White Russians in Shanghai


After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 thousands of ant-Communist Russians were stateless and homeless. They all flocked to Shanghai, China and a new life.

There have been Russians in China at least since the time of Czar Peter the Great in the late seventeenth century. In 1910 there were perhaps 300 or so Russians in Shanghai, mostly diplomats and businessmen. But the city’s Russian population received a substantial boost after 1920, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Thousands of refugees, dubbed “White” Russians to distinguish them from the “Red” Communists that controlled their country, fled the motherland and settled in Shanghai. They stayed until 1949.

The White Russian Exodus and the Russian Civil War, 1919-1923

After the fall of Czar Nicholas II in 1917, Russia was plunged into turmoil. A bloody civil war broke out in 1919, with warring factions often committing atrocities. When the Bolsheviks finally gained the upper hand, thousands of anti-communist White Russians had no choice but to flee the country.

The first great exodus was in 1922, when Admiral Oskar Victorovitch Stark took what remained of Czarist funds in Vladivostok and used them to equip a rag-tag evacuation fleet. Thirty or forty vessels were recruited, many of them aging vessels that were barely seaworthy. After boarding as many as he could—some estimates say 9,000—Admiral Stark set sail for Korea, and then Shanghai

White Russians in Shanghai

The White Russian community started life in China under distinct handicaps. Since they refused Soviet Russian (Communist) citizenship, they were officially “stateless” persons without an official passport. They were thus deprived of extraterritoriality, the foreigner’s privilege of being exempt from Chinese laws. Most were from the upper and middle classes, well educated but not conversant in English or French. Both tongues were a kind of foreigner lingua franca in old Shanghai.

Russian Men and Russian Women

Russian men had the hardest time of it. Many became bodyguards, and there was a paid Russian unit of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. Some became doormen at hotels, or laborers, but found it had to adjust to a “lower class” lifestyle. Alcoholism became rife, and Russian men sometimes became beggars.

Russian women did do at least marginally better. Some opened dress shops, like Madam Garnet’s exclusive establishment in the Cathay (now Fairmont Peace) Hotel. Many became “taxi dancers’ in Shanghai’s famous night clubs and cabarets. There, limited English was no barrier, if a woman was beautiful enough.

According to Stella Dong’s Shanghai, the Russian taxi dancers’ vocabulary included “Allo,” “Good-bye,” “Please,” “You nice,” and the all-important “My Prince, please you buy little Sonya one small bottle vine.” Sometimes, the Russian would ask for a “champagne cocktail” to drink—really cold tea. But Taxi dancers were the elite—all too often Russian women slipped into prostitution

This lifestyle was depicted in the film The White Countess, (2005) starring the late Natasha Richardson.

Russian Life in Old Shanghai

But it wasn’t all dance halls and misery. By the mid-1930s there were two Russian schools, and several Russian language newspapers. Sapajou was an internationally known cartoonist. Russian musicians played at I the city’s many night clubs and cabarets. Margot Fonteyn, an English ballerina, was a child in Shanghai. She studied under George Gontcharov, who had formerly danced at the Bolshoi in Moscow.

An area of the French Concession—Frenchtown—became “Little Russia,” with ethnic restaurants and other such establishments. Onion-domed Russian Orthodox Churches were built, and still can be seen today. A Russian Orthodox bishop, St John of Shanghai, is venerated today for his many good works, and the faithful believe he performed miracles.

World War II and the Coming of Mao Zedong’s Communists

Since the Russians were stateless, they were not interned by the Japanese when the latter occupied Shanghai from 1941 to 1945. But the White Russians became refugees once again when the Chinese Communists took over the city in 1949.