There Were Worse Places

In the mid-1980s I made occasional trips to Harbin in Manchuria to report on the Orthodox White Russians who lived there, the remnant of a community that had fled from the new Soviet Union after the revolution. There were once so many of them that parts of Harbin resembled a Russian city. But the upheavals of the Japanese occupation and the Cultural Revolution, emigration, and death had reduced the community to a few dozen by the time I arrived. They attended a restored church with an onion dome where the priest, a handsome young Chinese with a basso profundo voice, was feared by his congregation, who told me they suspected him of being a police spy.

The congregation, still dressed traditionally, with the women in headscarves and the men in boots, was so old and fragile that some could barely stand during the services and would suddenly collapse onto their seats. I became friendly with an eighty-eight-year-old woman who lived alone in a room decorated with a few things from Russia, from which she had fled in 1921 with her husband, a veteran of the tsar’s defeated army. He was dead and her daughters had managed to emigrate. One lived in Philadelphia.

I felt sorry for this lonely old woman, whose husband’s grave had been despoiled during the Cultural Revolution when Red Guards wrecked the foreign cemetery. I said that I would try to help her to leave Harbin and settle with her daughter in Philadelphia. She raised her hands as if in prayer. “Please don’t do that. I spent two years there and came back to Harbin. I’d rather be here.”

For her meticulous and fascinating study of the Slavs—Russians, Ukrainians, Poles—and Jews who lived in Shanghai from the early Twenties until well after the Communist victory in 1949, Marcia Reynders Ristaino has made use of Chinese, Japanese, German, Russian, and English sources to describe the survival of a refugee community that at one time numbered over fifty thousand people. What interests Ms. Ristaino, the senior Chinese acquisitions specialist at the Library of Congress, is

the story of a collection of refugee communities, each consumed by the daily struggle to survive under often overwhelming economic, social, and cultural disadvantages. The daily toll on individual energies and spirits was great. Nevertheless, each community managed to preserve its separate ethnic and cultural identities, one of the key priorities of the victim diaspora tradition.

Shanghai had many advantages for dispersed people such as the ones Ms. Ristaino describes. Control of the city had been wrested from the Chinese primarily by the British in the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1857. The purpose of the treaties that concluded these wars was to open China to foreign trade and exempt foreign merchants from Chinese law; what rapidly emerged was foreign political jurisdiction in what became known as the International Settlement and the French Concession. By World War I foreign powers controlled eight thousand acres of Shanghai. The Western nations did not…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.