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
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.
A statue of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin which has been restored and placed in a small park in the middle of the former French concession is now a gathering spot for Russian literature fans. Russian soup, which, by the way, tastes nothing like Russian food, can be found in every local restaurant. Russian emigrés have had a huge influence on the history and culture of this port city, even though most of the modern Shanghainese don’t realise it.
In the 1930s and '40s, Shanghai, along with Paris, Berlin and Harbin made it into the history books as one of the centres of Russian emigration. That time is long gone, but there is one amazing book that keeps all the memories of those days. It’s called The Album of VD Zhiganov: Russians in Shanghai. It’s a virtual encyclopedia of the life of Russian emigrés. On more than 300 pages, it describes in detail the life of the Russian community, the school, churches, shops and the hotel. It includes over 1,600 photographs of “Russian Shanghainese.”