Wookjin Cheun is the Librarian for Slavic and East European Studies at the Indiana University Libraries, where he serves as a collection manager, bibliographer, and the library’s liaison for the Slavic and East European studies program at IU. His personal research interests lie in the history of the Korean diaspora of Russia and the Soviet Union.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself, what led you from Korea to Wells Library, and about your personal relationship with Siberia?
Sure. In Korea I received my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Korean history and the history of medieval Europe. Then, at IUB I got an MA in Russian history and MLS (Master of Library Sciences). My story at IUB may be a somewhat unusual one: I started in the Russian studies program with its focus on the history of 19th century Russian peasants, but switched to the history of the Korean diaspora of Russia; I initially thought I would get a PhD, but did not pursue it all the way through. Instead, I embarked on the MLS degree program and became an area studies librarian specializing in Slavic and East European studies. Nevertheless, my interest in the history of the Korean diaspora of Russia endured despite me becoming a professional librarian.
My encounter with the Korean diaspora of Russia was accidental in the sense that I did not go to meet it, but it came to me. It was in the early 1990s, a time, as is well known now, when the experiences of the national minorities of the former Soviet Union were written about or rewritten. The ethnic Koreans belonged to the first category: strictly suppressed for the past half century. Their stories finally began to be written about from the early 1990s.
The stories of the Korean diaspora were rich in context. That was one of the things that I learned from months-long dissertation research in the local archives of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. First of all, it made a fascinating migration/immigration story spinning out of the remote borderland of the Russian empire/the Soviet Union. But at the same time, the diaspora was an integral part of the struggle for national independence of Korea since it was annexed by Japan in 1910. What interested me most was, however, how the Russian administration endeavored to deal with the then rapidly growing émigré group of Koreans within the context of the colonization of Siberia, the vast but sparsely populated land mass beyond the Urals. I think my interest in Siberia was natural given the context I chose for my studies of the Korean diaspora of Russia.
Last year I visited Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia while on an acquisitions/development trip to Russia. For me Siberia is no longer just the broad backdrop of the history of the Korean diaspora of Russia, but more importantly, a complex information sphere, which will nourish our Siberian collection. Irkutsk seemed to me a good site where I would have a chance to have a close look into the local publishing, book distribution, scholarship, and library services. I am currently in the process of writing a reflection essay based on the trip.
Can you tell me more about the ethnic Koreans in Siberia?
First things first. How did the Korean diaspora of Siberia start? As you probably know, the Koreans were not one of the indigenous peoples of Siberia. They were immigrants who began settling in Siberia from the 1860s. Then, the question may arise: Why would anyone voluntarily leave their homeland to immigrate to such a harsh and distant land like Siberia? This is a legitimate question, but it may be a little too Eurocentric as well. Siberia was indeed distant and harsh from the perspective of European Russia, but for the Koreans it was a next-door neighbor right across the river called “Duman” (Туманная in Russian). They used the far eastern corner of Siberia called the “Maritime Region” (Приморье) which bordered the northernmost tip of the Korean peninsula and acted as a refuge (from famine or other natural disasters, or from feudal oppressions), a living space (with plenty of virgin land), and, from the turn of the 19th century when their country gradually fell victim to Japan’s imperial expansion in the Far East, a haven for political and military resistance. The continued difficulties that the central Russian government had with the colonization of the region (especially under the tsarist regime) and the official nationalities policies (under the Soviet regime) aided, most likely inadvertently, the continued socio-economic and cultural development of the Korean diaspora of Siberia. They had several hundred Korean schools, several Korean-language newspapers, and even a Korean teachers’ college, which was probably unprecedented in the world of Vladivostok in the early 1930s. However, it all ended abruptly in late 1937, when Stalin ordered a wholesale, swift deportation of the Korean diaspora from the Soviet Far East to Central Asia.
The deportation inflicted incredible loss and suffering upon the diaspora population. Indeed, the deportation turned out to be a clear demarcation or watershed in the history of the Korean diaspora of Russia. From then on, it was completely cut off from the stream of Korean immigrants (which was now largely directed to Manchuria). That led to, combined with the new education policies introduced in the late 1930s, the relentless linguistic russification of the diaspora, so much so that already by the 1960s and 1970s, the only Korean-language newspaper published in Almaty began having a hard time finding Korean-capable journalists. The previous, pre-deportation compactness of the diaspora also gradually petered out. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan still retain the two largest Korean populations, but, especially since the inception of the Thaw, which eliminated the restrictions imposed upon Koreans as a deported people, a sizeable portion of the diaspora moved out of Central Asia to settle in Moscow, the Caucasus, Ukraine, and the Maritime Region of the Russian Far East, among other places.
So, who are the Kore Saram, as the ethnic Koreans of the former Soviet Union call themselves these days? I find this question very challenging to answer to the extent that they are by now a very diversified people, positioning themselves in all walks of life throughout the whole landscape of the former Soviet Union. If they were once a predominantly agricultural people confined in the Central Asian republics, they are not anymore. Building on the success in agriculture, many of them successfully invested in their education and businesses, which justified some observers in characterizing the Korean diaspora as one of high upward social mobility. That might be one viable way to look at the history of the diaspora since the deportation, but I am not sure if that process of upward social mobility is still in progress. The afore-mentioned linguistic russification may have also plateaued. While still predominantly Russophone, the diaspora population began voicing concerns about its language situation in the late Perestroika period. Concerted efforts coordinated by national cultural centers were made to revive Korean national culture, including the language. The increasing interaction with South Korea since the early 1990s might as well be considered part of any success story of the diaspora population’s cultural revival movement. There is a weekly Korean diaspora newspaper published in Almaty that has an incredibly interesting history since its start in 1923 as the local Communist party organ for the Koreans of the Maritime Region. Throughout the Soviet period it remained the main Korean-language newspaper. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it performed an intriguing linguistic transformation and became three-quarters Russian and one-quarter Korean. I wonder if that, in a way, illustrates how cautiously the post-Soviet Korean diaspora has been negotiating the tension between the realities it inherited from the Soviet past and its new cultural aspirations.
Tell me more about ethnic minorities in Siberian Russia. Do you know approximately how many ethnic groups exist in Siberia today?
According to the 2010 census of the Russian Federation, there were more than 200 nationalities living in Russia. I would presume that at least some members of each and every single one of these 200 or so national groups live in Siberia. If we are talking about the indigenous peoples (коренные народы), there seem to be about 40 of them, ranging from large groups like the Iakuts and Buriats to smaller ones like the Kereks.
Say I want to learn about the Nenets people in the far north of Siberia. Where do I start?
Consider using IUCAT first and foremost—unless it is just for one’s personal curiosity about the Nenets people, in which case one might as well just go online and surf around. I would, without much exaggeration, say that the IU Libraries’ Siberian collection has grown rapidly in recent years and is now well equipped to meet the research and teaching needs of faculty members and students. To fully benefit from this collection, one has to use IUCAT, the gateway to this collection. I would recommend a subject search using such subject headings as “Ethnology” or “Nentsy” (yes, it is indeed Nentsy not Nenets) in combination with “Siberia.” Also, consider consulting with the librarians, with either me, the librarian for Slavic and East European studies, or the librarian for anthropology.
How do you, specifically, provide support for students and faculty? Tell me a bit about what your position encompasses.
Being a multidisciplinary area studies librarian, I work with students and faculty members from all across the university: from the history, anthropology, and political science departments, the schools of music, fine arts, and law, to name a few. I often go to classes to provide library sessions, where I demonstrate how to use the library collections and alert students to the wide array of services the library offers. Fulfilling purchase requests is another busy area of work for me. Whether a request is a redundant one (in other words, a request to purchase a title that our collection already owns) or not, I have reason to take these requests very seriously in that they tell me exactly what our faculty members and students want and need. Reference questions are also a constant feature of my work. They range from locating specific authors or titles in IUCAT, to bibliographic verification, to finding or recommending sources—online databases or primary sources—for specific research topics. In connection with this, it would be not without interest for you to hear that I benefit significantly from the international exchange of materials that I maintain with more than 25 libraries in Russia and Eastern Europe. Through this exchange alone our collection annually acquires anywhere between 700 and 1,000 vernacular titles, while sending out, in return, about 400-500 English titles. For extremely rare materials that our faculty members or students need or for complicated reference questions, I draw on the resources and subject expertise of these partner libraries.
Before wrapping up my answer, a few words about collection development, the central part of my work as an area studies librarian. Based on the scope and profile of the program, I support faculty and student research interests by building the collection, adding new titles. There are about 15 vendors, most of them in Russia and Eastern Europe, who regularly send me preselected current publication titles. I trust that they are all experts in the book publishing of their own countries. But our collection, as extensive as it has been and still is, is expected to go beyond the immediate and tangible needs of the program and to continue to grow as a solid area studies information repository. It means that in my collection development activities I have a sizeable area where I am not necessarily guided by such an articulate and clear guidepost as “the needs of the program.” I think of this area as an exciting opportunity, but it also heightens the importance of a good grasp of current events and publishing of the region on my part. My position as the librarian for Slavic and East European Studies at IU is a faculty position, which means research is part of my job. I usually write about collections and the history of publishing and bibliographies, but without this research opportunity that comes with my faculty status, I may have a hard time keeping up with the challenges of the collection development of IU Libraries.
How would you categorize our Siberian collection? Are there any notable items there?I can’t really say how many “notable” items there are in the Siberian collection, but I can say, confidently, that what IU Libraries has is a very comprehensive collection. It includes an extensive selection of textbooks and scholarly research publications in English and Russian, archival guides and published primary sources, and a variety of reference materials such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and bibliographies. Of particular note would be the robustly growing collection of indigenous language dictionaries and textbooks. It is likely that anyone aspiring to learn an indigenous Siberian language will find in the library’s Siberian collection at least some learning materials pertinent to the language in question (if not, the library will investigate it further and acquire appropriate titles). There are traditional strongholds of Siberian collections in the United States, like the University of Washington at Seattle, the University of Alaska, and the University of Hawaii (believe it or not). Hopefully, sooner [rather] than later IU will join this small elite league of Siberian collections of the US.