SHANGHAI"Kost died, did you hear?" "Who?" "Kost. Kostrometinoff." "Who?" There is
scarcely one among the thousands of expatriates crowding into this once again
youthful city who has heard of Sergei Ivanovich Kostrometinoff, or Kost.
The Chinese who remember him are not the
sort you will meet in the office towers of Pudong, the new city across the
Huangpu river, or in the trendy restaurants of Puxi, once the International
Settlement and French Concession, where some buildings but few people of Kost's
era survive. At best his Chinese friends would be in impoverished retirement.
Others may yet be in prison.
Kost has so vanished from this city and
the media consciousness that the news of his death in Australia in 1999 at the
age of 90 has only just reached this writer, via Sydney, Moscow and London. His
death went unrecorded by the publications on whose behalf he suffered so much.
So this is a belated tribute to one who represented the internationalism of
Shanghai in an earlier era.
One day in 1982, a white-haired but
sprightly European man looking a little like Pope John Paul II appeared at the
Shanghai office of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.
This was in the dark days when China was
just beginning to reopen. It was long after that imperial bank had been evicted
from the grandest of the classical buildings along Shanghai's Bund and long
before HSBC, as it is now called, moved into a high-rise in Pudong. Foreign
residents of Shanghai then numbered in tens, not thousands, and the Hongkong
Bank's representative office comprised one Briton, Tim Cotton.
The old man was Kost, just released from
15 years' imprisonment, much of it spent in solitary confinement.
Born in the northeastern city of Harbin
to a Russian father and English mother, Kost was fluent in these languages and
Chinese, and had passable Japanese. He worked for British American Tobacco
before the 1932 Japanese occupation of Manchuria forced him to Shanghai, where
he joined the American-owned Shanghai Power Company. After the revolution he
became a free-lance journalist and adviser to foreign companies.
Kost was arrested in 1967, at the height
of the Cultural Revolution. Held without charge and incommunicado, he literally
disappeared. Even his daughter did not know what happened to him.
Unlike Anthony Grey, a British
correspondent for Reuters arrested the following year, Kost had no protection.
Mr. Grey, who became a cause célèbre, was released after a year. Kost was a
Russian without a passport whose knowledge of China made him doubly suspect. He
was a free-lancer for the South China Morning Post and Far Eastern Economic
Review, Hong Kong publications with no international clout. (Both were partly
owned by the Hongkong Bank, which explained his visit there).
Kost was tried eight years after his
arrest. The evidence was his "counter-revolutionary" articles, though they were
factual and unopinionated. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His daughter
Irene was also imprisoned, for four years, before being deported to the Soviet
Union to join her mother, who died in 1980. Irene remained there, becoming a
Chinese newsreader for Radio Moscow.
Kost was released in 1982, aged 73. He
eked out a living in Shanghai as a translator until Tim Cotton and the then
editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, Derek Davies, helped him to be
resettled in Australia, at a Sydney home for elderly Russians from China. There
he passed his last 13 years, a modest hero who talked without bitterness about
Kost knew Shanghai at its apogee as a
treaty port in the early 1930s, when it was at the cutting edge of modernity and
was home to even more foreigners than now. He would have been delighted by
today's Shanghai, with its passion for the world's tallest and newest.
Reborn Shanghai is also conscious of its
past, protecting some architectural monuments to its former glory. Kost, the
dyed-in-Shanghai, multiethnic, multilingual foreigner, should be remembered as a
participant in and a victim of this city's 20th-century history - and of the
perils of free-lance journalism.