In 2013 Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Seoul at the unveiling ceremony for a bronze statue of Russian poet and novelist Alexander Pushkin. The statue stands in front of Lotte Hotel in Seoul and continues to symbolize cultural and diplomatic ties between Russia and Korea.
During the 2018 FIFA World Cup and one day prior to President Moon Jae-in's official state visit to Russia, a bronze statue of Park Kyong-ni (1926-2008) was erected at the Oriental Studies Building on the Saint Petersburg State University campus in Russia on June 20. Ms. Park, regarded by Koreans as one of their most distinguished novelists, penned "Toji" (The Land), which is an epic novel depicting a family going through turbulent times spanning from the late Joseon Kingdom through Japanese colonial times.
Saint Petersburg State University stands out in my mind, because another famous Korean, Kim Byeong-ok, taught Korean at the Oriental Studies Building there from 1897 to 1917. In 1896 Kim traveled to Russia as an interpreter for special envoy Min Young-hwan, head of the Joseon Kingdom delegation to Russian Emperor Nikolai II's coronation. Since Russia needed experts well versed in Korean affairs ranging from language and culture to politics and the economy, Kim remained in Saint Petersburg.
Even before Kim Byeong-ok's presence in Russia, there was already Russian interest in Korean literature. In 1852, the Imperial Russian Navy's frigate Pallada set sail for a special expedition to the Far East as the flagship of Vice Admiral Yevfimiy Putyatin. Under the command of Admiral Ivan Unkovsky, the Pallada had a long voyage to England, Africa and the Far East. Its main mission was to establish trade relations with Japan and neighboring nations.
Accompanying Putyatin on the Pallada was his secretary, writer Ivan Goncharov. After returning to Saint Petersburg, Goncharov wrote a fascinating travelogue, "Fregat Pallada" (Frigate Pallas), which was published in 1858 and became a best seller in Imperial Russia. Goncharov described Koreans as a people who loved to compose and read poetry. He portrayed Korea as an intellectual and literary society. His writings served as the beginning of the Russian intelligentsia's discovery of Korean literature.
During the six days Admiral Putyatin and Goncharov spent at Geomun-do in April 1854, they dispatched an important letter to the royal court of the Joseon Kingdom. Putyatin wrote the letter in Chinese, in which he made an official request to establish diplomatic ties between Russia and Korea. Unfortunately, local officials in Korea failed to deliver the letter to the royal court due to being preoccupied with the Russians' visit itself.
Though Putyatin's official letter was not delivered to the royal court, it was rewritten (copied) by local scholar Kim Yu (1814-1884) and recorded in his writing. This precious letter, supposedly the first Russian diplomatic document in Korea, was discovered in 1985. Published by Sejong University in 1988 and edited by Choo Young-ha, the Korean version, "Ku Yu's Haesang-kimun" (Mysterious Maritime Writing) contains this first Russian document from 1854. The document describes that Russian's ardent desire to open Korea's harbor on the basis of good will and mutual respect to solidly establish good ties between the two countries.
I had the pleasure of attending the introduction ceremony for the book and am a proud owner of a copy of the book.
The past literary encounters between Russia and Korea have significantly strengthened mutual understanding and respect between the two countries and will continue to inspire future bilateral cultural exchanges.
Choe Chong-dae is a guest columnist of The Korea Times. He is president of Dae-kwang International Co., and Director of the Korean-Swedish Association. He can be reached at email@example.com