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Personal recollections of North Korea’s founding dynasty are fading in Kim Jong Il’s Russian birthplace of Vyatskoe. But even as memories of the Kims dim, construction of a large Chinese-backed memorial complex in the village will likely keep conversations alive concerning a controversial chapter in North Korea’s pre-history.
For much of its past, Vyatskoe has been an unglamorous place. Locals in Khabarovsk, the nearby regional capital, note that it is sometimes nicknamed Blyadskoe, a play on an extremely rude Russian curse word.
Lying deep in the woods on the right bank of the mighty River Amur, the village is perched between rundown fishing settlements inhabited by the region’s indigenous Nanai people, an hour’s drive north of Khabarovsk on the potholed highway to Komsomolsk.
In Vyatskoe itself, above a picturesque inlet where a branch of the Amur snakes around a small wooded islet, Soviet-era holiday cabins gradually rot next to a pavilion whose faded paint celebrates the village’s 150th anniversary in 2009. At another local leisure complex run by the Khabarovsk Metal Construction Plant, a Soviet model persists whereby workplaces arrange holidays for staff at these resorts, which are known in Russian as “relaxation bases.”
But things have not always been so peaceful here, as during the series of mid-20th century conflicts which wracked Northeast Asia, Vyatskoe was home to another kind of “base.”
This was the training camp for the Red Army’s 88th International Brigade, a key component of the then-USSR’s strategy for the region. With Japan, an Axis Power and thus a Soviet adversary, occupying the nearby Korean Peninsula and northeast China (under the puppet Manchukuo state) in the 1930s and ’40s, the brigade would, Moscow hoped, one day help liberate both territories and thereby advance Soviet interests in the Far East.
Vyatskoe’s role as a camp came about because, under increasing Japanese pressure in their own lands in the early 1940s, Chinese and Korean liberation fighters retreated here to regroup and receive Soviet training.
Moving through the woods which to this day provide continuous tree cover along much of the China-Russia, hundreds eventually arrived in this strategic location, close to the Soviet Union’s far eastern borders but remote enough to be beyond Japan’s reach.
Kim Il Sung, who commanded the 88th Brigade’s First Battalion, was among the East Asian fighters who arrived in Vyatskoe at this time
Kim Il Sung, who commanded the 88th Brigade’s First Battalion, was among the East Asian fighters who arrived in Vyatskoe at this time. Kim acknowledged his Soviet sojourn in his autobiographical self-hagiography With the Century, but in this work his time in Vyatskoe is made to sound far shorter than Soviet accounts suggest it was.
Inconsistencies between the Great Leader’s narrative and the widely credited Russian version of events are particularly significant in relation to the birth of his son-and-heir, Kim Jong Il.
MYTHOLOGY AND HISTORY
The official DPRK account maintains to this day that Kim Il Sung left the Soviet Union in 1941 to return, through Manchuria, to a secret guerilla camp at the foot of the sacred Korean peak Mount Paektu.
Kim Jong Il was reportedly born there the following year. However, the Soviet love of record-keeping has provided evidence that the younger Kim, known in his childhood by the Russian nickname “Yura,” was in fact born in Vyatskoe in 1941.
The Kim family only left the USSR for Korea in 1945 after Red Army forces numbering up to 1.5 million, the Chinese and Korean fighters of Vyatskoe among them, had swept over the border to liberate Japan’s colonies on the Asian mainland.
Despite the village’s sink into obscurity in the seven-plus decades since the young Asian revolutionaries trained and loved deep in the Soviet taiga, patchy memories of the old days have, until recently, persisted.
Past media output, including an August 2002 article in South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, has reported speaking to residents who knew the Kims well. But today firsthand recollections of that fateful time when the 88th Brigade were neighbors are almost completely extinct.
One Vyatskoe man named Vladimir, born in 1942, who spoke to NK News says he has faint memories of the Kims, but admits that no one who really knew them is around any more.
“The last of the women who remembered them well has passed on now,” he says.
Her son still lives in nearby Elabuga, the local center around 20km downriver, but no other villagers spoken to offer more than second-hand knowledge of the Brigade’s presence.
Physical traces of the Kims’ stay here are also a rarity.
In a curious parallel with 2014 claims – later disproved – that a fire had destroyed Kim Jong Il’s “official” birth home near Mount Paektu, the house where the Kims lived in Vyatskoe did actually succumb to flames around seven years ago.
“Yes, it was a while back now,” says Vladimir, who lives next door to the now-empty plot where the wooden Russian izba once stood. “I saw a great light outside in the middle of the night, and when I came out in the morning the whole place was gone, the remains were still smoldering.”
Yet on this background of amnesia and ruin, the village is suddenly receiving a great deal of attention, not from the DPRK, but from its giant northern neighbor and socialist treaty ally, China. Chinese involvement in the 88th Brigade was considerably larger than the Korean contingent, and to mark this lost chapter of history a huge PRC-backed memorial is being erected here.
Entering the village from the Komsomolsk highway, one is immediately struck by the quality of the road, a tarmacked surface whose smoothness goes against the old Russian adage that the country’s main problems are “idiots and roads.” This newly paved section of track ends abruptly next to a large concrete platform where Uzbek and Chinese workers, housed in prefabricated cabins nearby, are working on the main part of the memorial.
Planning diagrams show that the complex, dedicated to the “united anti-Japanese forces” of the 88th Brigade and due to open in May 2016, will eventually include a full reconstruction of the military camp itself and a formal graveyard to the Chinese fighters who died whilst training in Vyatskoe.
However, for now efforts are focused on the main feature, a 15-meter high monumental spike in front of which three hands gripping rifles and a Chinese sword will emerge from a golden globe.
“We don’t know much about the history ourselves, but our boss does,” says one Chinese worker on site.
Mr. Li is from Hebei province and works for the Beijing-based Ruiyang Landscaping Company which is undertaking construction. The boss, not present on the day NK News visited, may well have deepened his appreciation of this corner of history in two already-completed cabins nearby which contain information about Vyatskoe’s martial past.
The displays inside these buildings, drawing on material compiled via international cooperation on both the official and unofficial levels, provides a tantalizing outline of the more detailed story which will be told as the memorial complex takes shape.
Everyone from the families of Chinese veterans, local history enthusiasts, Elabuga officials and the descendants of past Vyatskoe-residents on the Russian side have enthusiastically contributed.
Among these has been the family of Mikhail Uza, a half-Chinese, half-Nanai intelligence agent who served alongside Kim Il Sung. The material includes numerous photos, some previously unseen, of the future Korean leader during his time in the Soviet base. However, as Russian news outlet Vostok Media reported in May last year, despite invitations to collaborate, no North Korean involvement or even acknowledgement of the project has been forthcoming.
despite invitations to collaborate, no North Korean involvement or even acknowledgement of the project has been forthcoming
Tourists from China though are already taking an interest. “In the summer they come in groups, sometimes as many as 40 people,” says Olga, a local resident who lives near the cabins. In fact even before the flurry of activity now in evidence around Vyatskoe, Olga was in contact with Chinese visitors.
“Some veterans groups have been coming here for years,” she says, pointing to a plaque dated April 2005 on the side of her house. The sign declares in Russian and Chinese: “We will always remember what happened here.”
Yet recollections of this time provided at the memorial are likely to remain selective. The recent uptick in activity in Vyatskoe owes much both to growing Sino-Russian rapprochement, and large-scale commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in both countries.
Moscow is keen to solidify its relationship with Beijing, and so official Russian support for the Vyatskoe project and a desire to celebrate ties with China are firm.
However, with relations between Moscow and Pyongyang also warming of late, the Russian narrative of the history of the 88th Brigade will continue to tread lightly around the sensitive subject of Kim Jong Il’s birth. Mindful of this, the photo exhibits in the existing museum dedicate plenty of wall space to Kim Il Sung, but avoid altogether mentioning the younger Kim.
Nevertheless, all of Vyatskoe’s residents spoken to by NK News know of the birth of Kim Jong Il in the village and find it amusing that the DPRK fails to acknowledge this fact. Discussions of the fact that North Korea’s second head of state came into the world here have only increased locally with the construction going on all around.
In other circumstances, the fading of living memories of this increasingly distant time might have provided an opportunity for Russia to sideline this potential sticking-point in the DPRK’s national mythology altogether.
But the scale of Chinese-backed developments in Vyatskoe mean that conversations about this controversial chapter of history are set to continue, even if delving into detail regarding the 88th Brigade’s past remains the preserve of local enthusiasts and Chinese groups keen to remember their ancestors’ heroic feats on foreign soil.
By NK News borderlands correspondent. Some names have been changed to protect identities in this article
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue