Russians from China: Migrations and Identity

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Harbin in north China was once the heart of a vibrant Russian community. In the mid 1920s, it was home to over 120,000 Russians and others whose roots lay in the former Tsarist empire. Diverse in their ethnic origins, religious affiliation, political persuasions and socio-economic status, they lived fairly harmoniously in a “Russian world” on Chinese soil, with little engagement with the China around them. By the late 1950s, the political turbulence that engulfed the region drove almost all these people elsewhere. But for many of them, their roots in China became a key aspect of their identity in emigration in their new diasporas.

The paper explores the background to this unique community and the geo-political forces underpinning the various waves of migration of Russians into and out of Harbin. Drawing on the experience of my own family, it analyses the complex issues of identity and citizenship Russians faced while living in Harbin, their fates determined at various points in time by the dominance of three powers – Russia, China and Japan. It touches on the rich ethnic and cultural mix that lay beneath the surface of “Russian” Harbin, with particular reference to the Jewish community that once thrived there. Finally, it examines how the “Harbintsy” perceive their identity in immigration and the recent changes in attitude towards them of the Chinese authorities.


Keywords: Russians, China, Diversity, Migration, Identity, Diaspora
Stream: Identity and Belonging; the Politics of Diversity; Globalisation
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Russians from China,


Mara Moustafine

Doctoral Research Student and  Senior Research Associate, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney
Sydney, NSW, Australia

Mara Moustafine is an award-winning author, PhD student in history at the University of Technology Sydney and senior research associate on the Making Multicultural Australia educational website project. Bilingual in Russian and English, Mara was born in Harbin, China and grew up in Australia. She holds a BA (Hons) from Sydney University and MA in International Relations from the Australian National University. Her diverse career has included work as a diplomat and intelligence analyst for the Australian government, a foreign affairs journalist, a business executive and national director of a global human rights organisation. She worked extensively in Asia, including as Counsellor in the Australian Embassy Bangkok and regional head of Australia’s major telecommunications company, Telstra in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Her award-winning book, Secrets and Spies: The Harbin Files (Random House Australia, 2002) tells the story of her family’s life over 50 turbulent years in China and her quest to uncover the fate of relatives who were caught in Stalin’s purges after returning to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The Chinese edition of the book - Harbin Dang’an - was published in 2008 by Zhonghua Book Company. See www.maramoustafine.com

Ref: D09P0292