White Russians in China

I recently bought and downloaded one of Andrey Karimov’s videos via Olivia Overturf’s Cowboys and Cossacks site: Australian Cossack with Vitaly Patrin. As Olivia says in the video description, it’s “Great for the Cossack or Russian history aficionado” – amongst whom I count myself. Being very dialogue-heavy, it’s not something that most people would need to rush to buy. Still, it’s connected to a part of Russian history that’s still little-known, which is the experience of the White Russians who fled to China during and after the Russian Civil War.

A couple of weeks ago, after my Russian language class at the Russian Cultural Centre here in Beijing, I wandered unexpectedly into an exhibition about the ultimate fate of some of these Russians, stranded and forgotten in China. I took a lot of photographs, some of which are below.

The experience of the White Russians in China is very well documented, and yet largely forgotten in the West.

Straggling east from the advancing Red Army, civilian refugees and defeated White Guard formations came through Chinese Xinjiang, through Mongolia and Manchuria, and, finally, on whatever vessels they could crowd onto out of Vladivostok. If any of them had left with anything valuable, they had usually been robbed of it before they got to China.

However, there was already a very substantial Russian community already there. The Tsarist government had built railways throughout northern China, and the city of Harbin was essentially a Russian city.

After the Bolshevik victory, the holders of Tsarist documents became stateless. Some took Chinese citizenship, some yielded and took Soviet passports. Many just remained without papers of any kind.

Their fortunes varied. Many managed to build up their lives again, and became prosperous. Many fell into destitution. After the Japanese invasion, things became very bad for them all. Then, in 1949, after the Communist victory in China, they were unwelcome. Hundreds of thousands returned to the USSR, hoping for the best – and went straight to the gulag, dying in the labour camps.

For thousands of others, the British offered a way out: emigration to Australia. (Update: Russia Beyond the Headlines has an interesting article on the Australian Cossacks).

The subjects of Andrey’s documentary come from Transbaikal cossacks who made it out to Oz, perhaps through this timeline. As it’s entirely in Russian, I can’t understand much, but I can get the gist in places. Here’s an extract of the same material:

For anyone who would like to read more, Mara Moustafine has written a very interesting paper, which can be downloaded. Her book, Secrets and Spies, is difficult to find now, but it’s very good. I bought a copy here in Beijing some year ago, when it was cheap, and then lent it to someone who never returned it. It was only very recently that I managed to find a second-hand copy online for a reasonable price; most copies seem to be going for hundreds of dollars! Check her website for details. It gives a lot of information I’ve not seen anywhere else about the Russians who worked on, and lived next to, the railways in northern China. (Useful review and further links here)

Stephanie Williams, in Olga’s Journey, tells her grandmother’s story. I find this interesting in particular for the description of life in pre-revolutionary Siberia; her great-grandfather was a very successful trader, dealing with the Mongols and Chinese, and there’s very rich detail of what that life was like. Olga went to Tianjin, where she married a British man and eventually settled in England.

Another useful resources, which adds a Jewish perspective, is Stateless in Shanghai by Liliane Willens. (Reviewed here).

There are also plenty of other books, but these are the ones I have to hand.

For further interest, here are a couple of short documentaries. Even if you can’t follow the Russian, the archive material is of great interest. In the first clip, the relevant material starts about halfway through.

And here are some of the photos I took at the Russian Cultural Centre. The exhibition was organized by Li Liang, a Chinese resident of Harbin. He told me that he has no personal connection to the Russian Harbintsy other than that his neighbour, an elderly Russian woman, is one of the ones who stayed in China. Apparently, he has collected thousands of original documents and photographs, and many thousands more in digital copies. I hope that his exhibition will lead these documents being preserved in a proper archive somewhere. He gave me his contact details; anyone interested can get in touch with me by leaving a comment below.


















  1. I have published a memoir about the lives of my white Russian husband and his family while they lived in Harbin, China (Manchuria) during the 1940s and 1950s. It is titled “Mitya’s Harbin: Majesty and Menace” and it includes a 47-page chronology of events (migrations, treaties, wars, etc.); a bibliography of 178 items; and extensive note sources. It is available on the Amazon.com Official Site. That site will take you to the next page,where you type the book’s title at the too, then “go”. The book’s image appears on the next page, and selecting that takes you to Amazon’s page for the book. Please feel free to email me at: lezisser@outlook.com if you have any questions. Lenore Zissermann, BA, BS, MA, OTR/R


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