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Russian novelist talks about his Korean roots

Sept. 9, 2011 - 19:47 By
Anatoly Kim shares how he inherited artistic spirit from famous ancestors

His grandfather was a Korean farmer who wanted land of his own.

After realizing he would never be able to own land in Korea, his home country, he decided to move to the Russian Far East in 1908, leaving everything behind including his family. He wanted “his” land that badly.

“His dream never came true because the Russian authorities wouldn’t give out land to Korean immigrants at the time,” Anatoly Kim, the award-winning Russian novelist told The Korea Herald in Seoul, Tuesday.

“He passed away in 1918, just 10 years after he moved from Korea. He was only in his late 30s. Both my parents and I were inspired and inevitably affected by his life.”

The 72-year-old writer arrived in Seoul last week to attend the Culture Communication Forum from Sept. 4-6. Dressed in a white hanbok-inspired garment, Kim tried to speak in his broken Korean as much as possible throughout the interview.
Russian novelist Anatoly Kim speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Tuesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Born in 1939 in the Chimkent region of Kazakhstan, Kim spent his early years there surrounded by its vast grasslands and untamed nature. Every morning, the sun would rise above the yellow hillocks and burn off the haze, while eagles would slowly fly across the scenic sky.

Even as a 3-year-old, however, Kim felt he did not belong there in spite of its striking beauty. “It was the feeling that this isn’t my land, and that I won’t be able to have my own,” Kim said. “I think it was the same kind of sadness that my grandfather must have felt, when he started to realize what he wanted throughout his lifetime would never happen.”

In 1948, his family moved to the Russian Far East and Sakhalin. It was in 1957 that Kim moved to Moscow to study at an art school. “At first I wanted to be a painter,” Kim said.

“It was after I served my military duty that I realized I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know what got me into this profession until 1989, when I visited Korea for the first time and learned about my famous ancestor who also was an author.”

Kim’s visit to Korea in 1989 was, in many ways, a dramatic experience for Kim. By this time he had already become a world-famous writer, as his 1985 novel “Squirrel” received highly controversial reviews in the Soviet Union.

During his stay in Korea, Kim learned through a reporter that he is a descendant of 15th century Korean author Kim Si-seup. Author Yi Sang (1910-1937), the legendary figure in modern Korean literature whose birth name is Kim Hae-kyung, also belongs to the Kim clan, Kim said.

“I had read the Russian translated version of Kim Si-seup’s work in Russia and liked them a lot,” Kim said. “After finding out that he is my ancestor, I realized the literary spirit has always been in my blood. I came to understand why I became a writer.”

The 1989 visit was also a turning point for Kim’s literary career, whose “loneliness” has been his greatest literary inspiration and motivation.

“Ever since I was a child I’ve been feeling that I am alone in this world,” he said. “Though I’ve always been writing in Russian, I couldn’t really write about the Russian people because I belonged to another ethnicity. I could only write about myself, my experiences as an individual. But coming to Korea has made me realize that I may not be alone, that my roots are from such a beautiful country.”

Kim, who could only speak a few words in Korean in 1989, taught Russian language and literature at Chung-Ang University in Seoul from 1991-95. He learned the Korean language during his four-year stay in Korea. The two-volume Korean edition of his autobiography, translated by Prof. Kim Hyun-taek at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, was published in May.

And it is not hard to guess what his next novel is going to be about. “It’s going to be about my ancestors,” he said. “I’ve been researching about Kim Si-seup and visiting places that are relevant to his life.”

By Claire Lee (