What you need to know
In icy Harbin, a smattering of crumbling onion domes unmasks the city’s past life as a melting pot of European, Russian and Chinese culture.
When the Russians came to northeastern China at the dawn of the last century, they brought with them their native art, culture, and religion. At the many small stations dotted along the Chinese Eastern Railway, a vast length of track crisscrossing the Qing Dynasty’s territories in Manchuria, foreign immigrants from Russia and beyond constructed a number of lofty cathedrals, churches, and synagogues in which to practice their religions. Many of these structures were demolished long ago, some are now no more than abandoned ruins, and still, others have been transformed into museums and tourist spots.
Harbin was where these various ethnicities and religions mixed, and today, the city in Heilongjiang province is like a museum displaying their many different styles of churches. On East Dazhi Street stands Harbin’s only Eastern Orthodox church still open for regular worship: the Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God. The building’s conspicuous onion domes loom large over the city, flanked by vermilion walls and deep-green roof tiles. The arched windows and gilded Orthodox cross lend the church a particularly solemn air.
Back in 1902, Ukrainian immigrants arriving in Harbin built this cemetery chapel for themselves beside the Ukraine Club on what was then called Gogol Street, named after the prolific author. In 1930, the chapel was moved to East Dazhi Street, and the building was completely redesigned by renowned Russian architect Yuri Zhdanov. Standing before the entrance to the Eastern Orthodox church is a prayer pavilion approximately 2 meters in height, a relic from the former cemetery once frequented by Russian immigrants praying for the soldiers lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.
Next door to the Church of the Intercession is the Harbin Nangang Christian Church, originally a place of worship for Lutheran immigrants from Germany, many of whom came to Harbin during the interwar period. Though it represents a different Christian denomination, this church is almost identical in color to the Eastern Orthodox church beside it, with the same red walls and green roofs. The only difference is that the Protestant church was built in the Gothic style.
Across the road from these two churches is a towering white structure: the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This Catholic church was built by Polish immigrants, more than 3,000 of whom migrated along the Chinese Eastern Railway. Most of the Poles settled around East Dazhi Street, where they built their own churches and schools. Today, Sacred Heart is the largest Catholic church in all of Heilongjiang province.
Harbin’s spirit of openness and freedom made it a second home for immigrants and exiles from all over the world. The Church of St. Alekseyev once enjoyed a status even greater than that of Harbin’s most famous landmark, St. Sophia Cathedral, because the surrounding neighborhood was once the beating heart of the city’s Eastern Orthodox community. Constructed in the 1930s, St. Alekseyev is a shining example of post-Byzantine architecture, with eye-catching rounded triangular archways and dazzling cinnabar walls glowing in the sunlight.
The church was closed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, and when religious activities started up again in the ’80s, there were too few Eastern Orthodox practitioners and not nearly enough space in the Catholic church. As a result, this well-preserved Eastern Orthodox church was appropriated for use by the Harbin Patriotic Catholic Association. Today, the church is completely open to the public.
Northwest of the train station and far from East Dazhi Street lies Harbin’s bustling Zhongyang Main Street. Today, magnificent European architecture can be seen along both sides of the road, but more than a century ago, this street was a “Chinatown” in a city of Russians. Back when Harbin was first established, Chinese and foreigners were subject to different systems of governance. The Russians lived in the hills south of the train station, while the Chinese lived to the north, near the river. Back then, Zhongyang Street was known as Kitayskaya Ulitsa — Russian for “Chinese Street.”
However, it was the Jewish community that brought Zhongyang Main Street to the peak of its prosperity. Turning off the street into one of the small alleyways leading northwest, one comes to the old Jewish meeting hall, which once doubled as a high school but has since been converted into a concert hall. The Star of David remains etched into the ceiling, windows, and hallways of the old meeting hall, under its distinctive conical roof.
When a wave of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe arrived in Harbin, they brought with them their flourishing culture and art and established an independent district inside the city. Most of the schools, synagogues, hospitals, and nursing homes that they built are still in use today. At that time, the Jewish hospital was the best in the city, and Jewish music education was an important factor in the United Nations’ decision to confer the title of “City of Music” on Harbin in 2010. The famed German violinist Helmut Stern moved to Harbin during his childhood to escape the Nazis; in his memoirs, he recalls the diverse collection of people living in Harbin at the time.
On the eastern side of the city is Harbin Culture Park, which the Chinese Eastern Railway built a century ago as a cemetery for railroad workers. Later, the park became a public cemetery for foreign immigrants, and more than 40,000 people — the majority of them Russians — were buried there. The cemetery was converted into a culture park in the 1950s and functions today as a children’s playground.
Deep in the heart of the park sits a piece of European architecture so completely reclaimed by the verdant foliage that, at first glance, visitors might mistake it for another theme park attraction. In fact, this structure is the only remaining trace of the original public cemetery: the Church of the Holy Rest of the Mother of God and its bell tower. The church’s onion domes disappeared long ago, and the plaster is peeling off its walls. A sign warns tourists not to stand too close. Nowadays, only a few architecture lovers make the trip out to see this once-famous public cemetery chapel.
Yet compared with Holy Rest, which was afforded some degree of protection and preservation due to its location within the park, the Holy Iveron Icon Church near the train station has seen much better days. This former military church, used by Russian troops from the Outer Amur Military Region who were garrisoned in Harbin, saw its five onion domes demolished during the Cultural Revolution and its main structure repurposed as a warehouse.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has only a fleeting history in China, yet it has left a unique legacy both of religious proselytization and of Russia’s expansion into East Asia. Here, in the vast wilderness of northeastern China, Russian immigrants built churches, led pious lives, and buried their dead — alongside a diverse community of fellow migrants from across the world.
A century later, most of this community’s religious buildings have been converted, lie in ruins, or have been wiped from the earth entirely. Local memories of this foreign influence are fading away, leaving only a few of us to scour what remains for the stories of those who worshipped here.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.