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Russians and Koreans East of the Urals

John McNeill

European Russian Culture East of the Urals

Siberia and the Russian Far East, the largest territories in Russia, are geographically part of Asia, but this label itself is somewhat confusing. Answering the question, “Have you ever been to Asia?,” helped me to see this clearly. My first impulse, when a student asked, was to answer, “No, I have never been in Asia.” But as I thought a moment, I realized that I had, of course, been to Asia, in fact many times. My teaching trips had taken me geographically across the Ural Mountains or the Caspian Sea to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and various parts of Siberia, even as far as Kamchatka. However, in none of those crossings had I ever encountered physical signs of entrance to a different cultural world. Just how significant this difference is became clear when I first crossed the Siberian-Chinese border on the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Beijing. At the Chinese border the traveler is faced immediately with massive evidence of architectural and other reminders that China contrasts sharply with the West. The first border city on this route in China, Manzhouli, is unmistakably different from all the cities and towns in nearby Siberia. All of those Siberian settlements are clearly of a type, resembling one another and similar towns and cities in European Russia. So, it seems, my confusion over the original question reflected a genuine difference that exists between the geographic and physical-cultural borders of Europe and Asia.

Although the borders between Europe and Asia south of the Urals and in the Middle East are the subject of much disagreement, the Urals themselves are practically universally accepted as defining the northern border between Asia and Europe. This less-than-dominant mountain range, however, has been of no consequence in thwarting the eastward spread of European Russian culture. During centuries of tsarist and Soviet imperial expansion, Russia managed to extend its culture all the way across Asia to the Pacific Ocean. Russians succeeded because of the temporary weakness of the Chinese and the relatively sparse population of the various indigenous Asiatic peoples in the region. Some southern cities such as Tashkent, situated on prosperous trade routes and supporting larger population densities, had developed the economic strength that permitted the building of enduring architectural monuments. Imposing mosques and tombs that still stand provide material cultural evidence of the historic Asian roots of present-day Uzbeks.

In Russian Siberia I have not seen such monuments to an Asian past. Instead, the region’s cities are full of typical tsarist and Soviet-style buildings. Although many Asian faces are to be seen there, they are seldom if ever encountered in settings of Asian material culture. The people of Siberia and the Russian Far East live their lives in, and clothe themselves with, the trappings of European Russian culture. While Siberia and the Russian Far East are part of Asia geographically, culturally they are very European. Although it is true that Russia is a Eurasian nation, one in which “multiple layers of identity clash and complement each other” (Sakwa 2006: 215), one which bridges Europe and Asia, it still possesses a largely homogenous culture that does not reflect geographic and ethnic diversity. The imperial capital of St. Petersburg was the entire nation’s cultural center, as was the case with Moscow as capital during the Soviet period. This cultural centralism was very pronounced, and leaves its clear marks to this day.

Russians and “Asians”

A recent St Petersburg Times article by Boris Kagarlitsky laments “the return of fascism.” He notes that young, prosperous, and well-educated people had formed an “angry, blood-thirsty mob sweeping through metro cars and beating dark-skinned passengers” (2011). While such violence is portrayed as a reaction to the present economic crisis in Russia, it is rather typical of attitudes that are deeply rooted in Russian identity. Just as Africans living in Russia have endured very stiff doses of racist treatment, so too, Asians have often been underappreciated, ignored, and discriminated against by Russians.

Before the arrival of Russians in the Far East, the region was thinly populated. Alexander Petrov notes that scientific expeditions in the Far East in the 1840s and 1850s reported that “the Amur and Ussurijsky regions were deserted [and] sparsely populated” (2008: 161). Some years later, in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War, Russian ethnic prejudice was evident in “Russian propaganda [that] described the Japanese as knock- kneed weaklings…, a puny kind of monkey” (Merridale 2000: 63). Such attitudes are reminiscent of the attitudes of other Europeans and European Americans toward the indigenous peoples encountered in the Americas. No wonder that indigenous peoples in Asian Russia viewed Russians as colonizers and oppressors.

The Korean Diaspora and Korean Missionaries

Into this region, with its colonial tensions, the first wave of South Korean missionaries arrived at the end of the 1980s. Previously, a population of about one-half million Koreans had arrived or been forcibly removed into Russia and the Soviet Union and then dispersed across its great breadth. (For more details on this process see John McNeill, “Notes on Korean Mission in the Former Soviet Region,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 2011, forthcoming.)

In view of the rapidly growing Korean missionary movement, the Korean diaspora within Russia and former Soviet territory was a logical extension of earlier missionary efforts. Because of race-based tensions in Russian Asia, Russian believers had made little impact in their attempts to spread Christianity in the region. Their faith tended to be associated with their status as the ones in power, the ones oppressing minorities.

Korean Missionary Advantages

Korean missionaries, at least initially, had a different profile in the region. Within the Soviet Union Koreans were a persecuted minority, having themselves suffered in a way similar to what many other Asian people groups had also experienced. Thus, the initial reception of South Korean missionaries among minority groups was as representatives of an oppressed population, not as oppressors. Koreans living in the Soviet Union had experienced the same second-class citizenship as many other non-Russian peoples. They were all fellow sufferers.

When South Korean missionaries arrived, their first point of contact was the Korean diaspora, people who were ethnic Koreans but who were largely russified in language and culture. Still, because of the ethnic tie, the missionaries had found people who were naturally inclined to give them a hearing. In fact, Korean missionaries had found the perfect counterparts in the local culture to help them be effective in their Christian outreach. Korean missionaries were able to reach out to their ethnic cousins who then, in many cases, and with their local language and culture skills, became the main helpers in establishing contact with the indigenous population.

Korean missionaries were quite effective in their first years in the region. In numerous instances they were able to plant large churches with many new converts. In cities like Almaty, Kazakhstan, many converts were also drawn from local people groups, groups that had, in many cases, resisted for centuries the outreach of Russian missionaries, both Orthodox and Protestant. A colleague, an experienced international worker from the region, and I have been able to identify only three Russian Protestant churches that successfully reached out to ethnic minorities. Others undoubtedly exist, but are rare. I suspect that these successful exceptions only improved their outreach in the perestroika period (the Soviet Union’s last years) when not only Russian society but also the church was experiencing restructuring, trying new ideas and approaches. As one African Christian worker in the region told me, Koreans initially were better received than Russians among Kazakhs because of their perceived “Asianness.” Kazakhs could more easily identify with Korean rather than Western missionaries, some of whose fellow Soviet Koreans had, like Kazakhs, been second-class citizens in the Russian and Soviet empires.

Reeducation of the Korean Diaspora versus Cross-Cultural Missions

Unfortunately, by the late 1990s significant growth in Korean missions in the former Soviet Union had come to an end. This change was reflected in both flat numbers for local church growth and a sharp drop in the number of students attending the seminary in Moscow where I taught.

If the initial success of Korean mission work in the former Soviet Union was at least in part due to the cultural and linguistic skills of Soviet citizens of the Korean diaspora, to what can we attribute the fact that the same Korean missionaries are less successful today? A mistaken approach in their overall strategy may have played a significant role. One objective of Korean missionaries was to restore the connection between the Korean diaspora and the culture and language of their ancestral homeland. Much effort, time, and expense went toward reconnecting Russian-Koreans, Kazakh-Koreans, and Uzbek-Koreans with the language and culture of their ancestors. This goal seemed a natural one for South Korean missionaries, but it may be seen as something fundamentally wrong, both sociologically and missiologically.

From the social point of view, the question could be asked, “To what end would such a project be undertaken? Were these members of the Korean diaspora being prepared to be welcomed back to Korea?” The answer is clearly no. How then could a reconnection to Korean culture and language help them? While an understanding of their cultural and linguistic roots might, at least for some, be broadening and enriching, it would only be helpful if it did not awaken in them desires to leave their present home and return to a probably idealized life in South Korea. Such desires were and are by definition not able to be fulfilled in the present political climate because South Korea is not prepared to welcome them. The few Soviet Koreans who have ventured to South Korea were initially welcomed but were apparently very uncomfortable there.

The motivation for such cultural and linguistic reeducation must be carefully and critically evaluated. It may have been undertaken by many Korean missionaries based on an unspoken belief in the inherent superiority of South Korean culture. This kind of ethnocentricity should be rejected for both sociological and missiological reasons. If the Korean diaspora is not being welcomed back to the Korean homeland, the question must be asked just how much cultural education is enough to satisfy curiosity about Korean roots without being too much and awakening desires that cannot be fulfilled?

From a missiological perspective, focusing the attention of Koreans living in the former Soviet Union on Korean culture can become profoundly counterproductive. Because russified Koreans are proficient in the Russian language and conversant with Russian culture, they initially were the perfect partners and helpers for South Korean missionaries. However, to the extent that they become steeped in Korean culture, they may become alienated from the local culture and less effective as missionary workers (Kim 2003-2004: 27-28). By engaging in cultural and linguistic reprogramming of Soviet Koreans, South Korean missionaries have probably rendered less effective the very people who had helped them to be effective in the first place.


The question must be asked: Are the efforts of Korean missionaries to reintroduce their cultural heritage to russified Koreans of any use at all or should they be abandoned? If good reason exists for them to continue, how can these efforts be adjusted in order to have a constructive impact, rather than culturally alienating the Korean diaspora from the people among whom they live?

The Korean mission effort is blessed with many resources. However, a significant portion of Korean missionary funding is being used for cultural reeducation of the Korean diaspora. Is teaching Korean culture and language given too much emphasis? In much of Central Asia, for a time, Russian may remain the lingua franca. However, the Korean diaspora would be well served to learn or improve their skills in local languages and cultural practices. Although it may be counterintuitive to ask Korean missionaries to help their Korean cousins learn Kazakh or Uzbek instead of Korean, it might be a wiser use of mission resources. If Korean mission strategy in the region can move beyond its bondage to Korean cultural priorities, the impact of Korean missions in the former Soviet Union will be greatly increased. ◆


Kagarlitsky, Boris. The St. Petersburg Times, accessed 10 January 2011 at http://www.sptimes.ru/.

Kim, German. “Koryo Saram or Koreans of the Former Soviet Union: In the Past and Present.” The Amerasia Journal 29 (No. 3, 2003-04): 23-29.

McNeill, John. “Notes on Korean Mission in the Former Soviet Region.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, forthcoming in 2011.

Merridale, Catherine. Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century

Russia. New York: Viking, 2000.

Petrov, Alexander I. “Koreans in Russia in the Context of History of Russian

Immigration Policy.” International Journal of Korean History 12 (August 2008): 157-97.

Sakwa, Richard. “Russia as Eurasia” in Europe and Asia Beyond East and West, ed. by Gerard Delanty (New York: Routledge, 2006). Pp. 215-27.

John McNeill is professor of anthropology and intercultural studies, Providence University College, Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada.