‘White Russians’ return to refugee island
Nikolai Massenkoff was 12 years old when he left a refugee camp on Tubabao Island in Eastern Samar. He had fled from China and stayed for two years in the camp in Guiuan town.
Born in China, he was 2 years old when he lost both his Russian parents and lived in an orphanage in Shanghai. In early 1949, he and the rest of the 6,000 “White Russians” escaped from communist rule in Shanghai with the help of the International Refugee Organization (IRO) and sought sanctuary in Tubabao.
Now 72 and a folk singer based in the United States, Massenkoff returned to Guiuan to express gratitude for allowing him and the other Russians to stay there. He flew in from San Francisco to hold a solo concert dubbed “Thank You, Philippines” on Sept. 30 at the town plaza.
Despite the poor quality of the sound system, he gamely sang about 15 songs in Russian, Italian and English, as well as a Filipino song titled “Gaano Ko Ikaw Kamahal.”
Among some 1,000 people who attended were Guiuan Mayor Annaliza Kwan, Eastern Samar Vice Gov. Sheen Gonzales, and two other White Russians—Misha Anissimov, who is residing in Cebu City, and Leo Zakharoff, who is based in Porac town in Pampanga.
Dr. Ricardo Soler, a Manila-based researcher-writer who also saw the concert, said the White Russians were faithful to the tsar of Russia and got their name from the color of the tsarist court and the Russian soldiers’ uniforms. On the other hand, he said, the “Red Russians” were named after the color of their flag’s background.
Massenkoff said his coming back to Guiuan “was a long-time dream fulfilled.” He had postponed a trip to return in 2009 for health reasons, and only Valentine Alexeef, a retired urban planner, and Annissinov, who is doing a film documentary about the White Russians, came.
Shortly after the concert, Massenkoff said in an interview that he could still recall enjoying swimming in the waters of Tubabao, the jungle surrounding their camp, and the coconut and papaya trees.
He said he would invite the other refugees to also visit Guiuan. “I will tell them that there’s a lot of magic here with the people. I find it very fascinating … there’s a lot of love here,” he said.
Soler, who has been doing extensive research on the refugees, said that when the “White Russians were planning to flee Shanghai, no country would help them so they sought the assistance of the IRO. Out of nowhere, (then Philippine President) Elpidio Quirino says, ‘We’ll take them,’” he said.
When they finally arrived on Tubabao, they cleared the place and constructed buildings. They stayed on the island for about 27 months.
During World War II, the Americans built their biggest naval base in the country in Guiuan and set up military facilities in Tubabao and other places.
In 1951, the White Russians left Tubabao for the United States, Australia or other countries.
Massenkoff continued his studies at a public school in San Francisco, California. In college, he completed his Bachelor of Science in Music, Voice, Drama and Speech and received a teaching credential.
He continued to study voice with a noted professor in Italy, according to Guiuan tourism officer Aurora delos Reyes.
For love of his Russian heritage, Massenkoff founded the Massenkoff Russian Folk Festival in 1975, which featured Russian music, song and dance.
He sang during the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, and had performed in about 100 shows at Disney World’s Epcot Center in Florida.
According to Delos Reyes, he has performed on stage with Dinah Shore, Jerry Lewis, Glen Campbell, Ray Charles, Bob Hope and Julio Iglesias.
Three years ago, Mayor Kwan invited Massenkoff to visit Guiuan through the Internet. She also went to the United States and Australia to meet the White Russians and their descendants.
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