The “Moscow of the Far East”: An Introduction to Harbin, China – by Marin Ekstrom. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at and

The “Moscow of the Far East”: An Introduction to Harbin, China – by Marin Ekstrom. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at and


[The Saint Sophia Cathedral, a former Russian Orthodox church-turned-city museum that serves as Harbin’s most recognizable landmark.]

Towering onion dome cathedrals and Stalinist spires…matryoshka nesting dolls and tins of caviar sitting in shop windows…broad streets, or prospekti, criss-crossing an urban landscape…

Based on these descriptions, one would assume that this place would be the most Russian of Russian cities. However, these are actually some of the key sights to see in Harbin, a city located in the northernmost throes of China! Harbin, the capital of China’s northeastern Heilongjiang Province, offers a fish-out-of-water experience and a standout highlight of any expedition into China.


[A mountain of matryoshka Russian nesting dolls for sale.]

The city of Harbin as it is known today dates back to the end of the 19th century – a spring chicken as far as most Chinese cities are concerned! The Russian Empire was consolidating ownership of its Siberian reaches via the Trans-Siberian Railroad and wanted a shortcut route to Vladivostok, its key Pacific port. The Qing Empire ruling China at that time granted Russia permission to build the Chinese Eastern Railway in its territory. Construction lasted from 1897-1901 and during that time, hundreds of Russian workers and railroad personnel settled in the area. They ultimately decided to remain there even after they finished building the railway. Noting Harbin’s steady growth following this settlement, China declared Harbin an “open city” in order to further promote trade opportunities. Hundreds of immigrants, chiefly from Russia but from other countries as well, flocked to Harbin to help and build up this rising economic centre. Harbin also offered a safe haven for people under persecution, and thus groups such as Eastern European Jews and Russian dissidents of the Bolshevik regime relocated to Harbin as a place of refuge. The influx of people and businesses helped Harbin carve out an identity as an eclectic and bustling city; nicknames such as “the Paris of the Far East” and the “Moscow of the Orient” provide further testament to its cosmopolitan reputation.


[A monument to Mao Zedong and other key figures in the foundation of the People’s Republic of China .]

However, these glory days were not meant to last. China’s regional neighbor Japan had been demonstrating its imperial expansionist ambitions and invaded northeastern China in the 1930s. Japanese occupation proved devastating for Harbin; the Japanese army’s control of the city’s transportation hubs was a massive blow for its economy. Additionally, thousands of residents in and near Harbin fell victim to Japanese biological warfare experiments that were being tested at this time. After the Japanese were expelled from Harbin following their defeat in WWII, members of the Chinese Communist Party entered the area and Harbin became a key base for Communist forces during the Chinese Civil War. After the Communists’ victory and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Harbin returned to Chinese rule and began a new chapter in its history.


[A red lantern in the window of an ice castle.]

Over the next few decades, the Chinese population of Harbin substantially increased as the Chinese government promoted it as a base of heavy industry. Simultaneously, the Russian population steeply declined due to mass outward migrations to escape Japanese and Chinese control, Soviet deportations, etc. In terms of cultural and demographic terms, Harbin today is much less ethnically diverse than in times prior. Despite these significant changes in Harbin’s make-up, the influence of Russian culture is still clearly evident in several aspects of day-to-day life, such as architecture, monuments, merchandise and foodstuffs, etc. Furthermore, while Russian and Chinese influences are most predominantly visible in Harbin, other cultures have further added to the city’s cosmopolitan flair. The Harbin Jewish New Synagogue Museum is the most prominent remainder of the Harbin Jewish community’s legacy. The city features the Daowai Mosque, and ethnic Uyghur and Hui people that form part of China’s Islamic minority operate several restaurants and noodle shops. The streets are dotted with Thai, Korean, and Mongolian restaurants, and the city even features an ornate Indian Quarter! All of these details blend into the background of the cityscape yet offer tantalizing hints to the mosaic that is Harbin’s identity. With all of these factors in mind, Harbin is a centre of multicultural synthesis in China and a very worthwhile place to explore further in depth!

Works Consulted

China Briefing Media. China Briefing’s Business Guide to Beijing and North-East China. China Briefing Media, 2006. Accessed April 25, 2016. &dq=harbinopencity&source=bl&ots=EkeKrpus6W&sig=uPf5JqrwgsG_8TPF76 Vi3paHcUc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi0x_3hn6fMAhXDYqYKHbgMBKc 4ChDoAQgcMAA#v=onepage&q=harbinopen city&f=false.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Harbin”, accessed April 24, 2016,

“Harbin Travel Guide.” Travel China Guide. Accessed April 24, 2016.

King, R. Todd. “Harbin’s History.” 2005. Accessed April 24, 2016.

Song, Candice. “Harbin History.” ChinaHighlights. July 28, 2014. Accessed April 24, 2016.

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The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy ( is a student edited and student authored open access publication centered around the themes of global and historical connections. Our abiding philosophy is that those of us who are fortunate enough to receive an education and to travel our planet are ethically bound to share our knowledge with those who cannot afford to do so. Therefore, creating virtual and actual communities of learning between college and K-12 classes are integral to our mission. In three years we have published over 250 articles covering all habitable continents and a variety of topics ranging from history and politics, food and popular culture, to global inequities to complex identities. These articles are read by K-12 and college students. Our student editors and writers come from all parts of the campus, from Nursing to Biology, Physical Therapy to Business, and remarkably, many of our student editors and writers have long graduated from college. We also have writers and editors from other colleges and universities. In addition to our main site, we also curate a Facebook page dedicated to annotated news articles selected by our student editors ( This is done by an all volunteer staff. We have a frugal cash budget, and we donate much of our time and talent to this project. The North Star Reports is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports.

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers, with generous support from The Department of History and Politics of The College of St. Scholastica, and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at)


Filed under Marin Ekstrom, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

12 responses to “The “Moscow of the Far East”: An Introduction to Harbin, China – by Marin Ekstrom. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at and

  1. What an interesting article! This is the first time I have heard of Harbin, but it sounds like a place I would like to visit (most NSR articles make me want to drop everything and travel the world). Its is interesting to learn how its fascinating history has shaped its current makeup. I wonder how the Chinese people feel about its unique amalgam of structures in their land? Thank you for sharing.

  2. Ellery Bruns

    A few years ago, my Step-dad introduced me to Russian literature. Since then, I have been interested in the complex and unique culture Russia possesses.You could say I was very intrigued and excited after reading this article! I would love to visit Harbin to look around and talk to the people living there about how Harbin differs from the rest of China, and how the different cultures incorporate into daily life. To visit Harbin would be an amazing experience.

  3. Abbey DeLisle

    This article provides a new perspective in which we can see China, Russia, Japan, and many surrounding Asian countries with. I have learned about Russian and Japanese interactions with China before WWII and what led up to the Korean War. I found this article helpful in allowing me to recognize the present impacts of the Russian influence on China in this isolated case that I previously would have overlooked. From the description in the article, Harbin seems as if it were a Russian city with new influences of a Jewish and Muslim community along with other Asian cuisines. Does the world recognize the major influences of other cultures in current Chinese society? And does China itself embrace the cultural influences from surrounding countries outside of Harbin? This article shows that China, even with this isolated example of Harbin, is not a one dimensional country with clear borders- an idea we can apply to other countries around the world.

  4. Thomas Landgren

    This article is very fascinating, just the whole explanation of Harbin and the many influences that led to the creation of this city is interesting. The whole idea of many different cultures coming together to build a prosperous city is surprising but the end result of what they all wanted to create really blows your mind. It’s always interesting to see how railroads can impact an area and as you pointed out they tend to benefit any are they are built in. Has the city tried to reach out to try and go back to the ways before the Japanese invaded and before China’s Civil war? Has China and Russia done anything like this again? This article was wonderful to read it was full of information on a topic that I personally thought was very interesting. Great Article!

  5. Mary Tran

    I found this article super fascinating. It’s amazing to see that a town resembles so much like a Russian city is actually in China. It was interesting to read about the history behind Harbin and how it’s a mixture of cultures into a city. I wonder how the city has changed from the past to present. If anything has been added or changed to the city since then. Anyways, Harbin is for sure on my bucket list of places to visit someday. Great article!

  6. Mary Tran

    I found this article super fascinating. It’s interesting to see how a town that looks like a Russian city is actually in China. I thought it was cool to read about the history in Harbin and the mixture of cultures that have been apart of it. It makes me wonder how things have changed from the past to the present in Harbin. Has anything been added or changed since the beginning of its creation? This article has definitely opened my eyes about the significance of this city. Harbin is definitely now on my bucket list of destinations I want to visit and explore!

  7. Alex Oliver

    What a great article to read if someone wants to learn more about cultures being interwoven in society. That City sounds like an interesting place to go, especially to see and feel the history of that city; through World and Civil Wars, Communist Parties Forming, Republics Forming, expansion through the railroad. Harbin has some real rich history that is unique and interesting to learn about. Especially, since they have had many cultures go through that city. If I was to travel to that city, I would want to interview/talk to some of the older people that may have lived through some of the history and see their different points of view from what happened there. When it has been regarded as an open city I am intrigued if them saying that makes more people come to that city.

  8. Michaela Campbell

    It is amazing to see how drastically a city’s ethnic make-up can change within a century or two. I find this article important to read, because it points out a lot of various topics that are discussed in the various classes that many students in Poli. Sci. and History are taking. Power seems to be a key theme with regards to the major change in Harbin’s cultural identities. Depending on what type of government was taking over the region the city is located in, strongly influenced the type of ethnicity that inhabited Harbin. We see an influx of Russians when construction of the railroad began and ended, then a change in leadership with the Japanese, and then the Communist part of China. The power exerted from these varying entities changed who stayed and remained an influence to city’s culture, and who was forced to leave, thereby almost erasing certain aspects of the city’s culture that future generations may have a rare chance of ever experiencing. This example can cause one to examine where similar situations have occurred throughout our world.

  9. Megan Gonrowski

    The city you described seems like a time capsule for the past. When a new group of people moves into an area it is common for them to destroy artifacts from the past, but interesting enough Harbin has kept its most recent past on full display. This is not to say that Russian settlers did not change many things existing in Harbin before their arrival. Regardless, I find it interesting that the city has kept many of its Russian architecture intact because then the whole city seems like a museum of its Russian Communist past. From the pictures you showed I can see how odd it would be to find Russian monuments and trinkets in China. It is interesting to think about how different the world would look if every time a new culture moved to an area they brought with them a piece of home that could stay there long after they are gone. The influence that Russian settlers have placed upon Harbin, China has had a lasting effect on the culture of the city. Whether that effect is positive or negative is up to the people.

  10. Nicholas Gangi

    It is so cool to see a mix of cultures. it is kinda like mixing breeds of animals and seeing what you get. It is odd that even though the Russians are gone for the most part and the culture continues to play a role. I am hoping to visit this place one day in order to see this odd fusion. But until then looks like I have to study from afar

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