The Koryo-saram and the 1937 Soviet Relocation
Korean fishermen in Russia

The 1937 forced relocation of the Koryo-saram, the ethnic Koreans of the Soviet Union, is a somber and often overlooked chapter in the annals of Soviet history. This mass displacement wasn’t just a journey across vast and inhospitable lands; it was a violent upheaval that tore apart communities and reshaped the identity of an entire people. The Koryo-saram’s story is one of endurance, adaptation, and the quest for identity amidst the oppressive policies of Stalin’s regime.

The Koryo-saram had been living in the Russian Far East, primarily in the region around Vladivostok, since the late 19th century. They had fled poverty, famine, and political instability in Korea, seeking a new life in the vast expanses of the Russian Empire. Over the decades, they established tight-knit communities, farming the land, and maintaining their language, traditions, and customs.

However, as the political climate in the Soviet Union hardened under Stalin, the Koryo-saram found themselves increasingly viewed with suspicion. The rising tensions with Japan, which had colonized Korea in 1910, and the proximity of the Koryo-saram communities to the sensitive border areas, led Stalin to perceive them as a potential fifth column, a threat to the security of the state.

In August and September of 1937, under the pretext of preventing espionage and subversion, Stalin ordered the mass relocation of the entire Koryo-saram population from the Far East to various remote and often underdeveloped regions in Central Asia, primarily Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The operation was swift, brutal, and efficient. Families were given just hours to prepare, allowed to bring only what they could carry. They were then herded onto trains, destined for a land they had never seen, a place vastly different from the lush landscapes of the Russian Far East.

The journey was harrowing. The Koryo-saram were transported in crowded, unsanitary conditions, with little food or water. Many died en route from disease, exposure, or starvation. Those who survived the journey found themselves in a harsh and unfamiliar environment. They were often left to fend for themselves, forced to build new lives from scratch in the barren steppes of Central Asia.

Despite these challenges, the Koryo-saram showed remarkable resilience. They drew on their agricultural skills to transform their new surroundings, irrigating the land, and eventually cultivating it. They established new communities, preserving their language, traditions, and Korean identity, even as they adapted to their new circumstances and the Soviet way of life.

The relocation had profound effects on the Koryo-saram community. It severed their ties to their ancestral land and dispersed them across vast distances, yet it also fostered a new sense of identity. The Koryo-saram became a unique group within the Soviet Union, distinct from both the Koreans of the Korean peninsula and the other ethnic groups in Central Asia. They developed a hybrid culture, incorporating elements of Korean, Russian, and Central Asian traditions.

In the years since the relocation, the story of the Koryo-saram has gained recognition as an essential part of the broader narrative of Soviet history and the history of the Korean diaspora. Today, the Koryo-saram are the largest Korean community in the former Soviet Union, with a population of several hundred thousand. They continue to grapple with issues of identity, memory, and belonging, preserving their heritage while looking to the future.

The 1937 relocation of the Koryo-saram is a poignant reminder of the destructive power of totalitarian regimes and the resilience of the human spirit. It’s a story of displacement and survival, of maintaining one’s culture and identity against overwhelming odds. As we reflect on the journey of the Koryo-saram, we’re reminded of the countless other stories of forced migration and displacement throughout history and the enduring quest of all peoples for a place to call home.