Burnt by the Sun examines the history of the first Korean diaspora in a Western society during the highly tense geopolitical atmosphere of the Soviet Union in the late 1930s. Author Jon K. Chang demonstrates that the Koreans of the Russian Far East were continually viewed as a problematic and maligned nationality (ethnic community) during the Tsarist and Soviet periods. He argues that Tsarist influences and the various forms of Russian nationalism(s) and worldviews blinded the Stalinist regime from seeing the Koreans as loyal Soviet citizens. Instead, these influences portrayed them as a colonizing element (labor force) with unknown and unknowable political loyalties.
One of the major findings of Chang’s research was the depth that the Soviet state was able to influence, penetrate, and control the Koreans through not only state propaganda and media, but also their selection and placement of Soviet Korean leaders, informants, and secret police within the populace. From his interviews with relatives of former Korean OGPU/NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB) officers, he learned of Korean NKVD who helped deport their own community. Given these facts, one would think the Koreans should have been considered a loyal Soviet people. But this was not the case, mainly due to how the Russian empire and, later, the Soviet state linked political loyalty with race or ethnic community.
During his six years of fieldwork in Central Asia and Russia, Chang interviewed approximately sixty elderly Koreans who lived in the Russian Far East prior to their deportation in 1937. This oral history along with digital technology allowed him to piece together Soviet Korean life as well as their experiences working with and living beside Siberian natives, Chinese, Russians, and the Central Asian peoples. Chang also discovered that some two thousand Soviet Koreans remained on North Sakhalin island after the Korean deportation was carried out, working on Japanese-Soviet joint ventures extracting coal, gas, petroleum, timber, and other resources. This showed that Soviet socialism was not ideologically pure and was certainly swayed by Japanese capitalism and the monetary benefits of projects that paid the Stalinist regime hard currency for its resources.
In the last decade, Korean studies scholarship has increasingly turned attention from the peninsula to overseas Koreans, especially in China and Japan. Jon Chang’s seminal study adds a new element to this work, by illuminating the archives and oral histories of Koreans of the former Soviet Union and providing a unique perspective on Soviet nationalities policy and diasporic identity among Soviet Koreans. . . . Chang’s book is well organized and accessible, outlining and supporting clear arguments. It navigates broad historical contexts deftly without bogging down in minutia.
By letting the ethnic Koreans that lived in the Soviet Far East and, later, Central Asia tell their own story, Jon K. Chang fills in many of the holes left by the archival records on their collective history. . . . The result is a multilayered history of the Korean minority of the USSR that illuminates both the development of Soviet policy toward this group and the collective response of individuals in this group to these policies. Not only is Chang’s use of oral sources to reconstruct the social history of the ethnic Koreans in the USSR unique, but his use of sources from the Soviet and other archives also leads to some new and very compelling interpretations of Soviet policy toward the ethnic Koreans. . . . Chang’s methodological and interpretive approach to the history of ethnic Koreans in the USSR is thus revolutionary.
This highly original work provides a fascinating insight into the lives of individual Koreans in Russia/the Soviet Union. It also shows that the infamous view of the 'yellow peril' survived into the Soviet period and was responsible, to a significant degree, for the almost wholesale deportations of ethnic Koreans from the Soviet Maritime province in 1937-1938.
JON K. CHANG HAS WRITTEN A FASCINATING STUDY OF KOREANS in the Russian Far East from the nineteenth century through the Stalin era. The book documents and analyses the reasons why Koreans in Russia were rarely, if ever, treated as fully-fledged citizens, concentrating primarily on the Stalin era but also the period prior to that in both tsarist and early Soviet times. . . . Chang’s study is amply documented in an extensive array of endnotes and an exhaustive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. His exhaustive interviews with survivors of the ordeal provide extensive and distinctive documentation of the vulnerability of ethnic groups to persecution during the Five Year Plans.
Chang makes an important contribution to various fields in this study of the deportation of Koreans from the Russian Far East (RFE) to Central Asia under Stalin’s Great Terror. . . . Chang’s most original insights come from oral histories of deportation survivors, which capture the counter narratives of non-state actors. Although not expressly an interdisciplinary work, Chang’s broad-ranging discussion of geography, labor, politics, social conditions, linguistics, and anthropology will appeal to readers interested in comparative approaches to the study of ethnic minorities and the Korean diaspora.
Nevertheless, the Korean minority in China is well-integrated. The Korean language is still spoken and there is a thriving educational scene, including tertiary education. Cross-border links remain strong. Links with South Korea, not permitted before the 1990s, are now well-established, although they have perhaps not proven as beneficial as many hoped. As Jon Chang makes clear, it was a different and sadder story in Russia.
To begin with, the book is a valuable reminder of how multiethnic the Russian Far East was at the beginning of the 20th century. . . . Overall, this is a fascinating book that makes excellent use of a wide-range of sources (including interviews with around sixty elderly Koreans deportees) in support of a clear and convincing argument. . . . Having said this, not only those with an interest in the Korean diaspora, but also anyone wishing to learn more about the history of the Russian Far East, of Soviet nationalities policy, or of Japan’s relation with Russia will find much of value in this monograph.
All in all, the book constitutes a crucially important contribution to the study of Korean diasporas abroad, and to research on early Soviet nationalities policies. It is based on a rich selection of primary and secondary materials . . . It remains to be hoped that this usable and highly important book will re-appear in paperback.
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