Viktor Vekselberg, the billionaire president of the Renova Group of companies, a major Russian firm, signed an agreement Tuesday night in San Francisco with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to provide "substantial financial support" to keep Fort Ross open and to provide "a long-standing solution" to Fort Ross' budgetary difficulties.
The agreement is supported at the highest levels of the Russian government. Vekselberg accompanied Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the Bay Area on Tuesday to foster ties between U.S. and Russian high-tech businesses.
The Russian president stood at Vekselberg's side as he and Schwarzenegger signed the agreement and afterward lifted a glass of Champagne in a toast to California.
Schwarzenegger said he planned to send a California trade mission to Russia.
For his part, Medvedev said he had heard a lot about California and San Francisco. The city, his first stop on his U.S. tour, "is really fantastic," he said.
Renova will set up a nonprofit charitable foundation called the Renova Fort Ross Foundation, which will provide money and other support "to raise awareness of the historical and cultural significance" of the fort. It was not clear how much money is involved, but in 2009 the state said the park's expenses were $800,000 more than it took in in fees or other income.
"This is the first time a foreign nonprofit has come forward to preserve the history of another country," said Ruth Coleman, director of the California state park system.
The Schwarzenegger administration considered closing Fort Ross last year because of the state budget crisis. Instead, the fort's budget was cut back and this year it was only open three days a week.
The idea of closing Fort Ross, the only Russian colonial settlement in California, caused a sensation in Russia last year and the Russian government dispatched Sergey Kislyak, its ambassador to the United States, to the windy outpost to show its support for the park.
Kislyak called Fort Ross "wonderful proof that the U.S. and Russia have a rich, largely positive shared history." He also wrote letters to Schwarzenegger and enlisted the aid of Medvedev and Vekselberg.
Vekselberg toured Fort Ross on Tuesday morning.
"He thought it was a very charming and wonderful museum," said Sarah Sweedler, president of the nonprofit Fort Ross Interpretive Association, who helped show him around.
His support, she said, "is really a silver lining to the budget crisis."
Last year Fortune magazine estimated Vekselberg's net worth at $1.8 billion. The tycoon has a fascination with Russian history.
Schwarzenegger hailed the agreement with Renova.
"It is exciting to see Renova get involved in preserving this important park and create a public-private partnership to increase the services at Fort Ross at no cost to the taxpayers," he said in a statement.
Natalie Sabelik, president of the San Francisco-based Congress of Russian Americans, said the Russian community in the Bay Area had bombarded Schwarzenegger with letters urging the state to keep Fort Ross open.
"Fort Ross is as important as the Spanish missions" to the history of California and the West, she said.
Fort Ross was founded by the Russian American Co. in 1812 as a base for seal and otter hunters and to supply food for Russian settlements in Alaska.
The fort prospered for a time, and the Russians set up a seaport at Bodega Bay, explored the interior of California, planted vineyards and established farms near what are now the Sonoma towns of Graton and Occidental.
By 1841, the Russians had decided Fort Ross was uneconomic and sold the settlement's livestock and buildings to John A. Sutter, the Swiss adventurer who founded Sacramento.
Twenty-six years after leaving Fort Ross, the Russian government decided to sell its Alaskan colony to the United States and pull out of North America.
But Fort Ross has always held a special place in Russian history.
"It is a memorable landmark in Russian-U.S. relations," Ambassador Kislyak told Schwarzenegger in a letter last summer.
Chronicle staff writer Carla Marinucci contributed
to this report.
Photos by: Svetlana Holmes