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The Russian who witnessed Empress Myeongseong's assassination

This photo shows the main gate and buildings of the Russian legation in Seoul , designed and constructed by Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin (1860-1921), after its completion in 1891. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
This photo shows the main gate and buildings of the Russian legation in Seoul , designed and constructed by Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin (1860-1921), after its completion in 1891. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration

By Kwon Mee-yoo

At the early dawn of Oct. 8, 1895, Empress Myeongseong, wife of King Gojong of Joseon, was assassinated by Japanese in the incident now known as "Eulmi Sabyeon."

Japan at first denied involvement in this incident, but a testimony from a Russian turned the tables. Afanasy Ivanovich Seredin-Sabatin (1860-1921), who was a guard for the royal family and on sentry duty at the palace at that time, witnessed what happened and recorded what he has seen.

"'Pro-Japanese' Joseon military trained by Japan occupied the Gyeongbok Palace. Japanese assassins murdered women who are assumed to be the empress and royal concubines. The triumphant 'Pro-Japanese' wing practically imprisoned Joseon's king," Seredin-Sabatin wrote in his testimony, along with a map of the palace describing where the assassination happened and background diplomatic information he believed to cause the event on Oct. 8.

Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin's hand-drawn map of the 1895 assassination of Empress Myeongseong, also known as 'Eulmi Sabyeon,' is provided by the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin's hand-drawn map of the 1895 assassination of Empress Myeongseong, also known as 'Eulmi Sabyeon,' is provided by the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration

The Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) sheds light on this little-known foreigner who played a role in Korea's tumultuous modern history, in the exhibition "The Life and Works of Russian Architect Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin" at Jungmyeongjeon Hall of Deoksu Palace.

Andrey Kulik, Russian ambassador to Korea, celebrated the exhibition which commemorates the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Seoul and Moscow.

"Since the 19th century when Joseon and Russia signed a mutual commerce treaty in 1884, the two countries have remained good neighbors and friends based on goodwill," Kulik said.

Portrait of Afanasy Ivanovich Seredin-Sabatin (1860-1921) / Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
Portrait of Afanasy Ivanovich Seredin-Sabatin (1860-1921) / Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration

Self-taught Russian architect

Seredin-Sabatin was born in Poltava, Ukraine, and studied arts and maritime studies after moving to Saint Petersburg at the age of 14.

He arrived in Joseon in 1883 with German adviser Paul Georg von Mollendorff as a tidewaiter at maritime customs in Incheon. Since then, he spent years in Joseon till 1904, witnessing a crucial era in the country's history and bringing in modern architecture to Korea.

Seredin-Sabatin was called "Salpajeong" or "Salpajin" in Korean, transliterating his surname into Korean.

In 1888, Seredin-Sabatin moved to Hanseong, now known as Seoul, and took part in designing and constructing Western-style buildings. He was involved in the construction of the Incheon pier, Gwanmungak building in Gyeongbok Palace and the Russian legation building.

Seredin-Sabatin built a close relationship with the royal family, especially King Gojong, and it led him to become a palace guard despite being from another country, which is why he was in Gyeongbok Palace on the tragic day.

When King Gojong took royal refuge at the Russian legation the next year, the Russian building was also designed by Seredin-Sabatin.

The architect temporarily left Korea and stayed in China from 1895 to 1899 after witnessing the assassination of Empress Myeongseong, but returned to Korea to pursue more construction projects. Later he moved to Vladivostok in 1904 when the Russo-Japanese War broke out.

Gwanmungak building of Gyeongbok Palace, the first Western-style architecture in Joseon's royal palaces, is constructed by Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
Gwanmungak building of Gyeongbok Palace, the first Western-style architecture in Joseon's royal palaces, is constructed by Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration

Introduction of Western architecture

Though better known as a witness of the one of the most important events in Korea's modern history, Seredin-Sabatin played a huge role in architectural development in Korea in the late 19th to early 20th century.

Jungmyeongjeon Hall, where the exhibition is held, showcases an example of modern architectural style in the late 19th century and is estimated to be part of Seredin-Sabatin architectural legacy left in Korea. The two-story European-style building has a red brick exterior and was used as a club for foreigners in the past.

Despite speculations on Seredin-Sabatin's great influence in the development of Western-style architecture in Korea, only two of the buildings are confirmed to be designed or built by the Russian architect.

On view at the exhibition is the first design plan of the Russian legation by a Russian officer in Saint Petersburg and a Japanese subcontractor, which was scrapped due to budget issues, and Seredin-Sabatin's modified design, which was actually constructed.

Russian consul Karl Ivanovich Weber recommended him for the construction of the legation building in Seoul saying, "This young man built a beautiful two-story building for the King of Joseon inside the palace. Although he is not an architect, he is an industrious and decent man who learned the knowledge necessary for architecture through self-study."

The legation building was destroyed during the 1950-53 Korean War and only a three-story white tower remains today.

Seredin-Sabatin's creations reflect King Gojong's attempts to bring in Western culture on the way to modernization and how Joseon strived to survive among the world powers. Another building Seredin-Sabatin officially took part in constructing is Gwanmungak, the first Western-style structure in Joseon's main Gyeongbok Palace.

Jungmyeonjeon Hall and Jeonggwanheon Hall in Deoksu Palace are also believed to have been built by Seredin-Sabatin. He is also conjectured to be the architect of Dongnimmun Gate, which shares similarities with the main gate of the Russian legation, designed by him.

In the port city of Incheon, Seredin-Sabatin's influences can be seen in the Chemulpo Club, the Russian Consulate and the Seochang Trading Company residence.

The exhibition runs through Nov. 11 and is also available for online viewing at the CHA's YouTube channel.

Russian ambassador to South Korea Andrey Kulik speaks during a press preview of 'The Life and Works of Russian Architect Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin' exhibition at Jungmyeongjeon Hall of Deoksu Palace on Oct. 19. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
Russian ambassador to South Korea Andrey Kulik speaks during a press preview of 'The Life and Works of Russian Architect Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin' exhibition at Jungmyeongjeon Hall of Deoksu Palace on Oct. 19. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
This photo shows the main gate and buildings of the Russian legation in Seoul , designed and constructed by Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin (1860-1921), after its completion in 1891. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
This photo shows the main gate and buildings of the Russian legation in Seoul , designed and constructed by Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin (1860-1921), after its completion in 1891. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration

By Kwon Mee-yoo

At the early dawn of Oct. 8, 1895, Empress Myeongseong, wife of King Gojong of Joseon, was assassinated by Japanese in the incident now known as "Eulmi Sabyeon."

Japan at first denied involvement in this incident, but a testimony from a Russian turned the tables. Afanasy Ivanovich Seredin-Sabatin (1860-1921), who was a guard for the royal family and on sentry duty at the palace at that time, witnessed what happened and recorded what he has seen.

"'Pro-Japanese' Joseon military trained by Japan occupied the Gyeongbok Palace. Japanese assassins murdered women who are assumed to be the empress and royal concubines. The triumphant 'Pro-Japanese' wing practically imprisoned Joseon's king," Seredin-Sabatin wrote in his testimony, along with a map of the palace describing where the assassination happened and background diplomatic information he believed to cause the event on Oct. 8.

Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin's hand-drawn map of the 1895 assassination of Empress Myeongseong, also known as 'Eulmi Sabyeon,' is provided by the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin's hand-drawn map of the 1895 assassination of Empress Myeongseong, also known as 'Eulmi Sabyeon,' is provided by the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration

The Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) sheds light on this little-known foreigner who played a role in Korea's tumultuous modern history, in the exhibition "The Life and Works of Russian Architect Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin" at Jungmyeongjeon Hall of Deoksu Palace.

Andrey Kulik, Russian ambassador to Korea, celebrated the exhibition which commemorates the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Seoul and Moscow.

"Since the 19th century when Joseon and Russia signed a mutual commerce treaty in 1884, the two countries have remained good neighbors and friends based on goodwill," Kulik said.

Portrait of Afanasy Ivanovich Seredin-Sabatin (1860-1921) / Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
Portrait of Afanasy Ivanovich Seredin-Sabatin (1860-1921) / Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration

Self-taught Russian architect

Seredin-Sabatin was born in Poltava, Ukraine, and studied arts and maritime studies after moving to Saint Petersburg at the age of 14.

He arrived in Joseon in 1883 with German adviser Paul Georg von Mollendorff as a tidewaiter at maritime customs in Incheon. Since then, he spent years in Joseon till 1904, witnessing a crucial era in the country's history and bringing in modern architecture to Korea.

Seredin-Sabatin was called "Salpajeong" or "Salpajin" in Korean, transliterating his surname into Korean.

In 1888, Seredin-Sabatin moved to Hanseong, now known as Seoul, and took part in designing and constructing Western-style buildings. He was involved in the construction of the Incheon pier, Gwanmungak building in Gyeongbok Palace and the Russian legation building.

Seredin-Sabatin built a close relationship with the royal family, especially King Gojong, and it led him to become a palace guard despite being from another country, which is why he was in Gyeongbok Palace on the tragic day.

When King Gojong took royal refuge at the Russian legation the next year, the Russian building was also designed by Seredin-Sabatin.

The architect temporarily left Korea and stayed in China from 1895 to 1899 after witnessing the assassination of Empress Myeongseong, but returned to Korea to pursue more construction projects. Later he moved to Vladivostok in 1904 when the Russo-Japanese War broke out.

Gwanmungak building of Gyeongbok Palace, the first Western-style architecture in Joseon's royal palaces, is constructed by Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
Gwanmungak building of Gyeongbok Palace, the first Western-style architecture in Joseon's royal palaces, is constructed by Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration

Introduction of Western architecture

Though better known as a witness of the one of the most important events in Korea's modern history, Seredin-Sabatin played a huge role in architectural development in Korea in the late 19th to early 20th century.

Jungmyeongjeon Hall, where the exhibition is held, showcases an example of modern architectural style in the late 19th century and is estimated to be part of Seredin-Sabatin architectural legacy left in Korea. The two-story European-style building has a red brick exterior and was used as a club for foreigners in the past.

Despite speculations on Seredin-Sabatin's great influence in the development of Western-style architecture in Korea, only two of the buildings are confirmed to be designed or built by the Russian architect.

On view at the exhibition is the first design plan of the Russian legation by a Russian officer in Saint Petersburg and a Japanese subcontractor, which was scrapped due to budget issues, and Seredin-Sabatin's modified design, which was actually constructed.

Russian consul Karl Ivanovich Weber recommended him for the construction of the legation building in Seoul saying, "This young man built a beautiful two-story building for the King of Joseon inside the palace. Although he is not an architect, he is an industrious and decent man who learned the knowledge necessary for architecture through self-study."

The legation building was destroyed during the 1950-53 Korean War and only a three-story white tower remains today.

Seredin-Sabatin's creations reflect King Gojong's attempts to bring in Western culture on the way to modernization and how Joseon strived to survive among the world powers. Another building Seredin-Sabatin officially took part in constructing is Gwanmungak, the first Western-style structure in Joseon's main Gyeongbok Palace.

Jungmyeonjeon Hall and Jeonggwanheon Hall in Deoksu Palace are also believed to have been built by Seredin-Sabatin. He is also conjectured to be the architect of Dongnimmun Gate, which shares similarities with the main gate of the Russian legation, designed by him.

In the port city of Incheon, Seredin-Sabatin's influences can be seen in the Chemulpo Club, the Russian Consulate and the Seochang Trading Company residence.

The exhibition runs through Nov. 11 and is also available for online viewing at the CHA's YouTube channel.

Russian ambassador to South Korea Andrey Kulik speaks during a press preview of 'The Life and Works of Russian Architect Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin' exhibition at Jungmyeongjeon Hall of Deoksu Palace on Oct. 19. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
Russian ambassador to South Korea Andrey Kulik speaks during a press preview of 'The Life and Works of Russian Architect Afanasy Seredin-Sabatin' exhibition at Jungmyeongjeon Hall of Deoksu Palace on Oct. 19. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
Kwon Mee-yoo meeyoo@koreatimes.co.kr

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