(567) Ex-Soviet Koreans
Currently, some 10,000-15,000 ethnic Koreans from the former Soviet Union are living in South Korea. Most of them are humble manual workers, making a living by working on assembly lines (they usually come from the less successful parts of the former USSR, largely Uzbekistan). Some others are more successful, being white collar workers or running their own small businesses.
But these people have one important thing in common: much to the surprise of South Koreans, they don’t usually know a word of Korean. Of course, ex-Soviet Koreans who have studied in Seoul after 1991 do speak Korean reasonably well; sometimes they are even fluent in the language. Nonetheless, such people are the exception. On the whole, the ex-Soviet Korean community lost its Korean language skills decades ago.
There are almost half a million ethnic Koreans in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It is not widely known, but there were basically two distinct Korean communities in the USSR, with very different cultural and historical roots. One was the community of Koreans on Sakhalin while the other, much larger, is usually called the “Koreans of Central Asia.”
These people are the descendents of Korean farmers who in the last decades of the 19th century began to move into what back then was the Maritime Province of the Russian Empire. By the time of the October Revolution in 1917, there were some 100,000 Koreans living in this area of Russia, just to the south of Vladivostok. In some borderland areas, ethnic Koreans constituted well over 90 percent of the entire population.
Until the late 1930s, one could live in this part of Russia without even the most basic Russian language skills. One would shop at Korean markets, read Korean newspapers and would have studied in Korean at the local Korean language schools.
During the 1917 revolution and subsequent civil war of 1918-22, the ethnic Koreans overwhelmingly supported the Communists ― partially because the Communists promised national equality and support for minorities’ cultures. Indeed, for roughly two decades after the revolution, the Communist government heavily subsidized Korean language schools and culture in general (of course, with a serious Communist propaganda twist).
Interestingly enough, in the 1930s, Vladivostok was probably the only place worldwide where one could get a college level education in Korean. A Korean college with nearly 1,000 students operated in the city together with some 300 schools across the adjacent rural districts.
However, things changed abruptly in 1937, when ethnic Koreans were forcibly relocated to Central Asia. It was the first case in Soviet history when one’s ethnicity became grounds for discrimination. Indeed, ethnic Koreans remained a group subject to some discrimination until the mid-1950s.
After the 1937 relocation, Korean language education collapsed. To a large extent this was the result of large-scale purges. One cannot say that the Soviet Korean intelligentsia was decimated in 1937, since “decimation” actually means “execution of one out of 10.” In this particular case, it is unlikely that more than one or two in 10 Korean intellectuals or bureaucrats managed to survive.
Therefore there is a clear temptation to present the subsequent dramatic decline in Korean language skills as the result of a deliberate Russification policy. This is, indeed, what many Korean nationalists often want us to believe. But the present author is old enough to have had the opportunity to have spoken with participants in these events and their testimonies combined with available documents give a very different picture.
It was not the Soviet authorities but largely Korean parents who hated the idea of Korean being the language of tuition in their local school. In some cases in the 1940s and 1950s, they had to petition higher level authorities demanding local Korean schools be closed, often clearly against the will of the local governments.
The reasons were quite simple. Since the 1940s the lifestyle of ethnic Koreans changed dramatically. For nearly a century they had been happy to be farmers, but from around 1940 the Soviet Koreans began to nurture different expectations about the future of their children. Being a successful farmer, with two oxen and a house with roof was no longer attractive. Parents wanted their children to become engineers, doctors and teachers, and get the first-rate education required to do so.
And in the USSR one could get this kind of education only in Russian. So learning Korean ― at least “educated” Korean ― came to be seen as an unnecessary and unproductive waste of time. Admittedly, in the Soviet system, graduates of non-Russian schools were treated leniently by the university admissions system, but nonetheless Korean parents wanted the best for their kids ― and the best education had to come in the Russian language in the USSR.
They succeeded and by the 1970s Central Asian Koreans became one of the best educated groups in the Soviet Union. But on their way to success they had to jettison the mother tongue of their ancestors as well as a number of traditions and daily habits. They still love spicy food, though.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.