Chinese Ethnic Russians on the Sino-Russian border

By Hu Xiaojia

NANJING, China — In a village aptly named 边疆俄罗斯民族村, or the Border Village of Ethnic Russians, located in Xunke County, Heihe City, Heilongjiang Province, approximately 30% of the 1,084 residents are Chinese ethnic Russians. Ethnic Russians living within China’s borders are counted among the 55 Chinese ethnic minorities formally acknowledged by the Chinese government. The Chinese government officially named this village the Border Village of Ethnic Russians in 2003, and in 2017 recognized  it as one of the second groups of distinctive villages populated by Chinese ethnic minorities. Across from the village lies the Poyarkovo village of the Amur Oblast of the Russian Far East, which sits on the northern bank of the Amur/Heilongjiang River and marks the Sino-Russian border. The Border Village is distinguished by its high concentration of Chinese ethnic Russians on the southern side of the Amur/Heilongjiang River. Russian-style mukedens, a kind of Russian-style house made of wood, line the main road. Despite the outward appearance of a Russian enclave within China, visiting the area and interviewing locals revealed a sinicized culture.

Background 

The ethnic Russians are mostly descendants of Chinese men and Russians women who intermarried three to four generations ago. The Chinese braved the journey into Northeast China for survival, escaping droughts and floods in Henan Province, Shandong Province and Hebei Province. The Russians living along the Sino-Russian border crossed the Amur/Heilongjiang River, fleeing civil unrest spurred by the October Revolution. SAIS-Nanjing students had the opportunity to visit the region while researching the Amur/Heilongjiang River drainage basin. On this trip, the author spoke with three passersby, an ethnic Russian fisherman surnamed Huang, an ethnic Russian resident surnamed Chen and the head of the village surnamed Miao. All three said their Russian grandmothers came to China decades ago and later married local Chinese men. 

A fisherman surnamed Huang working on the riverside of the Amur/Heilongjiang River and a resident surnamed Chen playing cards
Photo Credit: Hu Xiaojia

Traditions 

Chinese ethnic Russians still maintain some Russian traditions, such as celebrating the week-long Paskha (Пасха, or 巴斯克节, Easter Day in Russian Orthodox Church). On this special day, they dress in traditional Russian outfits and sing and danc with local villagers and tourists. To prepare for the festival, they make kulich, a traditional bread, decorated with the letters ‘XB,’ meaning “Christ is Risen.” As symbols of Jesus Christ’s atonement, families take these cakes to Church to be blessed by a priest. However, besides this bustling festival, ethnic Russian villagers seldom dress in authentic Russian styles. In daily life, they usually conform to the Han Chinese style of dress and speak a thick dialect of Northeastern Mandarin as fluently as their Han peers. Donning traditional Russian-style clothing may actually be more of a display of pageantry rather than a reflection ethnic Russians’ religiosity. In fact, the events held during the Paskha are partly intended to boost local tourism. While first and second generation Chinese ethnic Russians likely valued the Paskha more as a means to express nostalgia and gather with their extended families, today’s third and fourth generations generally regard this festival as an occasion for extensive gatherings and celebrations.

A stage used for celebrations during the Paskha
Photo Credit: Hu Xiaojia

Local ethnic Russians identify most closely with Han people. Rather than maintain the practice of Russian Orthodox traditions, they have adopted traditional Han customs. According to one female local resident in Xunke County, local ethnic Russians do not have cemeteries intended for members of the Russian Orthodox Church. She recalled that when one of her neighbors, an elderly Chinese ethnic Russian man died, his family helped organize a Han-style funeral for him. They made shoe-shaped gold ingots out of golden paper to be burnt throughout the funeral. These ingots “offer” the dead a large fortune for the afterlife. It is unclear whether ethnic Russians in China practiced Russian Orthodox Christianity in decades prior, but it is clear that Russian religion plays little role in modern daily life.

The local ethnic Russians’ identity with Han people can also be explained by the declining use of the Russianlanguage. Many senior villagers could speak several Russian words or understand basic Russian greetings, but they have generally lost fluency. Chen explained that he still bears a Russian name, Игорёк and has relatives in Khabarovsk Krai of the Russian Far East, but they rarely meet. He indicated that senior villagers may speak more Russian, but the younger generation has become accustomed to speaking Chinese due to decades-long integration with Han people. Since most young ethnic Russians in the border area have Chinese grandfathers, they have inherited Chinese family names. Hence, many European-faced residents bear Chinese surnames.

Identity 

When Sino-Soviet relations faced ideological frictions and military clashes during the 1960s and 70s, these border residents’ special status as half Chinese half Russian invited unexpected criticism. The Chinese denounced some as suspected “Soviet spies.” During China’s Cultural Revolution, many of the residents’ contacts in the Soviet Union were cut off after their Russian relatives’ addresses written on pieces of paper were forcibly burnt. Chen said during those times he was sent to deserted areas for “transformation,” where he was obliged to forgo his links with and knowledge of Russians. Despite this miserable past, many local residents appear grateful for and satisfied with their current lives. They report that the local authorities have carried out many preferential policies to develop this village, such as building a center for cultural activities, a lotus pond,  and a museum on the village’s history. They have also restored civil residences and built pavilions for resting. These public facilities have improved the  quality of life for ethnic Russians and attracted tourism

Last year, “Uncle Petrov” (董德升), an online celebrity popular on the Chinese streaming app Kuaishou , and a Chinese ethnic Russian from Xunke County explained his decision to marry an ethnically Chinese woman. He regards himself as an authentic Chinese man and takes pride in his Chinese-ness. Marrying a Chinese woman will change the bloodline of his descendants, protecting them from the discrimination he endured. He, like many other ethnic Russians living in the village, lives a Han Chinese-style life and feels grateful for the Chinese government’s ethnic minority policies