Among Shanghai’s rainbow of consulate buildings, the gray, red-roofed Russian Consulate General fronting the Huangpu River is one of the most dramatic.
Though it was built for and is still used as the Russian Consulate General in Shanghai, the architectural history of the grand building has been filled with twists and turns over the past century.
It stands at the confluence of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek and can be appreciated from the Waibaidu Bridge.
Red roofing tiles contrast with the pale gray facade, which has a solid, severe look.
It was erected in 1916, designed by German architect Hans E. Lieb who adapted Baroque and German Renaissance elements for the 3,264-square-meter structure.
According to Vice Consul Sergey V. Androsov, the first Shanghai consulate of the Russian Empire was established in 1896, however, at that time the buildings were sprinkled in different parts of the city.
A fire in 1904 in one building destroyed valuable archives.
“Soon after his appointment in 1911, the new Consul General Victor Grosse reported to the Czar on Shanghai’s geographic and economical importance. The Czar approved Grosse’s plans for Shanghai, one of which was to build the new consulate building,” says Androsov.
The four-story structure was built in 1914, completed in 1916 and formally opened in January 1917.
“It was one of the most beautiful Russian consular buildings in all countries,” Androsov comments.
Only months after the grand opening, however, the 1917 Russian Revolution broke out and all Russian embassies and consulates overseas were closed, including the one in Shanghai.
In 1924, the Shanghai consulate of former Soviet Union reopened but closed in 1927 because of insecurity in the city controlled by the Kuomintang regime.
The Russian consulate opened again in 1932 after the ruling Kuomintang and former Soviet Union governments restored diplomatic relations. But it closed again in 1941, toward the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. It reopened in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established and new diplomatic ties were forged.
That’s not the end of the open-and-close drama. In the late 1950s, Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated and also Soviet experts assisting in China were ordered home in 1962. On September 28, the consulate closed again and did not reopen until 1986, when relations improved.
Following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the building was renamed the Russian Consulate General in Shanghai at the end of 1991.
Russia’s political changes not only affected the consular building, but also the tens of thousands of Russian refugees early last century.
Russians constituted the city’s largest European population and were predominantly anti-Bolshevik, white (czarist) Russians.
“In 1936, the approximate total foreign population of 60,000 had its most important constituent of 20,000 Japanese, 15,000 Russians, 9,000 British, 5,000 Germans and Austrians, 4,000 Americans and 2,500 French,” according to American scholar Rhoads Murphey’s 1953 book “Shanghai — Key to Modern China,”
Since Shanghai was an open city where passports and visas were not required, Russian refugees, including many soldiers, flooded into the city on almost every train and ship from the north. They ranged from beggars to the former aristocracy.
Russians acted quickly to gain a foothold in the city, wrote American Journalist John Powell, author of “My Twenty-five Years in China” (1945). Powell was the long-time editor-in-chief of the influential Shanghai-based English paper Far Eastern Review, who arrived in Shanghai in 1917.
Former Cossack soldiers became bodyguards for rich Chinese merchants and night watchmen at banks and business houses. Russian women of some means opened fashionable clothing shops, millinery shops and beauty parlors.
There were one or two Russian restaurants seemingly on every block, particularly in the former French concession where the majority of Russians resided. Russian food immediately became popular in the foreign and Chinese communities.
“The Russians filled an important niche in the city, occupying a position between the normal white-collar Occidental population and the Chinese who did all the work ... When I arrived in Shanghai, there was not a single Russian church in the city. Ten years later, after the White Russian influx, there were more than a dozen Russian Orthodox churches, some of them large and richly decorated,” Powell wrote.
On a clear summer midday, I had the opportunity to visit parts of the mysterious building not open to the public, except for the first-floor visa section. The second floor contains offices and the residence of the consul general. Some employees live on the upper two floors.
I was allowed to visit the northern part of the building, which looks more beautiful and far more opulent than I had imagined. I passed through a grand sculptured wooden gate graced by the Russian imperial double-headed eagle, pattern of the country’s national emblem.
Inside, a vestibule has a mosaic floor in a delicate pattern, a dark-wood spiral staircase, black and red marble columns, a large mirror and dark wainscotting. The centerpiece of a meeting hall is large, richly decorated fireplace.
Outside is a mini garden with a lovely pond and a pavilion.
“The entrance hall is nicely designed. The architect has used a variety of materials in an artful yet economical way,” says Zou Xun, chief architect of the renovation of No. 28 on the Bund, who explored this building with me.
“The German architect chose man-made materials for hidden parts, but for all visible areas he used only excellent, natural materials. Moreover, he also considered the harmony of blending different materials. The finely wrought mosaic floor reveals great craftsmanship.”
Ups and downs, openings and closings. Compared with other heritage Bund buildings, the red-roofed, pale gray consulate is rare and fortunate in retaining its original function.
Yesterday: Consulate General of Russia in Shanghai
Today: Consulate General of Russia in Shanghai
Address: 20 Huangpu Rd
Built: In 1916
Architectural style: Baroque and German Renaissance
Architect: Hans E. Lieb
Tips: Except for the visa section, the building is closed to the public. However, you can appreciate the facades from the Waibaidu Bridge while enjoying the river breeze.