White Russians Eager to “Go Home”
. . . . .
The next morning I conned the company clerk in to giving me an early liberty pass and went to find Roy Lund. It wasn’t difficult to do. He had opened a new camera shop right off the Bund. “Maybe Chairman Mao will let me keep it,” he said after greeting me. “After all, the communists will want to take pictures, too.”
Roy was in a very happy mood, but that soon changed when he confirmed Little Lew’s death. “The street kids didn’t envy him,” he explained; “they hated him. Poverty does strange things to the hungry.” Roy was deeply saddened too about Melanowski. “I liked that guy,” he said. “He always talked about wanting to go home, and all that changed when he met that girl in Peking. The last time I saw him, he was proud that he was getting a fat belly. It was his measure of success. He’ll never be going home now.” Roy was also upset about Ming-Lee. “You shouldn’t feel bad. It wasn’t your fault.” I explained what had happened to me, that I couldn’t get back to her. “And if you could have, what could you have done anyway?” He agreed he would try to find out what he could about her. He suggested that I might try Katarina. “She had been in contact with Ming-Lee until the very end,” he said. He didn’t know her address, except that she was staying with her family in French Concession were the White Russians mostly lived. “There’s a Russian bakery on the corner of Jeffrey. They might know her.” I thanked him and was about to leave. He put a hand on my shoulder. “You better hurry. Many White Russians are returning to Russia. She might be one of them.”
I found the bakery, by following the wonderful aroma of baked bread up the street. The proprietor asked that I be seated and sent his young son to find Katarina. He brought me a steaming cup of coffee and told me to wait. The bakery was like the one in Peking where Katarina and I went the first time we had coffee together. His customers were all European, mostly Russian. They all left the shop with bundles under their arms and pleased looks on their faces. The poor Chinese, they didn’t know what they were missing.
I must have waited half an hour, and still no Katarina. I was getting ready to leave when the tinkling of the bell above the door made me tum in that direction. Katarina stood there. I had forgotten how lovely she was. Her skin seemed even whiter than before, and her hair darker. She greeted me by throwing her arms around me. Before we could exchange greetings, she announced, “I’m going home.”
“Going home, you just got here,” I said somewhat bewildered.
”No, silly, home to Russia,” she replied.
Roy was right. She sat down, and while we held hands across the table, she explained her intentions. In excited words she said the US State Department announced that the descendants of all White Russians who were bilingual could return to Russia. The State Department had a registration office and they told Russian refugees they could come and register. American ships as well as Russian ships would transport them back home. They could take all their possessions.
“Russia is still our homeland,” she insisted. “Most White Russians feel this way. They are tired of living as second-rate citizen in foreign lands. Many of us have decided to go back.” “But you once told me in Peking that you would never go back to Russia,” I said.
“That was before,” she said. “Conditions have changed.” “How do you know you will be welcomed back?” I asked. “Your State Department guarantees our safety,” she replied. “That’s a guarantee to get there. They can’t guarantee anything after you arrived,” I answered. She didn’t respond, only winced her nose, and I continued: “And if some Russians decide not to go, what then will happen to them?”
“Come, you must meet my aunts,” she said. “They will explain better than I can.”
I actually wanted to meet Katarina’s two aunts. I had not forgotten the stories she had told in Peking about her family. I especially wished I could have met her mother, remembering that her second husband, Katarina’s stepfather, was a China Marine. They had married in 1931, but both she and her husband left Shanghai just before the Japanese arrived.
Katarina took me to meet her aunts Sunday afternoon. They lived in the same three-bedroom apartment in the French Concession that Katarina had told me about. The apartment was exactly as she had described it. It was more museum than a place to live. Every comer, every inch of wall, every space on top of tables and on top of the piano was used to exhibit some memento or other, many which dated back to imperial Russia. There were photos of Russian nobles in uniforms with sashes and sabers at their sides and chests full of campaign ribbons. There were regal looking Russian women dressed in ankle-length skirts with laces and frills, and wearing large hats rimmed with flowers. There were plaques and brass bowls with engraved names on the sides. Looking down from the walls were life-sized oil paintings of somber Russian nobles, both men and women. The rugs, one on top of another, were rich Persians and Afghans, and the drapes that shaded the light from the windows were right out of a Russian painting.
Her two aunts were a reflection of the apartment. It would be difficult to say if they molded the apartment, or that the apartment molded them. I couldn’t imagine them any place but there, sitting as they were, surrounded by their faded past. They were pleasant enough. They asked me to be seated, and we began our conversation over tea. Katarina introduced me as Stephan-a fine upstanding Boyar name, she said when we were climbing the stairs to the apartment.
“Stephan asked me what will happen to those of us who choose not to return home to Russia,” Katarina said.
I studied the two women, aristocrats, turned milk cow farmers in Manchuria, and seamstresses, hairdressers and clothing-and-fur store owners in Shanghai, except they called them salons. I tried to picture them as young beautiful women, in their early 20s, when they arrived in Shanghai, as Katarina said they were. But I could only see two weathered old ladies with wrinkles and lines on their faces, and an overabundance of heavy makeup, trying to be someone they were no longer. The older of the two women wore bright red lipstick, which she had applied beyond the contour lines of her lips. I wondered which one of them had turned down a film producer for an American sailor who sailed away and never returned. The other one, if l wasn’t mistaken, fell in love with a Flying Tiger pilot, but he, it turned out, already had a wife in Oregon. I could see now why Katarina wanted to further her education. She didn’t want to be like them. It was her means of escape, but the communists put an end to her studies and hopes.
“What will happen to those who don’t want to go back?” the younger of the two repeated. “Why Father Wilcock will manage that, of course. He is making the arrangements this very minute.”
I suspected she would say Father Wilcock. Katarina had taken me to meet him a few days before-Father Feodor Wilcock, an English-born Jesuit. He was a guy I had to admire: barrel chested, pince-nez glasses, flamboyant with a black cape and a red lining that fluttered like a great winged sea hawk when he moved about. He certainly was colorful, and he didn’t hesitate to tell me about himself. In 1929, he went to Rome to study at the newly formed Russian College established to train young men for work in Stalinist Russia. He was ordained in 1934, and his first assignment was to the borderlands of Poland and Czechoslovakia where he ministered to large numbers of refugees from the Russian revolution who had settled there. He managed to cross over into the Soviet Union several times, but he was quickly expelled by the Soviet authorities. Some of his fellow Jesuits in the Russian mission were not so fortunate. They ended up serving long prison sentences, and in some cases losing their lives in the dreaded Soviet Gulag.
When World War II began to engulf Eastern Europe, he went off to Manchuria and China to assist the White Russians who bad taken refuge there. In Shanghai, he set up a Russian Catholic chapel and eventually a boys’ boarding school. But with the Chinese communist forces closing in on the city, he was assigned by UNRA to supervise the hasty evacuation of Russians to a detention camp in the Philippines. The makeshift Russian settlement was to be on uninhabited Tubabao Island off of Samar. There were 40,000 White Russians in Shanghai, but after seeing the ships that were to carry them there= three old condemned cargo vessels-only 6,500 agreed to go.
“At least we will have American ships to take us home,” Katarina said when her aunts brought up the subject.
“Russia! Russia! Katarina, how can we talk sense into you?” the elder said. I was surprised for I thought they would be in favor of returning to Russia, at least the older generation. I could see a heated argument coming.
Before we had come to visit her aunts, Katarina told me that she had given up hopes of finding a husband. It wouldn’t have done her much good even if she had found someone. A few months before, in December 1948, the War Bride Act ended and it didn’t appear that they were going to extend it. It was now a dishonorable discharge for any GI to marry a foreign woman.
“Until we got this offer, it was the dream of every single White Russian woman in China to acquire a passport,” Katarina announced to her aunts. “We are stateless, we have no country, and we have nowhere to go. We are not Soviet citizens but refugees from communist rule.” She looked at me and laughed. “Before the War Bride Act, the best prospect, of course, was an American passport. You single American males became our chief prey.”
“Katarina,” her aunt said with astonishment, “how can you say that?”
“Auntie, you know that’s true,” she replied. “Any foreign man! They could be young, middle-aged, senile, handsome, ugly as sin, tall, short, fat, thin, it didn’t matter. The goal was a passport. British, French, German, any male who breathed ‘and had a legal travel document would do, but you Americans were the prize catch.”
“Katarina, you demean Russian women,” the older aunt snapped.
“Not only Russian women but all Russians,” the younger aunt said.
“I agree,” the older aunt said. “The Bolsheviks cast us out. And they also cast out ballerinas from Moscow and St. Petersburg, first-class opera singers, and painters, musicians, and poets. White Russian girls in the ballrooms of Shanghai were famous for their beauty. Russians have made Shanghai one of the best-known artistic centers in the Far East.”
“You are right, auntie,” Katarina said in agreement, but I could sense she had more on her mind. I was right. “Agreed, the Russians brought a new kind of style to Shanghai, but also through their poverty and desperation. They gave the Chinese a glimpse of the fact that white people are not necessarily the infallible master race.”
“Katarina, watch your manners,” the older aunt said.
“Auntie, we are talking about the women, always about the women, but what about our Russian men? We should pity them, the great Cossacks and Boyars that they were. Look around. A single man in Shanghai today has little hope of marrying a girl of his own race, or any race for that matter. He has nothing to offer. He has no national stature, no prospect of a well-paying job. What prospect is there for even a former officer in the Czarist army, or high-ranking naval officer? At best he could find employment as a guard for one of the rich mansions in one of the concessions, or else work as a cemetery keeper. Walk through the French Concession, around the Orthodox Cathedral in Rue Dourner. You see young Russian men begging from Europeans, even from Chinese, Eurasians, anybody. You see Russian men lying on the pavement.”
Katarina went on, and my thoughts faded back to the image I had of a tall good-looking Russian man I saw in the hutongs in Peking. He had leprosy eating away at one side of his face, and had to tum to begging to survive.
No, after all was said and done, Katarina had made up her mind. She was going home to Russia aboard the next available ship. Not even the prospect of a husband could stop her.
After I said good-bye to Katarina and her aunts I had an appointment at the Seaman’s Club to meet Gilbert and his Marine buddy from the 3rd Marines. I stepped out into the chill evening air, glad to be away from all the talk about White Russians, took a pedicab to the Bund and walked from there. I followed the Waibaidu Bridge over the Suzhou River. During the day, the bridge was usually crowded with pedestrians, cyclists and laborers pushing bicycle carts heavily loaded with wares, but now it was still and peaceful. I stopped and looked out over the river, and I thought how Shanghai at this moment was all mine. I was alone, on the Waibaidu Bridge, all by myself. That was something! Alone in Shanghai. I thought about all the time I bad spent in China. Years. I thought about my age. I was twenty now, and time was slipping by. Was my time in China up? Was the time up for all China Marines. I was late by now and hurried to the Seaman’s Club. The club may have been called a “seaman’s” club but there were more than seamen who stepped through the front door. Many of the foreign correspondents used the club as a meeting place. They took advantage of the Teletype machine that continuously pounded out messages on the top floor, bringing the news of the world in a noisy display of difficult-to-read words. On their way back from the Teletype room the reporters always stopped at the bar, and there they talked about what they had just read. Some interesting bull sessions went on there at the bar. When I could manage to get away, I went with a few other Marines to catch up on the news. Some of the stuff they talked about was hardly interesting, like “Czechoslovakia announces a five-year plan to attain economic independence from the West” or “Secretary of State Marshall resigned for health reasons and was succeeded by Dean Acheson.”