Blood Brothers: The Scarred History of China’s Ethnic Russians
Each year, Dong Desheng eagerly awaits the Easter holiday. For the 48-year-old farmer, the festival marks the end of the bitterly cold winter in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province. It’s also the only time he openly celebrates his Russian heritage.
When the day arrives, Dong dons a traditional white shirt with red hemlines and cuffs, leaves behind his corn and soybean fields, and joins the festivities in Bianjiang. The village, just a few kilometers from the Siberian border, is one of several pockets of northern China with a large ethnic Russian community. More than 40% of the local population has Russian ancestry.
Dong will spend the whole day drinking and dancing, and sometimes shoots playful videos for his social media feed. Before the pandemic, his party trick was to prank Russian tourists, who were often amazed to discover the blue-eyed, brown-haired figure was a born-and-bred Chinese citizen.
“I love Basike,” says Dong, using the Chinese transliteration of the Russian word for Easter, Paskha. “It’s when people who look like me gather together.”
But the rest of the year, Dong’s lifestyle is almost indistinguishable from his Han Chinese neighbors. He learned at a young age to blend in as much as possible.
Dong barely speaks a word of Russian. He remembers his grandmother cooking borscht, but she never taught him to make it. He prefers shazhu cai — or “kill pig food” — northeastern Chinese fare with plenty of pork offal and steamed vegetables.
This is common among Bianjiang’s Russian community. It’s the legacy of a traumatic history, one that highlights the complexity of modern China’s racial and political dynamics.
In the early 20th century, thousands of Russians crossed the Chinese border, most of them refugees fleeing war and revolution. Yet few found the peace and security they were seeking.
War and revolution pursued them: World War II, the Chinese Civil War, then years of political campaigns. Relations between China and Russia fractured. The Cultural Revolution erupted. Each time, the Russian diaspora suffered.
The community reacted by striving to assimilate into Chinese society. Many married Han Chinese. The others stopped speaking Russian and kept their heads down. Few maintained ties with relations in Russia, and their children often grew up knowing little about their own heritage.
Things have changed only very recently. Bianjiang started hosting its Easter festival in 2015, after the local government — hoping to boost tourism — added the holiday to its official list of “intangible cultural heritage.” (Since 2020, the festivities have been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Officially, there are just over 16,000 ethnic Russians registered in China today, clustered mainly in the northern territories of Heilongjiang province, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The real number is likely greater, as many ethnic Russians are registered as Han Chinese.
Dong’s relatives have lived near Bianjiang for four generations. According to family legend, Dong’s great-grandfather, named Petrov, was a cavalry commander for Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II. After the October Revolution, Petrov and his family lived as fugitives for eight years, evading capture by the Soviet authorities. In 1926, they finally crossed the freezing Amur River into China.
Settling just across the Chinese border, Petrov supported his wife and two sons by raising horses for a wealthy local family. At the stables, he made friends with a native of China’s eastern Shandong province, surnamed Dong.
But Petrov struggled to accept his lowered status in Bianjiang. He began drinking heavily, quarreling with his wife, and hitting the children. His wife soon left him for his Chinese colleague, adopting the Shandong native’s surname. The family has been called Dong ever since.
Dong’s grandfather, who had crossed into China with Petrov at just 9 years old, married a fellow Russian emigre. She had fled the country with her mother aged 7, after her father had died in the Russian Civil War. Dong believes the family had an aristocratic background.
“My great-grandmother read Russian books and the Bible,” he recalls. “She looked elegant. No way she was from an ordinary family.”
The erasure of the family’s heritage began with Dong’s grandfather, who had been deeply affected by the persecution he’d suffered as a child, Dong says. He harbored a lifelong hatred of Russia and forbade the family from speaking Russian.
Dong grew up knowing almost nothing about his ancestral culture. Whenever he asked about Russia, the old man would tell him: “We are Chinese.”
The family also hid their Russian roots for more practical reasons. Ethnic Russians, with their distinct facial features, were often targets of discrimination and political campaigns, says Feng Jiawen, Dong’s cousin.
Feng’s maternal grandfather, who had fought for China in the Korean War, was falsely accused of being a “Soviet spy” during the Cultural Revolution. He was marched along the streets and subjected to public “struggle sessions.”
Feng’s grandmother, Zhang Yulan, still remembers the terror she felt during the late-1960s. Two of her relatives serving as officials died, and several other ethnic Russians in the area were injured during that era, she says.
“I used to speak Russian, but whoever spoke one word of it during the Cultural Revolution was sent to prison,” Zhang says.
Even Dong’s generation faced problems. Dong was bullied at school and regularly called a “maozi” — a racist term for Russians that roughly translates as “hairy.” As a child, he recalls wanting to get cosmetic surgery to look more Chinese. His aunt would dye her blond hair black.
Later, Dong chose to marry a Han woman. “Everyone wants to be normal,” he says. “You marry a Han person, and your children basically won’t look Russian.”
Eventually, Dong hopes his family can erase all traces of their Russian roots. His son, who is currently in middle school, chose to study English rather than Russian as a foreign language. His daughter will do the same thing, he says. Apart from Easter, Dong observes no Russian traditions at home, and he expects his children will one day also marry Han partners.
“My grandchildren won’t have any Russian features, and they’ll be part of the big (Chinese) family,” he says.
Yet, by a strange twist of fate, Dong’s Caucasian face has also made him a minor celebrity. The farmer has found a useful side gig as an actor, playing Russian bandits, American soldiers, and colonial police officers in Chinese movies and TV shows.
“Mostly, I play Russians,” says Dong. “But I can also play Europeans in general.”
In December 2015, he also took part in the Chinese reality TV show “The 15 of Us,” in which 15 people from different Chinese regions lived together on a remote mountain. He quickly proved a hit with the viewers, who were fascinated by the seeming contrast between his foreign-looking features and broad northeastern Chinese accent.
After this experience, Dong adopted the name Peter Petrov and began interacting with his fans on social media. His followers affectionately refer to him as Uncle Peter.
Uncle Peter, however, soon tired of online fame. His fiery temper and binge drinking, which he blames on his Russian genes, meant he often reacted badly to comments he disliked. “Look at the maozi!” (Blocked.) “Do you like China?” (“I’m Chinese. What the hell should I like if not China?!”) “Do you regret the loss of Russian culture?” (“What the hell for!? We are Chinese!”)
Despite living within kilometers of the Amur River, Dong had never set foot in Russia until 2014, when the film director Li Chao asked him to be the protagonist of the documentary “A Home You Can Never Return To.”
The film followed Dong and his family as they traveled to Vladivostok, where his great-grandfather Petrov may have passed through a century previously. For most of the trip, Dong felt nothing other than a tourist’s curiosity in the exotic food and customs he encountered.
But then, the filmmakers took Dong to see the Triumphal Arch, built to mark Tsar Nicholas II’s visit to Vladivostok in 1891. As the tour guide explained how the tsar had once walked through the arch, Dong broke down on camera. He still gets emotional recalling the moment eight years later.
“My great-grandpa might have been to the arch with the tsar, at the height of tsarist Russia,” he says. “Then, he became a fugitive, fled to China to raise horses, divorced his wife, lost his children. I really felt sorry for him.”
Tang Ge, an anthropologist at Heilongjiang University who researches China’s Russian diaspora, says many ethnic Russians have a complex relationship with their heritage. He recalls meeting a metis — a Russian term meaning “mixed blood,” which is often used to refer to those with a mix of Russian and Chinese heritage — in an Inner Mongolian village in 1995.
“Who are we exactly?” asked the woman, who was born in China but had mostly Russian ancestry. “Chinese? No. Russian? No. What are we?”
The first metis in China were the descendants of Chinese miners, who went to work in the newly discovered gold mines in Russia’s Zabaykalsky Krai in the 1860s, Tang says. Many of the men — who were born in Shandong and Hebei provinces — married Russian women and started families there, before moving back to China.
“From the very beginning, ethnic Russians were a hybrid of Han and Russian cultures,” says Tang.
For a long time, the Chinese government did not recognize the metis as a distinct ethnic group. In 1953, the authorities named ethnic Russians one of the country’s 55 official ethnic minorities, but the label only applied to a few hundred first-generation Russian immigrants who had settled in Xinjiang. The metis living elsewhere were registered as Han Chinese.
During the 1990 census, the metis were given the option of changing their ethnicity to ethnic Russian. Yet many, especially those living near the Amur River in Heilongjiang, declined to do so. Most first-generation Russian migrants in Bianjiang were women who married local Han bachelors to escape from extreme poverty.
As local governments across China began to embrace minority cultures, Dong’s grandfather was offered bags of millet, brown sugar, and an annual allowance to switch his family’s identity to ethnic Russian. He refused. “My family wouldn’t survive without China,” he told Dong.
Not every ethnic Russian community has assimilated to the same degree as Bianjiang. In Enhe, a village in Inner Mongolia, many elderly residents still speak Russian at home and remain part of the Eastern Orthodox church.
“They have a strong Russian identification, as they passed on their culture and beliefs,” says Tang.
Lin Mengmeng, a fourth-generation ethnic Russian, recently quit her job at a major Chinese company to open a Russian-style hotel in Enhe. Other locals have been designated official cultural inheritors, who are tasked with preserving traditional aspects of Russian culture, such as making bread and kvass, singing folk songs, and dancing.
“We love our Russianness,” says Lin.
In recent years, Russian culture has also enjoyed a small revival in Bianjiang. The local government, hoping to boost tourism, has renovated several houses in a Russian style and built a 300-square-meter Village History Museum.
“The village is thriving,” says Feng. “People elsewhere are envious.”
Even Dong has started to engage more with his Russian past over the last few years. After repeated requests from his fans, he has started an account on the Chinese video platform Kuaishou, and shares regular clips from his life in Bianjiang.
Normally, Dong refuses to talk about his Russian identity, but occasionally he relents. In one recent video, he tried Russian-style herring for the first time at a newly opened Russian restaurant. In another, he made Russian bread stuffed with green onion — the joke being that nearly every dish in northeast China is cooked with green onion.
The war in Ukraine, however, has revived painful memories for many in Bianjiang. Feng says the images of the conflict on Chinese TV have made him think a lot about his ancestors.
“This war feels especially close,” he says. “Maybe it’s because I have Russian blood in me.”
Zhang, his grandmother, echoes these feelings. “We fled to China and experienced the Japanese invasion. My uncle and father died in the war,” she says. “People need peace … People can have a happy life only with a sense of security.”
Dong, by contrast, says the war is none of his business. “I want the war to end, but I can’t connect with it much,” he says.
At the same time, Dong feels a growing urge to pass on his family history. He once tried to write it down, but gave up due to his slow handwriting. Sometimes he wants to tell the old stories, but he can’t find a willing audience at home.
In one scene in “A Home You Can Never Return To,” Dong — tears still in his eyes from his visit to the arch — talks about his son. Perhaps his generation will finally be able to feel comfortable in their own identities, he hoped.
“The Russian emotional complex ends with me,” Dong said. “It’s enough for him to visit. When he grows up, he’ll understand the old home in Russia. When he grows up and wants to hear about it, I’ll be there for him.”
Contributions: Lu Pengyue; editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Feng Jiawen is pictured with his grandmother during the 1990s. Courtesy of Feng Jiawen)