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Children of Harbin
English translation by Katherine Ilachinski
In the first half of last century, the Chinese city of Harbin, located in the province of Manchuria, was often called the Russian city. The point is that it was founded in the late XIX century, by the Russian railway workers, who were building and servicing the Chinese Eastern Railway. Many staff members of KVZhD with their families remained in Harbin after the October coup, and then came immigrants from Russia, torn by civil war and destroyed by terror. The percentage of Russian population was here very high.
After the occupation of Manchuria by Japan some of the Russians returned to the Soviet Union - many of them were sent to the prison camps and banishment. Some lived to the end of the Second World War in Harbin and perished in Chinese prisons, some have left after the "Cultural" Revolution in China - many inhabitants of Harbin have gone to other parts of the world…
All Harbin's children remember this city with great warmth and love. The same way as Saratov priests - Archpriest Eugene Lanskoy and Archpriest Lazar Novokreschenyh. Same way as currently living in Tokyo Doctor Eugene N. Aksenov, who visited Saratov this summer. Here you find - their precious memories of Russian Harbin. In this edition we publish the first part - a story by Father Eugene Lanskoy.

The air of childhood - the air of faith

Archpriest Eugene Lanskoe.
Photo by Alexander Kurochkin

Parishioners of Holy Trinity Cathedral of Saratov know quite well Archpriest Eugene Lanskoy who, in spite of his age helps in services each Sunday during the Divine Liturgy. They also know that during the Pascha service, he always reads the Gospel in Chinese — and all are waiting for calls "Qin!", which in translation means "Amen!", which Father Eugene always makes with great reverence…

Father inspires respect and love in all for his great life experience, unchanged sense of humor and wisdom. He speaks several foreign languages, is a connoisseur of literature, music and a wonderful storyteller.

…There exists a word: the native land. What is it for someone that - birthplace? I think, and perhaps, from the height of my life experiences I can already say that the native land - is the place where he was born. Harbin - this is the height of my dreams. I would like to return there very much.

* * *

Harbin was a magnificent city, a center of Orthodoxy in China. After the revolution, it received many Russian priests. I was lucky to grow up in that environment. They treated me very well, perhaps because of my infancy, I was helped. I remember a paramedic - priest John Ilchuk [1]. He was a very good priest. He diagnosed my scarlet fever, and cured it…

Above Harbin you could see cupolas of 22 churches. Now only one is open — Pokrov church, where my father, Stepan Timofeyevich, was assistant to Regent. In fact, Harbin was a Russian city. Architecturally, it was a reminder of our Volga cities: Kostroma, Nizhny Novgorod. Homes low, very beautiful - in a modernist style of neoclassicism. All surrounded by greenery and gardens.

Of course, there were in Harbin, Catholic churches, mosques, and synagogues. Generally, there prevailed a fantastic atmosphere of tolerance. I still remember Harbin newsmen: boys ran through the streets with big bags and sold newspapers. At the same time in the bags they had laid "East News" - newspaper of Soviet embassy, "Our Way" - fascist newspaper, "Harbin Time" - Japanese sheet. On the street one could see a car with the swastika, in opposite direction - a car with a hammer and sickle. Nobody paid any attention, quietly accepting this. That was Harbin…

* * *

We with my sister Galya - she was two years younger than me - were born in a religious family, truly religious. I remember in the living room of our apartment - and the apartment was very good - the image of the Most Holy Theotokos was the size of a door, big. The Virgin had been depicted in full-length - in Ukrainian folk dress. I do not know if it was in accordance with the canons, but the clergy did not object. Who painted the icon - I do not know, but it was wonderful. I remember it with tender emotion to this day. Actually, there was a lot of icons at home…

My parents sung very well. My mother - Polina D. - had a wonderful contralto … My father came to China before the revolution: he was called in the royal army, served in the Russian part of Harbin, stayed there; he worked on the Chinese-Eastern Railway. And he was a Soviet subject, but this did not prevent him to go to church and believe. Mom with Grandmother, from Tsaritsino province, also moved to Harbin before the October coup. In China, my parents met and married. Mom worked at KVZhD as an accountant.

My grandmother, Christina G., was a wonderful person. She died in 1959, during a flu epidemic, not reaching her one hundredth birthday, by only three months. She was illiterate; she did not speak a word in Russian - only in Ukrainian, because my family is from Ukraine. But my illiterate grandmother kneeled, began to pray … She knew so many prayers! And recited them in old Slavonic. All of them she remembered by memory.

* * *

St Nicholas
Cathedral in Harbin

Almost all of my childhood I spent with the family of Archpriest Prokop Gordzievskogo [2] - he was a fairly well-known priest in Harbin. After his death - he died in the early 30's - his matushka (wife), then already a widow, Helen Vonifatevna, brought me up in the spirit of the church. I was told that when I was very small, and coming from the church, I put a towel got up on a chair, took some chain and kadil/played in applying incense. Everybody was saying "Our Zhenyura (diminutive of Gene) will be a bishop: …

Iveron temple
in Harbin

We lived in the so-called Shamantun town - the town built by the first settlers, so the houses were made of samana?. Also in Harbin there were a Hospital town and the Military town. In the latter town there was a wonderful church - I did not see the wooden original, as it was already constructed out of stone - in honor of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. What transpired there during the parish patronal feast, August 19! There were so many fruits and vegetables. There was dean — Archpriest Alexander Kochergin [3]…

But Helen Vonifatevna lived on Novotorgovoy street in the center of Harbin, so she took me to St Nicholas church. It was a cathedral church, consecrated in honor of the patron of Harbin, St. Nicholas. It was there that I learned and fell in love with the prayer of Saint Ephrem of Syrian "Lord and Master of my life…" - thanks to Helen Vonifatevna. She was able to explain all dogmas, religious rules and commandments in such a way that to abandon them was impossible. I think she was a philologist by training, and a person of strong faith.

I've heard that in Harbin they are going to restore the cathedral - after it had burned by the Red Guards. It stood in the city center, beautiful, surrounded by the park. The Cathedral was built on the same principles that the churches in Kizhy: made of wood and without a single nail … the place where the cathedral once stood, visitors are still calling it the Cathedral Square.

At Saint Nicholas church there were two protodeacons. One - Nicholas Ovchinkin [4]. Bass. Second - Fr Simeon Korostelev [5], tenor. Beautiful, elegant. Girls asked each other: "Are you going to church today? Today Senechka is officiating". I loved St Nicholas Cathedral, where we went often with Helena Vonifatevna. At Pascha, of course, we were in Pokrov church where my father helped choir master…

* * *

On Forgiveness Sunday in Harbin, it was pandemonium: everybody in the morning, went to church and after the service, meeting each other on the streets, asked for forgiveness. This was normal occurrence, natural as breath and exhale. "Forgive me for Christ's sake". — "God will forgive. Forgive me also,a sinner". Now we do not feel the same way, unfortunately…

Three Saturdays before Great Lent, in the evening worship, one sings in churches the 136rd Psalm — "By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept when we remembered Zion…". This psalm is the hymn of Russian emigration. It expressed all the plaintive longing for home. And when the choir began singing this psalm, in Harbin churches one could hear great sobbing. People gathered and wept, because they felt on shores of Egypt, exiled from the promised Land…

Harbin. View of Old Town

Great Lent begins. We children, in general, did not care anyway, because on the table there has always been such an abundance of meatless dishes, which could well compete with our modern meat table. In Harbin, fish was allowed during Lent. There was famous navaga, keta, amur and sungariyskaya muksum fish - everything was prepared very tasty.

We, the children thought that Lent stretches a century. Now sometimes I want to suspend it: "It is Holy Monday, and before you look around — it is already Cross bearing week… Then everything was different. Especially difficult was the last week: a strict fast, continually in the temple, kneeling prayer - and at the same time, the house and the neighborhood filled with unbearable aromas: the hostesses were preparing for the Great Pascha. In the courtyard we had our own smokehouse — we smoked ham surrounded by dough. They were baking kulich (special sweet bread), preparing cheese paskha (sort of cheese cake) - to us, boys, it was difficult to survive all of this, but — Pascha was coming. Holiday!

In Harbin there were amazing Pascha nights. From Great Saturday to Sunday the whole town was immersed in darkness. And exactly at midnight, when for the first time in front of locked doors of the church priests were saying "Christ is Risen!", suddenly over all the churches the crosses were lit. Illumination, of course, but there was a feeling that crosses sailing in the air, cutting the darkness.

Nativity and Pascha in Harbin is impossible to describe. In our home in the dining room stood a huge table, which at the time of the celebration was all covered by different dishes. At Christmas it was covered with straw, with white cloth on top - in the Ukrainian tradition. Table was laid already in the evening of Christmas Eve - hearty, tasty, and meatless: there were all sorts of mushroom dishes. And the next day one ate ham, sausage, and feed piglets, caviar. There were a lot of fruits: bananas, pineapples, oranges.

At Pascha all had paschal meal at night and in the morning visits began. There was this custom. The visitors got into a horse driven cart, and traveled to acquaintances. They entered, interchanged a triple kiss, had a small glass, ate and left. And then, after a few hours you can see this visitor: Chinese driver can barely take him, sleepy and happy.

* * *

China — is a nation of remarkable adaptability. I remember, they sensed: if something is needed, then immediately they prepared, did it. When in all the churches in Harbin on the Holy Thursday service of reading of the Twelve Gospels was going on, but everywhere they were selling already beautiful Chinese lanterns, so that after service the candle, not extinguished, could be put there and taken home. The entire town then was filled with tongues of light… In the morning the Chinese went through the streets of - they were called "go" - with a wooden beam across the shoulders and the two baskets. There was all the produce that was needed by the housewife for the day. The Chinese called Russian men "captain", and women — "Madama". So early in the morning, my grandmother - elderly, she did not sleep well - went to take a breath of air, stood at the gate, and "go", after seeing her, screamed: "Madama, tsibuli nema". In Ukrainian it means: "no onion".

Children of Harbin, 1920s

The Chinese treated the Russians and their faith very well. There is story with a Chinese, who begun to sink and was miraculously saved. He fell into the river Sungari, but the river is frightening, dissolved in water there is yellowish residue, wood?( some sort of plant) that is why it seems cloudy. And in one who is drowning the lungs quickly clog by this plant, and — it is the end. This Chinese man was so frightened, and shouted: "Russian grandfather, save me", he meant St. Nicholas, patron saint of Harbin. And suddenly he lost consciousness. He regained conscience - knee-deep in water close to the shore. He got up, took a breath and went to the station. There was an icon of the saint, before it is was an inextinguishable icon lamp. The Chinese man fell to his knees before the icon and the next day was baptized with the name Nicholas. By the way, very many of his fellow tribesmen then took Holy Baptism, and many - with the name of Nicholas.

An interesting story was told by the brother of Father Lazarus Novokreschenyh, priest-in-charge of the Russian church on the Krivoy street of the Green Bazaar in Harbin [6]. In September 1945, three Soviet pilots came to church and started to walk around the church. Then they told him the story. These pilots flew to bomb Harbin, and approaching the city, suddenly behind the cloud they have seen a face of an old man, who raised his hands, and the plane refused to fly… The plane did not fall, but could not fly forward. They could turn to the right, left, back down, but not forward… The pilots returned to the airfield and did not say anything. One of them recognized the old man - Nicholas the Wonderworker… And they came to the church to worship him. They put candles and left…

Fact - in Harbin during the war there was not a single bomb dropped.

* * *

In Harbin, our director, Mr. Lindsley was studying in the English College; he walked with monocle, dressed in a strict gray suit - a typical son of Albion. He wanted his students to grow up as real gentlemen, men.

It is shameful to boast, but I studied brilliantly. Not because of unusual ability, simply it was easy for me. The college had a system of cards. Orange card - this was the top of possible achievement. Yellow - very bad, green - so-so and red - good. During the time of my studies there were only orange cards. After graduating from college they were predicting me career of a diplomat, they had planned that I go to study abroad, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs English…

Before college, I studied a year in Russian school - they have prayer services (molebens), and before the start of the school day they read prayers. In the college we were gathered in the morning the hall and prim Miss Lawson read "Our Father…" in English. After that, we bowed and went to the classes. I still can not understand how we children got along: Russian Jews, Ukrainians, Poles, Tatars — all were there. The variety of religions - and nobody disturbed anybody! Turks celebrated Christmas with pleasure, we congratulated them on Muslim holidays…

I sat at a desk with Levkov Bursuc. By nationality he was a Jew. Son of the communist. The father of Levkina being a communist had also a posh house. Levka was taken to school every day by car…

Near the college has been a botanical nursery, a whole park, we, the children, walked here. And the Chinese - they knew children - brought hawthorn, oranges in sugar. And the famous Chinese sticky candies! I still sometimes wake up at night with the taste of these candies in my mouth, as if I just ate them…

* * *

Photo by Dennis Elistratova

All Russians loved the Chinese city of Harbin, where they found shelter, but they loved more their homeland. And our whole family returned to Russia in 1937. My father did not want to believe that at home the bloody events were taken place: arrests, repressions…

There was a promise between people of Harbin who left and those who stayed.. If in Russia, everything was all bad, it was necessary to send to Harbin a letter with the code words: "Everything is good here, when you arrive, stay at the Kalashnikov". Kalashnikov — were white emigrants, and they could not be found in Russia, so that phrase meant: do not go. My father and my mother received a letter with this phrase, but nonetheless we went. Father wanted to go home, to the Ukrainian city of Kamenetz-Podolsk. He did not want to believe anything bad was happening there, but someone told him that in the Soviet Union the dentists were hard to find. And he took me to treat my tooth. This Harbin's filling is still intact.

Our acquaintance with Russia occurred at the station Otpor: in the car where people from Harbin were they had a search. When we arrived, it was necessary to rent a room in a ramshackle house. One month later, Dad was arrested, given ten years without the right to correspond. That meant one thing only- shooting— My mother was taken a month later. So we became enemies of the people, children of the arrested.

* * *

Mom went into Aktyubinsk camp for wives of traitors of Motherland, for short - ALGER. I and Galya were sent to an orphanage in the village Veselova close to the city of Lepel in the Vitebsk region. Here lived the children of repressed, mostly from Ukraine. When we became older, we moved to Saratov. Here from Harbin returned grandmother and aunt Xenia, my mother's sister and my godmother. But the year did not end when Galya died …

In Saratov I was studying at school number 47. I managed to hide the truth about my parents. At first I thought, it is dishonest, I worried… but then I realized: if people were suffering for a much lighter fault than I had, though I was not to blame, what will happen to me? But I always had a cross; on the chest I carried a prayer. I prayed quietly. Nobody suspected this.

Mom came back from ALGER few days before the start of the war. I remember we, when we saw each other for the first time since the separation, began kissing, hugging, enjoying ourselves, and she suddenly asked me: "Where's the Galya?". Galya died…

* * *

When I finished school I entered the conservatory. But the war began, and I was called into the army. Served in the Soviet Armed Forces in the Pugachev, was working as company's clerk. I was retired because of complete physical exhaustion. The Conservatory was left as a dream - you had to earn money to survive. Started to work by my own initiative. I had some musical talent. I had mastered the piano and accordion, and became an accompanist. But of course, I am not a professional, no-no. It looks more like I was a ballet accompanist…

* * *

Photo by A. Kurochkin

For the first time in the Soviet Union, I crossed the threshold of the church in 1970s. This was in the Lithuanian city of Druskininkai, in the church of Our Lady Mother of God "Joy of All Who Sorrow". I could not resist it - and before that I did not even acknowledged that I was a believer… After Lithuania in Saratov I did not hide it. I went to Duhososhestvensky (Descent of the Spirit) Cathedral. And there I was noticed by Archbishop Pimen. When we met, he immediately told me: "I have seen you when I blessed people from a pulpit, and realized then that you are the future deacon". That was 1977.

A few days after our acquaintance Vladyka filed petition to the Commissioner for Religious Affairs: to have me ordained. The Commissioner refused — the problem was that I was from Harbin, I know a few languages and my father was the enemy of the people … Vladyka Pimen then just took me to work for him at first as an archivist, then secretary, then I became some sort of personal secretary. I had a lot of work especially before Pascha and Nativity. I had to answer 600-700 letters from all over the world: from the patriarchs, bishops, academics, artists, musicians…

In 1988, all commissioners disappeared. And in 1989, during the Entrance of the Holy Theotokos to the temple, in the Trinity church I was ordained as a priest. Since that day of ordination to this day I serve in the Holy Trinity Cathedral. Only there. I gave Vladyka Pimen my word that I will never leave. Before the ordination, he wanted to make me the priest-in-charge of the temple in honor of the icon of the Mother of God "Assuage my sorrows", which just had opened. But I asked him not to do so. After all, the rector, in additional to a strong faith in Christ, must have something else, additional properties of character. It is better to be the twelfth parish priest in any church.

* * *

When Vladyka Pimen died, I was attacked by melancholy; I wanted very much to return to Harbin, which I always remembered. But one woman who was there with the tour group told me that the city is just not the same that it once was. For example, the Chinese paved the embankment of Sungari River with tombstones from Russian cemetery…

My fervor quieted down. Of course, in Harbin, nothing is left of what I remember. Yet sometimes I think: if I was able to visit there, I would go from the railroad car, I would breath the air and everything would be returned. My childhood…

by Natalia Volkova
"Orthodoxy and Modernity" Magazine, №9(25) 2008

[1] Priest John Ilchuk served in the Pokrov church located on the cemetery and did not leave the civil specialty of paramedic (here and hereafter referred in footnotes on the Harbin clerics appear: in Harbin synodik (clerics and church leaders). Chelyabinsk, 2005.)

[2] Archpriest Prokopi Vasiljević Gordzievsky served in Harbin in Pokrov church located on the cemetery and in St Alexis church in Majiagou in 1920 - early 30's.

[3] Archpriest Alexander Kochergin - the priest in the Diocese of Orenburg Orsk district. At the end of the Civil War, immigrated to Harbin. He served as priest-in-charge of the Harbin Transfiguration Church at the orphanage named after Metropolitan Methodius in the town of Military school city during the years 1922-1945. In 1929, took an active part in building a shelter of refuge named after Metropolitan Methodius for widows, orphans and the elderly clerics. From 1945 to 195(?) year he served in the Iversky church in Harbin. Then he went to the U.S. to his son. Died in San Francisco.

[4] Protodeacon Nicola Ovchinkin was born in the Far East near the lake Zaisan. He was ordained to the rank of protodeacon when he was 27 years old, in Tsarist Russia. In the 1920's, immigrated to China. Served at the St. Nicholas Cathedral in Harbin from 1922 to 1947. He had famous bass. He died in Harbin in 1949 at the age of 55 years of serious illness.

[5] Protodeacon Simeon Nikitich Korostelev, originally from Moscow. Immigrated to Harbin. He had the rank of deacon since 1925. In the years 1925-1928 served in St Aleksy Church on the Green Bazaar in Harbin. Since 1928, served at the St. Nicholas Cathedral of Harbin. Tenor. He was a member of the Harbin Diocesan Council. Returned to the USSR in 1956, together with Archbishop Nikandr (Viktorov). Served with Vladyka in the Arkhangelsk and Rostov diocese until the death of the bishop in 1961. Then retired. Lived with his sister. He died in Lvov in 1978.

[6] Archpriest Elias Vasilievich Novokreschenyh, from a family of Cossack- from Baikal. Born in 1918, his father served in the White Army. Family at the end of the Civil War, emigrated to Harbin. From 7 years old was brought up at the Kazan male Monastery in Harbin, China, under the patronage of his uncle Hierodeacon Irinarh (Matafonov), who did not bless him to stay in the monastery. He graduated from a private school and music school. He served in the church district of mechanical workshops of Harbin (1936-1938). Ordained to priesthood in 1938. He served in the station of Bohetu (1938-1939) and station Weishahe (1940-1941) KVZhD, in the city of Sahalian, in St Aleksy Church on the Green Bazaar in Harbin (1943-1955). In 1955, arrived in the USSR. He served in Tyumen, in Chelyabinsk in the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos, in Miass in Kopeisk (Chelyabinsk region). In 1974-1976 years priest-in-charge of Simeonovskoy church in Chelyabinsk. Since 1976, served in Riga. He died here on Sept. 20, 1992 of severe disease.