve the site.
But says at times the Russian insensitivity hurt their cause including in 2017, raising a Russian trade company’s flag above the stones of Paulaula.
“Here you had visitors from another country raising their flag, which may have been raised there for a very brief time 200 years ago over the graves of Hawaiian chiefs, and to me, it seemed a very disrespectful act and I thought it was worthy of calling it out,” he said.
Gilevich says the Russians have great respect for the Hawaiian history there and the flag was raised to honor the Russian ancestors.
“It doesn’t mean someone was trying to disrespect local rules or claim anything,” Gilevich said.
As for a new name, the Russians agreed the Hawaiian name should come first but they are angry because the state is proposing renaming the park Paulaula Ft. Elizabeth and removing the word Russian.
“Yes the Russians were here for a little while but the Hawaiians were there for much longer and that history has been more or less forgotten or not highlighted enough,” Carpenter said.
The dispute provoked news stories on Russian television and a letter from Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
He implored Governor Ige to keep Russian in the name of the site in the interest of international relations.
It will be a long process to improve and rename the site much as more research and archaeology needs to be done.