This is a very simply but vividly written memoir of a poor émigré's sojourn in China, from his arrival in 1924 to his departure in 1950. During this time he lived in Harbin, Tianjin and Shanghai, always scraping the bottom, working as a dockworker, a bodyguard and a truck driver. He experienced the Shanghai strike of 1925, lots of injustice in Manchuria, and also witnessed the conversion of many fellow Russians into patriotic Soviet citizens. Inoculated from this sentiment by his own bitter experience, Ivelsky was ironic about the repatriation craze.
"...[After 1945], when I was working as a truck driver for the Americans, I kept marveling at how everyone was trying to steal everything. One Russian guy managed to steal an entire truck full of blankets and sold them. The management caught him, fired him... and nothing else. The Americans were stealing too, and they had to appoint controllers to look after their own people. Once, eleven truck drivers were summoned from the motor pool. We drove to the godown, and the trucks were loaded with various canned food, presumably expired. We drove to the grounds where the cans were supposed to be extinguished. The American supervisor went into the shed, and the drivers (two Russians and nine Chinese) just kept sitting at the wheel. Suddenly, a jeep drove in, the driver asked us what we had, we pointed at the shed, the new guys went in... Then the trucks were sent back and the cans were unloaded into the same godown. There was a lot of this kind of business.
...Finally, the long awaited-for Soviet cruise ship Smolny came to Shanghai, and the repatriates began to run around like crazy and load their luggage. A giant portrait of the "Wondrous Georgian" – Joseph Stalin – decorated the deck. A huge crowd gathered on the shore – some were leaving, some were sending off their friends. A band was playing, some were dancing, some were crying. A long line formed, waiting to get on board, breathing down each other's necks. One former White Russian, now standing in the line, tried to comfort the others: "Comrades, comrades, don't shove so much. There will be plenty of time for everyone to get in and go to the motherland". One woman passenger was carrying a pair of skis, and I told her: "Finally, somebody brings the right thing."
All the passengers were dressed well and looked rich, having had time to earn some – and steal some – from the Americans. The trunks and suitcases were bursting with stuff: motorcycles, binoculars, photo cameras on long straps. As these Soviet citizens were preparing to leave Shanghai, they sold their more cumbersome property and stacked up on gold, jewelry, chains, brooches, bracelets and watches. They emptied the shelves of local jewelry stores and swept the remaining heirloom trinkets from their White émigré owners. They stuffed all these treasures into their double-walled trunks with hidden bottoms, hoping to cheat the Soviet border control. But how can you cheat ex-convicts? They know where to look. A friend of mine who was working as a loader once overheard a Soviet sailor who muttered: "No point bringing all this stuff." My friend perked his ears: "Why? Will it be expropriated?" The sailor shrugged. Of course, it will be.
The Russian diaspora's mood was swinging back and forth. Many of those who had repatriated earlier were sending coded messages to those still waiting to leave. The phrase "Life here is truly wonderful" was supposed to mean "Everything is really awful." Or, "Send me my other suitcase" meant one was stripped of all the belongings. Soon enough, the Shanghai Russians started to revoke their Soviet passports and announce it in the newspapers. But the Soviet propaganda intensified as well. The city was flooded with magazines, newspapers, movies, music, songs, all screaming: "Motherland has forgiven you; motherland is calling." Every day you'd see an announcement: "I, Ivanoff, donate this amount to the Soviet repatriation effort and I challenge my friend Sidoroff to pitch in." This chain mail went round and round, emptying the fools' pockets. Folks were calling Stalin "our brightest sun", "Father of the Nations", "the wizard of the wizards". I've never seen such obsequiousness in my life.
Some drivers in my motor pool started carrying the Soviet constitution with them and reading it during the lunch break. Not just the poor, but many rich swallowed the bait as well. It was collective madness, or my friend said, "They must be tired of bread; now they'll be chewing the rocks." A ditty was going around, with lines like "Soviet passport is burning a hole in my breast pocket; damned repatriation have pitched my wife against me. At the Soviet Club I learn the true stories of the workers' salvation. They've promised to send me to the USSR, but probably, to the very north of it."
Refugees, who resisted repatriation, are seen boarding the ship heading to Tubabao, Philippines. 1949. Life.
Top photo: George Silk, 1946.