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Russian Cities in China
Harbin: Born by the road
At the end of 19th century Russia was carrying out a great project: the building of railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok. Nowadays this road is known as Transsib (Trans-Siberian Railway) and still plays an exclusive role in life-providing the Asian part of the country.
The road had to pass through the biggest cities of East Siberia and Far East. But at the stage of survey they had found out that it could be very uneasy to lay track from Chita to Khabarovsk. There was a threat of delaying with opening the railway transportation to Vladivostok. And they had invented a non-standard solution: first to lay track through Manchuria (then the name of NE China) where the terrain was not so rough as at the Amur's left bank.
The engineering and economical solution had immediately converted into political dimension. Russo-Chinese Union Treaty of 1896 had allowed Russia to lease for 80 years the alienation strip for building the railroad and all the necessary buildings and structures.
In 1898 at the proposed crossing the Sungari river by the track, there began the construction of a station. That station had to carry the name of Sungari, but it had not get accustomed. In 1901 the place was renamed Harbin, the name its inhabitants called it from beginning. In 1903 the trains started going through Harbin.
In just ten years from the start, it was a real city, more than 40 thousand-strong. A well-developed infrastructure made local life very comfortable by standards of the time. That was the credit of Russian railroad department.
The department managing railroads is traditionally called the Ministry of communication routes (Russian abbreviation sounds MPS). Its specific feature, still remaining now, is that the MPS can provide itself with almost everything necessary. Within the structure of the branch there are not only divisions which provide transportation work, but construction units, agricultural enterprises, merchandise-distributing and retail networks, kindergartens, schools, hospitals as well. There even is the railroaders' sports society possessing stadiums, gyms and swimming pools. Of course, having so many non-profitable divisions is not good for commercial indicators. But this has real reasons beneath. Only such a ministry could successfully fulfil the task of constructing and operating the Transsib. The stations must be built in underpopulated areas where there was simply nothing before. They had to create from zero the descent facilites for their personnel. To build in Daurian steppe and Amur woodland the living quarters with schools and hospitals nearby, to hire teachers and medics, all for the Ministry's expense.
Harbin was developed on the same scenario. Besides, the technicians hired to work at Chinese Eastern Railway usually had good salaries. Factors like good infrastructure and solvent population attracted more and more businessmen from Russia. After the railroad industry there developed the commerce; Russian negotiants organized the purchasing and consequent processing of agricultural products. There were many well-educated people among the railway's personnel; so there was a demand for cultural and educational facilities.
Establishing and raising of Harbin went simulteniously with the economic boom in Eastern lands of Russia. Properly, that boom was caused by the same great project of Transsib. Because of it, Harbin looked similar to Siberian and Far-Eastern cities.
In late 1980s there still remained many buildings of Harbin's early years. Alien visitor could not distinguish blocks of such housing from the areas of early development in Chita or Khabarovsk.
The most influent person in Harbin was the general manager of Chinese Eastern Railway Dmitry Leonidovich Khorvat. His name means "Croatian" in Russian. Khorvat's ancestors indeed were Croatians escaped from Turkish yoke for asylum in Russia. After his name, people called the alienation strip "Happy Croatia". Khorvat's monument stayed for a long time in front of the building of Chinese Eastern Railway Administration on former Big Avenue. Now that building is occupied by Harbin Railway Administration, and its visitors are met by Mao Tse-tung instead of Khorvat.
Harbin went through the Russo-Japanese war injured. The Japanese troops did not reach it. But Russian Civil war influenced the city very much.
After Communists had taken over in Russia, Harbin lost the support of Big Russia and completely came under Chinese jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the economic and cultural influence of Russians increased. Refugees from Soviets greatly reinforced the community of Russians. There had begun the next stage of Harbin's biography. But that is another story.
The pictures kindly provided by Abraham Troitsin, former Harbinese
© Dmitry Alemasov
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