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The term Shanghai Russians refers to a sizable Russian diaspora that flourished in Shanghai, Chinamarker between the World Wars. By 1937 it is estimated that there were as many as 25,000 anti-Bolshevik Russians living in the city, the largest European group by far. Most of them had come from the Russian Far East, where, with the support of the Japanese, the Whites had maintained a presence as late as the autumn of 1922.

In the late 19th century, the Russian imperial government was shifting the focus of its investment to Manchuria. As a consequence, China's trade with its northern neighbour soared. As soon as there was a regular ferry service between Vladivostokmarker and Shanghai, the Russian tea merchants started to settle in the commercial capital of China. About 350 Russian citizens resided within the Shanghai International Settlement in 1905. In order to protect their interests, the Russian consulate was opened in 1896. The old building of the consulate, still occupied by the Russian diplomats, ranks among the Bundmarker's minor landmarks.

The bulk of the Russian exile community relocated to Shanghai from Vladivostok following the fall of the Provisional Priamurye Government at the close of the Russian Civil War. Admiral Stark's squadron alone brought several thousand White Russians from Vladivostok in 1922. Many Harbin Russians, attracted by the booming economy of Shanghai, moved from Manchuria to the coast over the following years. Barred by both distance and money from joining established communities in Parismarker and Berlinmarker, a large number gravitated towards Shanghai, a freeport at the time, requiring no visa or work-permit for entry. For this same reason it was later to become a refuge for Jews fleeing the Nazis.
A group of Russian émigrés arriving in Shanghai.
A photograph from the newspaper Shankhaiskaya zarya, 23 February, 1930.


Although free, and relatively secure, conditions for the émigrés were far from ideal. For one thing they were all stateless, as the Soviet government had revoked the citizenship of all political exiles in 1921. The only travel document most of them had was the Nansen passport, issued by the League of Nations. Unlike other foreigners in Chinamarker they did not have the benefits conferred by extraterritoriality, which granted immunity from local laws, complex and almost impossible for foreigners to understand.

This was made worse by the barriers to employment opportunities, which in this international city required a good command of English or French as a minimum requirement. There were whole families that depended on wives or daughters who made a living as taxi dancers (hired dancing partners). More disturbingly, a survey by the League of Nations in 1935 reportedly found that some 22% of Shanghai Russian women between 16 and 45 years of age were engaging in prostitution to some extent..

Some did manage to make a go of things, teaching music or French. Other women took work as dress-makers, shop assistants and hairdressers. Many men became career soldiers of the Shanghai Russian Regiment, the only professional/standing unit within the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. By slow degrees, and despite the many difficulties, the community not only retained a good deal of cohesion but did begin to flourish, both economically and culturally. By the mid 1930s there were two Russian schools, as well as a variety of cultural and sporting clubs. There were Russian-language newspapers and a radio station. An important part was also played by the local Russian Orthodox Church under the guidance of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.
The cover of Vladimir Zhiganov's album The Russians in Shanghai (1936).


Many exiles set up restaurants in the district known as Little Russia, and Russian musicians (such as Oleg Lundstrem) achieved a dominance over the city's foreign-run orchestra. The most famous Russian singer, Alexander Vertinsky, relocated from Paris to Shanghai; and Fyodor Chaliapin was seen on tour. Vladimir Tretchikoff, the "King of Kitsch", spent his youth in the city. Russian teachers offered lessons in theatre and dancing. Margot Fonteyn, the English ballerina, studied dance in Shanghai as a child with Russian masters, one of whom, George Gontcharov, had formerly danced with the Bolshoimarker in Moscowmarker.

But it was the contribution that Russian women made to the entertainment industry, dancing and otherwise, that gave the city its exotic reputation, noted in the guidebooks of the day. A fictionalized portrayal of their predicament is presented in the James Ivory film The White Countess (2005). Those who were left became the focus of earnest campaigns by the League of Nations and others to end the "white slave trade."
Pushkin monument in Shanghai


The Shanghai Russians survived through the difficult days of the Japanese occupation, but left in the end with the advance of the Communists. They were forced to flee, first to a refugee camp on the island of Tubabao in the Philippinesmarker and then mainly to the United Statesmarker and Australia. The Russian monuments of Shanghai did not escape the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. The Pushkin statue, funded by public subscription and unveiled on the centenary of the poet's death, was smashed by the Red Guards in 1966. It was subsequently restored in 1987, and remains the only monument to a foreign writer in China. The Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas, consecrated and elaborately frescoed in 1933, was converted into a washing machine factory, and is now a restaurant.

References

  • Anatol M. Kontenev, The Status of the Russian Emigrants in China, in The American Journal of International Law, vol. 28, 1934, pp562–565.
  • Frederic Wakeman, Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937.
  • Marcia Reynders Ristaino, Port of Last Resort: The Diaspora Communities of Shanghai; in Slavic Review, 2003, vol. 62, part 4.
  • Robert Bickers, Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai. Allen Lane/Penguin Books, 2003. ISBN 0713996846.
  • Stella Dong, Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, 1842-1949.
  • Website of the Russian Club in Shanghai
  • Shanghai Branch of the Russian Diaspora, a Russian article by a Chinese historian
  • Russian Community in Shanghai, by A. Khisamutdinov



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