Chinese city built by Russians
Despite its location deep within the former imperial Chinese province of Manchuria, Harbin has a peculiar Russian feel to it. The secret, we found out, lies in its history.
Go back 150 years and the area along the Songhua River was but a collection of rural settlements. Fast-forward to modern-day Harbin, and you’ll find 12 million Chinese citizens going about their lives amidst an architectural backdrop of Tsarist grandeur.
The reason? Harbin is a city of perpetual re-invention and chaos. Now China’s 8th largest urban area. Current residents work on the skeleton of a village built in the early 20th century by enterprising Russians in search of prosperity, and who tried to recreate their homeland.
Today, the city is practically devoid of Russians (except a few expats). However, Harbin’s history once was home to some of the Motherland’s brightest entrepreneurs, most vulnerable refugees, and its most scheming extremists. Here’s the lowdown on the city’s rich heritage.
1. The original ‘Dubai’
The first thing in Harbin was the train station. As the first Trans-Siberian trains made successful eastward voyages in 1896, Tsar Nicholas II’s ambitious Finance Minister, Count Sergei Witte, wasted no time in subsidizing another route: the Chinese Eastern Railway. Central to his grand plan was the newly-formed city of Harbin, which he hoped would link Baikal with Vladivostok, and then have southern routes through China.
After officially acquiring town status in 1898, the area quickly became northeast China’s most buzzing metropolis. By 1917 it was home to over 100,000 people (around 40,000 of whom were Russian). Very few had been born in the city so Harbin was an expat paradise.
2. Some places still look Russian
Count Witte was keen to make anyone looking at the Harbin skyline know who was boss. The result?
3. Jewish haven
Long before the Jewish Autonomous Oblast existed, many of Russia’s Jews flocked eastwards to Harbin to escape persecution and start new lives. Since Alexander III and (to a lesser extent) Nicholas II were under the influence of their ultra-conservative childhood tutor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the prospect of deportations, education quotas, disenfranchisement, and even pogroms made an eastward move more tempting to Jews.
By 1913, it is estimated that around 5,000 Russian Jews lived in Harbin, with this number rising to around 20,000 by 1920.
Of Harbin’s Jewish legacy only two synagogues remain: one built in 1909; another in 1921; and also a large Jewish cemetery.
4. One of the largest White émigré communities
Although most White émigrés fled to Paris, Berlin and Prague, Harbin’s role in welcoming those persecuted by the Bolsheviks is often overlooked by historians.
Starting in 1917 Harbin welcomed pro-Tsarist traders and bureaucrats. The city’s Russian population skyrocketed from 40,000 to around 120,000 over the course of the Civil War.
Although these White émigrés were mostly left stateless after 1922, their community briefly thrived in Harbin through the establishment of a Russian educational system and Russian-language media.