August 16, 2021

Tornado of history. How Koreans became the fourth Zhuz of Kazakhstan

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Pictures of Ilya's grandparents / Family archive

“Est’ Mertvye?” — “are there any dead people?” — screamed a Soviet soldier as he stepped into the wagon.

The smell of human waste and rotting flesh forced him to cover his face with an olive-green sleeve. The soldiers had collected all the dead bodies — children, parents, grandparents — and tossed them out of the wagon, onto the road.

After all the corpses had been disposed of, the train kept moving.

Where to? My grandmother, Katia, along with her family, could only guess. They were thrown out of their homes, stripped of their belongings, and sent off into what they could only guess was inevitable death.


Fleeing from Korea under Japanese rule in the 1920s, my great-grandparents hoped for a life away from struggle, a place where they could settle down and plant their roots. Japan’s rule had driven many away from Korea; Koreans — especially those who were poor — wanted to escape the hardship imposed by the empire.

My great-grandmother — Seong-Hui — left her home country completely alone at the age of 18, with only the hope of a better life and a deep desire to survive. My great-grandfather — Lee Kuan Ho — finished his studies in Japan, and travelled to Russia in search of opportunity. Neither wanted to stay where they were, and yet they did not have a plan, or even a destination, in mind. They simply wanted to leave.

Russia appeared to both of them to be the place they were looking for. It offered a new life, a clean slate for them to begin writing their own history. Not only was it a growing economy with an increasingly diverse population, but also a state that welcomed Korean immigrants, viewing them as talented and capable farmers. At the time, local bureaucrats — both those serving the Tsar and those representing the Soviets, who came after 1917 – incentivised the immigration by offering Koreans land for settlement. The new Korean community labeled itself “Koryo-Saram” which translates to “Korean people” in Korean.

Over time, the Korean traditions that the immigrants brought with them mixed and intermingled with Russian culture, creating a new set of traditions and customs, and even a slightly different dialect which is often referred to as “Soviet/Russian Korean.”

My great-grandparents ended up arriving in Dalniy Vostok, Artem, today a part of Russia. Gradually, my great-grandparents’ families began moving to Russia, each establishing their own roots. They quickly settled, a process best reflected in their changing names: my great-grandmother, born in 1912, changed her name from Seong-Hui to Tatiana; her siblings – soon to be Volodya, Afanasiy, and Varya — at first stayed behind, but joined her several years later. My great-grandfather, born in 1909, changed his name to Ilya. He had three siblings — a brother, Lee Eun, and two sisters, who my grandmother only remembers by their Russian names: Olya and Lida.

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  • Article about Ilya from 'Koryo Ilbo', a Korean newspaper in Kazakhstan. It reads: “Lee Kuan Ho, father of Ekaterina Ilyinichna Ogai … apprehended by the NKVD of USSR for espionage for a term of 15 years. Sent to Krasnoyarsk NKVD Labor Camp. Completely rehabilitated.”

    Picture from Ilya Kan's family archive

  • After Tatiana and Ilya finally met in the late 1920s and decided to marry, my great-grandmother’s uncle, her only relative in Russia, forbade the marriage. In his eyes, Ilya was “too smart,” and would not do well in the intense manual labor — such as planting and gathering thousands of crops — required at the time to survive.

    Ilya and Tatiana decided to elope, and married in a nearby village.

    This decision to marry despite her uncle’s disapproval indicates just how much the two were in love, as refusing to obey an elder carries a very heavy burden in Korean tradition. Despite gradually growing into the Russian culture, neither of my great-grandparents wanted to completely abandon their Korean roots. Sure, they wanted to leave the country, but that did not mean leaving their history behind. At home they spoke Korean, and continued to maintain Korean traditions.

    On the 6th of November, 1930, the couple’s first child was born. Knowing full well that they wouldn’t be returning to Korea, they gave him a Russian name: Volodya. They went on to have seven children: Volodya, Yenya, Katia (my grandmother), Boris, Gena, ‘Nikola’ and Sima. None of the children knew any of their grandparents.

    Ilya, despite being an academic, ended up working as a local barber, a job that helped him both support his family and learn the language. Tatiana looked after the children and the home. The children who were older, Volodya and Yenya, were expected to work or help their mother.Although life was by no means easy, the family was now able to sustain itself.

    After years of fleeing and searching, they finally began to plant roots.

    This newfound happiness, however, was short lived. In 1937, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union Vyacheslav Molotov ordered the deportation of all Koreans to labor camps in the Kazakh and Uzbek regions.

    The NKVD — USSR’s secret police — informed the population just two days before their forced deportation. All of their assets were seized by the government, and the Koryo-Saram community was left with nothing but food and water. All of the progress they had made, the wealth — no matter how small — they had accumulated, was stripped away with a single command.

    At the time, my great-grandparents could only guess why they were being deported. Why did they have to leave everything they had worked for behind? A country that previously welcomed the Korean people — inviting them in and offering opportunity and shelter — was now turning its back on them. After such struggle to migrate and settle, the family was once again left with nothing but one another.

    Only much later would they find out that Stalin, afraid of potential Japanese spies living in the USSR, wanted to cleanse Russia of any threats. His fear somehow ended up encompassing Koreans as well.

    124 train wagons were arranged to transport over 170,000 people to Central Asia. Based on today’s estimates, around 50,000 never made it off the trains, as starvation and disease plagued the trains, wiping out tens of thousands of innocent families.

    My great-grandparents experienced a loss far greater, and infinitely more painful, than the loss of all their belongings – they lost their children. They tried their best to feed their children by rationing the food they managed to take with them but no matter how hard they tried, or how much they were willing to starve themselves in order to leave food for the seven children, there was simply not enough for everyone. There was nothing they could do: along the way Yenya, Boris and Gena died from disease or starvation.

    After over a month of travel, my four-year-old grandmother and her older brother, Vladimir, as well as Sima and Nikola were the only children out of the seven that were fortunate enough to step off the wagons.

    Within several days, however, Sima and Nikola had also died. My grandmother still remembers how Sima, her sister, collapsed as she sat on a bench. Although she managed to make it off the endless torture that was the train, a mixture of starvation, disease, and exhaustion took their toll. No child should be able to survive such a gruesome journey. The fact that four children made it off the train is, in and of itself, a miracle.

    “I have only God and my parents to thank for my survival,” recounts my grandmother. “The chances of survival, for both my brother and me, were almost nonexistent.”

    The family found itself in Kyzyl-orda, a region of Kazakhstan mostly inhabited by ethnic Kazakhs — nomads, of which very few actually settled down and formed villages.

    Along with tens of thousands of others, Koreans were left out in the middle of the great Kazakh steppe to die. “We were never placed into camps, just left in the middle of nowhere,” my grandmother says. “I guess they just assumed we would starve and die off.”

    There was no food, as Kazakhstan had been suffering from famine for several years — the outcome of the USSR’s dekulakization campaign. Kazakh families had little to sustain themselves, let alone feed thousands of newly arrived immigrants. Yet, my family was taken in by the Kazakh people, who gave them bread and Kurt — which is fermented and dried milk shaped into small balls — and thanks solely to the empathy and hospitality of the Kazakh people, my grandmother, along with her family, managed to survive.

    After moving from house to house in search of shelter, Ilya came across a man who he happened to share a last name with. Mr. Lee, in exchange for upkeep of the house — and for an eventual future payment of rent — agreed to take my family in, giving them a small room and sharing his already limited supply of food.

    After some time, Ilya became the headmaster of a local school. His education had finally paid off. After losing their home, their belongings, and their children, Ilya and Tatiana had somehow returned to some form of security and stability. “Our family was never the same after the deportation, but we always managed to look ahead into the future. We mourned, but we also knew that we had to survive and establish roots for our children,” my grandmother said.

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  • Pictures of Ilya's grandparents / Family archive

  • One of Ilya’s colleagues recommended that he move with his family to Guryev, today’s Atyrau, a region which was more stable and offered a chance to have a house of their own.

    Although they did survive — and by the conditions back then, one could even argue that they thrived — the decision to move to Guryev came at a grave cost. Ilya, eager to find a good job that could justify leaving his position as a headmaster, let it slip that he studied in Japan, thinking that employers would see his education as something prestigious and desirable in an employee.

    Returning to Kyzyl-orda, Ilya was ecstatic. Guryev was a large city, unlike Kyzyl-orda’s empty countryside, and thus offered more opportunities for the family to work and earn a decent living. Ilya had found a city that offered both a stable and well-paying job and a house that, although not in great condition, was significantly better than the single room offered by Mr. Lee.

    Upon his return, however, Ilya was apprehended by NKVD.

    Afraid that he might be considered to be a co-conspirator or an associate if Ilya did turn out to be a spy, one of the employers to whom Ilya had presented his Japanese university degree, had informed the secret police. Word quickly spread throughout the small village of Kyzyl-orda, and my grandmother — along with her mother and brother — rushed to the train station where Ilya was being taken away.

    “I was screaming ‘Papa! Papa!’ I looked everywhere, trying to peek through every window in the train, but the windows were covered so that no one could see inside. I knew he was there, I even heard him shout ‘Katusha!’ back, but I couldn’t find him,” recounts my grandmother who, even today, cries at the memory of her father being taken away. “I was only five or six but I knew exactly what was happening. My papa was being taken from me, and I couldn’t do anything.”

    Ilya was once again punished; once again, his attempt at giving his family a chance at a better life had ended in pain and despair. Distraught, my grandmother began writing letters to police stations, government officials, anyone who may be able to get her father out of prison. My grandmother would look for their addresses in an old log book and scribble, in poor Russian, that her father had been wrongfully taken away.

    Afraid that her children too might be taken away from her, Tatiana hastily gathered her belongings and moved as far as the train would take her — the city of Chkalov, modern day Orenburg, Russia. The family managed to get by, with all three of them working. Despite seemingly starting a new life, my grandmother never let go of the fact that her father was unjustly taken away. Almost every week for the next 15 years, my grandmother wrote to people all over the country, trying to find and bring back her papa.

    It took 15 long years for Ilya to be released, clear of all wrongful allegations of which he had been accused by the NKVD. He did eventually reunite with my grandmother, but before that he had settled down in Russia and married a Ukranian woman — who my grandmother never grew to accept.

    Today, Kazakh Koreans are considered the 4th Zhuz of Kazakhstan. Every Kazakh is related to one of three Zhuzs, which are the territorial and tribal divisions established back in the 17th century — and probably dating long before that. To be called the “4th Zhuz” highlights how close the Kazakh and Korean communities have grown, and that Kazakh Koreans are today considered to be part of Kazakhstan and its society.

    Despite sharing similarly difficult and harrowing experiences from migrating to Russia in the 19th century to being deported by the NKVD many Koreans are now leaders or well respected members of their communities.

    Many are founders of the nation’s biggest and most successful corporations, driving economic growth and development in the country. Looking at the Kazakh Korean community, one is able to find founders and headmasters of schools (like my great-grandfather Ilya), heads of hospitals and clinics, ministers and government officials, engineers, lawyers, renowned authors, public activists, founders of numerous charities and foundations, and so on.

    I would argue that such concentrated success in a relatively small demographic of the country is because of our past hardships and struggles, not in spite of them. It is because we know our history, and the pain our ancestors had to go through in order to give us a life of opportunity, that Kazakh Koreans constantly strive to do well.

    Written by:


    Ilya Kan

    Fiction & Poetry Section Editor

    Almaty, Kazakhstan | Boston, United States

    Co-founder of Harbingers' Magazine

    Born in 2004, Ilya Kan is a Kazakh national of Korean origins, currently studying in the United States. He is fluent in Russian and English, and has some command of Kazakh. 

    At Harbinger’s Magazine, Ilya is the editor of the Fiction & Poetry section and writes about history, economics, and culture as well as creative writing pieces.

    Ilya’s past projects include a month-long research project on the Holocaust in Poland, after which he wrote a short story and later turned it into a script; and a short project on Korean deportation from the USSR during the Second World War.

    Ilya’s main interests are economics and history. He enjoys reading autobiographies, historical accounts, and classical fiction.  Outside of school, Ilya is interested in football, fishing, and chess. He also enjoys watching military movies with his father, and often goes hiking with family or friends.


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