A railway contract brought my Russian family to Manchuria 110 years ago. Now that China's European past is unfreezing, I am welcomed back like a long-lost son to my birthplace, Harbinby Robert Skidelsky / January 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
I had been plotting my return to China for about a year, and now an invitation from Lanxin Xiang, author of a book on the Boxer rebellion, to lecture in Shanghai in September 2005 made it possible. I say “return,” because the last time I had been on the mainland was in 1948, when I was nine years old. I was born in Harbin in Manchuria in 1939, came to England when I was three, and then went back to China with my parents in 1947, living for a little over a year in Tientsin (now Tianjin). We escaped to Hong Kong just before the communists took the city.
Why had we gone back to China in 1947? The brief answer is that the Skidelsky family owned large properties in Harbin, and leased the largest private coalmine in Manchuria—the Mulin Mining Company. After the second world war, my father, a British subject since 1930, decided to reclaim the family business. In a spectacular piece of bad timing, we reached Tientsin at the moment when the communists were seizing control of Manchuria from the nationalists. We hung around in Tientsin waiting for the reversal of fortune which never happened. I remember thinking even then what a bad general Chiang Kai-Shek was to allow his best army to be cut off in Manchuria.
When you are building your own life, your family history is a matter of supreme indifference. But now I am fascinated by my family origins, and wish I had listened more attentively to family stories told by my parents. They help me make sense of my own life. The Skidelskys were one of the leading Jewish-Russian families in the far east. My great-grandfather Leon Skidelsky started his career in Skidel, now in Belarus. At some point in the 1880s, he moved with his family to Odessa on the Black sea. In 1895 he won a contract—how and why I don’t know—to build the last stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway, which ran through northern Manchuria to Vladivostok. Leon made Vladivostok the family home. The Skidelskys were one of ten Jewish families allowed to live there. My father, Boris, was born in Vladivostok in 1907.
By the time Leon died in 1916, the family owned residential, industrial and mining property in eastern Siberia, had 3,000 sq km of timber concessions in Russia and Manchuria, and was one of the region’s…