Remembering When the Philippines Took in Russian Refugees
Visitors to the island of Tubabao, near Guiuan, Eastern Samar, will find the usual features of a small town. A barangay with a few houses, beaches, a market, and also resorts offering lodging and other activities for tourists. If they look hard enough, they will find a small plaque somewhere in town, commemorating a historical event.
Seventy years ago, 6,000 Russian refugees escaped their homes and found sanctuary in the Philippines. They made Tubabao their temporary home at a time when no other nation would take them in. This is their story.
The Loss of a Home
The Russian refugees came from China, seeking asylum for fear of persecution. Though, to answer why there were Russians in China, our story will have to go back a bit farther, to 1917:
It was the end of the Russian Civil War. Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks achieved final victory against the imperialist Tsarist regime. The Soviet Red armies had routed and crushed the opposing Whites, a name they got from the uniform of the Tsarist court, and workers from all over Russia began to set up their own people’s governments (soviets). Fearing for their lives and fueled by anti-communist sentiment, the White Russians became refugees. A good number of them settled in two enclaves in China: Harbin and Shanghai.
For 20 years, the White Russians would live in these two enclaves as refugees and migrants. This was normally not a problem; Harbin was a major hub for Russians, owing to its proximity to the now-Soviet Socialist Republic, and Shanghai was famed for its international population. But things took a turn for the worse.
In the 1920s, China ceased formal ties with the late Russian Empire. Russians in China either had to take Soviet citizenship or become stateless, losing all rights afforded to foreigners. The White Russians were devastated. Some chose to take Soviet citizenship, either out of practicality or a sense of patriotism. Others did not budge. Soviet Russia was not their Russia. This divided the Russian community, with the White Russians believing the Soviets were traitors and enemies.
The Chinese took particular note of the stateless White Russians, too. Though officially they were preferred to Soviets, they were in practice, victims of discrimination and profiling. They were more likely to be arrested on charges of espionage, stemming from a lack of trust. Life was hard for the White Russians. They lost their home, and their second home proved increasingly hostile.
The situation became untenable in the late '30s. Civil war broke out in China and generals carved the country up like a cake, until two major players remained: the nationalists under the Kuomintang, and the communists under the Chinese Communist Party. Then the Japanese invaded China and they reluctantly teamed up against an even bigger threat. Eventually the Japanese were repelled, and China went back to its order of Civil War. But the situation had changed: the Communists were poised to win once more. For the White Russians, it felt like they were back to square one.
'This is not a camp. This is a community.'
The White Russians began to appeal to the International Refugee Office. Stateless and in need of help, they sought assistance from any country who could take them. At this time, only one country stood up and declared its borders open to the refugees: the Philippines.
They began to emigrate on January 1949. The move couldn’t have come any later; on September that same year, China won its anti-imperialist struggle and Mao Zedong declared “the Chinese people have risen” in Tiananmen Square. The Russians weren’t too keen to sit around to see that.
And so some 6,000 White Russians found themselves in a camp in Tubabao, thousands of kilometers and a few dozen degrees Celsius away from Russia. The Quirino government built a settlement specifically for them, which contained a school, churches, a hospital, and even an orphanage. Though the Russians had no illusions of permanent settlement, the locals strove to make them feel at home as much as possible. Once, President Quirino visited the refugees in their camp and noticed a barbed wire fence around the perimeter. He immediately had the fence taken down; there will be no walls between the Filipinos and the Russians. Tubabao was no refugee camp, he said. The Russians were living in a community.
They lived in Tubabao for two years, in what they described as paradise. They slowly integrated themselves into the community, learning how to fish, hosting cultural performances, teaching the children piano and ballet, and becoming regular fixtures in otherwise coastal provincial life. There was no distinction between local and foreigner in Tubabao; only people.
The Russians eventually resettled in the United States and South America, this time more permanently. The settlement in Tubabao was later forgotten, and no traces were left except for the plaque.
But sometimes to be unseen does not mean to forget. When Tubabao was hit by Typhoon Yolanda, the former Russian refugees and their families rushed to help the residents. Just as they were given help in their time of need, so too did they give back to the place they called home for two years. Tubabao Island stands as a reminder of tolerance and compassion for all of us, that anybody can do good to their fellow, no matter how small.