Tubabao cradled 6300 Russian refugees during their darkest hours
The Tsarist regime of Russia supported by the White Russian was overthrown by the socialist-communist during the Russian Civil War of 1919 to 1920, forcing the White Russians to flee to China, but China had its own share of turmoil when in 1948 Chinese communist invaded the entire country. Threatened, the Russian refugees decided to accept Tubabao Island in Guiuan, Samar, Philippines as fresh refuge.
- Welcome to Tubabao
- Why “White Russians”?
- The search for an Asylum
- Arrival of the White Russian refugees
- Recollecting memories
- Visit of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan)
- Hospitality plaque
Welcome to Tubabao
Tubabao is one of the 7200 islands in the Philippine archipelago, particularly in the eastern portion off the town of Guiuan, Eastern Samar, Philippines. Tiny and devoid of the amenities in modern living, Tubabao welcomed with open arms and provided warmth, comfort, cradle and home to the 6300 gaunt and war-weary White Russians.
This Christian gesture of love and kindness was shown by President Elpidio Quirino, who, without fear of reprisal from the Chinese Communists, agreed to develop Tubabao into a refugee camp for these freedom-loving Russians who chose flight rather than be slaughtered or be made slaves in labor camps.
Why “White Russians”?
The “White Russians” were so named after the color of the Tsarist court and the Russian soldier’s uniform. They were opposed to the “Red Russians” or the communists that revolted against the Tsar during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The conflict ripened into a civil war from 1919 to 1920, forcing the White Russians to flee for their safety to other countries including China, after the Tsarist autocracy was overthrown by the socialists.
Twenty-eight years after in 1948, China was ripe for a total invasion by the communists led by Mao-Tse-Tung. For this reason, Russian emigrants living in Peking, Hankow,Tiensin and other nearby cities in northern China were forced to evacuate to Shanghai’s refugee compounds. Aware that the communist army would eventually take over the whole of China, they decided to move somewhere else rather than die in Russian labor camps.
The search for an Asylum
The International Refugee Organization (IRO) entered the picture. Task to tackle the world’s displacement crisis caused by war, the IRO asked assistance from other countries to provide temporary shelter for these homeless people. The report said no country responded to the IRO plea for fear of China, but one, the Philippines, a former colony of the United States of America, the strongest anti-communist critic.
In January1949 the exodus of more than 5000 White Russian refugees from Shanghai to Tubabao, the promised island that will give them succor from the cruelness and persecution of the communists, began. In their melancholic journey, they were accorded hope and encouragement by the Orthodox Archbishop of Shanghai John Maximovitch, himself a refugee who traveled with the lost flock. John Maximovich is the same St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco who was later canonized for sainthood.
Arrival of the White Russian refugees
Two weeks after about 6300 of them arrived as quoted from Ricardo Suarez Soler, the Manila-based author of “The Saga of the White Russian Refugees in the Philippines” in the clearings made for the purpose in their new abode in the desolate island.
Jesse T Reyes in his “From Russia with love to the Philippines” describing their arrival, said: “An advance party of White Russian boy scouts was apparently flown to Guiuan to prepare an area on Tubabao for the tent city that the thousands of Russian refugees would call home, hacking away at the sugar cane fields with machetes. The displaced Russians landed on chartered flights at the former American naval base there. Most came in ageing, listing boats, crewed by Chinese former mainland 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”.
The Tubabao-Russian Refugee Camp had 14 districts and in almost three years of their stay in the island, they were able to provide their own hospital, electricity, churches, as well as a cemetery.
The Russians brought with them their culture and religion as St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco had set up two places of worship in the island, namely the Church of St. Seraphim and the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. For about 27 months, the sleepy village became the sanctuary of people who escaped the shackles of the Communist movement.
Picture: Plane and old ships were used to ferry Russian refugees from Shanghai to Tubabao.
Nikita Gileff. now a retired school principal in Australia, was seven when he and his mother landed at Tubabao. Talking about their stay in the island, Gileff said that it was part of history that appears to have been lost. “We came ashore in the very same landing craft that had been left behind by the Americans,” he said speaking from Sydney
Eventually, the U.S., Australia, Canada and South American nations learned to open their doors to this hapless Russian refugees, who settled permanently in the surrogate country rather than go home to their homeland,
But the bond between Guiuan and the Russian refugees has remained strong. Years back, the town mayor did an invitation to White Russians to come and visit Tubabao, and a number took up her offer.
Alexander Vassilief 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 account of the events.
Nikolai Massenkoff was 10 when he and his mother were evacuated to Tubabao. Today, he lives in California where he is a celebrated performer of traditional Russian songs. He failed to answer Guiuan’s Mayor Analiza Kwan invitation in 2009, instead he travelled to Guiuan in 2011 and performed a thank-you concert. He also did a series of fund-raising activities and a documentary containing footage of his 2011 concert which was later shown at a Filipino fiesta in San Francisco.
Visit of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan)
After the November 8, 2013 devastation of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in the Samar-Leyte area, Russian communities given short notice, sent messages of support and conducted fund-raising events for the typhoon survivors.
Two IL-76 cargo planes from Moscow then delivered the very first medical supplies and doctors/ technicians to the stricken Leyte/Samar region.
“The people of the Philippines were warm and kind and gentle. Tubabao in Guiuan was the only place that could offer the Russian refugees a place at short notice,” recalled Massenkoff now 74-year-old.
“The whole Russian community has been deeply saddened by the tragic events,” he added referring to the devastation brought on by super typhoon Haiyan.
None remains today of the chapels built by the refugees, In September, six weeks before typhoon Haiyan, a small group of Orthodox pilgrims visited Tubabao where a shelter has been constructed to hold the first such service there for more than 60 years. The Orthodox priest who performed the liturgy, Father Seraphim Bell, an American citizen, said local people had been friendly and welcoming.
Resiliency and determination to build a new life were the key ingredients for the Russian refugees, so as the Filipinos whom Pototsky admired so much for standing tall despite adversities. “Both the Philippines and Russia have been in difficult times in the past, from wars to shaky political leaderships. Amidst all these, people in both countries remain tough and kind,” he commented.
Today, a commemorative plaque in memory of the hospitality the Filipinos have shown to the 5,000 plus Russian refugees fleeing China sixty years ago stands in Guiuan. It reads in part: “In Memory: Kindness of the People of the Philippines who in 1949-1951 provided on the island of Tubabao safe shelter to Russian Nationals destined to survive hardships far from Motherland. With sincere gratitude, Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of the Philippines.”
On March 22, 2011, Russians and Filipinos alike trooped to the lobby of the Philippine Trade Training Center in Pasay City to witness the unveiling of the bronze portrait of a man whose kindness reverberated thousands of miles away from home.
Crafted by renowned Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky, the rectangular bronze artwork shows the image of President Quirino as if being blessed by St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who joined the Russian refugees in their journey from China to the island of Tubabao in the Philippines in 1949.
On June 19/July 2, 1994 St. John Maximovitch was canonized in San Francisco and his relics rest today in the Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral for all the faithful to venerate. St. John is commemorated on June 19 on Church’s calendar. It is said no typhoon struck Tubabao while he was there.
- Tubabao Fiesta Celebration! 2009 (Parade) / https://vimeo.com/114468702 / www.youtube.com
- A memoir of Russian refugees at Tubabao / philippine-mission.org
- THE TENT CAMP OF RUSSIAN REFUGEES FROM CHINA IN TUBABAO/villamorhighschool.org
- A forgotten episode in Russian history leaves links with the Philippines / Russian refugees were transported from Shanghai to Tubabao by plane and old ship manned by prisoners /www.independent.co.uk
- Senior man pianist playing on a grand piano. Nikolai Massenkoff, the star of the Massenkoff Russian Folk Festival/ www.123rf.com
- A couple of churches in Eastern Samar such as Guiuan town's 400-year old La Purisima Conception Church, seen in the photo, were heavily damaged by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) on Nov. 8, 2013.
- ... COMMEMORATIVE PLAQUE IN MEMORY OF FILIPINO HOSPITALITY TO RUSSIAN REFUGEEES / villamorhighschool.org
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