Globally, Russia is often perceived as a homogeneously white country. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Russia has a long and complicated history of immigration, ethnic diversity, and cultural exchange – even if this history is rarely acknowledged by the government. A new generation is keen to connect their creativity to their heritage – and Russia’s Korean community is no exception.
The history of Koryo-saram, ethnic Koreans in post-Soviet states, dates back as far as the 19th century. Originally, Koreans had started settling in Siberia and the Russian Far East, and the population continued to grow after the October Revolution in 1917. By the 1920s, the Korean population in the Soviet Union had grown to over 100,000. During the decade, the Soviet policy of korenizatsiya encouraged indigenous languages and culture for deeper integration into communist ideology, which meant that Soviet Koreans had a significant number of their own official institutions, schools, and newspapers.
At the same time, the history of Soviet Koreans is largely the history of oppression and survival. In 1937, almost the entire Soviet Korean population was forcefully moved from the Russian Far East to unpopulated areas of the Kazakh SSR and the Uzbek SSR, resulting in great loss of life and community. The traces of exile are still apparent in the Russian Korean diaspora’s take on their culture, as something precious to preserve and celebrate, but also something intimate, movable, and invincible.
For Russia Z, we talked to five Moscow-based creatives from the Russian Korean community about their heritage, memory, and history — in relation to the present and future.
I grew up in Tashkent surrounded only by Koreans, and when I moved to Russia at the age of 11 I tried to spend time solely in the Korean community. Later, when I started studying in college and became immersed in fashion, there were fewer and fewer Koreans around me because we had different interests. From college up until now, I haven’t really had any Korean friends. But when I started studying traditional Korean culture for collections, I started getting in touch with different organisations, going to events to get a feeling of the culture. Now it’s part of my artistic research.
My grandma was born in Astrakhan, later lived in Siberia and Kazakhstan, and then moved to Tashkent looking for a husband. She knew that most Soviet Koreans are in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan.
From the very beginning of my career, I have been very drawn to the aesthetics of South Korea. I started looking more into my own identity after I visited London a couple of years ago. During the trip, people frequently pointed out that I look Asian but behave more like a Russian person. I started thinking how do I feel, Korean, Uzbek or Russian, because it’s so mixed. And I started looking into the history of Soviet Koreans. I feel like I understand myself much better now.
I think Soviet Koreans are like a separate ethnicity. We are not really like South Koreans, we have more of a Russian mentality. It’s very sad that Soviet Koreans don’t have a visual culture and their own cultural artefacts because they were constantly moved around by force and they just tried to survive. There was a Soviet Korean newspaper and theatre, but those are very singular examples. My current goal is to create a national costume for Soviet Koreans.
I grew up in a place where our family, my mother, and three of my sisters, were the only Koreans in the area, and our main connection to the ancestral home was through Korean food and poetry. But as I’ve grow older and more mindful, I am more and more drawn to Korea and Korean culture. My sisters and I are planning to go there, reconnect with our roots, feel the spirit of our ancestors, find our relatives, or at least breathe in the air of the land which we’re connected to by blood. My Korean heritage manifests itself in my contemplative attitude to life and in that I always have some Kimchi at home. I also I love Korean cinema. Park Chan-wook is my favourite Korean director and I dream of working with him one day.
My family’s history of immigration is amazing, just like an adventure film. I won’t disclose all the details, but I can tell you that my roots go back to an ancient noble family. When my great-grandfather, Tsoi Chung Seb, who was born in 1888, was arrested for his revolutionary activities against Japanese occupants in the early 30s, his eldest son (my grandfather-to-be) ran from Korea through Primorsky Krai to the Soviet Union, settled down in Kazakhstan, got married, had children, and became the chief agronomist of a big collective farm. In 1937, his uncle Tsoi Yen Gen came to Moscow on a delegation and tried to find my grandfather through newspapers, but he did not respond.
First, it was 1937 and the country was suffocating under Stalin’s purges, and having foreign nationals among your relatives was a straight path to a labour camp at the very least, and he already had a family; second, he had lost his inrō and he must have felt terribly ashamed of it in front of his family. So my great, great uncle went back to Korea
on his own, became a communist and just about a minister in North Korea, while my grandfather stayed in Russia. Although with losing his inrō he technically lost his title and did not become an army officer, as all the men of our family before him did, he survived and gave birth to my father, for which I feel deep gratitude and respect.
As it is with most of the Koreans who live in former Soviet republics, my family history is related to the 1937 deportation of Far East Koreans to the Central Asian territories. I am not going to talk about how and why it happened. I hope this will never happen to anyone again.
I grew up in a mostly Korean community, but my friends were mainly Uzbeks or Russians. I have never liked Korean centres, cultural or educational. I’ve always felt uncomfortable there and now I gladly forget about their existence. There is even less of Korean community in my life now. But I am still close with my Korean friends who I met in Tashkent.
I know Korean culture as well as any other Korean from Uzbekistan. It’s about your attitude to your family, holidays, some household things. Each year, my heritage becomes more and more important for me and most likely I will become a real Korean grandpa when I get old. But while I’m young and am constantly in search of something new through my creative work, it’s hard to say that I feel strongly attached to my ethnic identity. I’d rather say that I don’t break away from it consciously. I just try whatever I like, and then it either stays with me or becomes a thing of the past.
I am proud of being half Korean. Korea has always inspired me; it’s one of the most interesting world cultures. I often see works by Korean artists and directors and feel inspired to do my own work. A big part of my family are Koreans and they keep up traditions. I spend a lot of time with them. My favourite part is Korean food. It’s an essential part of our household.
I’m a production designer. I create sets for film, television, music videos, ads; at the moment, I’m working with Kirill Serebrennikov on the film adaptation of the Alexey Salnikov’s book, Petrov’s Flu. My father is an artist, and my grandfather is an artist — and I am my parents’ son, which can’t help but manifest itself in my work or in my abilities, which I probably got from my parents. I’ve never asked myself whether it’s Korean or some other culture, though, it’s just something within me that helps me work, paint, and create, and there’s no escape from that.
My mum is from Tashkent and my dad is from Stavropol Krai. My parents lived in a town called Izobilny (“copious” in Russian), and that’s where I lived all my childhood, too. My dad’s father used to work in Moscow, and it’s my understanding that because of the whole complicated situation with Koreans he was not allowed to hold senior positions and was sent to the south of the Soviet Union for the Virgin Lands campaign. That’s how he ended up in Stavropol Krai and, thus, so did my father.
I grew up in a Korean community but it ended right when I went away to study at university. I don’t belong to any [clubs or organisations] and don’t celebrate any traditional holidays. To be honest, it probably wasn’t that much of a community — just some people who were growing onions and watermelons together. It was their work, so they had to stick together. I’ve never been over-focused on a particular community — there was a bit of everything. That’s probably why I’m not looking for anything like that in Moscow.