The history of the Korean immigrants can be divided into two distinct periods involving two very different locales: Koreans in the Far East Region (South Ussuri Maritime Province) from the 1860s until the time of the mass relocation, and Koreans in Kazakhstan and Central Asia from 1937 to the present.
In 1860, during the czarist era, the Russian Empire acquired the virtually uninhabited lands of the Far East Region—910,000 square kilometers of territory with only about 15,000 inhabitants—from China under the terms of the Treaty of Peking. The newly secured boundary placed Russia at the back door of Korea. Koreans provided cheap labor for this sparsely inhabited land, working as tenants, lessees, and farm laborers. Those without any means of support were sent by the local Russian administration to various parts of the region. The first large Korean village, Blagoslovennoe, was formed in 1872 as a result of such relocation.
In 1888 Russia made an agreement with Korea that gave Russian citizenship to Koreans who had crossed the border before 25 June 1884. This accounted for about 20 to 30 percent of all Koreans in Russia, most of whom later became merchants or contractors. In 1893 the regional governor general, Dukhovskoi, began accepting Koreans as citizens, allocating some land for them in order to colonise sparsely settled areas. After the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910 and the unsuccessful uprising of 1 March 1919, Koreans fled to Russia for political reasons. The last major wave of immigration occurred between 1917 and 1923, with the majority of these new arrivals settling in the Maritime Province. The 1923 census counted 34,559 Koreans as Russian subjects and 72,258 as noncitizen residents.
Acceptance of Russian Orthodox Christianity was a prerequisite for naturalization, and citizenship was required to gain the right to receive an allotment of land. But this attempt to assimilate Koreans into the Russian social order did not succeed. Instead, the continuing flow of Koreans and the clustering of new arrivals brought about the formation of Korean villages, as those who came first paved the way for relatives and friends. This growth served to reinforce Korean culture and values within the Korean Community.
The October Revolution was welcomed by many landless Koreans as an opportunity to make progress on or settle the land question. In 1900 Korean workers had joined Russians in a strike in the Amur region and later participated in the Revolution of 1905-1907. In October 1917 Korean peasants formed Red Army detachments and actively participated in partisan activities, fighting alongside Russian units. The Revolution did not immediately improve their lot, however. It was only after 1923 that the new Soviet regime began to regulate the distribution of land among the peasants. By 1926, in Vladivostok alone, 10,007 Korean families had acquired property, whereas before the Revolution the number of households with land had totaled only 2,290. In fact, by 1926 a majority of the Koreans who had settled in the Soviet Far East had received Soviet citizenship. The hard work and effort by the early Korean settlers went unrewarded, however, when in 1937, under Joseph Stalin, all 182,000 Koreans in the area were ordered to relocate to Central Asia. Stalin reportedly did not trust the Koreans living near the border area and believed they would be used as agents for espionage by the Japanese after Japan's invasion of Manchuria.
It took three months, from September to December 1937, to relocate Korean families on freight trains from the Far East to Central Asia. Thousands perished on the way, but some survived the ordeal of being forcibly transplanted thousands of miles from their original homeland to a territory totally alien to them. They became the pioneers of this virgin land and once again had to begin cultivating undeveloped territory. A number of exemplary collective and state farms were organized and run by Koreans. Many of them also participated in and perished during World War II in the defense against Nazi Germany.
Today's Soviet Koreans, many of whom are doctors, professors, lawyers, agronomists, and other professionals, are the descendants of these "punished, silent" people who have survived.