This essay deals with the images of Russia and Russians, as they appeared on the mental map of the world of Korea's intelligentsia of the 1930s, reflected in the prose and travelogues of that period. Politically, the attitudes toward the Soviet Union were sharply divided, with the radical Left (excluding the anarchists) offering almost unconditional support to the “motherland of the world's proletariat,” the moderate Left and moderate nonleftist nationalists being positive about many but not necessarily all sides of the “Soviet experiment,” and the colonial government, together with a number of radical (often Christian) right-wing nationalists, taking a harshly anti-Soviet stance. In the world of literary imagination, however, the images of Russia and Russians offered by the writers of different ideological and political backgrounds were often converging. This essay shows that for both the 1930s Korean writers with a background in the communist movement (exemplified here by a female novelist, Paek Sin'ae) and the mainstream authors without any radical connection (typified here by another prose writer, Yi Hyosǒk), Russia and Russians represented a civilizational “middle ground” of sorts. They perceived Russia as 1) a European country that in many ways looked most similar to Asia, and particularly Korea; 2) a mighty modern nation-state that simultaneously seemed to be hopelessly backward, even in comparison to colonial Korea; and 3) a country with a racially white population that, however, in the case of Manchuria-based Russian émigrés, could be even more marginalized inside the Japanese empire than its colonial Korean subjects. The Russians' image was imminently self-contradictory: they were culturally “noble” Europeans, often associated with the “gracious and splendid” Western classical music or architecture; but at the same time, Harbin, with its easily recognizable Russian minority, was seen primarily as a space of criminal lawlessness and a haven of commercialized sex and eroticism. All of these features were hardly associated with nobleness in the increasingly austere mobilizational atmosphere of the late 1930s Japanese empire, entering its hopeless all-out war against China and later the United States. The key words best expressing the “essence” of Harbin Russians were sorrow or pity—exactly the epithets often used by the Japanese colonialist scholars or authors about Korea itself. Korean authors, in a way, were sympathetic to the Harbin Russians, viewing them as either equally or even more marginal than colonized Koreans; but at the same time, pitying their plight was a way in which colonial Korean authors could relatively improve their own discursive standing, being comparatively more “centrally” positioned inside the Japanese imperial system.

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