On the 12th floor of a shabby industrial building in Sheung Wan – the unlikely home of the Saint Apostles Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, complete with gold icons, altar crosses and holy relics, where Father Denis Pozdnyaev con­ducts daily services for the Russian Orthodox community – the priest talks quietly about a refugee crisis that dwarfed the current tragedy in Syria and left an indelible mark on China and Hong Kong.

March marked the centenary of the first of two Russian revolutions in 1917. It was focused on St Petersburg (then known as Petrograd) and caused the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, triggering 5½ years of bloody civil war in Russia and altering the course of international history. It was also the catalyst for an exodus of refugees, known as “white émigrés” or “white Russians”, who were loyal to the deposed tsarist establishment and opponents of the “red” Bolsheviks. Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks would seize control of Russia after the second revolution, in October.

In February, it was reported that Hong Kong had accepted its first – and so far only – Syrian refugee and in December 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing told local media that only nine refugees and 26 asylum seekers from Syria had been registered in China. The country has remained largely out of reach for the 4.5 million migrants desperate to escape the horrors of war-ravaged Syria, but it was a different story 100 years ago. Then, many thousands sought sanctuary in China from the Russian civil war, some of whom would later find refuge in Hong Kong – as history continued to hound them – where they formed a vibrant community.

“There were more than 300,000 Russians in China by the mid-1920s,” says Pozdnyaev, explaining how he and his wife, Kira Pozdnyaeva, became fascinated by the history of White Russians in Hong Kong shortly after arriving from Moscow, 14 years ago.

“We decided to go to the cemetery in Happy Valley,” says Kira. “Don’t ask me why, Denis and I just like to look at cemeteries.”

Shortly before, Denis Pozdnyaev had received an e-mail from a man in Russia looking for information on an ancestor called Nicholas Belanovsky, a former tsarist naval officer who had escaped dur­ing the civil war. No one in Russia knew what had happen­ed to Belanovsky but the first of some 170 Russian graves the Pozdnyaevs stumbled upon in Happy Valley was his.

“That White Russian was our first friend in Hong Kong,” says Kira.

Many White Russians had been members of the armed forces, nobles or pro-establishment public figures, but it was a crude political designation that encompassed those who had just been caught in the chaos and brutal vicissitudes of revolution and civil war.

From early 1917, the tsarist elite started to emigrate, mostly to European cities, but others stayed to fight the Bolsheviks, with support from Western powers and Japan. By 1922, the population of the port city of Vladivostok had increased to 410,000 (from the 97,000 who had lived there in 1916) as the White Army retreated east.

“It must have been pretty horrendous in Russia to make so many people want to leave their home,” says Nona Langley (née Pio-Ulski), a White Russian born in Hong Kong in August 1947 who has researched her family history and published the results on her website, pio-ulski.com.

Speaking on the telephone from her home in Perth, Australia, Langley says it was in 1917 that her heavily pregnant maternal grandmother, Anna Nozadze, received a telegram from her husband, a colonel in the tsarist army, urging her to immediately leave her home in Baku, on the coast of the Caspian Sea, and join him in Vladivostok. Nozadze sold her diamond brooch to purchase train tickets and during the epic 11,600km journey across freezing Russia gave birth to her daughter (Langley’s mother, Lila), assisted by an equine vet.

Sydney-based artist Paul Atroshenko is another Hong Kong-born White Russian whose family suffered in the civil war, which was to claim an estimated eight million lives.

“My mother, Antonina Atroshenko, born in 1916, was the daughter of a wealthy tsarist army officer. Her mother was his mistress and hanged herself when he was killed by the Bolsheviks,” he says; his mother survived only because she was taken in as an infant by a compassionate family. Antonina’s brother (Atroshenko’s uncle) wasn’t so lucky.

When Vladivostok fell to the Bolsheviks on October 25, 1922, the civil war essentially came to a close, and White families fled towards the nearby Chinese border in fear of their lives. The obvious destination was Harbin, which had been a pseudo-Russian colony since 1898, administered by engineers and officials appointed by the tsarist regime to build and operate the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER) under a concession granted by Qing China. (Significant numbers of White Russians had also settled in what is now Xinjiang.)

According to Langley, her father, George Pio-Ulski, who was to become the leader of the orchestra at the Hong Kong Hotel, was barely a teenager when he escaped with his mother and sister from Vladivostok to join his 19-year-old brother in Harbin. He earned his living as a travelling musician, touring China in the 1920s.

“I remember Dad telling me that his mother tore up any documents which identified the family as being connected to an officer in the imperial navy, as she was scared that if the Bolsheviks knew that, they’d be shot or sent to Siberia,” she says.

For a while, Harbin offered a comfortable refuge for fleeing Whites and the city also became the de facto home of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“The Russian church and immigrants enjoyed total free­dom in China,” says Denis Pozdnyaev, pointing out there were once more than 100 Russian churches in China, inclu­ding 23 in Harbin. However, the good times for the 150,000 Russians living in the CER zone were to be short-lived.

In 1924, when Peking finally recognised the new Soviet government, old Russian passports were invalidated and those who rejected the chance to become Soviet citizens – the vast majority of Whites – became stateless.

Titled aristocrats ... were destitute and without a country, their status was of the lowest grade. The men ran rickshaws and the women worked in 10-cent dance halls
Charlie Chaplin of Russians in Shanghai, 1931

Luba Estes (née Skvorzova) was born “both a refugee and stateless” – she has never possessed a birth certificate – in Harbin in 1931. Her father, Alexander Skvorzov (born 1893), lived in the city because his father was the chief justice at the Harbin Supreme Court. After qualifying as an engineer in St Petersburg in 1918, Skvorzov worked for the CER.

“As a result of the 1917 Russian revolution, these White Russian families in Harbin like mine could never return to Russia,” says Estes, who would grow up in Hong Kong and now lives in St Augustine, Florida, in the United States.

Many in Harbin left for Shanghai and other treaty ports, as Soviet officials, engineers and workers moved in to the CER zone, and many more followed after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, in September 1931.

“The Russians did not have a foreign settlement in Shanghai so they worked in service and were usually poor,” says Pozdnyaev. And that proved tough for those who had come from the upper classes.

Charlie Chaplin, who wrote and directed A Countess from Hong Kong, starring Sophia Loren, said the 1967 film “resulted from a visit I made to Shanghai in 1931, where I came across a number of titled aristocrats who had escaped the Russian revolution. They were destitute and without a country, their status was of the lowest grade.

“The men ran rickshaws and the women worked in 10-cent dance halls. When the second world war broke out, many of the old aristocrats had died and the younger generation migrated to Hong Kong, where their plight was even worse.”

“Jobs were scarce for White Russians like my father and social security did not exist for stateless émigrés like him,” says Atroshenko, whose parents had met and married in Harbin before fleeing to Shanghai. “Lots of the Russians in Shanghai and Hong Kong had military backgrounds so they were very employ­able as policemen or guards. In Shanghai, very rich Chinese families would employ former Russian soldiers as their private bodyguards.”

Langley believes the Russians were treated as social outcasts by many among the European elite.

“They were considered the same as the locals, or perhaps worse, never allowed to join the English clubs and I believe that any Brit who married a White Russian wouldn’t get very far up the ladder in his company,” she says.

Her musically gifted father found work in the upmarket hotels of Shanghai, where he met his future wife, Lila, who had also fled with her family from Vladivostok (in 1922) and Harbin (in the 1930s).

“The first Russians came to Hong Kong in the 1930s,” says Pozdnyaev, although the first mention in the South China Morning Post dates back to 1925, when “234 White Russians left for Hongkong from Shanghai on June 28, by the steamer Empress of Canada, to replace the Chinese crew of the Canada and also replace the crew of the Empress of Asia in Hongkong.”

The first Russian Orthodox church in Hong Kong, at 12 Essex Crescent, Kowloon Tong, was estab­lished by Father Dmitry Uspensky in 1934.

Many more Russians arrived in the city following the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in August 1937.When George and Lila Pio-Ulski came to Hong Kong, in November 1937, after he had been offered a position in the orchestra at the Hong Kong Hotel, they had already been fleeing war and political turmoil for 21 years.

“My parents never spoke Russian at home and we hated the Soviets,” says Langley. “My parents were always pro-tsar.”

Atroshenko’s father, Ivan, also managed to secure passage to Hong Kong in 1937. His now pregnant wife and baby son were ordered back to Canton, to obtain the correct visas, but before they could depart, baby Paul was born at the Matilda Hospital, in late August.

Estes and her family had made the same journey to Shanghai from Harbin. They escaped the fighting in Shanghai when her father was offered, in July 1938, a management job by the Hongkong Engineering and Construction Company (like the Hong Kong Hotel, a Kadoorie-family-owned company).

“There were ex-soldiers, too, from the White Army, who joined the Hong Kong police as anti-piracy guards and worked for the Jockey Club as security guards at the racecourse,” says Pozdnyaev, who believes Hong Kong’s Russians must have become relatively prosperous during the 1930s because they raised funds to build a church. Its construction, how­ever, was delayed by the outbreak of the second world war.

Prosperity and peace had once again been short-lived for the unfortunate White Russians who found themselves trapped in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation (December 1941 to August 1945). Most witnessed acts of casual barbarity.

According to accounts of the war, Estes’ father, Skvorzov, fought with the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and was imprisoned by the Japanese for his trouble. Being stateless, though, most Russians in the city were spared internment but had to survive as best as they could under occupation.

Langley’s older sister told her that their father once returned from a musical performance at a Japanese officer’s club with a torn shirt and bloodied back as a result of being beaten with the backs of swords by soldiers angered by his inability to recognise the songs they requested.

Atroshenko remembers a meeting he was taken to as a young child at which his father, a mining expert, refused to help the Japanese reopen local mines and was threatened with decapitation by a furious army officer.

“I was only a young boy but I have very clear memories of those wartime years in Hong Kong,” says Atroshenko.

Of borsch and White Russians - emigres' legacy to Hong Kong

After the war, though, life started to feel claustrophobic and snobby, he says.

“Hong Kong in those days was based on race and strict hierarchy. We knew three girls at school who all qualified as secretaries; the British girl earned twice as much as the Russian girl and the Russian girl earned twice as much as the Chinese girl. It was the way it was.”

His family left their Bowen Road home for Australia in 1953.

Living in Happy Valley, Langley has warmer memories; of a vibrant and close-knit White Russian com­munity: “There would be parties at each other’s houses and, at Easter, I remember us all going to the Russian Orthodox church and there would be a great feast afterwards.”

Maybe it was the racial hierarchy, though, that persuaded her father to apply for British nationality and change the family name from Pio-Ulski to Parks by deed poll in 1947. He then took up a management job at Hong Kong Tramways.

“I think my parents didn’t want us to have the stigma of being Russian émigrés – they cer­tainly wanted a British atmosphere at home,” says Langley.

My grandfather's amazing life in China and how he found my mother

A series of letters to the Post written in May 1947 reveals the contempt many among the colonial class held for the Russians in their midst.

“I personally regard all Russians the same whether their political leanings are Red, Pink or White because I always believe the old-timers who say scratch a Russian and you will find a Tartar,” wrote one correspondent.

In addition to the many Chinese who flooded into the city after the communist victory in China’s civil war, in 1949 many thousands of Russians passed through Hong Kong, Pozdnyaev estimates, although some would have to wait for as long as 15 years for an exit visa from China.

“For the past 15 months, Hongkong has been a waiting post and temporary home for about 1,000 White Russian refugees from China,” ran a report in the July 12, 1965 edi­tion of the Post. “To many residents in the Colony these refugees have become quite a familiar sight as they stroll in the streets dressed in their quaint 19th Century Russian peasant costumes. But tourists still stop and stare in wonderment at the billowing trousers and high laced boots of the men and the ankle-skirted kerchiefed women.”

The article continued, “To the refugees, Hongkong proves to be a strange and baffling place compared to their simple life in Sinkiang Province [Xinjiang] in northwest China. As one of the old refugees put it, ‘There are more cars in Hongkong than flies where we came from’.”

Most post-1949 arrivals stayed only for the days, weeks, months or years it took to undergo the medical checks and secure the documenta­tion needed for progress to Australia, Canada, South America or elsewhere. In 1953, for example, 86 White Russians who had been in Hong Kong since 1949 were given entry permits by the Japanese government.

“Not many stayed because it was very expensive, Hong Kong had been devastated by the war and the streets were already overcrowded with desti­tute Chinese. There were simply better opportunities in Australia and the USA,” says Pozdnyaev.

Even the White Russian community that had estab­lished itself in the 1930s, and which left its mark not only in music, but also in the fields of cuisine (Hong Kong-style borscht soup is still popular), art (George Smirnoff became a celebrated artist in Macau) and medicine (Solomon Bard established the University of Hong Kong Health Service), started to disintegrate.

“I have memories of all the families we knew leaving in the 1950s. They had nearly all gone by 1960,” says Langley, whose own parents remained in the city until they retired, in 1973, to Perth.

“They are all gone now – I think there is maybe one White Russian family left in Hong Kong,” says Kira Pozdnyaeva.

An employment reference letter written by the Hongkong Engineering and Construction Company for Skvorzov, as he prepared to leave for the US in 1952, can be found in the Hong Kong Heritage Project archive. The letter lists a number of major construction and infrastructure projects he oversaw in the reconstruction of post-war Hong Kong, including the installation of The Peninsula hotel’s first air conditioning.

Like members of the Atroshenko and Pio-Ulski families, he survived the Russian civil war, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Chinese civil war, the Japanese bombing of Shanghai and the Battle of Hong Kong. It had been a protracted and hazardous journey from Russia to the US via Harbin, Shanghai and Hong Kong, even when compared with the treks made by today’s refugees.

Perhaps fittingly, this White Russian died in St Petersburg – the one in Florida – in 1971.