Tracing the Steps of Stalin’s Unreliable People: Koryo Saram
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The young Dekabrina Kim, peering out of a sepia-toned photograph nearly half a century old, is a woman of luminous beauty and extraordinary intelligence. Now a retired physician in Almaty, Kazakhstan, her memory wanders off to the distant past when she was a happy child growing up in Vladivostok. Her father was a top cadre in the Khabarovsk regional Communist Party, and her mother was a schoolteacher. They were pillars of the community, with five children and a nanny to look after them. Dekabrina remembered that her house was always teeming with visitors, mostly Koreans. “They always wore white,” she recalled, “and my aunt used to call them lebyeni.”
Dekabrina’s happy childhood came to an abrupt end on an early September day when two tall, middle-aged NKVD agents showed up at the door and gave them two days to pack their belongings. Stalin was emptying the Soviet Far East of every person of Korean origin who had called it home, some 180,000 in total. Her father would be accused of spying and executed.
“My father met with Stalin three times,” she says matter-of-factly, without pride or irony. She points to a photograph of her father, Mikhail Mikhailovich Kim, at the 17th People’s Party Congress in Moscow in 1934. A handsome man with a long patrician face, he is shown seated next to Vyacheslav Molotov and in front of Joseph Stalin. Mikhail Kim’s dignified mien is frozen with a fear that is still palpable, as if he had a premonition that proximity to men of such terrible power might come at a high price. Dekabrina and her remaining family were packed off to the town of Aktubinsk in Kazakhstan, where, as enemies of the state, they were forced to wander the vast steppes, 200 kilometers away from the nearest human habitation.
Vladimir Tyan, a diminutive man with an expressive face, gave the outline of his story: “In 1937 my father and my older brother were persecuted and shot. We were chased from our house...and nothing was given to us. We were loaded on a truck and taken to the collecting areas.” From there his family, along with the other Koreans, were crammed into cattle cars and transported to unsettled regions of Central Asia, nearly 4,000 miles from home. Of the 180,000 who made the journey, 40 percent would not survive the first year.
“I saw helpless women give birth to babies that died almost immediately. If someone died, the corpse would be thrown out at the next stop, and no one would know whether the body was buried or not,” said Sergei Yun, a retired director of a Soviet collective farm. Koreans believe that the unburied dead wander the earth; the cattle cars that transported the Koreans to Central Asia came to be called “Ghost Trains.”
The 1937 Korean deportation was the first instance of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing, the removal of an entire people because of their ethnicity. The Japanese had just invaded China after setting off a crisis at Marco Polo Bridge, and Stalin was increasingly worried that Japan, already engaged in skirmishes with the Soviet Union along the Manchurian border, might be emboldened to attack the Soviet Union from the rear—as they had successfully done in 1904–05 and again in Siberia after the Bolshevik Revolution. By an accident of history, this vulnerable region of the Soviet Far East was home to a large population of Koreans.
Beginning in the 1860s, Koreans, fleeing drought and famine, began to emigrate into what is now Russian territory. Over the years, in the frontier provinces of Primorski and Khabarovsk, Koreans established farming and fishing communities. They also provided railroad and construction labor for the rapidly growing city of Vladivostok. By the 1900s, 60,000 Koreans had settled in Russia. The Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 brought a new wave of refugees, and by the 1930s almost 200,000 Koreans resided in the Russian Far East. Many of the men had proven their loyalty to the Soviet cause, fighting alongside the Bolsheviks against the Japanese during the Civil War. Some even entertained the naïve hope that this loyalty would be repaid in the form of Soviet assistance in liberating Korea from Japan’s colonial grip. But in Stalin’s inimitable racist logic, the Koreans were a liability; they looked too much like the Japanese enemy. So he decided to empty the Soviet Far East of its Korean population.
The removal of Koreans was the grim inauguration of a series of massive ethnic cleansings and deportations by Stalin, involving Jews, Ukrainians, Poles, Crimean Tartars, Chechens, and Armenians. The Koreans were the first, but they did not suffer the worst fate. Perhaps the cruelest punishment was meted out upon the half million Germans who lived along the Volga. The entire working-age population was dragooned to the “labor army,” a euphemism for concentration camps. According to Alex Dederer, the head of the German Association in Almaty, approximately 50 percent of the labor army recruits perished in the camps. Koreans, too, were drafted into the “labor army,” especially the notorious mining camp at Karaganda, where they provided slave labor throughout the Second World War, perishing alongside other “unreliable people.”
Remarkably, the story of this catastrophe is largely unknown outside of Central Asia. There is to date no serious study of the mass deportation of the Soviet-Koreans. A few books on the early history of Korean Communist movements note the existence of the Soviet Koreans, but only in passing. An early history of North Korea mentions them when describing the few hundred Koreans from Central Asia dispatched by the Soviets as technical advisors to Pyongyang. But there has been little primary research: documents and photos remained uncollected and uncatalogued, and worst of all, the more elderly eyewitnesses to this human catastrophe are lost to history with each passing year. So in 2004 I set out for Kazakhstan with David Chung, associate professor of the School of Art and Design and faculty affiliate of the Korean Studies Program, along with a cameraman, to collect and archive materials on this lost history, and to interview and film survivors of the deportation and their descendents.
David Chung had visited Kazakhstan a number of times to collaborate with Kazakh artists and musicians. But this was the first time he focused his attention on Stalin’s Korean diaspora. In Almaty, he purchased Soviet and Kazakh newsreels and film footage, scanned family photos, letters, official documents, newspapers, and journals. Once in Ann Arbor, these were sorted and transcribed with the help of some talented undergraduates. Ilya Ross, a history major with a focus on Korea, was particularly helpful in translating Russian into English and creating a large database of oral history. What has emerged is the world’s first digital archive on the Soviet-Koreans. The voices of Dekabrina Kim, Vladimir Tyan, Sergei Yun, and Alex Dederer are but a few from the over 80 hours of oral history that will go online this fall.
Halfway through filming the Koreans, often against the resplendent backdrop of a vibrantly cosmopolitan Almaty and the vast steppe that surrounds it, it occurred to us that we were inadvertently preparing a documentary film on the Korean-Kazakhs. David, an artist well known for his drawings, installations, and printmaking, is also an award-winning filmmaker, whose credits include a series of documentaries such as American Journey, Soldiers in Hiding, Peace on Borrowed Time and others, which have aired on PBS, HBO and ABC. Therefore, with seed money from the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Nam Family Foundation, we proceeded to produce a one-hour documentary called Koryo Saram The Unreliable People. Koryo Saram means “Korean person” in Korean and is what Soviet-Koreans call themselves. Unreliable People is the designation Stalin reserved for the ethnic groups he deemed undesirable.
The documentary is ably filmed and edited by Matt Dibble. Matt has collaborated with dozens of producers on award winning programs as an editor and cameraman, co-writing and editing The Mystery of Chaco Canyon, a one-hour PBS documentary about the astronomically-aligned architecture of the ancient Pueblo Indians, and Rising Waters, which explored the impact of global warming on the islands and communities of the South Pacific. Currently, Matt is working on New Metropolis, a Ford Foundation-funded two-part PBS program on the history and politics of suburban sprawl.
The film script is by David Chung, with assistance from Japhet Asher, an Academy Award- and Emmy Award-nominated writer and filmmaker. The musical score is by Jin Hi Kim, a virtuoso performer of Korean traditional instrument, well known for her pioneering compositions for chamber ensemble, orchestra, and avant-garde jazz improvisations. In the U.S., she has performed at such renowned venues as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center. Professor German Kim of the Kazakh State University served as historical consultant; Professor Kim is currently a Mellon fellow at the Institute for the Humanities.
I had the good fortune to work with this distinguished team as executive producer for the film. As a scholar, I work mostly with my students or write alone in my study, and it has been a great experience—with a steep learning curve—to put together a film. Above all, it has been fascinating to see these artists of enormous talent and craftsmanship work with such dedication, and hardly a thought of remuneration, to complete a project that has become a labor of love for all of us.
The film should be of wide interest. It tells the story of modern Kazakhstan, a stunningly beautiful country with high mountains and vast rolling steppes, which stretch from Siberia to China, and to the Caucasus in the west. The 10th largest country in the world in landmass, it is also one of the most sparsely populated, with only 17 million people. It is so rich in crude oil, natural gas, and other mineral resources that it is often said that Kazakhstan can export the entire periodic table of elements. Once, Stalin might have conceived of Kazakhstan as a gargantuan Gulag, a concentration camp of exiled people from throughout the Soviet Union. Today, this nation of displaced peoples is a vibrant multicultural, multiethnic place, trying its best to forge a new national identity; it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The experience of the Soviet/Kazakh Koreans in this ethnically diverse country will resonate with the experience of many Americans.
Tanya, a pretty teenager prone to break out in giggles, says in her interview that she grew up thinking she was Russian. “When I went to school, people would ask me about my nationality, and I would say I am Russian. They would say, no, you are not Russian, you are Korean.” So one day she asked her mother, who told her that she was indeed a Korean person, in spite of the fact that she only spoke Russian. Or as Anatoly Khang puts it: “When I was a child, people pointed at me, and I thought, why was I born Korean? I felt humiliated, I was ashamed.”
The need to connect with the past is stronger in Yacov Khan, an ethnomusicologist who lives in Almaty. Like the Greek philosopher Diogenes who searched, lantern in hand, for an honest person, Yacov traverses Kazakhstan with a tape recorder, in search of the last Korean to remember a song he or she had learned as a child, songs that will connect Yacov to a past that no longer exists, songs that will tell him who he is—regardless of what others call him.
By and large, however, the Koreans get along well with other exiles. Stanislav Lee, a poet, remembers his Chechen friends. “The Chechens were headstrong and hot-blooded, just like the Koreans, and we were always getting into fights, but we remained friends.” Above all, the interviewees remembered with gratitude the kindness of strangers. “The Kazakhs are kind people,” Mikhail Chong explains, “they are themselves very much like the koryo saram, respectful of their parents, and they never turned us away when we were without a home.” Likewise Dekabrina recalled a shepherd and his wife, the only people her family encountered in their wanderings in the steppe. “We had no means of supporting ourselves. My mother was young, with three children, and thanks to that family we were able to establish ourselves. We will always be grateful to them.”
The historical materials on the Soviet-Koreans, now collected in the Archive of Diasporic Korea housed in the Korean Studies Program, will be of interest to scholars far beyond Korean studies. The Korean deportation is an important moment in the long history of the ethnic policies of Lenin and Stalin, providing crucial materials to those seeking to discern patterns in the deportation of ethnic groups by the Soviet regime. How does one explain, for instance, the selective nature of ethnic expulsions from the Caucasus in 1943–44, when the Karachai and the Balkars were deported, but not the Kabardins, the Adige, and the Ossetians? And why were the Chechens, the Ingush, the Meshkhetian Turks, and the Khemsil deported, although their homeland was not occupied by the Nazis, whereas the various Daghestani ethnic groups and the Ajarians with their anti-Soviet reputation were not? How do the Koreans fit into this capricious and vindictive nationality policy?
One also wonders if modern Korean history would have been different if, during the Great Terror, Stalin had not murdered every Korean connected to the Comintern. What would have happened if a man like Mikhail Mikhailovich Kim had not been executed? One of the unintended consequences of Stalin’s senseless murder was that when the Soviet Army entered North Korea at the end of the Second World War, Moscow had no reliable Korean to serve as their man in Pyongyang. As a consequence, they scraped the bottom of the barrel and came up with a battle-hardened Korean guerilla wearing the insignia of a Soviet army captain. His name was Kim Il Sung. What would have happened if, instead of Kim Il Sung, it had been the Comintern-connected leadership that parachuted into North Korea? How would they have ruled North Korea? Would North Korea have ended up looking more like a garden-variety Soviet satellite that would gain its independence in 1991, rather than what it became, a beleaguered nationalist regime held together by a cult of personality?
Koryo Saram The Unreliable People will have its international premiere in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler Gallery on October 29. After the premiere, the documentary returns to Ann Arbor for a screening at the Michigan Theater on November 6 at 5 PM. The central questions raised by the film will be discussed the next day at an international conference entitled “Routes into the Diaspora.” This conference is organized by the Institute for the Humanities, Center for International and Comparative Studies, and Korean Studies Program.
This film and the archive project are made possible with grants from the University of Michigan’s Korean Studies Program, Office of the Vice President for Research, Center for Chinese Studies, Center for International and Comparative Studies, Center for Japanese Studies, Center for Russian and East European Studies, and Institute for the Humanities. Additional funding was received from the Nam Family Foundation, Douglas and Sabrina Gross, the Overseas Korean Foundation, and the Steven Kang Foundation.
Meredith Jung-En Woo, professor of political science, is director of the Korean Studies Program at the University of Michigan International Institute.