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Why Koreans Love Russian Literature
On December 21-22, the first Russian-Korean academic and research conference of literary translators took place in Moscow to mark the 100th anniversary of the first Korean translation of a Russian work of literature. It would seem that the history of Russian-Korean literary connections could only be of interest to literature scholars and professional translators, although we are learning that people from other countries value Russian literature and that it influences the ways in which Russians are viewed. The latter is especially interesting given the rather significant delay with which our characters have entered the Korean literary space. Russian literature in Korea is also an important topic because it was in this country where its influence was especially great throughout the 20th century. By virtue of all these reasons, we decided to present to our readers the report of one of the conference’s participants – Kim Hyun-Taek, professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
The first indications of possible contact between the Korean and Russian people come from the 13th century. The Italian Franciscan monk Plano Carpini, who visited the Mongol Empire in 1245-1247, wrote that at the celebrations arranged by the Mongols, there was “a Russian Prince Yaroslav from Suzdal and several leaders from the Chinese and Solang peoples.” Solang was a name for the Koreans in the Middle Ages.
Evidence of the first encounter between Russian and Korean literature comes from a much later time – the middle of 19th century. Russian writer Ivan Goncharov, who from 1847-1854 traveled on board the frigate “Pallas” in the Far East, made stops in China, Japan and Korea. In his writings about the Koreans, Goncharov wrote that it was a people who truly loved to compose and read poetry. In the eyes of the Russian writer, Korean intellectuals came across as a cultural and literary society. Goncharov’s notes served as the beginning of the Russian intelligentsia’s discovery of Korean literature.
Another Russian writer, Nikolai Garin-Mikhailovsky, recorded and published Korean folk tales at the end of the 19th century, which became the beginning of the study of Korean literature by Russia's prominent literary figures. Unfortunately, at this time in Korea itself there was practically no contact with foreign literature, especially Russian and European. The first works of Russian literature became known to the Korean reader only at the beginning of the 20th century.
At the end of 19th century the Russian embassy granted asylum to the deposed Korean emperor. This was a good opportunity to improve relations between the two countries, although the political upheavals taking place on the Korean peninsula at the time created a barrier not only for cultural exchange, but also for cooperation in other areas.
In Korea, Russian literature was subjected to various kinds of difficulties that were caused by the political and social situation. The most significant factor affecting Russian literature was the colonization of Korea by Japan, which meant that Russian literary works came to Korea not directly, but rather by way of Japan.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the literary works that experienced the greatest demand in Korea were those that reflected political and social upheavals in Russian society in the second half of the 19th century. At this time, Russian literature was translated more than that from any other country.
In the 1930s, an educational movement of the Russian intelligentsia – the so-called “Go to the People” movement – found a wide audience in Korea. The basis of Korean writer Sim Hun’s “Sangloksu,” which most clearly shows the influence of Russian literature, is Nikolay Chernyshevsky “What is to be Done?” Yi Kwang-su’s “Muj