Koreans living in the former Soviet Union traditionally identified themselves as Koryo Saram or Chosun Saram (people of the Koryo of Chosun dynasties. Russians and other non-Koreans called them “Sovetskii Koreets” (Soviet Koreans). Unlike Koreans in China or other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, Koreans in the Soviet Union were never given an autonomous regional political unit.

In the 1990s, when the Central Asian republics became nations, there were around 500,000 ethnic Koreans in the former Soviet Union, including 230,000 in Uzbekistan, 103,000 in Kazakhstan and 90,000 in Russia and some in Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, the Ukraine and the Caucasus. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia “edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

Many of the Koreans in Central Asia are descendants of 182,000 Koreans that were forcibly deported by Stalin from Vladivostok to Central Asia in 1937 because Stalin feared they would spy against the Russians for the Japanese, who had just invaded Manchuria. Ironically many of the Koreans that were deported had escaped from Japanese labor camps and hated the Japanese. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

Koreans that survived the deportation were transplanted to semi-desert, steppe regions in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan that were totally alien them and were forced to begin from scratch, cultivated undeveloped virgin territory. Monetary assistance promised by the government never materialized. Most of the deported were rice farmers and fishermen. The land the Koreans were deported to was not very fertile and the Koreans struggled to stave off starvation and eke out a living from the barren land. By some estimates 40,000 deported Koreans died in 1937 and 1938.

Overcoming great obstacles, the Koreans made the land productive. They cooperated to build irrigation works and start rice farms. Within three years, they had recovered their original standard of living. They launched and successfully ran a number of very productive collective and state farms. They grew cotton, maize, sugar beets, vegetables and fiber crop on land that formally only supported scrub growth and bushes. In Uzbekistan, more than 100 ethnic Korean farmers were honored as heroes of Socialist labor. Koreans also did their share in World War II. Many died fighting the Nazis. The events of this period led to the formation of a cohesive identity among the Korean deportees.

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