The photos in this article were taken by Viktor An. All rights are reserved.
Post-Soviet Koreans – a Russianized ethnic minority also called Koryo-saram – are building an ethnically exclusive village close to Moscow.
Just 30 minutes from Moscow a little village is being built where the kinsmen of a rather obscure ethnic minority are about to settle by their own free will – the ‘Koryo-saram’ or ‘(Post-)Soviet Koreans’. The construction of their own, ethnically exclusive might be magnanimously welcomed as a triumphant proof of feasibility, but the village can also be seen as a symbol of their people’s tragedy – continuous rootlessness, perpetual nostalgia, abiding quest of an unknown homeland.
In the summer of 2014, most of the (soon-to-be) settlers co-organized and participated in a group tour which led them from Vladivostok through various Koryo-saram-related memorial places (including Moscow, Tashkent, Bishkek and Almaty) to Pyongyang and Seoul. During the trip they were hosted by various local and high-ranking politicians such as North Korean mayors and the Prime Minister of South Korea, Hwang Kyo-ahn. One of the participants was the North Korean ambassador to Russia, and the trip enjoyed generous support by Russian ministries. This was at the time when the Russian government had already been conspicuously forging a “Putin’s Pivot” to East Asia, and just a few months after the trip (in March 2015) North Korea and Russia announced a “year of friendship” between the two countries.
This may sound very high-carat and promising, but a certain uneasiness lingers around. Not following any political cause, some participants of the trip which co-organized the group tour and now build the Korean village near Moscow seem to be in a disoriented search for a new homeland. They may forge ever-closer ties with the two Koreas, but the 500.000 Koryo-sarams (who today mostly live in the urban centers of Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) will not be able to un-develop the Russian customs they acquired over generations since the 1860s. Moreover, their knowledge of Korean language is mainly made up of household-related terms. At the same time, they do not feel completely Russian, which is now illustrated by their endeavour to build a seemingly self-isolating village in ethnic exclusivity.
Uprooting and Centralasiation
The participants of the 2014 trip claim to be the first tourist group to have crossed the border from North Korea to South Korea. This is symbolic, for they are neither North Koreans nor South Koreans – they are simply Koryo-sarams, descendants of 19th- and 20th-century Korean settlers in the Russian Far East. In 1863, the first thirteen Korean families furtively crossed the Tumen River into Russia. Other Korean families joined to flee hunger or for political reasons, especially after Japan annexed Korea in 1910. They were quickly Russianized and welcomed by the Russian government for they were able to cultivate rice and other products in cold areas which were hitherto seen as non-arable. But in the aftermath of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo’s creation in 1932 the Koreans caught Stalin’s attention. He knew that minorities were receptive for subversion, especially in areas bordering turbulent conflict zones. The political situation was tense – the persecution of Trotskyism slopped over to the Far East, in 1935 little skirmishes between Russian and Japanese troops were noted in the banks of the Eastern rivers Amur and Ussuri, the Spanish Civil War in 1936 gave some leeway to Germany’s and Japan’s Anti-Comintern Pact, and a moment later Japanese aggression incited the Second Japanese-Chinese War. It was during this politically complex atmosphere that the Russian newspaper “Pravda” in April 1937 first reported that Koryo-sarams were used as collaborators of the Japanese secret service, while at the same time vast areas of Central Asia were still recognized to be waiting for productive usage. So, in August 1937, Molotov and Stalin signed a secret ordinance to simply have the 180.000 Koryo-saram relocated to Central Asia (mainly to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) within a few months – the first forced mass deportation under Stalin.
Perpetual search for identity
This violent uprooting of an already deracinated people proofed to be utterly traumatic, even though the Koryo-saram soon recovered, cultivated the land, integrated into the domestic societies and experienced social advancements. The main motifs of their literature narrate migration-related topics in a grateful manner, thanking Kazakhs, Uzbeks and other peoples for their welcoming attitude in difficult times. The Korean-Kazakh writer Lavrentij Son, for example – by the way, note the typical name of a Koryo-saram bearing a Russian prename and the characteristically monosyllabic surname, the sole syllable left over from the fragmentary remnants of a Korean identity, as the poet Stanislav Li gloomily said – the writer Lavrentij Son remembers the solitude of his childhood, lonely and left behind on a daily basis from his impoverished parents who were forced to work hard in their new Central Asian lands. First- and second-generation children from deported Koryo-saram often report their aloneness. This orphaned emotion is emblematic for their seclusion from their people’s history, and led to a perpetual search for identity. Most Koryo-saram writers, always alien to the land where they were born, refrained from naming a certain geographical territory as their home. Whereas Vladimir Kim confessed to be completely rootless, Vladimir Li regarded his own memory as his native land, Mikhail Pak abstractly detected happiness as his homeland, and Anatoly Kim spiritually found his essential home in the act of writing.
Own home in the outland
Now participants of the trip try to make the previously unimaginable possible: a new, geographically definable home for the Koryo-saram. While Volga Germans re-emigrate to Germany, Russian Jews to Israel and post-Soviet Greeks to Greece, the Koryo-saram build their own village – situated in Russia. Russian is their first language, in the post-Soviet countries they were born and raised, and everywhere they are considered to be reputable, successful fellows. The building of their own village is therefore unexpected, somehow baffling and a peculiar sign of their craving for what they have never really experienced, their “own home in the outland”, as Anatoly Kim and Vladimir Kim said:
“They say, being born and brought up in a foreign country cannot create any nostalgia – how can one yearn for the unknown? But in each of us, there is an ineradicable craving to know where we come from and what it is, the land of the ancestors, and who they are, the brothers in blood – are they still there? How could we satisfy our eternal desire to understand ourselves without this knowledge?” (Gone Away)
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