Staunton, September 20 – Thanks to the acclaimed 1999 film, East-West, starring Catherine Deneuve, many know about the brutal treatment the Soviet regime meted out against Russian emigres who returned from the West after World War II; but far fewer know about the much larger and more murderous campaign Moscow conducted against “the Harbin Russians.”
More than 21,000 of them were shot when they returned in 1937-1938, another 10,000 were sent to the camps, and even more suffered from the stigma of having lived abroad and somehow remaining suspect their entire lives of being “Japanese police spies,” Yuliya Kulikova of the SeverReal portal says (severreal.org/a/30848119.html).
She provides a glimpse into this Stalinist crime via an interview with Margarita Shkarlat, 74, whose grandparents worked in Harbin from late imperial times. Her grandfather died in 1931, but her grandmother, many relatives, and other Russians returned to the USSR from that Chinese city after the Japanese invasion and occupation.
The Russians returned because the Soviet government appeared to want them: it set up special “simplified procedures” to allow them to acquire Soviet citizenship. But on their return, tens of thousands were killed, sent to the GULAG or exiled to some of the most distant parts of the Soviet Union, including the Komi Republic where Shkarlat still lives.
Three of the five children of her grandparents were shot, others were sent to the GULAG, and those who survived that were not allowed to declare the real cause of their parents’ deaths until perestroika times. In the Komi city of Ukhta, almost 80 percent of all the graves are those of the repressed, including many from Harbin.
Until the early 1990s, the cemetery was maintained; but in 1994, its caretaker died. Vandals stole many of the gravestones, making a mockery of signs still up that say the cemetery is “protected by the government.” Shkarlat says she decided to try to restore at least the graves of the Harbin Russians buried there both those shot and those who survived until later.
Unfortunately, three years ago, in order to build a supermarket, excavators tore up part of the graves. The skeletal remains were gathered up, but they no longer had any markers to indicate who they were. The Russian woman is convinced that many are people from Harbin and she is trying to save at least the memory of them.
“Several years ago,” the SeverReal journalist recounts, the activist signed up for computer classes in the hopes that she could put what she has gathered online. But so far, she hasn’t been able to; and she hasn’t had any assistance from the local authorities or the Russian Orthodox Church.
As a result, yet another part of the history of 20th century Russia is passing into oblivion, that of the once vibrant Harbin Russian community whose members suffered so much when they though they could count on the protection of Moscow.