A Russian-Chinese woman witnesses the ups and downs of the two nations’ ties

By Zhou Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-10-30 5:03:02

Li Yingnan stands in her home. Her home is filled with Chinese and Russian books and decorations. Photo: Li Hao/GT

It was a sunny August day in Moscow when three shuttle buses stopped at Red Square. A group of women were the first of the dozens of tourists to step off the buses. Though their appearances were barely different from those of ordinary Russians, they were, in fact, Chinese citizens, aged between 50 to 80.  

"I was born in Moscow," said one 80-year-old lady tearfully.

The ladies belonged to a tour group called Russian Mothers Seeking Roots in Russia, and all were the descendants of Russians. It was the first time since the end of World War II that a group of people seeking their roots had been organized by Chinese citizens.

 For the next seven days, they would tour major sites in Moscow and St. Petersburg. These old ladies were so excited to see their ancestors' hometowns, some even dancing on Red Square. Russian WWII veterans told them about the joint military operations between the two countries during the war.

 Most of the group members' mothers were Russians who came to China during the 1930s. In the 1920s, there were around 200,000 Chinese laborers who lived and worked in Russia doing construction work or running shops. Some Chinese workers participated in the Russian Revolution in 1917, and others even joined Russia's Red Army. 

At the end of the 1920s, when the Soviet Union's strict economic planning system was implemented, the Soviet government closed down all private shops and forced Chinese shop owners to leave the country. Many of these Chinese businessmen had married Russian women, who followed their husbands back to China. Due to Russia's geographical proximity of Xinjiang, most of these Russian-Chinese couples settled in Xinjiang and the women became Chinese citizens. There are around 15,000 such descendants of Russians still in China.

Revolutionary roots

Li Yingnan is one of the key coordinators of this special tour. The youthful 72-year-old has an elegant demeanor and uses the Russian name Inna. After retiring from her post as a teacher of Russian Literature at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, she now takes care of her 8-year-old grandson.

"I am an ordinary woman," she told the Global Times.

But her family is not an ordinary Russian-Chinese family, and was seen as a barometer of China-Russia relations. Her father Li Lisan was the leader of China's labor movement during the 1920s under the Communist Party of China. In 1930, Li Lisan was sent to work at the Soviet Union. There, he met 19-year-old Elizaveta Kishkina. Li told her stories about how he organized miners and worker strikes, and how he evaded police. His heroism attracted her, and they got married in 1936. Life was not easy for the couple. In 1938, he was accused by the Soviet government of being a "Japanese spy" and imprisoned for two years.

 After his release, the couple planned to live an ordinary life. When their first daughter Li Yingnan was born, Li Lisan was an translator at a publishing company in Moscow.

In 1946, at the age of 3, Li Yingnan came to China with her parents. Because of Li Lisan's revolutionary experience and connections with the Soviet Union, he was assigned a senior position in the government. Li Yingnan began to learn a new language - Chinese.

In 1962, she was enrolled at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Instead of Russian, she chose Spanish as her major because she was obsessed with Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution at the time.

She didn't realize that her father's political fortunes were about to change.

Change of fortune

In 1960, although the break in Sino-Soviet relations had not been made public, her family had felt a definite cooling of ties. There were very few guests in her house.

When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, the family lived in fear. Li Lisan's foreign wife was an obvious target for accusations of being a foreign spy, even though Kishkina had already renounced her Soviet nationality, becoming a Chinese citizen in 1964 and taking the Chinese name Li Sha. At that time, renouncing your Soviet nationality could bring accusations of treason against the State by the Soviet government.

 In June 1967, Li Lisan was arrested by police. Several days later, he was dead. Officials claimed that he had committed suicide. His body was never found.

Li Sha, Li Yingnan and her younger sister were arrested and imprisoned separately. Li Yingnan was later placed in Qincheng prison. 

"It was a single cell. They lit the cell 24 hours a day. For six months I couldn't even walk outside. To break our dignity, the guards gave us food like dogs," Li Yingnan said.

After two years, she was sent to labor camps for two years and then was allowed to return to her university to resume her studies.

The experience totally changed her. Fortunately, she soon found love. She met a student at university named Liu, who came from a poor farming family. At that time, this was considered a superior class.

"It took him a great deal of courage to marry a former prisoner like me. Prison and labor camps totally changed my opinions towards class and men," she said.

Her mother Li Sha was released in 1978.

Back to normality 

The family resumed their former social life again. In 1981, China Radio International asked Li Sha to give a new year's radio message for its Russian service.

Li Sha did the broadcast. "Elizaveta is alive, she is still alive. She is on the radio in China, " Li Sha's sister in Moscow later recalled saying.

Li Yingnan's husband Liu died in 1993. Years later, she met a visiting Russian literature professor from Moscow, and they got married in 2006.

She explains why it took so long to organize the Russian Mothers tour.

"Many Russian descendants are living in Xinjiang. Though the central government policy is open and friendly with Russia, at the county level, some government officials worry about stability in the region," Li Yingnan said, "Actually, those Russian descendants are a link between the two nations and have been a positive force in maintaining stability there."

Her mother Li Sha died peacefully in May at the age of 101. Li Yingnan is proud that both of her two sons speak fluent Chinese and Russian. "In the end, it is culture that has linked people,"  she said. 

Newspaper headline: Back to Mother Russia

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