Most Americans would probably be surprised to hear that there is a Korean diaspora in the former Soviet nations of Central Asia. The origin of this little-known fact lies in the inhuman deportation policies of Joseph Stalin. And as unusual as the topic of Koreans in Russia and the Soviet Union may sound to unaccustomed ears, the story reveals a lot about whether the USSR was able to practice what it termed “real socialism”—that is, whether it was able to judge its citizens by their political and class consciousness without any taint of racism.
The story of the Koreans of the Russian Far East goes back to the mid-nineteenth century. Due to a lack of land, poverty, and drought in the northern provinces of Korea from the 1860s to the early 1930s, some one million Koreans migrated to the Russian Far East (later part of the Soviet Union) and China. By 1923, according to a Soviet survey, 80 percent were peasants and 20 percent were skilled or manual laborers in the cities—on paper, model citizens for a peasants’ and workers’ state. When I interviewed around 60 or so Korean families in Central Asia from 2006 to 2010, I found that about 30% of the elderly Koreans—82 years old and above—were native speakers of both Russian and Korean. In other words, many were quite Russified, and had been so since the 1920s or 1930s.
Unfortunately, the Soviet Union distrusted the Korean population. While it claimed to be a socialist state, the Soviet Union’s social and ethnic policies were strongly marked by an attitude of primordialism—the idea that race and ethnicity permanently influenced people’s psychological makeup and thus their political loyalties. Soviet cadres of Greek, Polish, German, or Korean descent, among other ethnic backgrounds, even if they were born in the USSR, were continually asked by other Soviet cadres about their “motherlands,” despite the fact that they may never have traveled there, and in the case of the Greeks and Koreans, spoke dialects that differed strongly from those of Greece and Korea. In 1945, Stalin declared that the Russians were “the most outstanding nation of all nations forming the Soviet Union.” The Eastern Slavs—Russians and Ukrainians—were the de facto “first among equals” in the socialist paradise. The Soviet diaspora peoples—Finns, Germans, Poles, Koreans, Chinese, Iranians, etc.—were almost all deported en masse from 1937 to 1950.
In 1928, two Soviet cadres, Comrade Geitsman, an official with the Narkomindel (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and the ethnographer Vladimir K. Arsenev, wrote reports to the local communist leadership of the Primore region in the Russian Far East alerting them to the supposed dangers posed by the Koreans and Chinese. Geitsman warned that allowing the Koreans to work so much of the agricultural land was ruinous, both economically and politically. “The Korean population is completely alien to us even in the sense of citizenship,” he wrote. “Only 7,000 of the 200,000 possess Soviet passports. A further 8,000 have at some time submitted requests to be admitted as Soviet citizens, but following a confidential NKVD order, they are not going to be accepted.” Meanwhile, Arsenev told the regional Communist Party leadership that “the Korean people absolutely are distinct from us by character, by their way of life and world view…. They are anthropologically, ethnographically, psychologically, and in their own worldviews closer to the Japanese than to us.” Arsenev proposed that the state deport the Koreans and Chinese from the region so that the USSR could maintain peaceful relations with the Japanese empire.
On August 31, 1937, General Secretary Joseph Stalin and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed Resolution 1428-3266ss, the order to deport the Koreans. Soviet authorities deported 172,000 Koreans and 11,000 Soviet Chinese to Soviet Central Asia due to their cultural similarities to the Japanese (per Arsenev’s report) and their alleged potential for anti-Soviet espionage. They ended up in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, frequently in locations with woefully inadequate housing, and were forbidden to leave their districts.
In fact, Soviet Chinese and Koreans were anything but suspect. Politically speaking, they were loyal, almost to the last man. The diaspora Chinese and Koreans had served Russia and then the USSR in every war from the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 until their deportations in 1937-38. Their contributions were absolutely essential for the securing of Soviet borders during the Civil War. Chinese and Koreans even served as NKVD agents in the deportations and repressions of their own communities. Geitsman and Arsenev’s reports had made absolutely no mention of this loyalty.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the USSR linked nationality or ethnicity with political loyalties. Soviet leaders were so busy proclaiming their socialist credentials and beliefs that they did nothing to restrain their own Russian chauvinism. When this was combined with Bolshevik fanaticism, it resulted in entire peoples being deemed “potential enemies” or “enemy peoples,” and arrested, tortured, repressed, and deported. This was the USSR in the 1930s, a state where a dictator’s signature could uproot an entire people and move them thousands of miles from their home.
For more information about the Soviet Koreans and their deportation in 1937, see Dr. Chang’s new book, Burnt by the Sun: The Koreans of the Russian Far East.
Photo courtesy of Kim Pen Khva Museum, Kolkhoz Kim Pen Khva, outside of Tashkent, Uzbekistan.