Strolling along the streets of Tashkent or riding in a small marshrutka minibus – a common mode of transportation in this busy and bustling with life Central Asian city with a population of about 3 million people – you would feel no surprise looking at the multitude of different faces…
Tanned and dark haired or rather white skinned and blond, with blue, green or brown eyes, Russians, Tartars or Koreans would always appear in the crowd of local Uzbeks.
There used to be even more of them here several decades ago, living together in this calm and friendly city full of sunshine and welcoming shade…
By now, many people have left together with their untold stories – about this capital of “sun and bread”, a Soviet-day Babylon that became a true Noah’s ark hosting and hiding the survivors of a horrifying storm of ethnic repressions.
Here, lost deep in the heart of Central Asian desert, they multiplied, prospered and lived in peace. Russians, Jews, Germans, Armenians, Meskhetian Turks, Chechens, Crimean Tartars and Greeks, most of them had found their second home here, temporary if not permanent.
After the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991, many ethnic groups abandoned this newly rising and predominantly Muslim country. Ones feared possible persecutions – which fortunately never happened – while others simply followed their own practical reasons.
Some left as soon as the restrictions on their movement were lifted in the wave of so called “democratization” early in the 1970s.
However, there was one particular community of people that chose to stay in Uzbekistan. They actually had nowhere else to go. Over the years of pain and suffering, hard physical labor, adaptation and assimilation, this country had become their one and only true home.
These people are Uzbek Koreans, and this story is about them.
Nikolay and I were simply bound to meet. When I saw him first on the calm and quiet streets of Tashkent in the early spring of 2014, he was selling souvenirs, antiques and traditional Uzbek clay figurines to passersby and tourists in the central city square formerly known as Broadway.
Several theaters it used to host were long time gone as were the frequenting them crowds. The name has somehow stuck, adding nostalgia and curious mystery to this huge and otherwise deserted area full of flowerbeds and monuments to fallen heroes.
Only a handful of artists, painters and antiquity collectors remained here, including Nikolay, a small and aging Korean man who would pass anywhere for a “typical” Central Asian. He looked more like a Kyrgyz, Kazakh or Mongol, with his bold head, dark skin burnt out by the sun and swollen eyelids.
Something very special on his smooth and round face was his smile – a kind, honest and hesitant smile of a thoughtful child he still kept somewhere deep in his heart.
I bounced into Nikolay in the middle of my own personal quest. I was looking for a story almost disappeared and now hidden somewhere near. The ghosts of our recent past were haunting me from all sides on that warm and cloudy spring day on Broadway, and probably, they brought me to Nikolay and made him reveal his story to me.
At the same time, the urge to keep telling this story is somehow very understandable for both of us. These are our collective memories imprinted in the genes of all Uzbek Koreans.
They are still kept in the taste of pigodi, chartagi, khe or kuksi – a handful of salty and spicy North Korean dishes that have become a representative part of our vibrant and mixed Uzbek cuisine.
They still resonate in the sound of a few remaining words in Hamgyong dialect, which Soviet Koreans originally spoke when they first arrived to Uzbekistan in 1937.
They still mark our ancient lunar calendar during the traditional holidays, such as Hansik and Chusok – spring and autumn equinoxes – or tol and hwangab – the auspicious first and sixtieth birthday celebrations.
These ancient and typically Korean festivities and cultural rituals have somehow survived all former official prohibitions and are vigorously observed across Uzbekistan by one unique ethnic group.
This very tight community also shares a deeply secretive history known through the tragic accounts of past persecutions, repressions and deaths. These stories would only be told to close relatives and passed among family members, from one generation to another.
The sufferings those stories unveil are always very deep. Equally deep is the pain the memories still provoke…
I also have a story woven into the secrets of this tragic past. Long time ago, my grandfather told it to me only once and never wanted to speak about it again.
This is the story of a little boy who traveled one cold winter with many other people, all stuck together inside a dark and stinking cattle train…
He traveled on that train together with his parents and siblings for many weeks, until one day they arrived to a strange place in the middle of nowhere…
That place was somewhere in Soviet Uzbekistan. It was 1937, and my grandfather was only seven years old.
What brought him to the empty and deserted Central Asia together with all other people was the first Soviet deportation of entire nationality.
What united all of them as the victims of this massive deportation was their ethnic belonging. They all happened to be Koreans.
The cattle train story was the only thing my grandfather ever told me about those painful and complicated times. Yet, all his untold stories would keep haunting me later on, as would also do so his very apparent Korean physic and our Korean last name.
In order to affirm my partly Korean belonging, I would eventually study Korean or rather its classical Seoul dialect, which my grandfather would never be able to understand.
I would keep looking for any affinity with Korea and even graduate in the Korean studies at a renown university in the US, which my grandfather would still happily live to know.
So far from my actual Korean roots and never at peace with this understanding, I would keep looking for those unique Korean stories forgotten and lost deep in Central Asian sands…
It would become my personal quest to uncover the secret spaces left blank on purpose, in our family history and in the history of all Uzbek Koreans.
My grandfather has lived a relatively successful life in Uzbekistan. He went to study in Moscow and was later sent to work in rural Ukraine, where he met his future Russian wife who was working in the same town. They returned to Tashkent together in 1957, already married and with my one year old mother.
For most of his life, my grandfather worked as a chief engineer in the construction bureau at a major industrial plant in Tashkent. He developed and patented a lot of technical innovations for cotton picking machinery – we still keep all his certificates of achievement at home.
This is how the Korean community is ingrained in our social fabric – as extremely hard working people and quite a prosperous diaspora. In fact, many Koreans – including Nikolay’s mother and my grandfather – have been awarded with numerous state medals for their very hard labor during the Soviet times.
Uzbek Koreans are also known for their indisputable role in the development of our national agriculture.
Traditional peasants, they passed to locals all their generations acquired land farming knowledge and techniques. Even now, the best types of rice grown in our country and used in the preparation of most representative Uzbek dishes are still lovingly called “Korean”.
However, little is known about the heavy toll Uzbek Koreans had to pay in order to gain such a high reputation in our society. They were forced to come to this land, they had to develop it and turn into their own, they bore children upon it and – very slowly – it became their one and only home.
Nikolay and I are desperate to preserve our history – in the name of all Korean people. This is the story of three generations of his family. It is also my grandfather’s story. Nikolay and I are determined to keep it alive, so the history may never repeat itself.
At least, we truly hope so.
Nikolay’s mother was born in 1919 in Maritime province, in the village called Crabs. Back then it belonged to Posyet national district, and the whole territory of this province was an official part of the Soviet Far East.
In fact, this tiny piece of land – stuck between north-eastern China and the upper tip of present-day North Korea on one side, and surrounded with the Japanese Sea on the other – used to serve as a buffer zone for the Soviets throughout most of the 1920s.
Koreans originally started moving here in the late 19th century, escaping harsh living conditions, poverty and starvation in the north of the Korean peninsula.
In the Russian Far East, they built their first Korean villages and towns; very often with the agreement of Russian provincial governments and local military forces who desperately needed cheap labor in order to develop this desolated land full of opportunities and natural resources.
Initially, the first Russian settlers in the Far East felt quite hostile to unexpected newcomers. Koreans belonged to a different race, spoke an unfamiliar and unheard before language, ate strange food and had very different cultural habits.
However and in spite of the initial hostility and ethnic discrimination against them, by the early 1900s the amount of Koreans populating northern Russia grew to almost 30,000 from the original 13 families found by a Russian military convoy along the Tizinhe River in 1863.
Subsequently, this number more than doubled after Korea became a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and Japanese colony in 1910, and more than tripled by the early 1920s. With the Korean peninsula agonizing in a bloody turmoil, more and more Koreans were now helplessly fleeing to Russia.
After the Soviet revolution, all ethnic Koreans in the Russian Far East were issued Soviet citizenship, even in spite of the fact that most of their representations and activities such as local governments, schools, theaters and newspapers, kept operating mostly in the Korean language.
Many Koreans became active contributors to the Soviet society. Nikolay’s grandfather Vasiliy Lee was one of them. Throughout the civil war in the Russian Far East in 1918-1922, he fought together with the Bolsheviks against the Japanese under the command of Sergey Lazo who later became famous all over Soviet Union.
However, the fact that they truly hated the Japanese aggressors who had colonized and brutalized their historical motherland did not spare Soviet Koreans from their “dubious” ethnicity and “dangerous” links to Japan in the eyes of Soviet leadership and high military command.
Even before – by the end of Russo-Japanese war in 1905 – Korean peasants in the Russian Far East were often laid off the land they had cultivated, with anti-Korean laws effectively applied against them since 1907.
Now in 1937, shortly after having conducted the official census that counted over 170,000 Koreans living in the Soviet Union in almost 40,000 families, the Soviet government was preparing another ordeal for them, much more horrid in its scope and future implications…
It was a dark and cold autumn night of 1937. Nikolay’s grandfather Vasiliy, his wife and three daughters, including 18 years old Nikolay’s mother Galina and her 24 and 20 years old sisters, were all at home when someone suddenly knocked the door.
They were from the Soviet secret police. The order was simple and quick: “Gather all your belongings, personal documents and all food you can find at home in less than half an hour and follow us immediately. You all are being deported.”
This is how the population of entire Posyet Korean national district – or 171,781 ethnic Koreans from there and the rest of Soviet Far East – were mounted on cattle trains in the matter of hours and at the beginning of harsh Siberian winter, without any prior notice and with practically no food, water, warm clothes or personal belongings.
All of them were being sent off to the Soviet Union’s first massive labor camps deep in Central Asia.
The train journey was very long and exhausting. It lasted several weeks in dire cold, and the soldiers who guarded the cattle trains shared no food or water with the Korean deportees. In such conditions, people were quickly dying from malnutrition, and their bodies were being left in the snow outside each train station.
During these very brief stops at unfamiliar stations, the deportees were trying to sell to local residents – or simply exchange for food – any objects of value they managed to bring along in this extremely hard journey. They also collected snow and melted it into water.
This is how Nikolay’s mother Galina and her two elder sisters survived, thanks to their parents’ ceaseless care and initial food supply from home. Nikolay’s grandparents were giving away their own food and water to their three daughters. Like that, they didn’t last long and died eventually on that train from the starvation and weakness…
Their bodies were abandoned outside a small and unknown train station – one of many on this horrendous journey. Until now, nobody knows the exact place of their final rest. Together with his wife, a hero of the Soviet civil war in the Far East has forever disappeared in the snow…
Galina and Konstantin
Nikolay’s father Konstantin has also survived the journey, together with his parents and two brothers. He did not meet his future wife on the train. Instead, they met later upon their arrival to Uzbekistan.
When the Koreans arrived, they were lodged in special barracks under 24/7 armed guard. During the day, they had to dry wet swampland and root out the cane surrounding Uzbek capital Tashkent back then.
‘It was a hell of a job’, Nikolay remembered from his parents’ stories. ‘There were a lot of wolves, jackals and lynxes in the swampland. During the night, they would come very close to temporary shacks in the fields where the Koreans lived and scare everyone to death’.
Death was indeed crawling and waiting nearby, but in the form of much tinier creatures. Wet swampland was infested with malaria mosquitoes, and many Koreans – unprotected and with no medicines at hand – would quickly get sick and eventually die from malaria.
Nevertheless, in less than five years from the deportees’ original arrival to Soviet Uzbekistan, all cane was rooted out and the swampland surrounding Tashkent was made arable.
After they had completed this gigantic task, the Koreans were ordered to start growing rice on the new arable land in order to produce agricultural supply for the Soviet state.
This is when Nikolay’s parents met and fell in love, working together in the fields. They got married in 1940 – she was 21 and he was 23.
From the initial barracks and shacks under 24/7 armed guard, they could eventually move together into a tiny house they built themselves out of straw and mud.
All rice they grew and harvested had to be returned to the state. For any hidden amount if discovered, the person who committed the crime would be pledged guilty of collective property theft and go directly to prison.
This is how the first Korean collective farms or kolkhozes started operating, built around the very same rice fields the deportees had to farm and live on. Now they lived in tiny houses made of straw and mud instead of initial barracks and shacks.
Many got married and bore their children on this land that also started to give its very first fruit. The armed guard control and passport restrictions had lasted until it was understood the Koreans would not go anywhere.
In fact, they had nowhere else to go. With so many difficulties, they built their first houses and started their families in this foreign place that finally – slowly and painfully – became their own…
In late 1953, the death of Joseph Stalin marked the end of his personality cult and stopped persecutions of ethnic minorities.
Many of Stalin’s policies were declared contradicting the true principles of Leninism in 1956 and subsequently abandoned by a newly rising political leader, Nikita Khrushchev.
Pardoning all Soviet Union’s unwanted people and dissolving the infamous gulags – Siberian prison camps – were among his first political decisions taken in order to attempt correcting the mistakes of a very dark past.
Finally, it looked like the Koreans were given a new chance to become legitimate Soviet citizens.
Their children could now go to public primary, secondary and vocational high schools and local universities. They could also move relatively freely within the Soviet Union and look for better professional opportunities.
Paradoxically, most of them stayed in the very same Korean kolkhozes they or their parents initially arrived to and built.
Their living conditions were more stable there, in the tight communities where everyone belonged to the same ethnic group and personally knew each other.
Now their children were also coming back – often as graduates of prestigious state universities all over the USSR – and given jobs of highly trained staff in agricultural, managerial and technical positions at the same kolkhozes.
Life slowly regained its normality… The first generations of Korean deportees had been trying very hard to forget their dark past, together with all its previous mistakes and pain. They simply wanted to live happier lives, if not of their own then at least of their children.
Nikolay saw real bread for the first time in his life at the age of five. Before that his mother had always used compressed grass to “bake” bread of some kind. It was so heavy to digest that all children suffered from severe stomach aches, especially after eating a lot of it.
In the early 1950s, they all lived with constant food shortages, little Nikolay, his mother and two elder sisters (the third one would be born ten years later).
‘We had a cow, some chicken and a pig. My dad had left to study at a pedagogical university, and my mother was left alone with three little children, taking care of our house and the animals.’
This is why she finally stopped working in a kolkhoz – there always was plenty of work at home. During the nights and after everyone had left to sleep, she was still awake, secretly sewing clothes, to be later sold to neighbors.
All forms of private entrepreneurship were strictly prohibited back then by the Soviet state. Therefore, Galina’s nighttime work simply had to stay hidden.
‘I was always playing outside the house as a little boy’, Nikolay remembers very emotionally, ‘and if I suddenly saw anyone around who didn’t look Korean, I would immediately run back to my mother and shout “Inspector is coming, inspector is coming!”’
Galina worked so hard during the day and in her nighttime shifts of sewing that eventually she lost all of her breast milk she still had to feed Nikolay with.
‘I had to start drinking cow milk way too early, because my mom was so stressed during the day and so tired of sleepless nights that there was no more milk left in her to feed me…’
Eventually, Galina was able to find a legal job in a state-owned tailor shop. Konstantin came back after finishing the university and became a math teacher at a local school.
He worked as a math teacher for the rest of his life. They both were awarded with medals for their very hard lifelong labor.
There is one memory especially painful for Nikolay. It is the memory of a very dark night back at home. He was still a very small child.
As a three-year old, Nikolay could vividly remember everything around him. That night he was peacefully sleeping in his bed, when the adult voices suddenly woke him up.
Nikolay walked into the living room and saw a crying Korean stranger. He was telling something to Nikolay’s parents who were also crying while listening to him…
Nikolay still cries himself like a small child, telling me this story 60 years later.
When his mother came to Soviet Uzbekistan as a deportee in the cattle train together with her parents and sisters, her brother was left behind. He was only 21 and served in the Soviet military back in the Far East.
He was positioned in Kraskino town and separated from the rest of his family who lived in Crabs. When Stalin’s order for the deportation of Koreans came in power, he discovered that his whole family had been shipped to Uzbekistan on a train only very shortly before his own arrest.
As a soldier, Fedor Lee was under an even higher suspicion and scrutiny than the rest of the Koreans. According to an official version, he was accused by his neighbors of being a Japanese spy and quickly declared a traitor and enemy of the Soviet state.
Fedor was condemned to ten years of forced labor in the Siberian gulag in Komi Soviet Socialist Republic. There he did not last even through the first half of his imprisonment.
The Korean stranger who visited Nikolay’s family fifteen years later was his uncle’s fellow prisoner in the gulag. He told Nikolay’s parents that Koreans were treated the worst by the guards among gulag prisoners, and only a couple of them eventually survived all horrors of their imprisonment.
Every day they were sent to cut lumber deep in the Siberian woods, in spite of freezing temperatures, lack of clothes and malnutrition.
Fedor badly injured his legs while cutting a tree, and in the cold weather gangrene developed very quickly.
Even after he could not walk any longer, his comrade would remember, they still had to take him out to their working station, where he would cut branches from fallen trees.
After he got so weak that he could not work any longer, the prison guards shot him. It happened in the early 1940s, and nobody really knew where his body had been buried.
‘My family was taken on a train all the way to Uzbekistan’, Fedor told his Korean comrade shortly before dying.
‘If you manage to survive through all of this, please promise me you would go and find them… Please promise you would tell them my story, everything they have done to me.’
His friend, whose name we will never know, fulfilled his promise. He found Fedor’s family and came all the way to Uzbekistan to tell them everything that had happened to Fedor.
It seems that in the lives of some there can never be too much suffering…
The lives of two generations of Nikolay’s grandparents and parents bear clear signs of two waves of repressions against the ethnic Koreans and political prisoners of the Soviet state between the early 1930s and late 1950s.
There is, however, one more story left to tell and one more wave of repressions left to count. It took place exactly at the same time and became one of – if not the most – secretive part of history in the lives of Soviet Koreans. This is the story not so many people happen to know about…
Alexey Ten came to Uzbekistan on the same cattle train, together with his brother and Nikolay’s father Konstantin.
Together they worked in the swampland and later rice fields, and then Alexey went to study in the Chirchiq military academy near Tashkent, where in the early 1950s he was approached with an unexpected order by his higher military command.
The special request came from the young Comrade Kim Il Sung handpicked by Joseph Stalin in the indirect stand-off between the Soviet Union and United States over the Korean peninsula. Eventually, it led to the Korean War, which became known in the West as the Forgotten War.
Back then, young and energetic Comrade Kim Il Sung sent a direct plea of help to all brotherly Soviet Koreans, asking those in the military ranks to fight the Korean War shoulder to shoulder with him, in order to liberate the Korean peninsula from imperialist aggressors.
Many Uzbek Koreans from the Chirchiq military academy, together with other Central Asian Koreans, went and fought the Korean War shoulder to shoulder with Kim Il Sung, helping him to liberate North Korea and establish the DPRK.
Most of these Koreans stayed in North Korea afterwards as war heroes and Kim Il Sung’s closest friends and allies.
They became generals, marshals and admirals in the DPRK’s newly built military apparatus. Alexey Ten was among them – he also became a general and the DPRK’s deputy minister of defense.
Recognition at last
Konstantin, Nikolay’s father, must have finally felt very happy for his brother – at last, he was in a very high and powerful position in the country that seemed to highly appreciate him.
Earlier and while still living in Uzbekistan, Alexey Ten got married and had his first son Leonid, whom all of his brother’s family felt especially close to.
Later, after Alexey had fought together with Kim Il Sung in the Korean War and while his family already lived in North Korea, Alexey’s wife got badly ill with appendicitis. She was operated across the border from North Korea in the city of Harbin, but unluckily didn’t survive.
Alexey eventually remarried with a North Korean woman and had several more children with her, and his first son Leonid kept living with them.
After the direct request from the Comrade Kim Il Sung, he and many other Uzbek Korean war heroes surrendered their Soviet citizenship in exchange for the North Korean one. The DPRK seemed to euphorically claim them back.
During this time, there was a unique exchange of letters going on between Upper Chirchiq in Uzbekistan and Pyongyang in North Korea, with the help of North Korean Embassy in Moscow.
Konstantin, Nikolay’s father, would write to his brother Alexey or his nephew Leonid, always in Korean, and send his letters to the DPRK’s Moscow embassy that would then pass them directly to the general Chon Il Bang (Alexey Ten) in Pyongyang, and vice versa.
Nikolay managed to keep some of the remaining letters, together with the photos of his cousin little Lenya.
A colorful and happy postcard from Pyongyang signed with a trembling hand of the little child in broken Russian, wishing his cousins the best of luck and plenty of health…
The lines in Korean from both brothers and little Lenya, who would always write all first names and some particular words in Russian, as if trying not to forget his original mother language…
The signature of the North Korean ambassador in Moscow, stating that he had indeed passed the letters between the recipients…
Those invisible ties that linked the Uzbek Koreans back to North Korea, they weren’t there to last long. Nor was there to last their short and euphoric success in the DPRK, a historical motherland they were so happy and proud to help rebuilding together.
Since 1954, upon the death of Joseph Stalin and demolition of his personality cult as contradicting to the true principles of Leninism, the relationship between North Korea and the Soviet Union started to deteriorate dramatically.
Kim Il Sung, who adopted the system of adoration and political reprisals from his own beloved Great Leader, felt quite vulnerable after Stalin’s defamation in the USSR and started suspecting the new Soviet command of plotting to destroy him in a direct coup-d-etat.
Among the first ones to blame for the same old sins – political and military treason, espionage and animosity to the DPRK – were the same Soviet Koreans who again and again found themselves between the wheels of ruthless state machinery bound to destroy them.
Cruel purges started one by one against closest friends, former fellows and allies. The DPRK’s highest military apparatus consisting mostly of Soviet Korean ministers, deputy ministers, generals, marshals and admirals was soon and completely eradicated.
It looked like Kim Il Sung was trying to change the past and make it seem as if the years between the 1940s and 1960s had never existed. He did everything possible to wipe out the entire memory of the traitors who had given him and their historical motherland everything, up to their own lives.
Suddenly, Konstantin’s letters started returning from the Moscow based North Korean embassy with a weird stamp ‘Recipient unknown’.
Alexey’s postal address simply ceased to exist. Nobody could explain anything. Konstantin kept sending letters, and the letters kept coming back with the same postal stamp, recipient unknown.
It lasted so until Konstantin, exhausted and anguished, managed to talk directly to the North Korean ambassador in Moscow, who finally explained him everything.
‘Don’t look for your brother any longer. Stop sending him those letters. There is no way to find him or his family now. They have been purged as traitors, spies and enemies of the state, and we know nothing about them at this point. And, probably, we will never know.’
How many cycles of repression can one survive? How many tears can one cry day and night? How many family members can one loose? And the most important question – what for and whose fault is it that such atrocities keep happen?
The Soviet Koreans, Uzbek Koreans, Koreans kept spinning again and again crushed between the wheels of history, betrayed and dishonored again and again by a foreign motherland…
How many motherlands can one loose and how many of them can one get?
And what is it worth, after all, when at the end everything you are bound to have is stay homeless, become forgotten and dishonored..? Or simply die..? Nikolay’s parents could never answer those questions. Have they ever asked them at all?
Nikolay answers my question this time. ‘Have they ever blamed Joseph Stalin or the Soviet state for what it had done to them? Maybe, they did. Probably so. I don’t really know, because they were never free to talk about it, even with us. I don’t blame anyone any longer. I simply hope such atrocities will never happen again.’
Copyright and Acknowledgements
This project was created in the memory of my Korean grandfather, Kim Da Gir, son of Kim Gyon Se (1930-2007).
All copyright to this project belongs to Victoria Kim (2015).
Part of the archival photography on Uzbek Koreans, including several photographs by Viktor An, was sourced from the website http://www.koryo-saram.ru and used in this multimedia project with the permission of the website’s owner Vladislav Khan.
Please address all your comments and questions about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org