As a follow-up to the recent story of Russian repatriation from Shanghai to the USSR, here is a story of a dangerous backward trip, published in The China Press in October 1948:
Local Russian Couple Escapes from Sverdlovsk in Hazardous 4,500-Mile Odyssey to Shanghai
A disillusioned local Russian couple, Pavel Lvovitch Primortseff, 28, and his pretty brunette wife Elena, 21, are back in Shanghai after escaping from Sverdlovsk in June this year, making an epic 4,500-mile danger-filled odyssey through the rear door stretch of Russia's "Iron Curtain."
It took the couple nearly three-and-a-half months, even though they were able to travel by train on some parts of their journey from the Urals center to the Manchurian border – to finally get to Shanghai.
Primortseff and his wife fled Soviet Russia because of 'extreme hardships, people always suspicious and afraid to talk, and any one caught gets really hard labor.' For adequate reason, details of their flight until they reached Manchouli are withheld, although they were in constant danger, whether travelling on train or afoot. However, their most tense moment occurred in Harbin, where police questioned them closely, hut finally let them go.
After they had hid out for a few days in Harbin, and then continued their flight to Mukden, then by plane to Tientsin and from there by ship to Shanghai.
Lose All Possessions
The exploit cost the pair all their worldly possessions, with the exception of a shirt and trousers, which Primortseff was wearing when he got back to town, while his wife had just one badly soiled, cheap cotton dress and it was on her back. They sold their things for cash which came in handy for "paying" their way as smuggled passengers on Russian trains. A high official source has intimated that two other local Russians, whose identities for some reason are being withheld, had previously fled Sverdlovsk and had received ''provisional asylum" here.
(Another group of nearly 25 former local Russians, fleeing from Sverdlovsk, also during June, were reportedly successful in their escape to Afghanistan and were understood to be attempting to go from there to Turkey. The identities of these former local Russians could not ascertained yesterday.)
Pavel Primortseff and his wife left Shanghai in August last year with the second batch of local Soviet citizens who were repatriated in the Ilyich (former German liner Scharnhorst, which went to Russia as war reparation).
Accompanied By Family
The couple were accompanied by Pavel's father and mother, and a brother and sister. The father, who was 53, died of an ordinary sickness about 50 kilometers from Sverdlovsk. The other members of the family are still in Soviet Russia.
Primortseff was a night club operator before he left Shanghai. He was enthusiastic about going to Soviet Russia. The pleas of his brother-in-law, a well-known local Italian resident, to wait until he could learn more about conditions in Russia and ascertain how repatriates from Shanghai would be treated, failed to stop him. In the words of his Italian brother-in-law, Primortseff was firm in his belief that life would be wonderful in Russia.
However, shortly after their arrival at Vladivostok, 'you could smell that things were really different. There was no large welcoming reception, only a small group which provided a bit of fanfare.'
Sent To "New" City
All of the local Russian repatriates were dispatched to the "new city" part of Sverdlovsk. The "new city" by contarst with the city of Sverdlovsk proper which has large up-to-date modern skyscrapers, has only log-cabin homes, no pavements and water has to be fetched from wells located some distance from the homes.
While the repatriates were not deprived of any of their luxury belongings which they took with them from Shanghai, such as refrigerators, electric cookers and automobiles, these proved useless to the extent that no electricity was available, while only officials could obtain gasoline, severe penalties being provided for any priovate persons obtaining motor car fuel.
Primirtseff and his wife, like many other local repatriates, found hard work awaiting them. Pavel was sent to work in a gold mine. As his wife did not work, food rations were only furnished to the husband and this the couple shared. The food consisted mainly of potatoes and black bread, but there were always long queues lined up for several hours waiting for bread. Meat was obtainable at some state stores, at a cost of 40 new roubles per pound.
A harsh discipline prevailed. Shanghai repatriates, whenever left to themselves, he spoke in despair of the position in which they found themselves, and not a few said they preferred to risk death and try to escape then remain in Russia for the rest of their lives.
Primortseff, like many others from Shanghai, while in Sverdlovsk wrote glowingly of conditions in Soviet Russia to relatives in Shanghai – 'like the time of the letter about wonderful paskha and kulich we ate during Russian Easter. We wrote such things, but in fact it was only a mirage in our memory burned deep over the wonderful food we used to have during Russian Easter in Shanghai, even when we were poor.'
News of the return of Primortseff and his wife spread like wildfire through Shanghai's Russian émigré and Soviet communities yesterday. Many were the persons who had known the couple before they had left Shanghai. Several responsible members of the Soviet community were the ones to confirm that they had seen Primortseff, his wife, father, mother, brother and sister leave on the Ilyich in August last year, and yesterday were able to confirm having seen the couple back in Shanghai.
The Chinese authorities are understood to be conducting a complete check concerning the Russian couple's escape and return to China, and it is believed likely that Primortseff and his wife will be given safe asylum here as political refugees. There is also the possibility that the international Refugee Organization may be called in to render help to the couple for repatriation to South America.
So what happened?
Headshots of Paul Primortseff and Helen Shestakoff, c. 1942, in Shanghai.
Paul Primortseff (Павел Львович Приморцев), born in 1919 in Verkhneudinsk, Siberia, was an infant when his Cossack parents crossed the border to China, fleeing the Russian Civil War. They settled in Hailar, where another boy, Alexey, was born in 1921. The brothers were brought up and educated in Hailar and later Harbin, but as the Sino-Japanese conflict in North China intensified, the whole family moved to Shanghai in 1937.
At the age of twenty, Paul Primortseff was working as a chauffeur. He could speak good Chinese and knew how to build radios. After the Pacific War his father opened a bar at 96 Route Grouchy, which Paul helped operate. At one point he met Helen Shestakoff (Елена Ивановна Шестакова). She was born in 1927 Mukden, North China, in a refugee Cossack family. Before her marriage to Paul, Helen was in the care of her older sister Tatiana, who had initially worked as a manicurist and later married the Italian trader L. Roncoroni.
The articles describing the Primortseff family voyage to the USSR in 1947 and its two members' precarious return to Shanghai one year later rippled to Singapore and even the USA, with headlines like Russian Couple Escape Soviets and Russ in China Renouncing Soviet Citizenship. Interviewed by the Chinese-Russian Newspaper, Paul Primortseff described some well-known individuals slaving away at menial jobs in Sverdlovsk. The former director of the Soviet radio station had become an entertainer in a factory theatre; the former chairman of the Soviet Club considered himself lucky to be employed as a clerk and not be sent to fell timber.
Russians in Shanghai took notice. It transpired, that even a record of loyalty and active compliance guaranteed nothing once you set your foot on the Soviet soil. As hesitation about repatriation increased, the sign-up rate for one-way sea voyages to Vladivostok went down. In response, the local Soviet propaganda intensified. Using expressions like "it is strongly rumored that...", the Soviet papers in Shanghai claimed that Primortseff was an unreliable character – in fact, a plain criminal – and that he never left China but spent a year in a Chinese jail. To cast further doubts on his story the Reds labeled him a Soviet agent. This was meant to turn off both the newly minted Soviet citizens and stateless émigrés. Only when the Shanghai police perked their ears at these "strong rumours", that the Red diplomats put their foot on the brake and dissuaded the cops from investigating the fakes.
What happened to the adventurous Russian couple? In 1951, they were still lingering in Shanghai... But in the end, they did well. Some twenty years later, in 1972, they were found in Chicago, living with their 19-year old son. Helen Primortseff was a beautician, and Paul Primortseff was a real estate broker (or a salesman). The reason they made the American headlines this time was that Helen's sister Tatiana Roncoroni – still married to the reasonable Italian who discouraged the quixotic USSR adventure – was looking for her sister's help to become a permanent resident in the USA; we don't know if she succeeded.
Sources: The China Press, Balakshin Finale in China, Chashchin Russians in China. Shanghai D-917 Police Applicants, Singapore Morning Tribune, Miami Herald, The Tidings.
Top image: fleetphoto.ru. Bottom image: Jack Birns, 1949.