I first visited China as a result of my many years of associating with Yú Hóng (余泓), a Chinese colleague who collects old postcards.
The China I knew was through picture postcards of Manchuria from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Russo-Japanese war and the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway. Having studied the country's past, I want to see what it looked like now, especially the areas where there once was a Russian presence in Manchuria (Harbin, Mukden, et al.).
I won't go into my overall impressions from the trip here (that's another story by itself). Instead I will describe the most important event of our trip. The event came about from an interview my colleague Yu Hong and I gave to the central newspaper for Shenyang (a city of about five million people, known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Mukden, the main city of Manchuria and the Chinese Shèngjīng Province (盛京省). It has been named Shenyang since the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1367)—Editor). The newspaper interview was about collecting Russian and Chinese postcards with views of Mukden. After it was published, we got a call from the newspaper. They said a local historian wanted to meet with us. We agreed, and met with him the next day. The local historian turned out to be Zhān Hónggé (詹洪阁), a 35-year old man. We had a very pleasant meeting. We discussed Manchurian history. We were surprised that Zhan Hongge's collection of postcards contained practically nothing from Russia, only Chinese and Japanese cards. We spoke of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, and he showed us some Japanese magazines from just after the end of hostilities. Naturally, the accounts in them were precisely the opposite of the ones in Russian sources of the time.
At the end of the meeting he mentioned that there is a memorial to our countrymen who fell in the Russo-Japanese war some 30 km from Shenyang, a large cross with the inscription: “To the valiant Russian troops who laid down their lives for Faith, the Tsar and their Motherland, 1904-1905”.
According to Zhan Hongge, there was nothing else Russian in the city. There was one structure of European design, but he knew nothing about it.
We decided to drive over and have a look. As soon as we came around the corner of a neighboring building and saw it, I immediately recognized it as a Russian church. From a distance it looked like a medieval Russian warrior, in a helmet and chainmail, buried up to his waist in the ground. When we approached closer my original assesment was confirmed. We were on the altar side of the building. As things stand now, the altar section is located on the property of a local school, and the entrance and front portion of the building on another organization's territory. We walked around the school to view the building from the entrance side. From there we could see that there were buildings put up to the left and right of the church (a one-story building to the left and a two-story to the right). The church could be seen from the yard of some business, but the buildings blocked the view almost completely. The entrance was located between these two structures. We approached the big double doors, but they were chained and padlocked. I asked Zhan Hongge if he had ever been inside, but he said that as far he could determine, no one was allowed in. Thinking that we had no chance to get inside, we got ready to leave. But I found myself thinking that if we had come from such a distance to see this sight it would be a unforgivable to leave now. I told this to Zhan Hongge and Yu Hong and they agreed, and started the search for the building's owner. In due course he was located, and negotiations started on opening the door. After an explanation that this visitor had come all the way from Russia to see this church the door came open.
A few words off topic here.
The Chinese are very friendly toward Russians. They remember the good things Russia did for their country. There are especially warm feelings from Chinese in the older generations, some of whom studied in the USSR. Such was the case with the building's owner. He greeted me, and informed me that I would be the first Russian who had seen this building for all the long years he had worked there. He had no idea what kind of building it was or when or by whom it had been built. When the lock and chain were removed and the door opened, we were faced with great piles of boxes filling nearly the entire space inside. It seems the building had been used as a storeroom for nearly 50 years. Due to this, the interior was quite well preserved. We struggled through the boxes to the stone altar wall. To the right side was a door leading into the altar. To the left of the entrance were two shelves of boxes with a free space to the right through which can be seen a cross-shaped window on the south wall, now covered over on the other side by the bricks of a neighboring building. There are memorial plaques on both sides of this window. The one to the left was behind some boxes, and the one on the right had this text:
In battles around Liáoyáng (辽阳):
East Siberian Rifle Regiments: 1-st, 2-nd, 3-rd, 7-th, Eh-th, 10-th, 11-th, 12-th, 13-th, 18-th, 19-th, 20-th. 21-st, 22-nd, 23-rd, 24-th, 33-rd, 34-th, 35-th, 36-th.
Siberian Infantry Regiments: 5-th Irkutsk, 6-th Yenisei, 7-th Krasnoyarsk., 8-th Tomsk. 9-th Tobolsk, 10-th Omsk, 11-th Semipalatinsk, 12-th Barnaul.
Infantry Regiments:11-th Pskov, 12-th Ksankolutsky, 33-rd Eletsky, 34-th Sevsky, 35-th Bryansk, 36-th Oryol, 85-th Vyborg, 121-st Penza, 122-nd Tambov, 123-rd Kozlovsky, 127-th Voronezh, 138-th Volkhov, 139-th Morshansky, 140-th Zarajsky, 213-th Orovansky, 214-th Moblansky (?), 215-th Buzuluksky, 216-th Insarsky, 282-nd Chernojarsky.
1-st 3-rd 4-th 5-th 6-th Brigades;
2-nd Siberian Artillery Brigade;
3-rd, 9-th, 31-st, 35-th Artillery Brigades;
1-st East Siberian Mountain,
6-th Horse Mountain Artillery Battery;
11-th, 20-th Horse Battery;
Independent Corps of Transamur Border Troops;
51 Dragoons Chernigov Regiment;
Tersko-Kuban, 2-nd Dagestan Horse Regiment;
7-th, 8-th Siberian Cossack Regiments;
1-st, 11-th, 12-th Orenburg, 4-th, 5-th Ural,
Ussuriisk, Cossack Regiments;
2-nd Chita, 1-st, 2-nd Argunskie, 1-st, 2-nd Ner-
4-th Battalion, Transbaikal Cossack Army.
In battles around Jiǔliánchéng
(Yalu River—Translator ):
East Siberian Rifle Regiments: Eh-j, 10-th, 11-th, 22-nd;
2-nd East Siberian Sappers Battalion;
3-rd, 6-th East Siberian Rifle and Artillery Brigades;
1-st East Siberian Artillery Park, Brigade.
It would seem that these cast bronze plaques were put in the memorial chapel to honor the military units that suffered heavy losses in the battles around Liaoyang and Jiuliancheng ( Yālǜ 鸭绿江). I read through the text over and over. I asked the building owner to move the boxes covering the other plaque. But he threw up his hands, saying that the boxes belong to his tenant and he wasn't authorized to touch them. He also said that there were two other plaques on the north wall behind the shelves, with a cross between them. The church's exit is decorated with images of ribbons of the Order of St. Andrew and St. George's crosses.
I felt like an explorer opening new territory. Such a remarkable string of circumstances had led to me being in this place: the trip to China with Yu Hong, the fortuitous meeting with Zhan Hongge who led us to this forgotten Russian church dedicated to Russian soldiers who died on Chinese land. Who knows how long it would have otherwise remained unknown. Who knows what fate it would have suffered. But now there is an opportunity to preserve it. The problem is that the owner told us he intends to set up a longterm rental lease on the building. God only knows what the new tenant will do to the building's interior, and indeed to the building as a whole.
The three of us went to Zhan Hongge's house to think things over. He found a Japanese postcard in his archives of the church, surrounded by an elegant stone wall. Graves could be seen in the area around it. Based on the dating of the postcard, the church could not have been built later than 1908. (This date does not agree with the date from the Irkutsk City Museum—Editor).
The three of us tried to decide what we should do in this situation. We decided to go to the Russian General Consulate in Shenyang and report the find. But unfortunately when we arrived the workday was over, and since it was Friday, no one would be available till the following Monday. Our tickets home were for Sunday. We left, deciding to return again soon to Shenyang with Yu Hong. The search for and research on artifacts of the Russo-Japanese war on Chinese territory continues…
I'd like to add to the above that the date of our discovery is symbolic. The fortuitous discovery of a Russian church in the city of Shenyang came on the 100th anniversary of the Russo-Japanese war. I believe this is the only surviving memorial chapel of the war of 1904-1905 in Manchuria.
28 January 2005