AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 103

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Session 103: Distorted Mirrors? Russian Images of Korea, Korean Images of Russia Between 1890s and 1950s

Organizer: Vladimir Tikhonov, University of Oslo, Norway

Discussant: Bruce E. Fulton, University of British Columbia, Canada

For much of the first half of the twentieth century Russia/Soviet Union played the role of a “constitutive Other” in the intellectual and popular consciousness of the two states of the Korean peninsula. The significance of Russia in the intellectual and cultural history of the two Koreas, however, remains severely under-researched in Anglo-American scholarship. The same may be said about Russian perceptions and images of Korea, despite the significant interest for East Asia shown by Russian intellectuals and artists since the latter half of the nineteenth century. The aim of this panel – which will bring together scholars of Korean history and Russian literature in an attempt to utilize a trans-border, trans-disciplinary approach for a multi-faceted understanding of Russian-East Asian contacts – is to look at the history of Russia’s “image exchange” with Korea from both sides, and simultaneously from the viewpoint of the transnational history of global modernity. It will specifically focus on travel literature – both the travelogues by colonial-era (1910-1945) Koreans who visited Russia or/and Russian-populated areas in Northern China (primarily, Harbin) and North Korean children writers travelling to the USSR in the 1950s, and the travelogues by Russian travelers visiting Korea in late nineteenth – early twentieth century. By contrasting the Tsarist-era Russian images of Korea with post-revolutionary Korean images of USSR/Russia and Russians, the panel will hopefully contribute to the understanding of the historical logic of the evolution of the “image flow” between the two countries in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Images of Harbin Russians in Korean Colonial Literature: the 1930s
Vladimir Tikhonov, University of Oslo, Norway

Russia/Soviet Union used to be an important point of reference for the colonial (1910-1945) Korean intellectuals. Tsarist Russia had a pre-colonial record of interfering in the Korean politics, while Soviet Union was seen, for bad or good, as a civilizational alternative of sorts for the entire capitalist world, Korea included. “Soviet question” was deeply divisive for the colonial intelligentsia. What was seen as a utopia materialized by the Communists, was a dystopian vision of the future for right-wing Christian activists. However, the image of Harbin-based “White” Russian exiles was much less politicised. Mostly dealt with by less politically articulate belletrists and entertainment magazine journalists, Harbin Russians were seen as an exotic European “island” in East Asia, a symbol of both early twentieth-century European penetration of China and growing helplessness of the Westerners in the increasingly Japanese-dominated region. The literary and journalistic works this presentation will deal with - Yi Hyosok’s (1907-1942) belletristic writings of late 1930s-early 1940s on Harbin-based Russian exiles as well as contemporaneous Manchuria travelogues by Koreans focusing on Harbin and its Russian populace – make the Russian émigrés into an exotisized object of gaze, thus turning upside down the traditional orientalist hierarchy of “normal, active West” and “exotic, passive East”. In addition, female Russian exiles were erotized in the ways typical for the Orientalist travelogues of European travellers. I will argue that this “reversal of positions” was deeply connected to the positive perceptions of the Japanese imperial aggrandizement vis-à-vis the “inimical West” by a large part of the Korean colonial intelligentsia.

Fleeting Glimpses: Images of Russia and Russians in Korean Travel Writing from the Colonial Period
Ross King, University of British Columbia, Canada

In their survey of Russian travelogues about the northern region of Korea from the 1860s-1913, King and Kim (2010) define a ‘contact zone’ comprising the border along the Yalu and Tumen Rivers where many early Russian expeditions conducted their work, and the South Ussuri region in the Russian Far East with its new communities of Korean settlers. But what of the reverse gaze? How did Korean writers describe Russia and Russians, and what images of Russia and Russians prevailed before 1945? This paper examines the accounts by Koreans traveling into Russian milieus published between the 1910s and 1945. There are disappointingly few such accounts (three dozen at most), but a number of recurring themes emerge. First is the extension of the ‘contact zone’ to include Harbin, and a tendency to dwell on the pitiful status of the White Russians there. Second is a fascination with the daily lives and identity of Koreans living in the Russian Far East—especially with the Korean community in Vladivostok. And third is the genre of the cross-country trek by rail, including depictions of Siberia, the Caucasus, the Volga region, and Moscow, all accompanied by comments on the ‘national character’ of Russians. This paper contrasts the images found in these travelogues with the conclusions drawn in Tikhonov’s recent (2009) paper on images of Russia found in other genres in the Korean colonial press, and dwells on the place of Harbin’s White Russians as one of the predominant images of Russia in the colonial period.

1950s Soviet Union in North Korean Children's Travel Essays
Dafna Zur, Stanford University, USA

The North Korean magazine Adong Munhak, published first before the Korean War and then consistently in the postwar period, was designed for the edification of North Korean children with regard to politics, society and culture. The magazines included a wide range of literary genres, and among these are travel essays to the Soviet Union. These essays, which were published mainly between 1954 and 1960, are written from their writers’ dual perspective: both as adult members of a new socialist nation reflecting on their experiences in the Soviet Union; and also as adults writing for children. This unique perspective draws their attention not only to details of the workings of the Soviet socialist empire but also to the intricate and sophisticated culture of children’s culture and education. From the Red Square to the plains of Kazakhstan, from the streets of Moscow and Stalingrad to the personal library of Nikolai Ostrovsky, and from Pioneer Palaces to trains run by children, these travel essays provide insights into the role, both real and imagined, that the Soviet Union played for North Koreans in the 1950s. Beyond this, however, the declaration of several essayists to be writing about their travels not from their adult perspective but as children, and their detailed attention to particular model-worthy behaviours and social orders reveals the way in which travel essays to the Soviet Union not only reflect the general interest of the period but also construct the imagined North Korean child reader.

Watching a kingdom crumble: Russians in Korea in the 1890s
Susanna Lim, University of Oregon, USA

This presentation focuses on the experience and writings of three Russian subjects concerning the Korean kingdom of Choson during the late-nineteenth century, which was a particularly crucial and turbulent period in the histories of both Russia (late imperial period) and Korea (late Choson, Kuhanmal, period). I look at three subjects of the Russian empire whose writings and/or lives were closely linked to the last decades of Choson Korea before its colonization by Japan: Vatslav Seroshevsky, Karl Ivanovich Weber, and Aleksey Seredin-Sabatin. The various roles the Russians played in Korea in this period (as close advisers to its king and queen, teachers of Western culture, worried observers, or benign nursemaids to a nation desperately trying to secure its independence), and the images of Korea they offer, tell us as much about Russia’s own ambiguous place in the Far East as they do of Korea itself.