The Prewar Russian Community in Korea

About a decade ago, Donald N. Clark, a former Presbyterian missionary kid who grew up in Pyongyang, published a fascinating chapter entitled “Vanished Exiles: The Prewar Russian Community in Korea” in a fairly obscure book of conference papers. A couple of current Russian exiles in Korea and Australia have made that poignant tale available on the web. (The chapter later ended up in Clark’s book entitled Living Dangerously in Korea: The Western Experience, 1900-1950 (Eastbridge, 2003).

[The] nineteenth century wave of railroad development brought many kinds of Russians to East Asia: officials, railroad workers, miners, laborers, adventurers, pensioners, priests, and hunters. They represented various ethnic backgrounds: some were Caucasian, while others were Mongol, Siberian, and even Turkic. Beginning in the 1890s, a certain number of them migrated via Manchuria into northern Korea, where they turned up in small provincial towns supporting themselves by whatever trade they could find. In fact, throughout the history of their community down to World War II, the thing that distinguishes them most dramatically from other Westerners in Korea (if a Turkic Russian can be called “Western”) was their complete lack of any institutional support: they had no medical plans or pensions or access to special schools for their children and were entirely dependent on whatever opportunities they found wherever they happened to settle. They were truly “displaced persons,” at the mercy of the international political currents in the early twentieth century….

The Bolsheviks had not yet appeared in the Far East when Sergei and Natalya Tchirkine reached Seoul, and the Russian compound there was still in Czarist hands. The Tchirkines were assigned an apartment next to the Orthodox Church, alongside several other stalwarts of the congregation. Sergei found a desk job in the Bank of Chosen. Natalya took a diamond ring which Sergei had bought in Bukhara, sold the stone, went to Harbin for a course in hairdressing, and opened a parlor in Chôngdong. Twin sons, Cyril and Vladimir, were born in 1924, and Natalya adjusted by working at home giving music lessons and running a dressmaking studio. Sergei moved to the tourist bureau to handle foreign-language correspondence and edit publicity. He later began teaching languages at Keijo Imperial University and Seoul Foreign School. These combined labors earned enough to maintain a dignified existence as leaders of the Russian community in Seoul….

Without a doubt, the most remarkable pocket of Russians in prewar Korea was a place called Novina, a resort near Ch’ôngjin [Jp. Seishin], maintained for more than twenty years by the White Russian exile George Yankovsky, sometimes called “Asia’s Greatest Tiger Hunter.” George Yankovsky’s father Mikhail Jankovskii originally was a Polish nobleman who was exiled to Siberia by the Russians when they crushed the Polish rebellion in the 1860s. In Siberia Jankovskii remade himself as a Russian named Yankovsky, found his way to the Bay of Posset south of Vladivostok, a rugged and unoccupied seacoast where he established himself in what might be called a feudal fief, which he named Sidemy, the “Sitting Place.” There he set about building up a herd of the little Sika deer whose antlers were so prized by declining Chinese men. His neighbors were mainly wolves and bandits, the notorious Manchurian honghuzi, or “Red Beards,” so Yankovsky also recruited a private army–of Koreans, as it turned out, because he mistrusted all Chinese as potential honghuzi. With his Korean “subjects,” as they called themselves, he hunted–in no particular order–bandits, wolves, tigers, leopards, and boar, becoming a first-class naturalist in the process. In fact, items in the flora and fauna of the Ussuri country still bear his name: the swan Cygnus jankowskii, the bunting Emberiza jankowskii, and the beetle Captolabrus jankowskii, among others….

Novina lasted nineteen years, from 1926 to 1945, during which White Russian communities all across East Asia used it as a prime vacation spot. The Yankovskys drummed up business with a brochure, which they mailed to Harbin, Tianjin, and Shanghai. Ironically, however, few Westerners within Korea ever paid much attention to Novina or even knew of its existence. This was partly because most of them used English, spoke no Russian, and preferred their own resorts at Sôrae and Wonsan. It was also because the Yankovskys started out regarding Novina as an “invitation-only” place for their far-flung relatives and friends and not a public place. As years passed it became more commercial, with rental cabins on the hillside, but it never lost the family flavour. It remained George Yankovsky’s homestead, first and foremost: his farm, his deer and horse pasture, and his hunting base. On a cliff above the river he built the family’s main house, an interesting building constructed around the trunk of a great tree that appeared to be holding it in place. Above the house he built a “Tower of the Ancestors,” a replica of one of the Sidemy towers, and next to this a lodge that was partly in a cave that the family used as a kind of Great Hall. Below, he stretched a chain bridge across the Chuûl [Jp. Shuotsu] River, and farther down he built a row of huts for his servants and farmhands. There were orchards for apples and pears, fields for vegetables, and hives for honey, all tended by Novina’s Korean workers, while the mountain forests furnished unlimited venison, pork, and pheasant. Evenings at Novina often featured dinners with as many as twenty people seated at the dining table, followed by vodka and storytelling by the fireplace in the cave.

George and Daisy Yankovsky’s children–daughters Muza and Victoria, and sons Valerii, Arsenii, and Yuri–grew up at Novina. As part of their Swiss Family Robinson existence the Yankovskys maintained a surprising standard of civilization. Educating children was the duty of Novina’s “home gymnasium” teacher who came from Harbin to teach in the camp’s Great Hall. Sunday services also took place there, with especially memorable observances for Easter. And summer was Novina’s theater season: Daisy’s family, the Sheverdloffs, had some stage background and her relatives in Shanghai were connected with White Russians in the entertainment business there. Many of these sought the coolness of Novina in the summer and amused themselves by organizing dramas. The cast depended on who was present and was filled out by ordinary guests and Yankovsky family and retainers….

When the Soviet Red Army swept into north-eastern Korea at the end of the war, they happened on the Yankovsky colony at Novina. The Reds had several grievances against the Whites, the most recent of which was the Yankovskys’ collaboration with the Japanese army. The Japanese had treated Yankovsky preferentially, letting him own land, trade supplies, run tourist resorts, and trek through military areas, all in return for supplying the Japanese army, paying taxes, and helping keep order among the Koreans. At first it was only interrogation: George and his son Arsenii were taken to headquarters and then released. Son Valerii returned to Novina from the homestead in Manchuria to work with younger brother Yuri as a “volunteer” interpreter for the Red Army, while Arsenii interpreted for the Southern Naval Defense Area (Yuzhnii Morskoi Oboronitel’nii Rayon, or YUZHMOR) at Ch’ôngjin and for the Kontrazuedba (military intelligence, also known as SMERSH, for smyert shpionam, “death to spies”). The motives of the Yankovsky brothers in working for the Reds were simple: as SMERSH explained the situation to Arsenii, the entire family would be punished unless they cooperated. So for survival’s sake the brothers went against their family’s strong anticommunist tradition and agreed to work for the Reds….

What traces remain of this almost-forgotten Russian community in prewar Korea? Though members of the community continued in South Korea through the Korean war and after, I know of only one who remains in place, if the rumours are correct, as an underworld figure in Namdaemun Market. In 1984, Father Boris Moon of the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, now moved to Map’o and calling itself “Greek” Orthodox, told me there was one prewar Russian communicant left, a woman named “Tatiana,” but she would not grant me an interview.

The Yankovskys are scattered: Valerii is a poet in Moscow; “Andy Brown” [Arsenii, who worked as a spy] and Yuri are dead; and Muza and Victoria live in the California bay area. In 1991, Victoria and her son Orr Chistiakoff were invited by the local government in Vladivostok to rendezvous with Valerii at Sidemy, on the Bay of Posset, to unveil a statue of Mikhail Yankovsky and restore him to the status of pioneer and hero.

Natalya Tchirkine’s sons Vladimir and Cyril graduated with engineering degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, and worked all their lives for Pacific Gas & Electric in San Francisco. Natalya followed her sons to California in time to escape the Korean War, and supported herself as a seamstress, living to the ripe old age of 96.

The best known descendant among these Russian exiles in Korea was the actor Yul Brynner (1920-1985), who told many a tall tale about his early life, some of which have been laid to rest by his son, Columbia University Prof. Rock Brynner, whose image-filled website includes a photo of Yul at 16 with dark, wavy hair (scroll all the way to the bottom).

Several of these exiles ended up in Japan, like the founders of the Morozoff chocolate dynasty, but many of their progeny ended up in California, like the journalist and sci-fi writer Alexander Besher.

UPDATE: The Marmot adds:

I have long been fascinated with the history of the Far East’s Russian exile community — they were as remarkable a group of individuals (and not always in a positive sense) as there has ever been in modern times. Coincidentally, one of these refugees, Victor Starfin, eventually ended up on the Japanese island of Hokkaido as a youth. Starfin grew up to become one of Japanese baseball’s greatest all-time pitchers, amassing a career record of 303-176 with a life-time ERA of 2.09 — mostly with the Yomiuri Giants. In 1939, he set Japan’s single-season win record was 42. Now, this wasn’t enough to prevent the Japanese from putting Starfin under house arrest during WW II on account of his Russian heritage, but they did make it up to him in the end, eventually enshrining the pitcher in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, where he joins career home-run leader Sadaharu Oh — who for reasons beyond my ken still carries a Taiwanese passport to this day, apparently — as the only two foreign players in the Hall. Of course, this assumes one doesn’t count Masaichi Kaneda, the greatest pitcher in Japanese history (the man holds Japan’s career win record despite playing much of his career for a shitty team) who just happened to be an ethnic Korean (and quite proud of it, it’s said).

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6 Comments

Filed under baseball, Japan, Korea

6 responses to “The Prewar Russian Community in Korea

  1. Svetlana Stepanova

    My mother, Tatiana Kovalenko, lived at Novina with her family until the death of her father, Matvae Kovalenko, who had been in the employ of the Yankovsky family. She was sent to live in the Russian Orthodox orphanage in Shanghai and later immigrated to the United States. My mother is a healthy vibrant woman aged 78 living in Washington state. I feel a strong nostalgia for the places where I have never been and people I have never met. My mother is my only relative of the previous generation I know and reading things such as that above gives me such a longing to have known my people. Thank you for filling out my family history a bit. Sincerely, Svetlana Stepanova

    • Lillian Prince

      Svetlana,

      I was researching Novina and came across your note. I also know Don Clark and he presented this portion of his book at a missionary reunion held in 2005 at Lake Junaluska in North Carolina.

      I am very interested in possibly going to North Korea, if the correct contacts can be made, to perhaps find Novina once again. It may be impossible, but it’s worth asking! I was born in South Korea, my parents were Presbyterian missionaries there. I know a few contacts who go into North Korea on humanitarian missions and my parents actually went there back in 2004, I think. (I’m not completely sure about the year).

      If I go to Washington state to visit a friend in Seattle, it would be wonderful to perhaps meet your mom and interview her about her time at Novina.

      Thank you!

      Lillian C. Prince

  2. Thanks very much for your comment. During the 1990s I got know a Korean man who had grown up near Novina and whose first glimpse of foreigners was at the estate. He got an M.D. from a Japanese medical school in Korea, escaped south during the Korean War, and ended up getting another M.D. & Ph.D. in Chicago, then taught in Indiana before retiring to Hawai‘i. Among the many from that time and place who were scattered to the wind.

  3. sunghwa cheong

    Dear Lillian:

    I am writing a book about the Yankovskys and about the Novina.

    Can we share the information about the Novina and the yankvoskys?

    Sunghwa

    • Lillian Prince

      Dear Sunghwa,

      Of course! I’d be glad to. I doubt if I know more than you, but I’d be glad to share what little I know. Please feel free to contact me at lcprince@austin.rr.com.

      Regards,

      Lillian C. Prince

    • Michelle Carlton

      Dear Sunghwa,

      My mother was a child who’s parents were at Novina often and her mother was a close friend of Ora Victoria. She would like any information about the family about whom she has told me many lovely stories. My mother and I visited Ora and Arsenjii in California when I was a child. She was very excited to read this information. Her maiden name is Nogawa and her parents were Takeshi and Sadako Nogawa. They spoke Russian and English.

      Please contact me so that I can give my mother any further information. She would love any copies of pictures as all of hers were lost in the war.

      Thank you, Michelle Carlton carltonma@juno.com

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