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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Russians recall Filipinos' undying spirit of kindness

By Virgil B. Lopez
Saturday, March 26, 2011

PHILIPPINE history books shall accommodate new facts as a heart-warming diaspora that took place 62 years ago continues to be remembered by people who were never part of it.

In a sunny afternoon last March 22, Russians and Filipinos alike trooped to the lobby of the Philippine Trade Training Center in Pasay City to witness the unveiling of the bronze portrait of a man whose kindness reverberated thousands of miles away from home.

Crafted by renowned Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky, the rectangular bronze artwork shows the image of the late President Elpidio Quirino as if being blessed by St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, who joined the Russian refugees in their journey from China in 1949.

"St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco represents the Russian people who are forever thankful to the kindness of Quirino. I am very grateful to the Philippines. I would like to show how indebted the Russians are to Filipinos who gave shelter to our elders decades ago," Pototsky told Sun.Star.

The portrait, which was handed to the heirs of the deceased leader, actually contains the engraved message of solidarity: "From grateful Russia to the Philippines."

But how did the so-called "White Russians" or those who went against the tide of the communist Red, make it to Philippine shores?

Perhaps, a trip down the memory lane will do.

At the height of the communist movement in China, some 5,500 Russians were pressed to ditch the world's second largest nation and find a new life elsewhere. This, however, proved to be an uneasy climb as neighboring Southeast Asian countries snubbed the request of the United Nations International Refugee Organization in deference to the growing Chinese clout.

Only the Philippines, a former colony of communism's strongest critic United States, responded to the call through Quirino.


MANILA. The bronze portrait shows the Russians' long-time gratitude to the late President Elpidio Quirino, who allowed them to relocate from communist China in 1949. (Virgil Lopez)

Braving the cold waters of Shanghai, the Russians led by a Cossack Grigory Bologoff traveled in droves to reach the small island of Tubabao, which is part of the Pacific town of Guiuan, Eastern Samar.

For months, the sleepy village became the sanctuary of people who escaped the shackles of the communist movement, until they could be admitted to prosperous countries such as the United States, Australia and France.

Olga Berger, now on her late 70s, recounted in a blog post her experiences living in the island together with her mom and sister, where as teenager she learned how to literally swim and weather the difficulties in life.

"Our most serious problem proved to be the lack of fresh water. The men had to get it from a little spring and carried it back to camp in metal containers. Water was rationed, about three cups per person, per day," she related.

Staying only for nine months, Olga and her family also find ways to survive.
"The Filipinos soon became business minded and knowing that there were 5,000 Russians on the island, they set up a hairdressing salon and an ice cream parlor. Mum used to wash clothes for people to be able to give me and my sister a treat such as a bottle of Coca Cola, an ice cream, lollies (lollipop) and a few cigarettes for herself," she said.

Russians also brought with them their culture and religion as St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, then an archbishop of the Orthodox Christian Church set up two places of worship in the island, namely: the Church of St. Seraphim and the Church of St. Michael the Archangel.

Known for his compassion, Michael Borisovitch Maximovitch (St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco) lobbied for the entry of Russians to the US soil in 1949. His prayers were answered and in the early 1950s, majority of the Russians were already relocated to the US.

Spirit of Kindness
Meantime, the 56-year-old Pototsky shared he was also a victim of the excesses of communist authorities during his childhood.

"I was born and spent my early years in (ex-Soviet Union leader) Joseph Stalin's gulag (prison) in Siberia. I was with my family then. Amid the hardships inside that boot camp, people were still able to survive just by being kind to each other," he said.

Years later, they were released and at the age 14, he underwent sculpture training in Moldova. Decades later, he reaped successes for his artworks, consisting of a series of nudes and some still life using bold abstract style.

Resiliency and determination to build a new life were the key ingredients for the Russian immigrants, so as the Filipinos whom Pototsky admired for standing tall despite adversities.

"Both Philippines and Russia have been in difficult times in the past, from wars to shaky political leaderships. Amid all these, people in these countries remain tough and kind," he said, who is also founder and president of the Moscow-based International Academy of Kindness.

Life imitates art
Pototsky related that he fell in love with the Philippines due to its unquestionable hospitality, as he donated "monuments of kindness" of Russian playwright Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy in Manila and Cebu, respectively.

"Art makes us human. There is happiness when people like what you do because they know that you dedicated a part of your life into it," he said.

While admitting that people pay expensively for his art pieces, Pototsky said the proceeds normally do not go straight to his pocket because he uses it to create and donate monuments across the globe.

"I lead a very simple life. I'm not showering myself with material things. But I felt like a billionaire already because I have shared my artworks to the world, especially in 35 countries," Pototsky said, adding he might soon create a monument in honor of Russians who are now living in the Philippines.

Now that the world centers its attention to the ongoing political strife in the Middle East and Libya, the grey-haired art legend hoped that cool heads and compassionate hearts will prevail in the end.

"All difficult problems must be decided with the principle of kindness. There should be no borders for expressing it," Pototsky concluded. (Sunnex)

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