The Korean-Russian connection that transcended lapses in diplomacy

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The Korean-Russian connection that transcended lapses in diplomacy

Andrey Kulik, ambassador of Russia to Korea, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the embassy in Seoul on April 29. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Andrey Kulik, ambassador of Russia to Korea, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the embassy in Seoul on April 29. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Ludmila Nam, Nelly Lee, Viktor Tsoi, Varlen Pen and Anatoli Kim — they are just a few of the Russian artists of Korean descent who have connected the citizens of the two nations even through the years of scant diplomatic channel.
 
“Viktor Tsoi was one of the biggest stars of Russian rock music,” said Andrey Kulik, ambassador of Russia to Korea. “It was unfortunate that he died so young, but his songs are still heard all over the radio, and are especially popular among young people. In almost all spheres of life in Russia, there are people of Korean descent who have held prominent positions and made important contributions and their works continue to act as a bridge between our nations.”
 
Koreans started moving to Russian territories from as early as 1864, according to a Russian record describing a settlement of 65 Koreans in an area known today as Primorsky Krai, located in the southeastern end of Russia.  
 
Official relations between the Russian Empire and Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) began with a trade treaty in 1884, but the ties between the two were broken following the Russo-Japanese War and the Japanese annexation of Korea (1910-1945).  
 
When Russia and Korea established diplomatic ties in 1990, both had gone through a whirlwind of wars and reforms, and were transformed beyond what they were a century ago.
 
But people-to-people exchanges never quite ceased. Artists from both Korea and Russia continued to create and influence each others ideas and thoughts, far from their homeland.
 
“Sabatin is a good example of such a phenomenon, he worked very productively here, and he was a witness of very important events in your history,” said Kulik.  
 
Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin, the Russian architect presumed to be the mastermind behind the design of the old Russian Legation, Dongnimmun Gate, Gwanmungak (the King’s study), Jungmyeongjeon, Guseongheon, Dondeokjeon, Jeonggwangheon, the Sontag Hotel in Seoul as well as several buildings in Incheon such as the Chemulpo (now Incheon) Club and the Russian Consulate, was also the key witness of Japan’s assassination of Korea’s last empress, in what is known as the Eulmi Incident of 1895. Sabatin was in Korea for some 20 years from 1883.
 
Jungmyeongjeon of Deoksu Palace in central Seoul in October 2020. [NEWS1]

Jungmyeongjeon of Deoksu Palace in central Seoul in October 2020. [NEWS1]

By 1937, there is said to have been as many as 172,000 Koreans in then-Soviet territories. Many were forced to move to Central Asian nations, which, the Russian parliament deemed in 1993 to have been illegal, issuing a decree to reinstate the rights of Korean-Russians.

 
It was during the Seoul Olympics of 1988 that some of the descendants of these families returned to Korea for the first time. Included were Ludmila Nam, the prima donna born to a Korean father and Russian mother, and Nelly Lee, the famed third-generation Korean-Russian soprano. The two are said to have often shared their families’ stories on stage.
 
The official establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 1990 opened a floodgate of cultural exchanges, bringing translations of Soviet classics such as “Children of the Arabat” by Anatoly Rybakov and “Mother” by Maxim Gorky to the homes of Koreans. Maestro Gum Nanse became the first Korean to conduct the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra in July 1990. Teams from the Bolshoi Ballet and Theatre held curtain calls in Seoul.  
 
A scene from the “Swan Lake” by a company of the Bolshoi Ballet. [VINCERO]

A scene from the “Swan Lake” by a company of the Bolshoi Ballet. [VINCERO]

To celebrate the past 30 years of exchanges of arts and culture, Russia and Korea designated 2020 and 2021 as special years of cultural exchanges.  

 
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has severely restricted international tours of theater groups and artists, but given Russia and Korea’s history, the top envoy from Russia is confident that where there is a will, there is a way.
 
The Korea JoongAng Daily recently sat down with Ambassador Kulik at the embassy in Seoul to hear more about how the exchanges of culture and ideas have connected the people of Russia and Korea over the decades, and how the new dynamics in the popular culture of the two nations may be changing cultural exchanges.  
 
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
 
The beginning of diplomatic ties in 1990 brought on a landslide of cultural exchanges between the two nations. For Koreans, this included Russian ballet and operas. What about Korean culture was attractive to Russians in the 1990s?
There were many years of separation between Russia and Korea so when the doors opened, we were eager to get to know more about each other. I think for Russians, we were interested from early on about Korean cinema. A lot of Korean films are known in Russia, actually, and this was long before films like “Parasite” (2019) and “Minari” (2020) came to be recognized. For one, “I Will Survive” (1993) starring Lee Deok-hwa was shown at the 18th Moscow International Film Festival in 1993, and Lee won the award for Best Actor. Films that have left strong impressions, in my case, were “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring” (2003) by Kim Ki-duk, “Oldboy” (2003) by Park Chan-wook and “The Man From Nowhere” (2010) starring Won Bin and Kim Sae-ron.  

It’s not difficult to see a Korean film in Russia, and I wish that were the case for Russian films here. The film industry in Korea tends to be dominated by Korean films or American blockbusters. Modern Russian cinema is interesting — some of the films can be quite serious, posing questions about the way things are in the world. Then you will find some that show that a good movie can be made from something as simple as a man and a woman walking around St. Petersburg, like “The White Nights” (2017) by Andrei Bogatyrev.
 
Movie ″The White Nights″ (2017) by Andrei Bogatyrev. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Movie ″The White Nights″ (2017) by Andrei Bogatyrev. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

The Covid-19 pandemic has stripped the performing arts world of international tours, and the art scene in Seoul has been no exception. Russian ballet and opera performances have been missed in Korea through 2020, will there be a change this year?
Performances including Boris Eifman’s Beyond Sin — a ballet based on “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky — and Anna Karenina, and teams from the Marinsky Theatre and Novosibirsk state academic opera and ballet theatre are scheduled to perform this year but we are waiting to see if the Covid-19 situation improves. 

To celebrate the 30 years, Russia and Korea have agreed to publish five books by Korean authors in Russia and five books by Russian authors in Korea. The Korean books include “Peace Under Heaven” by Chae Man-sik, “Your Republic is Calling You” by Kim Young-ha and poems by Yun Dong-ju and Park Kyong-ni. Russian titles include a sci-fi novel about artificial intelligence “iPhuck 10” by Viktor Peleven and works by Nobel prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
 
Titles of five Russian works being translated into Korean this year to celebrate 30 years of diplomatic ties between Russia and Korea.[SCREEN CAPTURE FROM ALADIN BOOKSTORE]

Titles of five Russian works being translated into Korean this year to celebrate 30 years of diplomatic ties between Russia and Korea.[SCREEN CAPTURE FROM ALADIN BOOKSTORE]

When it comes to Russian arts, music and literature, it’s easy to know what the classics are, like the works by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. But when it comes to modern arts and culture, would you say there are ample exchanges between Russians and Koreans?
Let me be frank with you. Modern K-pop is not for many people in my generation. But it is extremely popular in Russia among young people. Before I was posted to Korea, I took part in an exhibition in Moscow in 2018, and the opening ceremony involved a performance by a K-pop group. The ceremony took place in a huge hall with hundreds of seats, which was 99 percent filled with teenagers. Once the official speeches were over, and the K-pop group took to the stage, the audience exploded with cheers and applauses. That’s when I experienced with all of my senses how popular K-pop is in my country. 

And this is only natural. As generations change, their love for culture turns to the more modern culture. And this is why, as diplomats, we need to think about bridging people across the two nations on the platform of modern culture and arts. Just as there is K-pop, there is R-pop. There is modern literature, modern ballet and modern arts in Russia. And we look forward to sharing more of them in the coming weeks and months.
 
Fans fill the Crocus City Hall in Moscow for a K-pop concert on Aug. 31, 2019. [KOREA CREATIVE CONTENT AGENCY]

Fans fill the Crocus City Hall in Moscow for a K-pop concert on Aug. 31, 2019. [KOREA CREATIVE CONTENT AGENCY]

What’s been your experience trying different cuisines in Korea over the past three years?
 
Let me talk about kimchi. Kimchi is a Korean way of doing vegetables, with wonderful results. Cucumber kimchi is one of my favorites.  

Some of my favorite meals in Korea have been the chicken and duck cooked over charcoal fire, the hoe [raw fish] platters and what’s called Chuncheon dakgalbi [Korean stir-fried chicken dish]. Koreans are very good with their marinades, and they are like magicians when inventing different food made from seaweed. The wide range of cold snacks, including octopus and oysters, are just amazing.  

That’s my take on Korean food, but generally, there is something in Korean food that many Russians like, because we all eat it with great pleasure. There are at least four Korean restaurants that I have been to in Moscow, and there are a number in Vladivostok, St. Petersburg and more. We don't have an authentic Russian restaurant in Seoul, and that is something that we should work on.  
 
A man gestures as he walks along the Red Square in front of the Saint Basil cathedral and Spasskaya tower in Moscow on March 8. [YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/YONHAP]

A man gestures as he walks along the Red Square in front of the Saint Basil cathedral and Spasskaya tower in Moscow on March 8. [YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/YONHAP]

With vaccinations ongoing in Russia and Korea, do you expect to see tours open up soon?
 
Since the onset of the pandemic, it’s been very hard to predict what will happen next. But it is our hope that the number of visits between the two countries will increase to one million soon. This goal was realistic before the pandemic and we would have reached it if not for the coronavirus.
 
Russia is a vast country with different locations offering very different experiences. What are your recommendations for places to visit?
 
If you are looking for ecological tourism and something close to nature, I would recommend the forest of Kamchatka — it is a place I dream of going myself.  

The area of Altai is of special interest for Koreans, because there has been historical research pointing out that Koreans’ ethnos started in this region. I have been there and it is a wonderful place — you should also stop by Lake Baikal when you are there.  

If you are interested in architecture, paintings and arts, there are our two capitals for that — Moscow and St. Petersburg. Of course Moscow is our capital now, but for a time, St. Petersburg was the capital city and we call it the northern capital. There are a number of small cities around Moscow and St. Petersburg that are ancient and every city will provide an interesting look at architecture and traditions. 

You also have the option of traveling by boat, and one of the options would be to travel up and down the Volga, the most Russian of all rivers in the country.  
 
Tourists enjoy a sunset view of Lake Baikal near the village of Shida on March 7. [NATALIA FEDOSENKO/TASS/YONHAP]

Tourists enjoy a sunset view of Lake Baikal near the village of Shida on March 7. [NATALIA FEDOSENKO/TASS/YONHAP]

A person paddles a kayak in Avacha Bay of the Pacific Ocean, in Kamchatka Territory. [YELENA VERESHCHAKA/TASS/YONHAP]

A person paddles a kayak in Avacha Bay of the Pacific Ocean, in Kamchatka Territory. [YELENA VERESHCHAKA/TASS/YONHAP]

There have been talks of connecting the two Koreas and Russia with a railway. Do you think it could happen in our lifetime?


If it can happen, it will be a historical event of tremendous significance globally. We started to discuss the project from as early as the 1990s. Many countries support the initiative, but there is one obstacle and that is the political obstacle. Economically speaking, all calculations tell us that this project will be beneficial for all sides concerned. If the project can be realized, it will be a powerful instrument for the peace and stability of the peninsula.

When I was posted to Korea, I came with a dream that when my mission is completed, I would have a chance to take a train from Seoul to Moscow. Of course it is only a dream. But I had a chance to attend a symbolic ceremony about connecting the railways between the two Koreas in December 2018.  

Russia has suggested easing of sanctions on North Korea, on three different spheres in inter-Korean projects — railways, gas and pipeline and electricity grids. If all these projects could be realized, it will help bring about a completely different situation on the peninsula.  
 
From left, Chung Eui-yong, Korea's foreign minister, and Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, celebrate the designation of years 2020 and 2021 for special years of cultural exchanges to commemorate the 30 years of diplomatic ties between Russia and Korea, at the Westin Josun Hotel in Seoul on March 24. [KOREA-RUSSIA ARTS & CULTURE SOCIETY]

From left, Chung Eui-yong, Korea's foreign minister, and Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, celebrate the designation of years 2020 and 2021 for special years of cultural exchanges to commemorate the 30 years of diplomatic ties between Russia and Korea, at the Westin Josun Hotel in Seoul on March 24. [KOREA-RUSSIA ARTS & CULTURE SOCIETY]

BY ESTHER CHUNG   [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

 
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