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Once There Was A Country Called Soviet Union

I imagine how I would start if I were in Yuriko’s place. What should be the first sentence of a book for my daughter? It
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“[History] is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts,

an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”

Edward Hallett Carr.

What Is History? (First published in 1961)

How shall we describe Soviet Union to our children?

Recently, I met my old friend, Yuriko, after decades. One of her sons and my daughter used to play together at either of our residences long ago. Those days, they were little children. Now, her son has just married and settled in Europe, near Yuriko. We were not able to recognize each other immediately at a café in Kyoto where we agreed to meet. There, we discovered that we have aged considerably.

When I told her that I have recently started writing something based on my experiences, she confessed that she had already written something very personal for her sons. Her family history becomes automatically a part of the History of Japan with the capital letter “H”, because her father was a Japanese diplomat during the war and assigned in the USSR. “He was there in 1945,” she said. After she went back home, she sent me her memoir. 

“If I try to publish it, which language would you suggest rewriting, in English or Japanese?” she asked me via an e-mail.

“Well, it depends on whom you want to tell your story to. You have written this memoir basically for your sons, haven’t you?” I answered back.

Then, I imagine how I would start if I were in Yuriko’s place. What should be the first sentence of a book for my daughter? It could be like this: “Once there was a country called Soviet Union. Its official name was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was an experimental state. The USSR existed until 1991, when it collapsed. Yes, for you it was totally the past and already finished story, since you were born in 1992.

But the USSR was the stage where your grandfather—you have seen his face in the photo—portrayed a role that covered his whole life not only as a diplomat but as a scholar. He wrote a book on the history of socialism under a pseudonym. That was the reason why you, your grandmother, and I journeyed all together to Moscow the other day. 

I am not sure which terminology I should choose to mention it because I feel that ‘a country’ is not sufficient to describe it. (Wikipedia says it’s a ‘transcontinental country’ or ‘multinational state.’) No matter how it is called, the USSR was ‘constitutionally created’ by two documents: The Declaration and the Treaty in 1922, following the Russian Revolution in 1917 when your grandfather, Shigeo, was born. And he survived just one year longer than the USSR…”

As Shigeo was born in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, his life seems curiously to have followed the course of the Soviet Union. (Yuriko Shoji, p.94. Shigeo is not his real name.).

And here are excerpts about events in 1945, from her memoir from the closing chapter on Moscow:

Finally, it was time for the embassy to close. Early on the day, the Japanese staff were to depart, they found that the family employed at the chancery—as gate keeper, house keeper and messenger boy—had hanged themselves in their quarters.[…]

As more stories are recounted, and archives are opened on both sides, I am struck by the fate of the young men who specialized in languages as Shigeo had done, but who did not survive the War. I can only fold my hands together in prayer to offer deep sympathies to those who perished, and to their next of kin. (ibid., pp.75-77)

On 13 April, 1941, the Japanese-Soviet Non-aggression Pact was signed.

On 5 April, 1945, the Soviet Union denounced the pact with Japan.

On 8 August, 1945, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov informed Japanese ambassador Naotake Sato that the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan.

Flag of the Soviet Union

“In spite of its non-alignment policy during the Cold War, India kept strong ties with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Japan was a member of the Western bloc, relying on nuclear deterrence of the US military. Under such circumstances, if I had not been in India before the dissolution of the USSR, I would have missed the opportunity to witness these wonderful artistic performances from the multi-ethnic federation. The show was splendid. I marveled at the beauty and richness of each cultural heritage and the perfectly choreographed folk dances arranged for the stage show.

On the campus, however, there lived an Afghan student with his family at the hostel allocated to married students. I met him at the office of the Indian Education Ministry. We were there to pressurise the ministry for the prompt payment of our scholarship because it was repeatedly delayed. Afghanistan suffered extensive destruction inflicted by its war with the Soviet Union. On-time payment was critical for them to survive.

There was a group of the Soviet students reportedly sent by the Soviet Foreign Ministry, too. But, they were kept away from mingling with the other students. Somebody said, “They are under surveillance of the embassy.” In fact, they never appeared in the mess hall for meals. The Soviet students reputedly had special permission to cook and eat by themselves in their rooms. We were not allowed to do that.”

Siberian internment

Her chapter about Moscow reminded me of several stories by Japanese writers. Although these are fiction, there are some prominent novels based on their authors’ thorough researches using historical documents and even personal dairies left by several individuals just before, and soon after, the Japanese surrender of the Second World War.

Among them, I mentioned to Yuriko a novel by Yoichi Funado, because one of the main characters he created was a Japanese diplomat assigned to Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state founded in northeast China (Inner Manchuria), bordering parts of the Russian Far East (Outer Manchuria).

Its capital city, Harbin, had a large Russian population in exile following the Russian Revolution in 1917, and they developed all aspects of Russian life there including businesses, shops, newspapers, and schools. It was also called, ‘the Paris of northern China’ back then. And Yuriko’s father was initially sent to Harbin for Russian language training, according to her. She discovered her father’s photos taken in Harbin, and wrote about it as follows:

In Shigeo’s day, there was ice-skating in the city’s squares, on which gallons of water would be poured in the evening to create an icy surface that skaters could use the following morning. Shigeo, who was a light-footed athlete, would practice and display his figure eights and other feats. (ibid., p.70)

In the novel, the fictional Japanese diplomat in Harbin enjoyed his privileged life during the war, but that was all turned upside down after the Soviet entered the war. He was captured by the Soviet troops and sent to Siberia. He ended up as a detainee of the Siberian internment then hang himself there. As I mentioned the title of this novel, Yuriko briefly answered that she had already read it.

Once, in the house next to us resided an old man who was a survivor of the Siberian internment. I have no idea when he returned home. We seldom heard his voice. He was a very quiet man. Instead, almost every evening we heard the peaceful and subtle tone of a traditional Japanese bamboo flute. Apparently, it was his substitute for language. And he not only played but created these musical instruments by himself.

He passed away just after turning 90 at his house. My little daughter and I were there with his family at the funeral, where several of his friends, all survivors, attended. Besides the house under the name of his ownership, it was only his handmade bamboo flutes that he left behind as his property, according to his family.

Japan re-established diplomatic relations with the USSR only in 1956, that delayed the return of Japanese nationals incarcerated in the Soviet Union for years. It might be one reason why the history of the Japanese people interned in Siberia is not widely known in Japan. But the main reason is that the returnees kept a long silence. It is said that they were brainwashed to become active communists by the Soviet regime. So, when they finally made it back to Japan after suffering for many years, Japanese society did not welcome them but threw a suspicious eye as if all of the returnees from Siberia could be possible communists or Soviet sympathizers, or, at worst, spies.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Marxist influence among Japanese intellectuals

When we talked about our childhood days at a café in Kyoto, Yuriko asked me about the atmosphere of the Japanese academic circles after the war. Although she is four years my senior, since she was often living abroad with her parents, her experiences in the Japanese society were limited. It seemed she couldn’t understand why her father wrote a book on Marxism and published in 1948, under the occupation of the Allied Forces.

She expressed her embarrassment in her memoir.

Over the years, I wondered why Shigeo would publish such a book at a politically sensitive and tense time. Japan and the Soviet Union were technically still at war. […] Why would Shigeo dare to come out with a publication on the Soviet state and political system? Either he must be seen as very naive, or reckless, or ill informed, but my view is that it must have youth and daring, perhaps his roguishness, that were behind it.(ibid.,p.91)

In reality, Japanese academic circles after the war were under the strong influence of Marxism. In fact, Marxism had been already accepted and widely studied as early as the 1920’s. My father-in-law, my daughter’s grandfather, born in 1920, was a Marxist economist. He was not an exception.

Furthermore, E.H.Carr, a former British diplomat, published a book on the Soviet Union in 1946. Yuriko’s father must have read the book, or, at least, known the publication of the book. As was much younger than Carr, he might have been ambitious enough to write about what he studied. Under such social circumstances, it is natural to think that her father must have taken advantage of his experiences in the USSR.

“I made a big mistake. I didn’t know such a matter,” she regretted.

I remember the activities of Beheiren (The Citizen’s League for Peace in Vietnam) which existed officially from 1965 to 1975. It had many distinguished scholars, writers and journalists as its member, and helped American deserters escape to Sweden via the Soviet Union, although all of them were not necessarily the supporters of Communism.

My former fifth grade elementary school teacher clearly expressed that she preferred the Soviet Union to the United States during one of our classes. It was in late 1960’s when she was assigned to our school, just after graduating from the university. I was shocked to hear her words because I enjoyed watching US sitcoms back then. I told my mother about it, but she wasn’t surprised. Instead, she seemed to understand my teacher because

she had just finished her studies at the time when there were still some student movements ongoing at university campuses in my locality.

But the passion for Marxism among Japanese intellectuals was gradually cooling down along with the changing map of international relations. When I entered the Osaka University of Foreign Studies as a student of South Asian Studies in 1977, the post of visiting professor at the Russian Department was vacant. Every department had professors from the concerned countries except Russian, because, three years before, the Russian professor had sought political asylum to a Japanese police station and was then exiled to the USA. It was reported in a newspaper.

Soviet students in India in 1987

In 1987, a few years before the breakdown of the USSR, I was in India as a post graduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University. One day, my friend, who was a novice Japanese diplomat just assigned to the embassy after completing language training in Allahabad, accompanied me to one of the stage dance theatres organized under the banner of the festival of the USSR held in New Delhi.

In spite of its non-alignment policy during the Cold War, India kept strong ties with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Japan was a member of the Western bloc, relying on nuclear deterrence of the US military. Under such circumstances, if I had not been in India before the dissolution of the USSR, I would have missed the opportunity to witness these wonderful artistic performances from the multi-ethnic federation. The show was splendid. I marveled at the beauty and richness of each cultural heritage and the perfectly choreographed folk dances arranged for the stage show.

On the campus, however, there lived an Afghan student with his family at the hostel allocated to married students. I met him at the office of the Indian Education Ministry. We were there to pressurise the ministry for the prompt payment of our scholarship because it was repeatedly delayed. Afghanistan suffered extensive destruction inflicted by its war with the Soviet Union. On-time payment was critical for them to survive.

There was a group of the Soviet students reportedly sent by the Soviet Foreign Ministry, too. But, they were kept away from mingling with the other students. Somebody said, “They are under surveillance of the embassy.” In fact, they never appeared in the mess hall for meals. The Soviet students reputedly had special permission to cook and eat by themselves in their rooms. We were not allowed to do that.

Once at a tea shop on the campus late at night, a male Soviet student, who apparently was not a Russian but looked East Asian, played a guitar and sang The Beatles’ song, “Michelle.” I knew that they understood Hindi—but neither English nor French. So, I asked him how he could sing this song. “I studied English by myself because I like Beatles,” he answered.

Then, I was allowed, at my request, to enter his female friend’s room at a girls’ hostel. She looked Caucasian. There was a photo of Mikhail Gorbachev on the wall, and she told me in Hindi that he was ‘our leader.’ It was the only conversation that transpired between us. The circumstances of the times denied us the chance to see each other—even though we lived in the same campus compound.

At that time, it was unimaginable that the Soviet Union would dissolve into many sovereign states within a few years.

Journey to Sakhalin—the Russian Far East—in 1998

After the collapse of the USSR, the journey to its former territory became possible for all Japanese tourists. Since I had a few but impressive experiences relating to the USSR, I wished to visit there someday. In my childhood, the Soviet Union exhibited its overwhelming presence, and the world was divided into two blocs, a fact that my daughter only learned about in her history class at school.

In 1998, we—my daughter and I—visited Wakkanai, a northern coastal city of Hokkaido, which has the harbour from where travelers can depart for Korsakov, a town of Sakhalin. Sakhalin is an island located in the Russian Far East, and its southern part was a former Japanese territory from 1905 as a result of the Russo-Japanese war, until 1945. We traveled further north and extended our destination up to the 50th parallel north latitude that cuts through the island. That was once the border on land between the Empire of Japan and the Soviet Union.

Since individual foreign travelers were not accepted in Sakhalin, we took part in a tour organized by a travel agency that specialized in Russian tours. Most tourists were elderly Japanese citizens born in Sakhalin before 1945, who decided to make a nostalgic visit back to their ‘native land.’

Because I was with a little girl, they were kind to us, and some of them were especially affectionate towards my daughter, as if they themselves were her grandparents. Among them, there was one old woman who cared for my daughter all the time during the journey. She had a cheerful and serene disposition.

After staying for a few nights in a sleeping car train, then by bus and on foot, finally we arrived at the point of 50th north latitude. There stood a monument of the Soviet Red Army, and our young Japanese tour guide translated its inscription from Russian into Japanese. It said that the Soviet army liberated the people in Sakhalin.

Suddenly, the old woman’s face flushed, and she growled that she had been deported, not liberated, and that’s why she was there now to visit her ‘native land.’ I heard her harsh and callous voice clearly, though it was very low, and I couldn’t find even a single word to say to her. I was speechless.

Her reaction reminded me of the fact that history was not a mere accumulation of our memories. That’s more complicated, even controversial, and often conflicts with individual memories. If she were a real grandmother of my daughter, how could my elementary school girl be impressed by this journey? What else would this old woman tell my (or her own) little girl about the Soviet Union?

Then, I came up with a question.

From her viewpoint, she was deported. That’s understandable. And how was her experience of being deported?

Generally, under the chaotic circumstances of any war, females are often more victimized—irrespective of which side they belong to. It is well known that Japanese civilians left behind by the Japanese Imperial Army had to protect themselves and females had to disguise as males and cut their hair very short. Did she have the same experience as what we read in history books? She was with her husband. He kept quiet, but was considerate of his wife. They told me that they both were born in Sakhalin.

Besides that, we witnessed that the local population in Sakhalin did not look Russian but Asian. To me they manifested as if they tried to reaffirm the multi-ethnic reality of the USSR they once belonged to. Our tour guide assigned by the Russian counterpart was a tall fair-skinned young man with blond hair and blue eyes, and he said that he was working as a tour guide in such a remote area only to make a quick bulk. In fact, it was we, the Japanese visitors, who fit in well with Sakhalin. The Russian guide stood out there like a foreign traveler.

In Yuriko’s memoir, the USSR is represented by Moscow, and its political system. But for me, it is Siberia and Sakhalin—the Russian Far East— and multiculturalism exhibited on stage in New Delhi, and Marxism which was once widely supported by Japanese intellectuals and students. For some of them, such as my former elementary schoolteacher, the USSR was even an admirable state to emulate. And I wondered how exactly I should describe the former Soviet Union to my daughter.

On 24 February, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Both were once parts of the USSR.

When I look back over those days, I pray that the Soviet students I met in India, along with the people I encountered in Sakhalin, are all still alive somewhere.

References:

E.H.Carr, What Is History? Reprinted in Penguin Books, 1990, p.30

Yoichi Funado, Manshuukoku Engi(Historical Novel about Manchukuo), Shinchosha publication, 2015

Yuriko Shoji, Saul Tree Tales~Chronicles of a family and journey beyond, author’s edition, 2022

Acknowledgment:

This article was inspired by my conversation with Yuriko Shoji, and her memoir. I am grateful to her for allowing me to quote from her work.

All images from Google

Mayumi Yamamoto is a writer and academic based in Kyoto, Japan. Her poems have appeared in Literary Yard, and some opinions in Indian Periodical. She authored several published books in the Japanese language.

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