The White Russians in Shanghai.

            In this anomalous city, the White Russians occupied an anomalous position.  They were a vitalizing, but disruptive, element.  The First World War coincided with–if it did not create–a marked change in the social life of foreign residents in the Shanghai settlements.  Before the war the foreigners, the English especially, ordered their lives around afternoon carriage-rides on Bubbling Well Road, massive meals of over-cooked food, evenings of bridge, and social events at the various nationally-based clubs.  There was a golf course and stables and tennis courts for the week-ends.  After the war, movies, cabarets, and a much more frantic night-life seemed to take over.[i]  Many of the Russian émigrés bore with them into exile a very high level of culture and intellectual achievement.  Consequently, they greatly enlivened the colonial cultural backwater of “Western” Shanghai.  Music, theater, and dance all flourished with the coming of the Russians.[ii]  At the same time, White Russians ran many of the nightclubs, cabarets, and restaurants in foreign Shanghai.  As the nightlife grew more extravagant, more settled people tended to blame the White Russians for any trouble that arose.[iii]   

The White Russians were losers in a larger community of winners.  Unlike the other Westerners in Shanghai in the Twenties, the White Russians were not there by positive choice.  They were refugees, with the largest group arriving in 1923 after the evacuation of Vladivostok.  After 1921 they lacked the protection of extraterritoriality enjoyed by the British, French, and Americans, and were subject to the Mixed Court headed by a Chinese magistrate assisted by Western “assessors.[iv]  Some among them were not merely losers, but were also the fallen.  The prevalence of prostitution among White Russian women is probably much over-stated, but in the popular mind “’Russian girl’ came to mean ‘Caucasian harlot’ in the tenderloin lingo of Harbin, Shanghai, and Kobe.”[v]  In addition, there was the problem of alcoholism.  Valentin Fedoulenko recalled that “our one big sorrow was that there were many people who had been used to living in a certain rather prosperous way of life and who had found themselves suddenly in terrible conditions and had begun to drink very heavily.  During the first ten years we had a terrible problem of drunkenness among our Russian colony in Shanghai.  This was our great sorrow.  This period, until they all died of drunkenness, we had a horrible time with them….They would die very frequently right on the streets, dropping themselves completely to the level of the Chinese and worse…..”[vi]  Impoverished, stateless white people presented a problem for the British, French, and Americans who inhabited the “concessions.”  The Western domination of Asian peoples depended a good deal upon their prestige, the sense of superiority over the Chinese that they conveyed.  The other Westerners regarded the Russians as improvident and untrustworthy, fit only to be shunned, pitied, and despised.[vii] One White Russian refugee recalled the state of mind in October 1922, when the last White forces evacuated Vladivostok.  “The atmosphere was such that we were getting ourselves loaded on the ships and God knew where we would end up.  We had no plans, only that we could leave and go any place so as to escape the Bolsheviks.  Outside of that we had no plans.  Whatever would be in the future, anything would be better than to be caught by them.”[viii]


[i] Feuerwerker, The Foreign Establishment in China, p. 6.  

[ii] Harriet Sergeant, Shanghai: Collision Point of Cultures, 1918-1939 (New York: Crown Publishers, 1990), p. 34.  

[iii] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 73. 

[iv] Ibid, pp. 6, 41, 29-30.  The Mixed Court dealt with Chinese charged with crimes or engaged in civil suits, either among themselves or with foreigners, and with foreigners who did not enjoy extraterritorial protection, all within the settlements.  It was headed by a Chinese magistrate, but that magistrate was effectively under the supervision of the Shanghai Municipal Council (a western institution) and westerners sat as “assessors” on all cases. 

[v] Stephan, The Russian Fascists, p. 8.  See Fedoulenko.  Michael Miller has observed of the mind of the French public that, thanks to popular literature during the inter-war period, “Around ‘les femmes russes de Shanghai’ grew up a certain literature–pornographic, cheaply sentimental, and laden with the specter of white decline in the Orient.”  Miller, Shanghai on the Metro, p. 246. 

[vi] Fedoulenko, “Russian Émigré Life in Shanghai,” pp. 52-53. 

[vii] Sergeant, Shanghai, pp. 38, 39. 

[viii] Fedoulenko, “Russian Émigré Life in Shanghai,” p. 45. 

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