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"Boundaries of History": Frank Grüner

On Thursday, September 28, the regular research seminar "Boundaries of History" was held. Frank Grüner presented his paper titled "Entangled Histories: The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in Harbin and the CER Zone"

On September 28, 2017, in frames of the regular seminar “Boundaries of History” Frank Grüner presented his paper “Entangled Histories: The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in Harbin and the CER Zone”, devoted to the revolutionary events and activities during the years 1905 to 1917 in Harbin. As he stated in the beginning of the presentation, in his opinion both revolutions fit well to look how events in Russian history are entangled with other national and cultural contexts.

Professor Grüner started his lecture from describing Manchuria and the city of Harbin and dynamics of their development. Cultural diversity of the region was to a large extent created by the Russian expansion to the Far East in the late 19th century. Following these events North-East of China developed into an unforeseen field of experiments of globalization, international interaction and cultural entanglements, which went beyond the national political and cultural borders of the ruling powers.

According to the lecturer, the city of Harbin can be regarded as a highly noticeable example of this development of global interactions. Harbin in the beginning of the 20th century could be described as a multicultural city at the crossroads of East and West. The city emerged in nearly government-free space on Chinese territory under administration of the Russian-Chinese Eastern Railroad Company and developed a life on its own and until 1918 was neither absolutely controlled nor ruled by either China or the Russian Empire. The city could be best described as a cultural contact zone and even a border zone, though official state border between China and Russian Empire was located far away.

As lecturer pointed out, from the perspective of the Russian Empire expansion to Manchuria represented a peaceful penetration to the economically underdeveloped and potentially ungoverned territories such as Manchuria and also had a purpose of strengthening the colonial position of the empire. The main tool of this expansion was a Chinese Eastern railway. But its construction also intensified great powers’, especially Russian, Japanese and US’s rivalry in the region negatively affecting integrity of the Chinese state.

Professor Grüner briefly described the city and is division into three main parts which can be titled Russian, Multicultural and Chinese. Harbin was the central railway depo and administrative center of the whole Chinese Eastern Railroad region that time and developed very fast becoming a modern city. One of the city’s features was that though having many communities, they were not as separated as it happened in other cities as Shanghai etc.

Bloody Sunday and the beginning of the Revolution in January of 1905 seems to have had little direct consequences on the city’s life until October 1905. The end of the Russian-Japanese war resulted in a great influx (comparable with the entire population of Harbin that time) of demobilized soldiers in the city. Due to the bad accommodation and generally chaotic organization combined with the considerable frustration among the soldiers made it relatively easy to mobilize them for political gatherings. Railway and telegraph workers in Harbin joined the October general all-Russian political strike, though at the first stage they were mostly concerned with non-political demands to improve the workers economic situation. Although Chinese Eastern Railway continued to operate beyond the Russian borders, traffic has slowed, which seriously affected the city of Harbin.

As news about the October Manifesto belatedly reached Harbin, the wave of demonstrations started in the city, greeting the promised civil freedoms. Harbin Railway Club was a principle forum at that time where meetings of the railway workers took place and where guest speakers of extreme political orientations made appearances. Newly created Chinese Eastern Railway Employee Union proved crucial for later events in Harbin, concentrating on employees’ social and economic concerns such as decent pay and working conditions for its members and politically standing align with the demands of Russian railway workers and the Union of Unions. Other tradesmen in Harbin also formed their organizations, though little is known about their movements.

In 1917 situation on the Chinese Eastern Railway, in Manchuria and in Harbin differed a lot because by that time the influence of other powers such as China, Japan, the United States and Great Britain increased significantly. The popular reaction to the abdication of the tsar was in in general euphoric. In 1917 Horvath (a head of CER management) first became a Provisional Government’s commissar to the CER zone, which was basically a confirmation of his continuing management. However, soon Harbin suffered a triple division of power: Executive committee, Soviet of Soldiers and Workers and the CER management.

In 1905 Horvath could coop with the striking committee and in general was able to retain some order on the railway. In 1917 situation was more complicated. Throughout the year numbers of armed deserters from the Russian army increased. Control of situation by police was lost and US and British consuls highly pressured on Horvath demanding the protection of foreign nationals. Executive committee formed in March 1917 was filled with railroad employees ready to work with Horvath, but Bolsheviks gathered support. When Lenin’s telegram reached Harbin ordering the local Soviet of Soldiers and Workers to take over power in the city, they soon demanded to remove Horvath. In December 6th both British and Russian ambassadors visited Chinese Ministry of Foreign affairs and expressed their willingness to see Chinese troops intervene, which eventually happened. For China Russian Revolution meant an opportunity to roll back Russian privilege on the Chinese Eastern Railway Zone.

During the comments and questions section Professor Grüner was asked various question. He agreed that the presence of cheap and relatively “quiet” Chinese workers helped CER management to control the situation in 1905, but also pointed out that wages and living standards in the CER zone were in general higher which also affected situation. He also mentioned that in the “Harbin context” even representatives of usually anti-tsarist ethnic and cultural groups such as Jews and Poles wouldn’t be so explicitly anti-tsarist because tsarist’s politics basically wasn’t presented so intensively there.

Answering the question about the railway worker’s politicization despite their privileged position in comparison with same workers in Russia, Professor Grüner pointed out that as the city of Harbin was new, its population could be described as “society in move” and thus political mobilization was rather inspired by factors from outside than grounded in local established social structure. Another factor which crucially affected the situation was the collapse of the transportation on the railway.

Specific of the city management also was discussed. As Professor Grüner explained, in the time of the Revolution of 1905 there was no independent city administration. It was part of the whole civil administration of the railway zone and thus Horvath was also a head of the city administration that time. After the Russian-Japanese war city self-administration emerged, and by 1917 situation was rather different, though Chinese and other non-Russians still were underrepresented, which was a matter of discussion due to the international character of the city population.

Chinese participation in the revolutionary events was also discussed. Did Russian workers regarded Chinese ones as a part of workers movement? According to Professor Grüner, though deeper research is needed, it is known that in 1907 about a thousand of Chinese railroad workers took part in the demonstrations, and in 1917 several thousand of them. Another point was pogroms, which didn’t appear in the city but were rumored to happen.

Professor Grüner also suggested to look at the city of Harbin as a city which wasn’t a mainland for anyone. In his opinion Manchuria that time couldn’t be really regarded as a part of the China mainland as Manchu dynasty for a long time prohibited migration on this territory and there were very few groups of people who settled on this territory before. In this regard the city of Harbin was a rare case when people met on the equal level under semi-colonial administration.

Report: Alexander Turbin



 

Frank Grüner
Prof., Department of History, Universität Bielefeld

Frank Grüner is professor of Eastern European History at Bielefeld University in Germany. Before joining the Department of History in Bielefeld, from 2008 to 2017 he was working as a research fellow and project leader at the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” at the University of Heidelberg, where he also earned his PhD in history in 2005. His research focuses on Russian and Soviet history, in particular on the history of Jews and anti-Semitism as well as on Russia’s entangled history with Europe and Asia. Currently he is preparing a monograph on the daily history of the Manchurian city of Harbin during the period from 1898 to 1932.

His publications include (with Dan Ben-Canaan and Ines Prodöhl) Entangled Histories: The Transcultural Past of Northeast China (2014), (with Felicitas Fischer von Weikersthal et al.) The Russian Revolution in Transcultural Perspective: Identities, Peripheries, and the Flow of Ideas (2013) and Patrioten und Kosmopoliten: Juden im Sowjetstaat 1941-1953 (2008).