If the Russians ever come calling again to this rugged industrial city in the heart of China's fertile northeast plan, they might not find anyone home.
The proud people of Harbin, remembering how Russian railroad barons turned this place into a miniature Leningrad in the early 1900s, are determined to preserve their city -- by moving it underground.
Fearing a Russian return, they began digging 10 years ago, carving out enough space for huge dormitories, dining halls, hospitals, factories, food warehouses, shops and a long underground walkway where one can hear a Chinese version of Muzak.
Today you can shop at Harbin's largest department store (there levels), attend a play or movie at its most modern theater (1,500 seats) and hold an assembly line job -- all without coming up above ground.
Even though this bustling metropolis of 2.1 million people lies a good 200 miles from the nearest Soviet soldier, the troubled Sino-Soviet border really begins here, and this city with its seige mentality symbolizes the deep Chinese fear of Soviet aggression.
The Chinese Army, poorly matched against the well-equipped Soviets, is said to have pulled back from the border to protect important manufacturing centers such as Harbin that fan across the northeast interior.
Like every Chinese city, Harbin has its air raid tunnels. What is novel about Harbin is that it is reproducing itself below ground, as a way to defend its people and contribute to any war effort above the surface.
As the first line of defense, Harbiners fashion a kind of border town mentality, a plucky dig-in-deep spirit that bolsters them against the enormous odds of surviving a Soviet attack.
This is symbolized by their use of one of two war memorials in downtown Harbin commemorating Soviet troops that marched into Manchuria in the closing days of World War II, uprooting the defeated Japanese Army.
The tall monument, standing outside the train station, carries an inscription in Russian placed by Soviet commanders: "Eternal glory to the heroes fallen in battles with the Japanese imperialists for the honor and victory of the Soviet Union."
A second plaque, more recently placed by Harbin officials, says it with a Chinese spin: "Eternal glory to the heroes of the Soviet Army who fell in the battles for the liberation of northeast China, for the freedom and independence of China.
The Chinese have deliberately and contemptuously converted a Japanese war memorial that looks like the Washington Monument into a student parachute jump.
If Harbin seems unusually vigilant, that can be explained by an unusually bitter past when rough railway bosses transformed what was then a poor fishing village into a rollicking, glittering frontier town that at one point contained more Russians than Chinese and the largest Jewish community in the Far East.
The first Russians arrived in the 1890s to push the Trans-Siberian Railway across the board expanse of northern Manchuria to Vladvostok in the far east. By the early 1900s, Harbin had become a vital east-west junction in the link from European Russia to the open sea. Later a branch line was built south to the Russian naval base of Port Arthur on the Laioning Peninsula.
Suddenly this sleepy Manchurian town -- its name literally means fish-drying place -- became a haven for fur traders, railway workers and grain merchants from the north drawn to a new wide open city administered by Russian railway officials.
In its heyday, old Harbin was a place where fortunes were made and lost overnight, where thousands of Jews found refuge first from the czar's pogroms and later Bolshevik terror, where cosmopolitan dandies and the demimonde frolicked in resque cabarets called "concert halls," where White Russian generals whiled away the night playing baccarat at the Railway Officers' Club, and where the wretched, starving Chinese grew more wretched and more starving.
Today Harbin is very much a Chinese city, its character and control fully restored during the war years of the 1930s and 1940s and finally sealed after the communist takeover in 1949.
Although just a handful of Russian pensioners remain and the Russian street names and signs have long been removed from the city's face, Harbin retains a strong flavor of its past -- an aftertaste that makes its new rulers uneasy, especially since the 1969 Sino-Soviet border clash at the Ussuri River less than 400 miles away.
The Russian influence runs especially strong in Harbin's architecture, giving the city the look of Soviet towns built in the same era.
With its narrow, winding streets, open-air market and squat wooden houses with enclosed porches, the oldest section of Harbin -- called "timber town" when railway workers constructed the shacks -- could easily be mistaken for a Russian provincial town, although all traces of its old residents have long since vanished.
Several grand, red onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches still grace the city skyline but now serve as warehouses. One arching, brownstone church once belonging to the Ukrainian Catholics now houses an acrobatic group, their unicycles and colorful parasols irreligiously strewn on the worn parquet floor of the chapel.
Signs of the once-thriving Jewish population seem to have disappeared altogether.None of our guides who claimed to be Harbin experts had any knowledge of the two large synagogues, Talmud school, high school, orphanage and old-age home said by writers of the period to have been built by a community of 10,000 Jews in the early 1900s. An 80-year-old woman is the lone Jewish survivor today, according to Western residents here. Unlike the others who left for America and Europe, she stayed behind, living alone now in an apartment without heat or hot water, cut off from her past except for rare visits from Yiddish-speaking tourists from abroad.
Finding a good Russian meal in Harbin presents more political than culinary problems. Although a bowl of borscht and slabs of Russian bread can be had at the one popular Russian eatery in town, official guides do their best to deny its existence.
On the strong recommendations of Western friends living here, we hoped to sample a bit of Russian cuisine before leaving Harbin and persuaded our somewhat hesitant guides to shepherd us to the suggested watering hole -- a steamy tavern advertising an appetizing bowl of cabbage soup, hard bread and vegetables in its front window.
Standing there, our mouths watering, we had the following discussion with our persistent, obviously uncomfortable guides:
"We are sorry to inform you, there are no more Russian restaurants in Harbin."
"No more Russian restaurants? What do you call this place?"
"Oh, this is an old Russian place, but it doesn't serve Russian food. All the Russian cooks have died."
"How could there be no Russian cook if our friends have eaten here?"
"Oh, he was an old man and recently retired."
"But our friends ate here last week."
"Well, he is very sick today and his apprentice is too unskilled to cook for you."
Not far from the restaurant in downtown Harbin, blue and green Russian dachas with carved wooden eaves and hulking, cream-colored office buildings still dominate the drab, gray communist structures, lending the city considerable charm even during winter days when the temperature rarely exceeds zero degrees Fahrenheit and the sharp northern wind penetrates special "Chinese windows" -- two panes of glass padded with sawdust.
In the icy winter months when as much as 23 inches of snow falls on Harbin and staying warm is a full-time chore, it seems easy to forget the city's strategic sensitivity as the capital of China's northernmost province of Heilongjiang, which shares thousands of miles of border with the Soviet Union.
The children of Harbin seem steeled to the deep freeze, walking down the city's main commercial street eating chocolate and lemon ice cream bars, skating and sledding across the broad Sungari River, their orange and red scarves trailing behind them.
But the tensions of a city buffeted by history and designated as a symbolic front line keep most Harbiners thinking of the future.
"When I was small," said a goverment worker in his thirties, "many people talked about the bad Russians and how they were so strong. But now I'm not afraid of them. Although China's weapons are not as powerful, China is so big and its people so many, we don't worry." CAPTION: Picture 1, Surviving Russian architecture recalls days when railway bosses ruled Harbin.; Map, Northeastern China, By Dave Cook -- The Washington Post; Pictures 2 through 4, Proud People Move City Life Underground --
The proud people of Harbin, remembering how Russian railroad barons turned their city into a miniature Leningrad in the early 1900s, are determined to preserve their city -- by moving it underground.Underneath the frozen winter streets they have constructed passageways with shops, factories and dining halls. The city's history of invasions and foreign domination is not forgotten. The Chinese have deliberately and contemptuously converted the Japanese war memorial into a student parachute jump. But it is the domination of the Russians at the turn of the century that is most obvious still -- especially in the city's architecture. Several onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches still grace the city skyline, but now serve as warehouses. Despite the Russian architecture, few traces remain of the former inhabitants, including a large Jewish community that fled there from czarist pogroms and Bolshevik terror. Foreigners who wanted to eat at a Russian restaurant were told they could not because "all the Russian cooks have died." Picture 5, With winter temperatures of -20 degrees Fahrenheit and lower, Harbin's frozen Sungari River becomes a thoroughfare for pedestrians. Photos by Howard Simons -- The Washington Post