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The Formation of the Russian Émigré Community in Shanghai, 1920s-1930s

Liao Zhang

The late 1910s and 1920s saw an exodus of Russians from Russia, primarily caused by the Revolutions and the resultant political and societal turbulence across Eurasia. When the Russian Empire collapsed and the Bolsheviks took over the country, many who held a strong affinity for the old regime or who were antagonistic to the new regime chose to leave their homeland, becoming émigrés in various localities across the globe. Russian émigrés formed diasporic enclaves in Europe, Asia, and the Americas in the decades following the Revolution and Civil War. Unlike the thriving Russian émigré communities in Paris, Berlin, and Prague, their much smaller East Asian counterparts have mostly been understudied in the historiography. Among them was the community in Shanghai, which came into being in the 1920s and dissipated in the early 1940s, against the tumultuous backdrop of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War.


St. Nicholas Church, a Russian Orthodox church in Shanghai, built in the mid 1930s

Shanghai first saw the arrival of Russian émigrés in the early 1920s, with the first wave of Russian immigrants in the cosmopolitan port city numbering more than four thousand. The vast majority were soldiers and sailors and their families, who had battled against the Red Army in Central and Eastern Siberia and in the Far East during the Russian Civil War. They departed from Vladivostok for Shanghai on ships. Loaded with supplies and fuel, the White Russians’ Far Eastern Flotilla sailed to the East China Sea by way of the Korean peninsula in the winter of 1922. There were also small numbers of civilians and intellectuals who feared communist rule or had become disenchanted with the Bolsheviks. They also fled Russia on board these ships.


From the mid 1920s to the early 1930s, more Russian émigrés moved to Shanghai from different localities within China. Harbin, the hub city of the Chinese Eastern Railway and the initial base of Russian émigrés in China, itself sent more than ten thousand Russians to Shanghai. The event leading to this large-scale relocation from Harbin to Shanghai was the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Chinese government and the USSR in 1924. The Chinese started managing the operation of the Chinese Eastern Railway jointly with the Soviets. As a result, Soviet personnel took over most positions in Harbin previously occupied by Russian émigrés loyal to the Romanov Dynasty.[1] Many of these Russians lost their jobs and therefore headed to Shanghai to seek other employment opportunities. In 1929, the Chinese suddenly seized the Chinese Eastern Railway, resulting in military intervention by the Soviet Union. This crisis over the Railway again caused the outflow of around fifteen hundred Russians to Shanghai.[2] The Japanese military forces’ occupation of Manchuria, and the formation of the puppet Manchukuo regime there, further reduced the size of Harbin’s Russian émigré community. Many who were unwilling to be administered by the Japanese migrated southward to other Chinese port cities, including Tianjin and Shanghai, or overseas to Australia and the United States. In the early 1930s, approximately ten thousand Russians moved to Shanghai from Harbin.[3]


Another source of Shanghai’s Russian population was China’s northwestern Muslim province, Xinjiang. It had sent thousands of Russian émigrés to Shanghai since the mid 1920s. Russian émigré communities scattered in Xinjiang had also taken shape in the 1910s and 1920s, when Russian settlers in Central Asia attempted to escape the upheavals caused by the October Revolution, the Russian Civil War and the restoration of Bolshevik control in the region. When the Soviet regime gradually achieved domestic stability and started exerting its influence over neighboring regions, including Xinjiang, local Russian émigrés, particularly those politically opposed to the Communists, set out for their next destinations.[4] Shanghai became the most popular terminus among Russian migrants moving from Chinese Central Asia, due to the nascent Russian community there and the social, cultural and religious dynamism brought in by the aforementioned waves of émigrés from Harbin.


The multiple waves of migration resulted in a robust Russian community in Shanghai. A census conducted by the Municipal Council in 1936 showed that the registered Russian population in Shanghai had reached thirty thousand, constituting the biggest non-Chinese national group in Shanghai. Shanghai's popularity among Russian émigrés was no accident. In the first half of the 20th century, it was the most cosmopolitan city in China. European colonial powers had asserted their influence in China since the 1840s by establishing concessions and settlements in port cities such as Shanghai. Shanghai’s British and French colonial quarters regularized the presence of Europeans in the city, making them an integral part of everyday life. The city’s distinct, European-colonial and multicultural environment and its economic prosperity attracted tens of thousands of European travelers, settlers, and businessmen. These migrants brought their wealth to Shanghai, especially during the interwar period. 


Russian soldiers employed by the Shanghai Municipal Police Department.

This cosmopolitanism gave Russian émigrés legal and administrative protection. The British had elected a committee to maintain order and build infrastructure in Shanghai’s European quarters in the 1850s. The committee later evolved into the Shanghai Municipal Council, the de facto organization supervising the city’s administrative and economic affairs.[5] It granted extraterritorial rights in the European quarters to the major Western powers.[6] In terms of migration, the Municipal Council  imposed only loose regulations on Westerners intending to stay in Shanghai. To Chinese workers and peasants living outside the International Settlement and the French Concession, it seemed that being white or European meant possessing the natural right to move to Shanghai freely and enjoy a comfortable life there.[7] When the Republican Chinese government recognized the Soviet Union and established diplomatic relations with it in 1924, the Russians in China became stateless refugees and the Russian Consulate in Shanghai automatically ceased to function. However, the Shanghai Municipal Council still recognized Russians’ extraterritorial rights in Shanghai, allowing them to retain their social status in the French Concession and the International Settlement.[8]


Post-revolutionary migrants also benefited from existing diasporic networks. Before the influx of émigrés in the early 1920s, Russians had long been a solid component of Shanghai’s colonial cultural hybridity and prosperity, despite their relatively small number. Russian entrepreneurs and tsarist state and military agents had established loose social networks in Shanghai, which were of great help to the émigrés arriving in Shanghai in droves. For example, after the Imperial Russian Consulate in Shanghai ceased to exist, some former consular officials formed a new organization to provide continued support to newly-arriving Russian migrants. This new organization, the Committee for the Defense of Russian Emigrants’ Rights, played a vital role in assisting Russian émigrés with initial settlement and navigation in Shanghai, particularly in the 1920s.[9]



In addition to its economic prosperity, the colonial municipal administration’s inclusive migration policy for whites, and established Russian social networks, another critical factor that rendered Shanghai a popular destination for Russian émigrés was its relative closeness to Russia. The émigrés’ migratory path to Shanghai reflects Marc Raeff’s view that, in the 1920s and 1930s, the desire to stay as close to Russia as possible decisively shaped their migration and settlement decisions globally.[10] Above all, the shared hope of returning to the homeland sometime soon was a determining factor behind the formation of the Russian émigré community in Shanghai.


Liao Zhang is a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University. He studies Russian and Soviet history, with a particular interest in the long borders of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. His dissertation project focuses on the Soviet Union’s construction and transformation of its Northeast Asian borderlands from the 1920s to the late 1960s. He will be conducting archival research in Moscow, Khabarovsk, and Vladivostok during the 2017- 2018 academic year. __________________________________________________________________________________


[1] Boris Raymond and David R. Jones, The Russian Diaspora, 1917- 1941 (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2000) 50- 51. [2] Marc Raeff, Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919- 1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 27. [3] E. M. Krasnousov, Shanghaiskii Russkii Polk: 1927- 1945 [The Regiment of Shanghainese Russians: 1927- 1945] (San Francisco: Globus, 1984), 79-81. [4] D Kochnev, “Shanghai, Bulugun- Emul’, Krasnogorsk, i Orenburg,” in Belaia Emigratsiia v Kitae i Mongoli, ed.Volkov, Sergei (Moscow: Tsentrpoligraf, 2005), 30- 31. [5] Robert Bickers, “Shanghailanders: the Formation and Identity of the British Settler Community in Shanghai, 1843- 1937,” Past and Present 159 (1998): 166- 67. [6] Liliane Willens, Stateless in Shanghai (Hong Kong: Earnshaw Books, 2010), 13. [7] Su Zhiliang, Shanghai Diqu Shi [Shanghai Regional History] (Shanghai: Xuelin Chubanshe, 2011), 69. [8] Zhicheng Wang, Jindai Shanghai Eguo Qiaomin Shenghuo [Russian Emigres’ Life in Shanghai in Modern Times] (Shanghai: Shanghai Cishu Chubanshe, 2008), 70. [9] Krasnousov, Shanghaiskii Russkii Polk, 15. [10] Raeff, Russia Abroad, 5.



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