White Russians in Shanghai

Dec 14, 2010
*Special to asia!

Fleeing from the Bolsheviks, thousands of White Russians made Old Shanghai their home away from home. Maria Maximova searches for remnants of the enclave.

In 1924, China established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. From that day on, the Russian community in Shanghai started to grow quickly, as Russian emigrés from Harbin were moving down south.

ecola municipale remi circa 1942

Ecola Municipale Remi circa 1942

During that period, foreign concessions were states within a state, with their own rules, laws, administration and police, that recruited foreigners only. Eventually, the remaining members of a group of White Army Cossacks—under the command of General Fedor Lvovich Glebov—became the core of the Russian volunteer brigade that was created to protect the international concessions from the approaching KMT army of General Chiang Kai-shek. Russians were good soldiers and many served in police units protecting international settlements. Russians were quite popular, especially after many of them learned English and Chinese.

By the mid-’20s, the situation of the Russian emigrés had improved considerably. Many of them began to move into the French Concession. There, on its main road that used to be called Avenue Joffre (now known as Huaihai Zhong Road), Russians opened dozens of shops, restaurants, and grocery stores. Quickly the number of Russian residents there grew to four times the French population. Soon, the “French Concession” became know as “the Russian Concession”—among both foreigners and Chinese.

According to estimates, by 1936 there were around 30,000 Russians in Shanghai. As the question of personal survival was solved, Russians began to take care of preservation and development of Russian culture and education. The 1930s came to be regarded as golden times for bustling Shanghai and as the peak of Russian cultural life in the city.

In no time, Russian migrants built two orthodox churches in the French concession, opened a theatre and a ballet school, and established a symphonic orchestra that was considered the best in the Far East. Russians printed their own newspapers and magazines.


White Lights, Big City

They also invited prominent Russian performers from other countries, such as singer F. Shalyapin and Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet troupe. The most famous Russian performer that used to reside in Shanghai was Alexander Vertinsky—a poet and a singer who enchanted the hearts of the Russian emigrés. Today, his songs are still famous among intellectuals and poetry fans in Russia.

Shanghai had a number of jazz bands. One of them, called the JazzBand of Oleg Lundstrem, later became famous in the Soviet Union and abroad. Lundstrem, the Siberia-born jazz great died last October aged 89. Shortly before that, he had visited Shanghai to see the city of his youth.

In the middle of 1937, when Japan started its full-fledged aggression against China, Shanghai was occupied by Japanese forces. However, international concessions remained relatively independent, retaining their status and governance. Until December 1941, foreigners in Shanghai managed to live in comparative peace. But when Japan began its war against the US, the lives of the emigrés changed radically.

After the war, in 1946, the Soviet Consulate General invited Russian emigrés in China to accept Soviet citizenship. In 17 days, 6,000 people applied for their new passports. They were so tired of being nobodies that they looked past their hatred toward the new government and decided to trust it.


russian children celebrate christmas in shanghai

Russian children celebrate Christmas in Shanghai

New citizens were promised jobs, homes and cash support if they went back home. Many of them took the offer. Those who stayed say the rumour was that life back in Russia for the repatriated was not as good as it had been promised.

Eventually, all of the Russian emigrés left Shanghai. Moving through the Philippines, they scattered to the four winds and settled in the Americas and Australia.

The last Russian emigré, Alexander Poroshin, a former army man, passed away in 1998. He was well over 90. I knew him personally. He stayed because he couldn’t leave his Chinese family behind. Poroshin told us many first-hand stories about Russian immigration and about life in China before and after the revolution. He died in poverty.

I also happen to know a handful of Russian people who were kids from the Russian community in the 1930s. They went to school in the French Concession and remember the Shanghai of that time. They say it was not an easy life. They remember their parents and older siblings struggling. But these second-generation White Russians love Shanghai and visit it often, now that it’s easier for foreigners.

These ‘returnees’ are welcomed by the new generation of Russians in Shanghai. There are about 300 Russians, mostly students and business people, who have chosen Shanghai to be their new home. They even run their own club now. It’s very different from that original Russian club that functioned here back in the 1930s—with a restaurant, a theatre, and a library—but they try to keep the traditions alive.

Here and there in Shanghai, one comes across evidence of the historical Russian presence. The Russian consulate is exactly where it used to be, at the end of the Bund. It’s a historical building, protected by the city. The Exhibition Centre downtown is an exact copy of the famous Moscow Exhibition Centre. A Russian church with onion-shaped domes still stands at the heart of the former French Concession, although it now ironically shelters a restaurant and a nightclub.

maria maximova

Maria Maximova was born in Russia, but spent her teen years in China earning a degree in Chinese literature and culture. Having decided that her educational background lacked business know-how, she moved back to Russia and studied marketing and finance, and then worked in Moscow for several years. An experienced expatriate, she lived in Taiwan from 2001 to 2006 and since then has been pursuing her passion as a researcher, freelance writer and translator, traveling between Russia and China.