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St Nicholas, a Russian Orthodox church in Harbin, circa 1925, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution

The term Harbin Russians or Russian Harbinites refers to several generations of Russians who lived in the city of Harbin, a major junction city on the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER), from approximately 1898 to the mid-1960s.

The people in the Soviet Union used the terms "KVZhDist" (Russian: КВЖДист, "person of the China Eastern Railway") and "Harbinets" (Харбинец, "Harbinite/person from Harbin") to refer to a person with any type of ties to the China Eastern Railway.





The first generation of Harbin Russians were mostly the builders and employees of the Chinese Eastern Railway. They moved to Harbin in order to work on the railroad. At the time Harbin was not an established city. The city was almost built from scratch by the builders and early settlers. Houses were constructed, furniture and personal items were brought in from Russia. After the Russo-Japanese War, while many Russians left Harbin, a lot of long-time residents decided to stay. By 1913, Harbin had become an established Russian colony for the construction and maintenance work on the China Eastern Railway. A record shows Harbin had a total of 68,549 people, most of which are of Russian and Chinese descent. There were a total of 53 different nationalities. Along with Russian and Chinese, there were 45 spoken languages used in Harbin at the time. Only 11.5% of all residents were born in Harbin. There were lively religious activities, too, by the Russians (Saint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin), Ukrainians (Church of the Intercession in Harbin), Poles (Sacred Heart Cathedral of Harbin), Germans (Harbin Nangang Christian Church), and others.

World War I and the October Revolution

In the decade from 1913 to 1923, Russia went through World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. In the 1920s Harbin was flooded with 100,000 to 200,000 Russian White émigrés fleeing from Russia. They were mostly officers and soldiers involved in the White movement, members of the White governments in Siberia and Russian Far East. There were both the intelligentsia and ordinary people. Harbin held the largest Russian population outside of the state of Russia.

On September 8, 1920, the Chinese Republic announced that it would no longer recognize the Russian consulates in China. On September 23 China ceased relations with representatives of Imperial Russia and deprived Russians of extraterritorial rights. Overnight Russians in China found themselves stateless. Shortly afterward, the Chinese government took over control of the institutions in Harbin such as courts, police, prison, post office, and some research and educational institutions.

Russian Orthodox Saint Sofia Church built in 1907, Harbin

In 1924, an agreement was signed in Beijing regarding the control of the China Eastern Railway. The agreement stated that only Soviet and Chinese citizens could be employed by the CER. This meant the Harbin Russians had to choose not only their nationality, but also their political identity. Many Harbin Russians took Soviet citizenship for patriotic reasons. However, there were also Harbin Russians who remained stateless, who were eventually let go from CER. Gradually, the national and the political identity of the Harbin Russians split the group into opposing sides. This led to a strong Soviet Union presence in Harbin.

Japanese occupation

In the mid-1930s, the Japanese occupied Manchuria, and turned it into the puppet state of Manchukuo. In 1935, the Soviet Union sold its share of the China Eastern Railway to Japan via Manchukuo. In the spring and summer of 1935, thousands of Harbin Russians went on trains with their passports and belongings, and left for the Soviet Union.

From 1932 to 1945, Harbin Russians had a difficult time under the Manchukuo régime, then the Japanese occupation. Some Harbin Russians initially thought the occupation was good, hoping that the Japanese would help them in their anti-Soviet struggles and provide protection from the Chinese, who were desperately trying to restore the sovereignty of Harbin.

Many Harbin Russians returned to the Soviet Union after 1935. Nearly all of them were arrested during the Great Purge (1936–1938), charged with espionage and counter-revolutionary activity according to the NKVD Order no. 00593 of September 20, 1937.

Some Harbin Russians moved to other cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Qingdao, and eventually left China. By the 1930s, Shanghai's Russian community had grown to 25,000. [1]

After World War II

In 1945, after the Soviet Army occupied Harbin, the Soviets sent all those Harbin Russians whom they identified as White Guardists and those who had collaborated with the Japanese authorities to labor camps.

After 1952, the Soviet Union initiated a second wave of repatriation of Harbin Russians. By the mid-1960s virtually all Harbin Russians had left Harbin. There were several Russian connections in Australia resulting from refugees leaving Harbin.

See also

External links


  • Mara Moustafine. Secrets and Spies: The Harbin Files. A Vintage Book series, Random House, Australia Pty Ltd, 468 pp.
  • Wolff, David. To the Harbin Station: The Liberal Alternative in Russian Manchuria, 1898-1914. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.


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