The Atlantis of Harbin

The story of Russian China - a Russian Atlantis, of its extraordinary growth and decline, which was brought about with the help of the Soviet secret services, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Japanese colonizers, is one of the many tragedies of the 20th century.  It did, however, give our theatre back several big names, whose absence would have made us that much poorer.  To this day they remember the drama of their return to their historical homeland.  But they also cannot imagine their lives turning out any differently.  

Alexei Borodin, artistic director of the Russian Academic Youth Theatre, is a third generation “Chinese”.  His father Vladimir Alexandrovich founded a paint manufacturing laboratory in Shanghai that grew into a large factory, and was thriving regardless of who was in power: the Chinese, the Japanese, or the Americans.  But his conviction that children must have a homeland outweighed everything else.  So the Borodins moved out of their big stone mansion in Shanghai, first to Shymkent and then to the city of Pushkin near Moscow.  Already in his retirement, the former factory owner with several higher education diplomas was supplementing his family’s income by doing technical translations under his neighbor’s name.  The Borodins never regretted their choice.  “Who would I be now if I had stayed in China?” says Alexei Vladimirovich.  

Ekaterina Kornakova, actress of the First and Second Studios of the Moscow Art Theatre, who was partners with Mikhail Chekhov, Ivan Bersenev, and Sofia Giatsintova and was a former wife of Alexei Dikiy, came to Harbin with her second husband, a businessman by the name of Boris Brynner (Yul Brynner, a famous Hollywood actor, is his son).     Nostalgic for her work at the Art Theatre, she created a theatre studio, where she reenacted the Moscow Art Theatre’s legendary production of “The Cricket on the Hearth”.    Among the names, who started their theatre careers in her studio, was Yuri Khorosh.  He created a Youth Drama Company in China (over a hundred premieres), and upon his return to the USSR worked in theatres of Minusinsk, Petrozavodsk and Murmansk (a big stroke of luck for a repatriate).   

Marianna Vertinskaya, actress and daughter of the great Alexander Vertinsky and his young wife Lidia Tsirgvava, lived in Shanghai only during the first year of her life.  As such, she, of course, cannot call to memory her father’s triumphs and tragedies, as he performed in halls, restaurants and pubs around Shanghai, trying in vain to manage his own establishment – an exquisite refuge for “vagabonds and poets”.  But he turned out to be a flop of a businessman.  And he was becoming less and less resistant to the desire to return to his homeland. In 1943 he wrote a desperate letter to Molotov, which ended with the words “Allow us to return to our motherland.”  He was allowed back and given a concert norm – 24 concerts per month, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad.   At the very beginning of his journey through his native land, a driver, who had just received payment from Vertinsky,  took off in the car with all of Vertinsky’s things and his most precious possession – milk for little Marianna.  And since nobody could sell him more milk if he didn’t have a bottle, the poor father had to go and steal one.   

It was the Russian immigrants who introduced China and Japan to the art of classical ballet.   In 1934, Nikolai Sokolsky, a former student of Diaghilev, founded the Russian Ballet Association in Shanghai.  One of his dancers was a famous poetess Larissa Andersen, who studied dance under Lidia Drozdova, a student of Petipas, and subsequently made her living with dance.   The Russian Ballet Association was around until 1953, touring all over the world.  Students of Massine, Fokine and Andreeva danced on the stages of China.  Masahide Komaki, founder of the Japan Ballet Company, was greatly impressed by Russian ballet.  

This is how “the Russia that we lost” had scattered around the world and then reassembled itself from the broken fragments.  

Grigory Gobernik, People’s Artist of the Russian Federation, composer and deputy artistic director of the Maly Theatre, talks about his return, which became his internal emigration:

“In China, which was cut up like a pie and divided into spheres of influence, Manchuria was a Russian protectorate.  My grandfather on my father’s side moved from Chita to Harbin, which was going through a period of rapid growth due to the construction of the CER (the Chinese Eastern Railway).   My grandfather on my mother’s side fought in World War I, came under a gas attack and was discharged on medical grounds, after which he also came to Harbin.    Following World War II, when the Soviet Army entered Harbin, many were interned and send to the Gulag Archipelago.  Russians that worked at Japanese enterprises (in any capacity, even as store clerks) were thought to be involved in espionage.  My father, who was, at one time, employed by a Japanese man, and later started his own business, was also called in for questioning.  But everything worked out in the end.  

It was only on the outskirts that you got the sense that Harbin was a Chinese city.  In the center of it Russian was pretty much the only language you heard.  Even though our neighbors were Chinese, and we were friends with them, and played outside with their children, and learned how to speak Chinese from them.   

From 1951 I studied at a Russian lyceum.  When I want to picture Pushkin’s lyceum years, I think about our lyceum in Harbin.  Our way of life was a perfect replica of the Golden Age of Russian culture.  But it was slipping away with the generation of the first immigrants. 

Music, dance, theatre, and sport related entertainment flourished.  Productions were staged and concerts were given at Russian-speaking clubs in every district.   Like many others, I took part in all of it.  In 9th grade I put together a little pops orchestra, and we played popular music from Soviet movies of the time.   In our family it was customary to teach children to work from an early age, and my father sent me to a Chinese technical school for projectionists in addition to my regular studies.  I worked as a projectionist since 8th grade.   I still keep my permit for access to film equipment.  It was a great opportunity to record a song or a melody that I liked from a Soviet movie.

Because the Soviet Union assisted in the establishment of the PRC, Harbin saw a gradual increase of the influence of Soviet ideology.  Already by the seventh-eighth grade the climate in our school began to change.  Previous instructors (some died, others emigrated – most often in the direction opposite to Russia) were replaced by new ones.  Those were primarily the wives of consulates workers that, apparently, needed to be placed in a job.   

Of all the representatives of the Russian Diaspora, who returned to the Soviet Union, only about ten-fifteen percent did so voluntarily.   My father weighed the pros and cons for a long time and finally settled on the USSR, because we belong to the Russian culture.   We couldn’t tell all the way from China what was really going on in Russia.  The Soviet propaganda was working very hard.   In addition, the number of Russian schools was being reduced: at first only three of them remained (across all districts), and then later we were all swept into one school.  In 1960 we went to the Soviet Union as tourists and even then we were unable to discern the difference between official propaganda and the actual state of affairs. 

Ideological boundaries even cut through families.  And so, the oldest of my mom’s brothers became a passionate proponent of communism.  He left I 1957 to open up the Virgin Lands; lived in cowsheds in the steppe and was happy when he got to Karaganda.  The rest of the brothers immigrated to Israel once it was formed.  

We were leaving with the second to last wave of repatriates in 1961.  I remember my first meeting with my homeland very well.   I used to collect records: Vertinsky, Leschenko.  On the border in Zabaikalsk those records were taken away from me.  Our luggage was taken on one train, and we followed several hours later.  I loitered around the station, when suddenly I heard my record playing.  There was an anecdote about Vertinsky (possibly a true one) that was circulating around in those days. It said that once Vertinsky had crossed the border, he set down his suitcases, got down on his knees and said, “Hello, Russia!”  When he got back up, the suitcases were gone.  “I recognize you,” he added.   

The way things worked out we ended up in Novosibirsk.  We were denied an apartment that we should have received (based on an intergovernmental treaty) in exchange for the house we gave up in Harbin.  And this was yet another example of double standards, of which I have quite a few, including those related to national identity.   

But in spite of all the tragic complications that have befallen us, I believe that my parents had made the right choice. Your worldview is shaped by the culture, to which you belong, and by the language, in which you think since your childhood.   Little by little we began to separate geniuses that defined the concept of “Russian culture” from obtuse Soviet bureaucrats.  

The thing that still makes me nostalgic is a special type of education that unites all Russian residents of Harbin.  In Soviet literature I read about the “White Guard gangs” and I thought back to our teachers.  Many of them were White Guard officers and fought against the “Red gangs”.  They were incredibly cultured and knowledgeable people.  None of them abided by the philosophy: “my homeland is my passport, and passports can be traded like suits.”   These values – this unconventional attitude toward the concept of Motherland, the unconventional patriotism – they managed to instill them in us.   And this was in spite of national and confessional differences between the Harbin residents.  Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, Czechs, Koreans – all of us lived in harmony and were tolerant of one another.  Perhaps we had become so close simply because we found ourselves in a foreign ethnic environment.   But we really didn’t have any of the national disagreements that were so widespread in the Soviet Russia, as it turned out, despite the declarations of brotherhood of nations.  

I have not been back in China since then.  I am terrified by the idea of having to return to my hometown, where I used to be so comfortable and where there is no longer anything left of that Russian Harbin.

Photos contributed by Arsene Melitonyan from his personal collection of postcards


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