The first Russian surface warship to visit San Francisco in 147 years is docked on the Embarcadero this week on a visit that combines friendship, history and a display of military power.
The ship is the cruiser Varyag, a sleek gray vessel that is the flagship of Russia's Pacific fleet. It made the two-week voyage from Vladivostok in the spirit of friendship, as Russian Rear Adm. Vladimir Kastonov said more than once during a news conference aboard the ship at Pier 30-32 on Monday.
The ship's visit also commemorates a nearly forgotten bit of Russian-American history. Czar Alexander II sent a fleet to San Francisco and New York in 1863 during the American Civil War to show support for the union.
That Russian squadron, six ships commanded by a rear admiral, spent several months in San Francisco Bay. It was a difficult time for the United States - the British were considering recognizing the Confederacy, the French were about to send an army to Mexico, and the Confederate Navy had ideas about the Pacific.
Not only that, Russian sailors helped fight a huge fire in San Francisco and six of them died. A plaque honoring the sailors was dedicated Tuesday afternoon at Broadway and the Embarcadero.
"We have a very, very rich history," Kastonov said.
That may be, but it took more than a century for another Russian Navy warship to sail to what Kastonov called "your very beautiful coast and beautiful city." A Russian submarine came here during World War II, and an occasional Russian research ship, but that was it.
In between, of course, was the Cold War, a period when San Francisco was ringed with Nike missile batteries and the bay was full of U.S. Navy ships all designed to head off a Soviet attack that never came.
Monday, the Russians were pleased to show off their ship, including the menacing missile tubes that house 16 cruise missiles able to hit enemy warships more than 3,400 miles away. There is also an assortment of anti-aircraft missiles and a conventional twin-barrel gun in a turret that can fire 90 rounds of ammunition in a minute.
The mission of the Russian fleet, Kastonov said, "is to prevent piracy, particularly in the Gulf of Aden (near Somalia) and to prevent acts of terrorism."
"We work together with the United States forces in this region," the admiral said.
Capt. Eduard Moskalenko, the Varyag's commander, said his father was commander of a submarine in the Soviet era, but the Varyag is not your father's Russian ship. For one thing, a religious icon is mounted in a place of honor in the wardroom, unthinkable in the Communist era. For another, it has a small "relaxation room", where crew members can consult with a psychologist.
The room features comfortable couches, a tropical fish tank and two parrots, which liaison officer Lt. Artyoma Yakovnev said were named Pirate and Sailor.
On Wednesday, the Varyag's crew will participate in a cookout and sports competition with sailors from the U.S. Navy cruiser Bunker Hill, which is also in port.
Members of the public can tour the Varyag from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday. The ship sails Friday for Vladivostok.