A taste of Russia in heart of SeoulIt’ll take you at least nine hours on a plane to get to Moscow, but if you want to experience a bit of Russia right now, all you need is a subway ticket.
In Gwanghui-dong, northern Seoul, a neighborhood that could be dubbed “Little Russia” is just a few blocks away from the glitzy sky-high shopping malls in Dongdaemun, a fashion-conscious young shoppers’ paradise.
There’s no trace of posh architecture like the Kremlin Palace in this humble neighborhood. However, the area still attracts passers-by with shops that have signs in Russian, which mostly belong to trading companies, restaurants and drug stores for natives of the Russian Federation and its neighboring countries, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakstan.
Since the late 1980s, this area in downtown Seoul has borne the imprint of Russia, according to Joe Kyung-sung, who runs the Russian Business Center, a local drug store that specializes in Russian goods. Gwanghui-dong’s Little Russia is about double the size of the one in Busan.
In Seoul, the neighborhood is easily reachable from Dongdaemun Stadium station, exits 11 and 12. Upon exiting, walk about five minutes in any direction until you see signs in Russian.
Dongdaemun has served as the longtime center of Korea’s clothing industry, which relied on laborers from countries such as Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. Ethnic Koreans living in Sakhalin and Yanbian also made their way to settle down in the area.
In nearby Gwanghui-dong, the late 1980s saw a rise in shops for the foreign residents. After the cloth shops moved in, money exchange stands followed, and then restaurants. A mini industry devoted to Russian-speaking expatriates was born.
Korea has 10,000 Russians in the country, according to Mikhail Malyshev, the consul general at the Russian Federation Embassy. Little Russia is home to more than 50,000 people from Russia, Uzbekistan and other countries, says Mr. Joe.
Mr. Joe adds, “It’s a sharp drop from the more than 70,000 who lived here before the crackdown on illegal immigrants last year.”
Many Koreans believe that the first Russian restaurant in Seoul opened in the upscale southern neighborhood of Sinsa-dong last October. That elicits a scoff from Muhabat Mahamatova, the cook for Ala-too, a restaurant and bakery in Gwanghui-dong that opened last year.
Ms. Mahamatova takes pride in offering a real taste of Russia at affordable prices in her restaurant, where even the menu is in Russian.
But how do you order from the Russian-only menu? That’s when you need Luiza Kan from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a ready speaker of Korean who works for the restaurant.
Now in her 50s, Ms. Kan came here several years ago, wandering from one laborer job to another, finally settling down happily in the restaurant.
The severe winters in the former Soviet Union influenced the region’s cuisine, which is rich in fat, using ingredients such as mutton and potatoes, Ms. Kan says.
Another common Russian dish is manti, or dumplings, steamed and boiled, whose typical filling is, again, mutton, with assorted vegetables. The chef’s recommendation is shashlik, skewed mutton and pork with sauce and topped with sliced onions ― perfect with a shot of vodka.
The most basic dish, however, is soup, which comes in many varieties. Ala-too specializes in borsch, a hot pink concoction of chopped potatoes, mutton, red beets and cabbage, topped with a spoonful of mayonnaise.
“Because it’s very fatty, Russian food has to be served when hot,” Ms. Kan says. Warm tea and yogurt are offered to help with the digestion of such rich food.
Each meal comes with pickled and red-pepper spiced cabbages and carrots, Russian-style kimchi, and nothing costs more than 5,000 won ($4). Add Russian pop songs in the background and you’ll understand why the place is crowded every night.
The bakery, full of dainty breads like samsa, filled with mutton and vegetables, welcomes ethnic Russians or others with an adventurous spirit.
“Just by word of mouth, we have customers from outside of Seoul, like Ansan, Gyeonggi province and Gwangju in South Jeolla province,” says Ten Grunya, who runs Ala-too’s bakery.
She moves busily around the kitchen with the chef Umarova Maktuba, 37, who is making Russian deserts like napoleon, an extremely sugary cake.
Mr. Joe says more than 50 such restaurants are in the area, both official and unofficial. His drug store, Russian Business Center, is across from the restaurant and serves as a meeting spot for neighborhood residents.
Mr. Joe, who worked more than 10 years in the embassies of Malaysia and Lebanon as a public relations staffer, has Russia in his family history. During the Japanese colonial period, his mother’s family went over to Yanbian, Manchuria and Sakhalin, but they could not go home after Korea’s liberation in 1945 and after the Korean War (1950-1953). Only recently has Mr. Joe’s mother heard from her siblings still in Sakhalin.
Mr. Joe’s store deals with all sorts of things related to Russia, from food to videotapes of dramas and movies. On a shelf next to matryoshika, or traditional Russian wooden nesting dolls, there lies a collection of magazines such as Cosmopolitan in Russian.
Along with his Russian immigrant friend Yuliya Unyayeva, 37, Mr. Joe also publishes a monthly community newsletter titled “We, Together!”
Ms. Unyayeva, a blond beauty with a generous smile, has a Korean father and Russian mother, and so has a fine command of the Korean language. A newspaper reporter back in Russia, Ms. Unyayeva came to Korea to pursue a better life for herself.
People like Ms. Unyayeva, Mr. Joe says, are lucky. The majority of the Russian-speaking expatriate community suffer from exploitation at factories or delayed payment.
“Many expats here say they’re disillusioned by the Korean Dream,” Mr. Joe says. “To them, this neighborhood offers them the only source of relief.”
Long history between Russia, Korea
Diplomatic relations between Russia and Korea date back to 1884. Soon after diplomatic ties were established, the first Russian Embassy was built near Deoksu Palace, near where it sits today.
The site of the old Russian Embassy is full of history. Korea’s Joseon Dynasty was in the center of a power struggle among the world powers, including China, England, Japan and Russia, to control the Korean Peninsula. During the heart of the struggle, which led to the assassination of Queen Myeongseong, or Queen Min, by the Japanese, King Gojong took temporary refuge in the Russian Embassy, which Korean history books called “agwanpacheon.”
When the Japanese officially colonized Korea in 1910, however, Russia started to fade away in the South Korean diplomatic world. Relations were further strained after the Korean War, when South Korea was virulently anti-communist.
Diplomatic ties between Korea and Russia were restored only in 1990.
Earlier this year, the Russian Embassy held the Day of Russia, encouraging Koreans to better understand the country, as well as promoting the pursuit of cultural and scientific exchanges.
The current Russian consul general, Mikhail Malyshev, served 12 years in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea, then moved on to South Korea in the 1990s. He began his second term in South Korea this year.
Mr. Malyshev sees a bright future in the relationship between South Korean and Russia, especially with President Roh Moo-hyun’s tentatively planned visit to Russia at the end of this year.
by Chun Su-jin