A forgotten episode in Russian history leaves links with the Philippines

Guiuan was central to a remarkable part of the Cold War

Share
Related Topics

One evening a couple of weeks ago, beneath a cavernous sky, I stood on the edge of a 7,000ft airstrip in the Philippines peering into the darkness.

The airfield at Guiuan, built by American forces in World War II as part of General Douglas MacArthur’s operation to drive the Japanese from the Philippines, was now being used by US troops to land emergency supplies for the town devastated by Typhoon Haiyan and to evacuate the injured and sick.

The Americans overseeing the supply drops were clearly tickled by the idea of history retracing itself more than six decades on. But it was something that an aid official had said a couple of days earlier that had me entranced; a few years after the war’s conclusion, the official said, the same airstrip had been used for a dramatic evacuation of White Russian refugees, fleeing the Communist forces of Mao Zedong.

It all seemed too fanciful. And yet, it transpires, the official was largely correct: the town of Guiuan, where officials say 100 per cent of buildings were either damaged or destroyed, was central to a remarkable tale of the Cold War that has now been largely forgotten.

In 1949, with Mao’s forces approaching Shanghai, an appeal was made by the International Refugee Organisation, established to tackle the displacement crisis caused by the war and a precursor to the UNHCR. It wanted new homes for thousands of White Russians, those people who had emigrated from Russia in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent civil war and whose lives were now in danger from the Communists.

Only one country responded positively. And so it was that more than 5,000 White Russians, under the care of John Maximovitch, the Orthodox Archbishop of Shanghai who would later be canonised, were taken to the island of Tubabao, located a couple of hundred metres from the coast of Guiuan.

“There are many variances as to how many took refuge here but the most accurate approximate runs to some 6,300,” Ricardo Suarez Soler, the Manila-based author of The Saga of the White Russian Refugees in the Philippines, told me.

As unlikely as it sounds, an advance party of White Russian boy scouts were apparently flown to Guiuan to prepare an area on Tubabao for the tent city the thousands of refugees would call home, hacking away at the sugar cane with machetes.

Yet most came in ageing, listing boats, reportedly crewed by Chinese former prisoners, on a journey that took between one to two weeks. When they got there, the refugees were given food and supplies deemed surplus to the needs of the Americans.

One of those who made the journey was Nikita Gileff. Now a retired school principal in Australia, Mr Gileff was seven when he and his mother landed at Tubabao, following a journey during which he thought they would perish.

“It is part of history that appears to have been lost,” said Mr Gileff,  speaking from Sydney. “We came ashore in the same landing craft that had been left behind by the Americans.”

Gradually, various nations stepped forward to accept the refugees on a permanent basis and the White Russians were scattered, especially to the US, Australia, and South America.

But the bond between Guiuan and its former residents has remained strong. Four years ago, the then mayor of the town issued an invitation to White Russians to visit and a number took up her offer.

Alexander Vassilief, whose family also escaped from China, said his late grandmother, Yefrasinya Vajinsky, along with two aunts and three uncles, spent time on Tubabao. “Most did not complain,” said Mr Vassilief, a retired engineer who also lives in Sydney and has written his own chronicle of the events.

Indeed, last month, as the extent of the damage wrought upon Guiuan by the storm became clear, Russian communities around the world sent messages of support and held fund-raising events.

Nikolai Massenkoff was ten when he and his mother were evacuated to Tubabao. Today he lives in California where he is a celebrated performer of traditional Russian songs. Having been unable to take up the invitation from Guiuan’s mayor in 2009, he instead travelled there in 2011 and performed a “thank-you concert”.

He is now planning a series of fund-raising events and a documentary containing footage of his 2011 concert is to be shown at a “Philippines fiesta” later this month in San Francisco. 

“The people of the Philippines were warm and kind and gentle. They were the only place that could offer the refugees a place at short notice,” recalled the 74-year-old. “The whole Russian community has been deeply saddened by the tragic events.”

During their time on Tubabao, the refugees built several chapels, which were consecrated by Archbishop John. None of them remain today.

However in September, six weeks before Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines, and in another example of history coming full circle, a small group of Orthodox pilgrims visited Tubabao where a new, bamboo shelter had been constructed to hold the first such service there for more than 60 years.

The Philippines is overwhelmingly Catholic. And yet the Orthodox priest who performed the liturgy, Father Seraphim Bell, an American citizen dispatched by senior clergy in New York, said local people had been friendly and welcoming, though he did not know if the chapel had survived the storm.

“Members of the local community were very enthusiastic about our  visit,” he said. “They expressed hopes Russians would begin to return for pilgrimages to Tubabao and the chapel there.”

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Move from Audit to Advisory

£45000 per annum + benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Move from Audit to Advisor...

Management Consultancy - Operational Research Analysts

£35000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: You must ...

Secondary Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: AER Teachers: THE SCHOOL: This outstanding Secondary School...

Application Support Analyst (MS SQL, java based webserver, batch scripting)

£36000 - £40000 Per Annum On call allowance.: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor’s Letter: Britain's sexism

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back

Nigel Farage
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
10 best activity books for children

10 best activity books for children

Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

Politicians urged to find radical solution
Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

Ukraine crisis

How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

A history of the First World War in 100 moments
Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?