Inside Harbin, China’s 150-year-old Little Russia

Despite the fact that Harbin is China’s economic and cultural capital, its streets are evocative of European ones: Russian Orthodox churches and neoclassical buildings are prominent monuments in the city’s central area.

In the late 1900s, a group of settlers established the city. According to The Calvert Journal, ethnic Chinese people were barred from entering the area at the time.

Now, the city’s population of nearly six million people is dominated by Han Chinese, who constitute the biggest ethnic group in China. Even now, remnants of Russian influence may still be seen throughout the city.

“Russian culture is not only evident in its physical architecture; it is also deeply ingrained in our way of life,” Shiran Geng, a PhD candidate at Australia’s Victoria University who was born in Harbin, told Insider. Geng was a co-author of a study article on the city’s Russian influences and urban design, which was published in the journal Urban Studies.

“It wasn’t until I went traveling in Europe and Russia that I realized that many of the foods that we’ve been eating have really been inspired by Russian cuisine,” she said further.

Harbin is the biggest city in northeastern China, with a land area of 53,100 square kilometers (about 20,463 square miles), which is slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia. Harbin is the capital of the province of Heilongjiang.

The city serves as the capital of Heilongjiang Province, which is the country’s northernmost province.

The region has a border with Russia that spans for about 3,000 kilometers on each side.

According to the journal, China granted Russia permission to construct a railway station in Harbin.

According to China Today, the Russians sought to connect Moscow with Vladivostok, a city in the Russian Far East, and so they designated Harbin as the center of the expanded railway in 1989.

According to China Briefing, a large number of Russians started emigrating to Harbin in the early twentieth century.

According to a report written by academics from the Harbin Institute of Technology, it was because of Russian building projects such as the railway that Harbin rose to prominence as an important industrial city in China during the 1950s.

Stalin Park, which was initially known as Jiangpan Park, was established in 1953. Many travel websites describe the park as “a symbol of goodwill between China and the Soviet Union.”

A “Russian Style Town” has been built on Sun Island, where the world-famous Harbin winter festival is held, in order to provide visitors with a more authentic taste of Russian culture.

Large Russian tea dolls painted with the faces of current and previous Russian leaders, such as President Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, are seen in a photograph shot inside the village.

Hengyi, a 26-year-old resident of Harbin, told Insider that the city’s tourist attractions are not representative of the city’s everyday life, which he believes is misleading.

According to Hengyi, “we don’t have many Russian writings [on buildings] in the city right now; the ones we do have are just those in the [tourist] attraction zone to make our Russian style stronger for tourists.”

“Because the Russian Style village is a tourist attraction, the people aren’t really aware of what’s going on,” he said.

The China-Russia exhibition, which has been taking place in Harbin since 1990 and aims to improve commercial links between the two countries, is taking place this week.

According to the China Daily, the 2019 exhibition created more than 380 trade contracts worth 170 billion yuan ($24.78 billion, or R372 billion) in total.

Xinhua, the official news agency of the Russian Federation, reports that China is the country’s largest trading partner. China is Russia’s tenth-largest trade partner in terms of value.

According to the Russian news outlet TASS, Harbin Bank made agreements with 21 Russian banks in 2016, resulting in a transaction of 13 billion yuan (about $1.95 billion, or R29 billion), according to the bank.

“Harbin does a lot of business with Russia, and we have individuals who choose to study Russian as a second language over English,” Hengyi said.

“We are an alliance in terms of economics and culture, and it’s a really natural thing,” he said.

Churches affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church, such as the Saint Sophia Cathedral (seen above), are among Harbin’s most renowned structures.

The cathedral, which was completed in 1907, served as the spiritual heart of the city’s 100,000 Russian residents. However, once the Russian immigrants departed, many churches were no longer utilized as places of worship for the local community.

According to SixthTone, the church was repurposed into a military facility by the Japanese during World War II. Today, the churches have risen to the status of tourist destinations.

According to Geng, some of the buildings have been refurbished or repurposed as galleries, museums, or tourist attractions. “They [as churches] are no longer in use,” says the author.

Harbin, often known as the “Ice City,” has frigid and lengthy winters, with temperatures dropping as low as -22 Fahrenheit (-30°C) in the winter.

The weather is generally the first thing that comes to mind when people think of the city where Geng grew up, he said. “Winter sports, sculptures, snow, and ice are all things that spring to mind.”

The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival first took place in 1963 and has been running ever since. According to Smithsonian Magazine, more than 10 million people were predicted to attend the event in 2019, making it one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. The event will last around two months.

According to the Associated Press, the event brought in 28.7 billion yuan ($4.4 billion) or R66 billion in tourist earnings to the city in 2017.

Some of the massive sculptures at Harbin’s iconic snow festival are designed to imitate Eastern Orthodox churches, complete with characteristic domes and brick-like texture, as a reference to the city’s Russian heritage.

As noted on the city’s official website, Russian cuisine, such as sourdough bread (known as “khleb”), smoked sausage, and borscht, is widely consumed in Harbin, China.

“We follow a very precise diet,” Geng said. It’s true that we prefer to eat bread, which isn’t something that’s widespread in other regions of China.”

A variety of regional recipes, such as “disanxian” — sautéed potatoes with green pepper and eggplant, as well as stewed chicken with mushrooms, are inspired by the greater northeastern Chinese culinary tradition.

As reported by The New York Times, although many ancient structures such as churches are being conserved, others such as high-rise buildings are being destroyed to “make place for widening roads and cookie-cutter high-rise blocks.”

However, the Russian constructions that have survived will undoubtedly be a part of the city’s environment for many years to come.

“It’s a nice balance of contemporary architecture with the odd type of Russian-influenced architecture,” Geng said of the mix of modern structures and Russian-style monuments in the city.

In addition, she said that “they have been well kept.” “As a result, I don’t anticipate their being dismantled very soon.”

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