Koryo-Saram: A Story About the Unreliable People
“Thanks to the fact that we’re hardworking people…[we] Koreans stayed alive.” —Taya’s grandma
As I stroll along the streets of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a vibrant palette of cultures greets me. From Uzbek to Korean to Russian appearances, the vast array of ethnicities is astounding. It’s just one country, but everywhere I go, different dialects are spoken and different clothes greet me. I had only ever imagined my family being the “different” one in this scenario, but I was proven wrong.
Korea is so far away from Uzbekistan, yet the culture remains ubiquitous there. Stepping into the lands of Central Asia, one may wonder, why is that?
In the 1860s, Russia shared the Amur region with China and the Maritime border with Korea. While Russia struggled to colonize the Far East, Koreans immigrated in massive waves to the Ussuri region of the Maritime border.
The disagreements over territories in Southeast Asia, specifically Manchuria, and Korea, sparked the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, where Japan successfully seized victory and strengthened its hold on Korea.
When Japan officially annexed Korea in 1910, a massive wave of 200,000 Korean immigrants greeted the Far East of Russia. Their “desirable Asian” attributes continued to reflect the friendly contacts between Czarist Russia and Korea. Although Korean immigrants had some difficulties gaining their own land as well as Russian citizenship, their life remained peaceful until the year of the rule of “the steel man”—Joseph Stalin.
In 1922, Russia became the Soviet Union and annexed the Far East Republic, which continued encouraging Korean immigration patterns. Two years later, when Stalin started his reign in the Soviet Union, the government grew dramatically suspicious of Korean ties to Japan, their biggest enemy. Between 1928 and 1932, anti-Korean violence in Soviet land increased, pressuring Koreans to flee to Manchuria and Korea.
On July 17, 1937, the Soviet Union government decreed the official cleansing of Korean “spies of Japan.” The remaining Koreans were forced to evacuate their homes, leave behind their belongings, and were eventually shoved into cattle wagons. For three miserable days, families starved from malnutrition, and more than half of the people died from diseases. During each stop, corpses were tossed out onto unknown fields. The victims of this awful event were known as the Koryo-Saram (lit. Soviet Koreans).
As a Russian-speaking Korean with parents from Uzbekistan, this story hits smack right in my gut. Although my parents didn’t participate in this deportation, my great-grandparents were involved. I talked to Babulya (Grandma) about this topic; surprisingly, she is still uncertain about the history of this deportation.
“When I was little, I had no idea about this. Yet when I became older, and I had kids, and when Mom became really old, she [whispered to me] that from the Far East, the [Koryo-Sarams] were deported in wagons…some died in the wagons, and others arrived and died. [They had] no clothes [and] no food, and they started to work in kolhozes…farming onion, rice in the fields.”
Aside from this chaotic background, Babulya felt happy as a child.
“My childhood was very happy. Of course, [it] differs from your childhood. In my childhood, I didn’t have any dolls or toys, and [instead] I played outside with others. I believed that [this] was happiness, without any toys.”
However, others treated her differently when she went to school.
“Teachers treated everyone equally. Russian kids would follow us home and call us names. Koreans, or narrow eyes,” Babulya said.
His daughter then added: “When [they] started the mass migration, [my dad] said that his mom told him that the [secret police] put them into [cattle] wagons.”
Life after the deportation was rough.
Back in the mid-1900s, “The Koryo-Sarams lived in barracks, in underground homes, and there weren’t any jobs…they lived on Celtic housing. There was [maybe] only one school, and already [children were taught] in Russian,” Olga said. “My dad only went to school at the age of ten due to a lack of structure and wealth. [Korean children] were certainly treated and known as the unreliable [people] by the [Russian community].”
The turning point in their family came when Doncher’s father didn’t come home one day. Doncher’s father was a revolutionary who had moved to the Far East before the Korean deportation. However, according to Olga, her grandfather couldn’t be a revolutionary anymore after moving because of his Korean ethnicity. Therefore, he had to stay under the radar, which was further encouraged and forced by the government’s threats.
“This is what most likely caused him to be taken from my family,” she said about her grandfather.
This event would foreshadow the deaths of millions of ethnic Koreans in present-day Central Asia, who were killed because they were simply not Russian. Doncher wrote many letters to the Far East, hoping to get information about his father.
“I remember from my childhood, my dad wrote a lot of letters to the Far East and organizations and wanted to find out about [his father’s] fate. It turns out that so many years of writing [resulted in] him finally [getting] a letter,” Olga said. “[The letter] stated that when [my grandfather] was taken, he was shot. From that day, my dad was known as the victim and kid of repressed adults.”
After the death of Stalin in 1953, life began to ease as restrictions for ethnic minorities disappeared.
“My father finished university in Uzbekistan and [continued his education] in Moscow. He’s the only one out of this household that graduated from the Moscow Institute and later received a master’s in electronic engineering. Then, he stayed in Moscow and taught in schools,” Olga said.
After Olga married Misha in Kyrgyzstan, they both migrated to New York by winning green cards. They currently live in Bothell, Washington with their six-year-old daughter Valentina (Valia).
My parents’ story takes a bit of a different turn in terms of their move to the U.S. My dad moved to the U.S. in 1998, before coming back to Olmaliq, Uzbekistan, and meeting my mom in 2003. When they permanently moved to California in 2004, my mom had an easier time adjusting to the American lifestyle.
“Since [your dad] had already lived and [worked] in the U.S, his guidance made my life ten times easier,” Mom told me, “he did force me to memorize the prices of products in [different] stores so that we could pick out the cheaper [options].”
The hardest part for my mom was starting her business in America which would later transform into fifteen successful years of music teaching.
“At first, it was hard for me because I was the one who called the kids’ parents and their friends, but they were not sure about what I would [actually] do with the kids [during the lessons]. Then, it was not easy to start my own policy, my own rules.”
Thankfully, English wasn’t necessary for my mom’s business to take off, since she mostly taught her piano and singing lessons in Russian to Russian-speaking kids.
Overall, unlike Babulya’s and Olga’s forced migration, my parents came to the U.S. by choice. Yet a common thread in these stories remains laced through my own upbringing.
“My mom always wanted, forced us to study,” Babulya said. “I wasn’t allowed to go outside and play with the [other] kids. I managed to get a good education. And when I had my own kids— your mom and your uncle Pasha—I studied with them [as well]. They managed to get a good education and are now earning good money in their jobs.”
This emphasis on education continues to resonate with Mom’s constant mentality.
“All my life, my mom was very fond of my and my brother’s education. It’s the biggest part of raising you and [your sister]. I must admit that the pestering paid off in [her] acceptance to Stanford, and will hopefully do just the same for you,” Mom told me.
“Uchitsa, uchitsa…e uchitsa. Study, study…and study,” remains our ultimate motto, a logical connection to the history of the Koryo Saram: the hardworking people of Russian-speaking Korean nature.
Taya is a high school student at Inglemoor High School. She was a fellow in the 2023 pilot Story Gathering Workshop, a program that gave twelve students the opportunity to write and publish an article for our news outlet, Voices.