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'Kolchak was 'like an Englishman'-the analogy oddly recurs in an official Soviet account of the execution'
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Russia through the eyes of a Korean

By Tatyana Kumykova
15 May 2015

We join photographer Kisoon Choi on a journey of discovery across Yakutia and the Far East.

He lives in a small South Korean city and knows Russian at a survival level, though it’s not an obstacle for him to travel across Russia and shoot documentaries. Picture: Tatyana Kumykova

There are about 150,000 Koreans living in Russia, most of them in Sakhalin and Primorye. Using the term 'koryo saram' to describe themselves, they are descendants of people who moved here 150 years ago looking for a better life. In 1937 ethnic Koreans were relocated to Central Asia following Stalin's decree, but were allowed to come back only 20 years after. 


'Are you a photographer? What are you shooting?' I ask the stranger, looking into his eyes. He is wearing red jeans and a yellow shirt, and has long dark hair made in a bun, with tanned skin. Irresistible.

Standing near an open door of the train car, he doesn't switch off the camera until the door closes. The man turns out to be a Korean called Kisoon Choi who has spent 25 years shooting wildlife.

He lives in a small South Korean city and knows Russian at a survival level, though it’s not an obstacle for him to travel across Russia and shoot documentaries.

This time he and his interpreter are working on a movie about Baikal-Amur Mainline. 

We travel in the same carriage together and become friends during the journey. Soon afterwards, he makes an offer to work together, and we go on to spend three months crossing Yakutia and the Far East, capturing images of the railway, Russian Koreans, Yakuts and nature. 

This is our story.

Taishet

We're on the train to Severobaikalsk. After a few rushed and stressful days, I don't get enough sleep, and it's hard to work. 

The local police stop us at Taishet station. Koreans are not used to the paperwork we have in Russia. Perhaps, that's the reason why our Korean colleagues didn't bother obtaining permission to shoot railway stations, so we had to do it without any legal papers. The camera was on for about an hour and everything was fine till one of the rare passers-by informed the police. 

Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia

The camera was on for about an hour and everything was fine till one of the rare passers-by informed the police. Pictures: Tatyana Kumykova

'Foreign journalist? You're a spy!' accuses the police officer. It is actually a very common phrase we hear from Russians, and men are particularly hostile towards us. 

The police take our fingerprints, scan our passports, question us, and let go after two hours. It has been my first time to the police. 

Severobaikalsk

Baikal is a seven minute walk from the railway station. Crystal clean water and sweet air. People are still using 10-rouble notes [not very widespread across Russia], children are in the streets unattended, and people dry their washing in the streets.

Passers-by are friendly and helpful, but stare at you when you walk by. There are only 25,000 residents in Severobaikalsk and it’s a perfect choice for those who decided to settle down and have a relaxed and slow-paced life. 

On the train

The trip from Severobaikalsk to Tynda is amazing. It feels like you’re in a movie. The train is passing mountains, trees, rivers, and we can’t stop looking at the window. 

Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia

Crystal clean water and sweet air. Children are in the streets unattended, and people dry their washing in the streets. Pictures: Tatyana Kumykova

The first thing we do on the train Kisoon is put a newspaper on the table and make tiny sandwiches. Little piece of bread, a bit of tomato, a bit of cucumber, sweet pepper, banana, and salmon. He says that's what they like in Korea, and the stewards are surprised to see such perks on a train. 

We travel with trains as often as possible, and buy economy class tickets. This way it’s much more atmospheric and exciting, and people quickly get to know each other while the children play.

There is no such thing in South Korea. It is a little country, with short distances and two to three hours between the cities at the most. Koreans can hardly imagine 'living' on a train - sleeping, eating, and even having shower there. It's something exotic to them. 

Kisun is often taking images of people at a very close distance and at one point comes to a dining babushka ('old woman') and puts the camera just in front of her face.

Most people are either surprised or positive, but if it's a group of dining men, it's not as good. The day before one man guy kicked our Korean friend when he refused to show him the captured photo. Kisoon didn’t fight back, but got very upset.

At night I had a lot of questions from him I couldn't answer, like 'Why Russian men are so cruel and drink so much?'

Normally Kisoon gets on well with almost any sort of person because of his natural charm. He tells a story about his experience in shooting photos of leopards and bears in the Far East and Kamchatka.

In mid-1990s he built a treehouse in the Khasanovsky region of Primorye and stayed there for six months waiting for the animals. He cooked rice, used a bag for nature's calls, and went to a nearby village once every 10 days to have a shower and get some rest.

Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia

We travel with trains as often as possible, and buy economy class tickets. This way it’s much more atmospheric and exciting, and people quickly get to know each other while the children play. Pictures: Tatyana Kumykova

Yakutsk

Yakutsk has a very diverse population - it's Russia in miniature. We arrive there at night but it is instantly clear that it is a trading city, with jewellery stores and pawnshops everywhere. We notice the roads are horrible and there are puddles everywhere after the rain. 

Yakutsk residents are proud that the city is the only place in the world with such an extreme difference in temperature. It's -40C in winter and +40C in summer. 

'How do you survive it?' I ask gas sector worker Pavel.

He replies: 'Those who drive have double glazing in the cars and we don't shut engines off for the night. Women wear valenki [felt boots] and fur coats, and move very quickly.'

'Didn’t you ever want to move?' I enquire. 'I lived in Moscow, but went back,' he replies. 'There is a lake for every resident and beautiful nature, taiga, and golden autumn [Indian summer] make up for all the difficulties. We also go hunting.'

Everyone in the city knows the name of the Russian-speaking Korean, Grigoryi Em. He grows melons and about 30 different types of vegetables in such extreme weather conditions and feeds the entire city. The farmer spent six years growing the sort of melons that can grow in Yakutia. All the employees at his farm are Koreans. 

Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia


Korean in Siberia

Russian-speaking Korean, Grigoryi Em grows melons and about 30 different types of vegetables in such extreme weather conditions and feeds the entire city. Pictures: Tatyana Kumykova

Grigoryi arrived in Yakutia with just a hundred dollars in his pocket, and he struggled to find a job for the first couple of months. He had no acquaintances in Yakutia’s capital, and numerous visits to the heads of farms were fruitless, with no one wanting to hire him without a reference. Eventually, the head of the local council allocated six hectares of land to him. It wasn't enough. 

'There is one more slot, but there is a dump. Are you taking it?' asked the civil servant. 

Grigoryi needed 500 huge trucks to remove all the rubbish. Now he’s running a 200-hectare farm with a $1 million annual turnover. The entrepreneur knows how difficult life can be, so he helps vulnerable families and the elderly houses. 

When asked about the secret of his success, he replies: 'It's all because of Korean hardworking. It's not a coincidence that we’ve been farmers for a very long time. I was always trying to live a just and fair life. I passed it to my children, too.'

Part two here.

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