Shanghai's Little Russia, 1930-40's
The Footfalls of History
Nina in Tsingtau 1931
Stashed among the piles of paper of my grandfather’s (George Street) notebooks, was the front page of Section 2 of Shanghai’s The China Press, dated 3 July 1931. Across the top was a handwritten annotation, “How do you like our “little Russia?” It is better than having everything Chinese!” It was a large spread complete with pictures of a conclave of Russians who fled the Bolshevik Revolution and landed in the international district of Shanghai, an open city. Anyone could live there even if their government renounced them, as had Russia. Those that fled Russia had their passports invalidated when the Tsars fell. They were a people without a country, stuck in Shanghai until they were able to obtain Nasan passports, as “citizens of the world,” which was recognized by 50 countries. My grandfather would end up marrying one of these refugees, Nina Michael Lanzeva-Nevzorova. Her story is being saved for a different book by my step-cousin, Pat March.
The concept of Little Russia piqued my interest. America has plenty of Chinatowns, Japan towns and Little Italy’s, but few “Little Russias’” of the size of Shanghais. Approximately, 25,000 White Russians, loyal to the royal family, fled the onslaught of the Red’s during the Bolshevik Revolution which resulted in the creation of the Soviet Union.
Shanghai’s Little Russia was mostly on Avenue Joffre, “that cuts broadly through a huddle of apartment houses, past slits of streets, flanked by rabbit warrens of dwellings, a pageant of the patriate of Russia. As colorful as a ship in full dress, it is the market place of a community of vital, home loving emotional, very human, human beings. Here the severed roots of life, mangled by a political upheaval, have been healed and struggle bravely into a new being,” as the news article described. Boy, journalists could sure write back in the day!
Avenue Joffe was an informal shopping district of bakeries, butchers and bistros. People gathered there over chocolate, vodka, wine, potato salad, and saffron cakes. Beer signs overwhelmed little cafés tucked into “depressions in walls.” The Russian orchestra played homegrown ballads for the passerby’s to enjoy. French-influenced clothiers attracted the attention of ladies strolling in best Sunday dress…or not. The dry goods store was strictly Russian, usually run by a family. There a “yard is thirty-six inches, no less, that fast colors will not run, that wool is wool, silk, silk, and rayon only that.” It sounds like a wonderful place for a day of shopping and gossip.
But there must have been a darker side for people like Nina. She and her sisters were put on a train in Vladivostok for Shanghai when they were teenagers. She never saw or heard from her family again. They must have had a mishap because they ended up hitching rides in wagons and hiding in barns. Nina said she made a living as an “entertainer,” perhaps a taxi-dancer in a cabaret…or not. She never said more. All I know is that she became my grandfather’s mistress until necessity forced their marriage. I like to think that she did enjoy strolling Avenue Joffre so she could touch her Russian heritage and ease the pain of separation. Thanks to a reporter’s good writing, it sounds like it was a nice place to be.
 The China Press, Shanghai, 3 July 1931, Section 2 Avenue Joffre, Pulse of the Russian Community…by Nevada Semenza..