Academic journal article The Historian

The Repression of Soviet Koreans during the 1930s

Academic journal article The Historian

The Repression of Soviet Koreans during the 1930s

Article excerpt

IN THE OPINION of many historians of the USSR and Russia, the 1920s and 1930s were the most contradictory and tragic of the Soviet state's history. An important part of those years constitutes the process that Russians have given the generic name of "repressions," even if these were conducted for different reasons and under various slogans. (2) Among the most tragic episodes was the persecution of individuals because of national traits, which, in essence, flew in the face of Soviet support for the equality of peoples. (3) The scars of that drama survive until this day, and continue to have an impact both on politics and the way in which the national question plays out in general in contemporary Russia.

The first victims of these ethnic repressions were Soviet Koreans, a national minority living in the Far East that was not hostile to Soviet power and to a high degree loyal to the Soviet leaders' policies. (4) In Russian, relatively many works have been published about the Soviet Koreans, but their attention has mainly been on separate incidents and specific aspects of their fate. (5) In addition, little has been said about the long-term effect of these repressions on the Korean ethnos or the precise nature of Slavs' attitude toward the Soviet Koreans within Russian or Soviet society.

The goal of this article is to present a more nuanced and comprehensive picture of the repressions against the Soviet Koreans, based not merely on archival materials and the works by Soviet or Russian scholars, but also on the recollections of witnesses who underwent the national persecutions from the 1930s to the 1950s. I will also analyse the specifics of the repressions and suggest a periodization as well as address their consequences.

The Koreans lived in a territory in the south of what is now Russia's Far East before the arrival of Russian explorers in this area. Thus they constitute a core population of the contemporary Primor'e Region of the Russian Federation. In much of the nineteenth century, however, the Koreans in the southern part of the Russian Far East were comparatively few. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, because of the difficult economic circumstances on the Korean peninsula and the expansion of Japan, many inhabitants of this "country of the morning freshness" (as Koreans sometimes fondly call their country) began to move to the Russian Far East. The Russian attitude towards this immigration was contradictory. A number of lower-level Russian bureaucrats opposed these arrivals since they saw Koreans as part of the "Yellow Peril," but many high-ranking officials of the Russian Empire, on the contrary, encouraged the process as a counterweight to the Chinese population there. (6) Koreans' truck farming played a great role at a more practical level: Through it, they supplied the local Russian population with produce, especially with vegetables. The Russian peasantry had only barely begun to bring land there under cultivation, poorly knew the particulars of local agriculture and could therefore insufficiently resolve the region's supply problems.

The Koreans supported the October Revolution of 1917 and the struggle of the Reds against the Old Regime for two key reasons. The Bolsheviks proclaimed as principles of their new government that land was to go to the peasants and that all peoples were to receive equal rights. Those principles were welcomed by the broad masses of the Korean and Chinese population of the Far East. (7) This was because Chinese and Koreans frequently were tenants or landless laborers. Before 1917, Russian officials reluctantly proceeded to give them land, while, unsurprsingly, Russian peasants received land without any particular problems. Such discriminatory policies could not but lead to disaffection.

The second principle had an even greater effect than the first. In tsarist Russia the attitude toward inorodtsy (those of non-Slavic ethnicity, especially in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Siberia) was generally negative. …

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