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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

White Russians

After the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war ended in 1922, large numbers of pro-Tsarist Russians—known as ‘White Russians’ because of their opposition to the ‘Red Bolsheviks’—fled abroad to escape the murderous clutches of the communist regime. Most Americans and Europeans came to know of the wealthier Russians of noble birth (often portrayed exotically in Hollywood films in the first half of the 20th Century), who thanks to assets in Western banks and/or large numbers of multi-carat jewels were able to find safe harbor in the West. Less well-known were the White Russians who fled across Siberia to northeastern China. Mostly middle-class professionals (doctors, engineers, mid-level military officers, artisans), these Russian émigrés built their own towns and communities, just as the British and the French had done across China and the Far East. The community in Harbin had a Russian population of more than 100,000 at its peak. But with the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in the early 1930s, more and more Russians were fleeing to Shanghai.

The ubiquitous White Russians constituted a large part of the mosaic of daily life in Shanghai. Russian merchants sold everything from jewels and furs to pleasures of the flesh. Russian officers served with the Shanghai Municipal Police, and as private bodyguards for wealthy Westerners and Chinese. But mostly the Russians came to dominate the cultural world of the International Settlement and the French Concession: Russian musicians and dancers populated almost every cabaret and nightclub; Russian artists sold cheap portraits on the street and fine sculptures out of studios; and Russian fashion stores and jewelry makers were the rage, especially among wealthy Chinese clients. Young (and not-so-young) Russian women dominated the Shanghai nightlife as pretty accoutrements, dance partners, or lowly prostitutes.

These photos portray some of Shanghai’s Russian citizens going about their daily lives in their adopted Chinese city. Viktoria Savina, the main character in my novel Above the Water, comes from a Russian family that lived in Shanghai.

Images: Public Domain/Wikipedia


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