Harbin, in China’s far northeast, owes its modern beginnings entirely to a railway. For the first three decades of the 20th century it was effectively a Russian city. It is a place that has sparked my curiosity ever since I came across a 1927 ship’s passenger list that revealed the name of my grandfather Frank Newman ’s “second wife”, for whom he would leave his Shanghai-based family in the early 1930s: Nina Kovaleva, 25, born in Sevastopol, Russia. The list also named a daughter, Kyra, aged five, born in Harbin. It was a stunning revelation. It implied that my grandfather, an inspector for the Harbin postal subdistrict from about 1912, had led a double life for at least a decade. I contacted an American friend, Michael Towers, whose father had known my mother in Shanghai during the 30s. His Russian mother, Olga, her parents – Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Evdokia Belan – and many siblings spent years in Harbin, though his family rarely talked about those times. I suggested that since we were both interested in our forebears’ history, we might meet in Harbin and walk under the onion domes of churches and along the same streets once trod by Nina and Olga. Michael and I met in September, a benign month before Harbin’s deep freeze sets in, prepared to dive into the history of the region and our families’ places in it. Long before it became the capital of Heilongjiang province, Harbin was a fishing and hunting settlement of Manchuria, whose inhabitants, the Manchus, had a history of conquering and being conquered by China. More than a century ago, vast and mineral-rich Manchuria became the locus of a three-way power struggle between China, Russia and Japan. After the Sino-Japanese war of 1895, tsarist Russia obtained a concession from China’s weak Qing dynasty to build the China Eastern Railway (CER) as a short cut linking two Russian cities: Chita, in Siberia, and the far eastern port of Vladivostok. The route, however, meant traversing northern Manchuria via Harbin. From the start, it was a highly controversial project because the great powers of the time suspected Russia of using the railway to control large parts of Manchuria. They were right, of course. Borrowing from British treaty ports, Russia claimed extraterritorial rights for the zone covered by the CER, putting it outside Chinese jurisdiction and making it Russian territory, not only for railway employees but also for hundreds of thousands of travellers and settlers, Russian and foreign, within the zone. As a result of its enormous influence, the CER would be the cause of several major conflicts over the next half-century. The railway network was more or less T-shaped, with Harbin at the point where the southern track began its route to Changchun, Mukden (now Shenyang) and the strategically vital, ice-free Port Arthur (Dalian). This ribbon of steel would turn Harbin into a thriving, tolerant, business-minded city of about 50 nationalities, a mini Shanghai, but with Russians in charge. I suspect Nina was from a railway family. Kyra was conceived in 1921, when grandfather Newman was the postal commissioner for Shaanxi province, in northwest China, based in the provincial capital of Xian, about 2,000km from Harbin. He would also have gone to Shanghai on leave to see his family, and might have met Nina there. It is reasonable to assume Nina delivered her baby in Harbin, because she had family there who could take care of her, before and after the birth. Nina’s parents may well have gone to Harbin for the same reason as thousands of Russians – to work for the CER, which provided far better pay and conditions than the average Russian rail worker could dream of. CER employees benefited from free flats and firewood. They were granted long holidays and their families had passes for free trips on the railway. Medical care was also gratis; Nina might well have been sent to Harbin’s Central Hospital to give birth. But trouble was brewing. Japan viewed Russia’s eastern expansion with alarm, and the CER was a casus belli for the Russo-Japanese conflict in 1905. A rising power, the Japanese shocked the world by defeating the Russians both on land – in the battle of Mukden, which involved 600,000 combatants – and at sea, when the Russian fleet famously sailed halfway around the world from its Baltic base, only to be sunk in the Tsushima Strait. Russia’s defeat cost it the Liaodong Peninsula and the Japanese took over the CER line between Changchun and Port Arthur, renaming it the South Manchuria Railway. Although some Russians returned home after this major setback, many more kept arriving. By 1913, Harbin was an established Russian colony with a population of nearly 70,000 people, most of Russian or Chinese descent. Then came the upheavals of World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war, driving several hundred thousand Russians through Harbin’s railway station. Although most would pass on to other cities, especially Shanghai, many stayed. This new wave of émigrés differed from earlier settlers in that they hoped their exile would be temporary. It is possible Nina’s family had been among those fleeing the Bolsheviks but, since she was from the Crimean port of Sevastopol, it would have been far more practical for her family to leave across the Black Sea rather than make the 8,000km overland trek to Harbin. It is not easy to find the Russian Harbin of 1898 to 1932 in today’s vast, sprawling Chinese city with its endless rows of gleaming office blocks and stolid apartment complexes, home to 10 million people. But our Chinese guide, who still handles the occasional tour for descendants of Harbin Russians, took us to the old business and residential districts, the railway station, the railway club, which houses the railway museum, the Russian cemetery and the secret camp where the Japanese conducted medical experiments on live humans, including Russians, from the mid-1930s onwards. We drove 50km to Acheng, where Michael’s grandfather, Aleksandrov, had been stationmaster. The station has been expanded and renovated but a water tower and other buildings behind it appear to date from the old days. Acheng had a White Russian community of several hundred and boasted an orthodox church, a college, a library and a social club. A Russian community lived there until 1955 – almost all of Acheng’s Russians would emigrate to Australia and Brazil. In Harbin, we stood outside the Heilongjiang Museum on what used to be Central Square (now Hongbo Square). From the museum’s photographs, it is possible to see how it looked in 1900, when the wooden St Nicholas’ Cathedral stood in the middle of town, encircled by sheltering trees, passing trams and horse-drawn vehicles. Like many of the city’s Russian churches, the cathedral was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. A few hundred metres northwest of the square is Harbin Railway Station, where murals on the walls show how it looked when Nina and Olga passed through. A short walk beyond is St Sophia Cathedral, built in 1907 and a focal point for orthodox Russians. It is still recognisable, although it was closed during the Cultural Revolution and converted into a museum in 1997. On the other side of Hongbo Square, we strolled through what used to be the Pristan downtown district with stores offering the latest Western fashion, and banks and theatres built in striking architectural styles. Today it is a pedestrian zone where reconstructed Russian buildings rub shoulders with a Starbucks and modern malls. Holding a 1930s photograph of a cousin’s typewriter store, Michael found the same building, renovated, but with clearly similar features. I stumbled upon an imposing, ochre-coloured China Post Office, which had been built as a two-storey building in 1914 and reconstructed in the 1980s, with a floor added. It is possible that Newman, a fluent Chinese speaker tasked with setting up new premises for the postal service, had been involved in its planning when he was in Harbin. Back then, Noviy Gorod (New City) was a Russian district of tree-lined streets, elegant mansions and foreign consulates separated from Pristan by a network of railway tracks. Michael’s family lived in this area, at 55 Ashihe Street, according to an immigration document. Ashihe Street is still there and has retained its name. Number 55 no longer exists, but gracious buildings survive, including a few former consulates. We lunched at a restaurant opposite the Muling Coal Mine Company offices, built in 1912, with which Olga’s stationmaster father, Aleksandrov, might have conducted business. Senior CER officials had the use of Sun Island, a holiday resort in the middle of the Songhua River. Whereas they would board a ferry, we took a cable car over the river to what is now called “Russian Style Town”. It is largely a collection of former dachas and Russian memorabilia. In one bungalow, now converted into a museum, Michael gasped when he spotted two photographs of his aunts on a wall. He recognised them as family pictures he had posted on the internet some years earlier. When Olga and her family lived in Harbin, it was as Russian as any town in the homeland. It had a Russian school system and Russian-language newspapers and journals. Russians went to church, hunted and fished, and visited each other’s homes to drink beer and play cards. The White Russian Army ran the Russian part of the CER from 1917 to 1924, and many in the Russian Harbintsy community, which by the 1920s numbered about 120,000, thought their lifestyle would last forever. They were wrong. The Soviet Union was established on December 30, 1922, and China officially recognised the Soviet government two years later. Old Russian passports were now invalid and Harbin’s Russians who had no wish to become Soviet citizens were rendered stateless. The Soviets renounced imperialist territorial claims, but took control of the CER. In a pact that would have consequences for Aleksandrov, it was agreed with the Chinese that the CER would employ only Soviet and Chinese citizens. By this time, the Chinese were also taking over Harbin institutions, including the police, courts and post office. In 1929, Chinese warlord Zhang Xueliang captured the CER, but Soviet troops intervened to restore the status quo. The fabric of Olga’s family was slowly tearing apart, but worse was to come. In September 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, establishing a base in Mukden, about 550km south of Harbin. Then in February 1932 their troops overcame Chinese resistance to take Harbin. The city’s White Russians initially welcomed the Japanese, who had been Western allies in the first world war and had sent troops to Manchuria in 1917 to defend the White Russians against the Reds. But things had changed. The Japanese established a claim to the territory they now called Manchukuo. They wanted to control the whole CER and, in 1935, the Soviets sold the rest of the line to them. In return, Japan arranged for 20,000 CER employees and their families, including 13,000 from Harbin, to return to Russia. Foreign business in Harbin shrank as the puppet state of Manchukuo became isolated internationally and the Japanese tightened their grip on the local economy. Poverty was rife, especially among the Chinese. Prostitution was rampant across nationalities. It did not help that the Songhua River flooded Harbin twice in the 30s, causing epidemics and collapsing infrastructure. Most horrific of all, as we saw during a visit to the War Crimes Museum in the Pingfang district, starting in 1934 the Japanese Army’s Unit 731 built a biological and chemical warfare research and development unit that performed vivisection on live humans. Over a decade, they would subject at least 3,000 men, women and children to experiments that included freezing them or injecting them with bubonic plague. Most of those killed at Unit 731 were Chinese, but they also included Soviet Russians, Mongolians, Koreans and Allied prisoners of war. “Plague bombs” developed at Unit 731 and affiliated units were dropped on the Chinese throughout the second world war, and the resulting cholera, anthrax and plague killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Olga’s family were still living at Ashihe Street even as life became more difficult and the White Russian community was shrinking. Then, in 1937, Aleksandrov died and was interred in the Russian burial ground in Noviy Gorod. Even the dead would not escape political turmoil, however; the old cemetery was desecrated by the Chinese in the 1950s. Having heard some Russian graves had survived the destruction, we visited the Russian section of the Chinese public cemetery in north Harbin. “A cousin came to Harbin many years ago and told me they had thrown most of the Russian headstones into the Songhua River,” said Michael. Nonetheless, he explored the graveyard, examining stone inscriptions and inspecting a list of the buried on a noticeboard in the faint hope of finding his grandfather. He was not successful. Aleksandrov’s death was the last straw for his family. They fled the city, with Olga and at least one sister going to Shanghai. Nina, meanwhile, had already left Harbin. A 1927 manifest for the Empress of Canada ocean liner shows that Newman, who had resigned from the China Post Office and was carrying a small fortune in cash, took Nina and Kyra to Vancouver. Like every stateless Russian in Shanghai, Nina was desperate for a passport and Newman tried to help her. He renewed his British passport, illegally adding Nina and Kyra as his spouse and daughter (Nina and Newman never married). Years later, in 1932, by which time the family had returned to China, the scheme was discovered and Newman was reprimanded and fined £50 in a Shanghai court. The CER continued to occupy centre stage amid bitter conflict. Russia regained control over the CER after Joseph Stalin declared war on Japan, in August 1945. By 1952, however, the Soviet Union had transferred all its CER rights, free of charge, to the People’s Republic of China. Even before the war, Nina and Kyra had moved to Shanghai and Newman was maintaining both them and his other family: Chinese wife, Mei-lan, and their daughters Jessie, Dolly and Billie (both Dolly and Billie, my mother, were adopted). After the adverse publicity from the court case, however, he moved to Qingdao and I suspect Nina and Kyra went with him. After Newman’s death in Qingdao, in 1937, she married Russian Michael “Misha” Reuter, in Shanghai, in May 1941. For a few years after the war, they lived in a makeshift Russian camp on an island in the southern Philippines before sailing to San Francisco in the 50s. In 1941, Kyra married an American soldier who was killed in combat soon afterwards. Around 1945, also in Shanghai, she married Malcolm Riddle, an American broadcaster with the Armed Services Network. She went to the US, where she gave birth to a son, Alan, in 1948. I contacted Alan Riddle, who was astounded but pleased to hear from me as his mother and grandmother had told him little of their lives before they moved to the US. We met to exchange family photos and piece together what had happened to Nina and Kyra. “We used to visit them all the time in San Francisco,” said Alan, a tall, spare man, retired after a career in retail. “My mother said Nina was very strict with her, but I didn’t see that aspect of her because I was the grandson. She was a very sweet lady to me.” Nina’s mother – who had likely looked after Nina and Kyra in Harbin – also made it to the US. As a child, Riddle played cards with her, but he does not recall her name. In a photograph, she appears to be a strong character. Olga would meet Joe, a resourceful entrepreneur, and embark on a relationship that lasted till his death in 1977. She gave birth to Michael in Shanghai, in May 1949, before leaving the city as the communists were arriving. The family had a convoluted journey, living in Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines before arriving in the US in 1961. For Harbin’s White Russians, the railway city had been a paradise that became a disaster. Nina was 19 when she gave birth to Kyra, and her life continued to be destabilised by international conflicts for years. She would raise her daughter under often lonely and difficult circumstances, but they reached the US to ensure the next generation would grow up in a land free from war at home.