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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Memories of Deportation - From the Russian Far East to Central Asia

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

Mira Kuzhakhmetova

The first migrations of Koreans to the Russian Far East were recorded in the second half of the nineteenth century. Korean peasants were trying to escape famine and unaffordable taxes back in their homeland. They proved to be skillful land cultivators and demonstrated flexibility in meeting both Tsarist and Soviet requirements. However, virtually all the Koreans of the Russian Far East, more than 175,000 people, were forcibly relocated to Central Asia as a ‘suspicious’ ethnicity in 1937 [1]. This post explores the Korean ethnic community’s memorialization of the deportation from the Russian Far East to Central Asia as told by the deportees to the next generations of Koreans of Kazakhstan.

Our personal and collective memories are always with us and together they shape our present [2]. It is also true that the issue of diasporization is linked to the production of a memorial narrative of the origin of the group. In other words, the way collective memory has been transmitted from generation to generation largely defines diasporic consciousness. [3] This is especially relevant for diasporas whose collective memory is associated with “displacement, flight, exile, and forced migration”. [4] And while understanding the collective memory of a diaspora, it is essential to consider the political context that largely informs incentives for remembering or indeed forgetting the diaspora’s past. [5]

Figure 1: Soviet propaganda photo, deported Koreans, Fall 1937 in Chirchik raions (districts) . Notice swamp and reeds. Woman at rt. cannot force a smile. Photo courtesy of Kim Pen Hva Museum [Source:].

My research project has mainly drawn on semi-structured in-depth interviews. I interviewed sixteen ethnic Koreans from different regions of Kazakhstan in the summer of 2021. The findings revealed that many participants (the third and fourth generations of deported Koreans) are not familiar with the details of their great-grandparents’ deportation. Language barriers played a role in the partial transmission of family histories: while deported Koreans spoke Korean or Koryo Mar their grandchildren used Russian as their first language. However, another factor, which virtually all participants mentioned, was the unwillingness to share the details of their exilic history. At the same time, the interviewees demonstrated a greater awareness of the history of Japanese oppression that provoked Koreans to migrate to the Russian Far East, which echoes the officially ‘permitted’ narrative. A few respondents believed that their ancestors were deported to Central Asia because of their physical resemblance with the Japanese. One interviewee explained the grounds for deportation as follows: “The Soviet authorities were afraid that Japanese spies could easily pass for Koreans in the Russian Far East because they looked similar. That is why they decided to send them to Central Asia”.

Koreans were the first ethnic community to be deported based on their ethnicity [6]. However, they were not the only ones deprived of their homeland within the USSR in the 1930s-1940s. “Ethnic cleansing” was the signature tool of Stalin’s regime in dealing with small nations that were previously celebrated by “indigenization”. [7] Koreans were placed in “special settlements” with limited mobility even within the region. [8] Moreover, the deportees were labeled as "fifth column", although the majority tended to demonstrate their loyal attitude to the Soviet regime. [9]

In addition to the physical hardship the deported Koreans experienced from 1937, they were also subjected to the stripping of identity through the imposition to adopt Russian names upon arrival to Kazakhstan. This act of forced assimilation is similar to the Japanese practice of imposing Japanese names on their Korean subjects. [10] Thus, a few respondents informed us that their grandparents were given Russian first names when being registered in Ushtobe.

The narrative of an interviewee whose family still resides in Ushtobe illuminates how the stigma of a deported ethnicity could prevent one from fully accepting their identity until the end of their life:

“My maternal grandmother told me all the details of the deportation that she remembered. During transportation, many died along the way because it was very cold, and they couldn’t use the toilet. The dead were thrown out of the wagons along the way. There was no food or water on the territory of today’s Ushtobe [11]. They had to dig the main ditch for farming and participated in the construction of the railway. She vividly recalled all the torments although she was only seven years old. She had her Korean name, but we always called her by her Russian name. Even my parents didn’t know her Korean name. She didn’t tell anyone. We knew her Korean name only after she passed away in 2013. My grandfather who knew Korean writing wrote on a red cloth which, by tradition, we hang out when someone dies, the name of my grandmother in Korean...” Reportedly another grandmother, while talking about their past, tried to avoid mentioning the deportations. She was very positive about the Soviet Union and Stalin and chose to criticize Yezhov and Molotov for their turmoil. In the same vein, many grandparents who were willing to talk about the deportation, tended to avoid traumatic details, opting to generalize the hardship of the forced relocation with such statements as, “It was hard but I was young and don’t remember everything well”.

The political context of the Soviet regime dictated selective forgetting and memorialization of the Koreans’ traumatic displacement. The political regime placed Koreans, as well as other deported ethnicities, in a vulnerable position where partial transmission or complete erasure of “exilic memories” was chosen as a survival mechanism. A collective understanding of a diaspora’s past is deemed to be one of the strongest “identity narratives” [12]. However, the fragmented way in which the Koreans of Kazakhstan have transmitted their traumatic history contributed to the fluidity of their diasporic identity and the weakening of diasporic ties.

Mira Kuzhakhmetova recently earned an MA in Eurasian Studies from Nazarbayev University. Her research interests lie in forced deportations, ethnicity, diasporic studies, and labour migration. This summer Mira will start her PhD in Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University (USA).

[1] Gelb, Michael. “An Early Soviet Ethnic Deportation: The Far-Eastern Koreans.” Russian Review 54, no. 3 (1995): 389.

[2] Agnew, Vijay. Diaspora, Memory and Identity: A Search for Home. University of Toronto Press, 2013.

[3] Bruneau, Michel. Le Rapport Aux Lieux et Aux Territoires En Diaspora: Les Grecs Pontiques [The relationship to places and territories in diasporas: the pontic Greeks]. In: Pierre Rouillard, ed. Portraits de Migrants, Portraits de Colons [Portraits of migrants, portraits of settlers], vol. 1, Paris: De Boccard, 29–39, 2009.

[4] Agnew, Vijay. Diaspora, Memory and Identity: A Search for Home. University of Toronto Press, 2013.

[5] Lacroix, Thomas, and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. “Refugee and Diaspora Memories: The Politics of Remembering and Forgetting.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 34, no. 6 (2013): 684–96.

[6] Gelb, Michael. “An Early Soviet Ethnic Deportation: The Far-Eastern Koreans.” Russian Review 54, no. 3 (1995): 389.

[7] Martin, Terry. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

[8] “Punished Peoples Punished Peoples ... - Human Rights Watch.” Accessed April 4, 2022.

[9] Akiner, Shirin. Towards a typology of diasporas in Kazakhstan. Atabaki, Touraj, and Sanjyot Mehendale. Central Asia and the Caucasus: Transnationalism and Diaspora. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2009.

[10] Chang, Jon K. Burnt by the Sun: The Koreans of the Russian Far East. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016

[11] Ushtobe is the place of original deportation on the territory of the Kazakh ASSR.

[12] Lacroix, Thomas, and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. “Refugee and Diaspora Memories: The Politics of Remembering and Forgetting.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 34, no. 6 (2013): 684–96.

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