The incredible life story of a leading Chinese communist's RUSSIAN daughter

Kira Lisitskaya (Photo: Russian Cultural Center in Beijing)
Inna Li spent her early childhood in Moscow during the Stalinist era, but then her youth was spent in Beijing under Mao Zedong. In the course of her life, she witnessed both the Cultural Revolution in China and the break-up of the USSR, and she also spent time in prison and later in exile.

“Where did you get such a cute Chinese girl from?” Elizaveta Kishkina, the mother of little Inna, was often asked by passers-by on the streets of Moscow in the 1940s. Back then the little girl, of course, never thought about whether she was Chinese or Russian.

Mother from Russia, father from China

Li Lisan with his wife and daughter Inna

Inna's mother, Elizaveta, was born into the family of a Saratov landowner who did not accept the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and took his own life. All her life she felt embarrassed about her origins and tried to hide them because in the country of the Soviets that sort of background only brought trouble.

Inna's father, Li Lisan, came from a wealthy Chinese family. As a student, he studied in France, where he became interested in communist ideas. After a workers' strike that he had organized, Lisan was deported to China where he immediately joined the newly created Communist Party. The activist opened Party branches throughout China and soon became its de facto leader.

Li Lisan

In the 1920s, following an unsuccessful attempt at a revolution that he initiated in the hope of support from the Red Army, Lisan was called to Moscow to be “tried” by the Comintern. There he spent some time in prison for trying to drag the USSR into a war. Miraculously, Lisan escaped repressions, but he was not allowed out of the country for 15 years. During that time he married Elizaveta, and in 1943 their daughter Inna was born. In 1946, Lisan was allowed to return to China, and his family soon followed him.

Russian life in China

In Harbin, near the Soviet border, the family was given a state-owned house to live in, which was very modest. But after their communal apartment in Moscow, it seemed huge to Inna. Her mother tried to maintain their Russian way of life, and Inna was sent to a Russian kindergarten. In 1949, Mao offered Lisan a new position, and the family moved to Beijing, living in a large house with servants.

The Russian diaspora in the capital was small, but soon Inna made friends with other children from mixed marriages. “We tried to call ourselves Rusakity, but the term did not stick, so later we came up with a more suitable word - Chinarusy. And everything fell into place. Generally speaking, Chinese culture is very closed, and they don’t like strangers there,” Inna is quoted as saying in a new book by Alexander Arkhangelsky called Russian Hieroglyph. The Life Story of Inna Li, Told by Herself (Yelena Shubina Publications, AST, 2022).

In her final year of school, Inna and her mother went to Moscow for a year so that she could finish school there, getting a Soviet school diploma and passport. Her mother suggested they stay so that Inna could go to university in Moscow, but Inna was not thrilled about life in the post-Stalin world of the 1950s and ... living in a communal apartment again.

Dual life: Rift between China and the USSR

In the 1960s, Mao and the USSR were no longer close because the regime in China began to strengthen and become more independent. Owing to his links to the Soviet Union and his wife's background, Lisan began to have some problems. Inna had to give up her Soviet passport, and she took a Chinese name, Li Yingnan.

Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin

She enrolled in Beijing University to train as an interpreter and joined the Komsomol. The university dormitory had spartan conditions and wooden beds without mattresses. Students were woken at 6:00 a.m., did outdoor morning exercises no matter the weather, and marched to the canteen in formation. Among her fellow students, Inna tried to be an exemplary Komsomol member, while at home she enjoyed the lifestyle of a member of the “gilded youth” - with dancing, music, and foreign guests. “This is how my dual world began to take shape.”

Then China began to suffer from famine and food was rationed, but at Inna's home they still employed a private chef.

From right to left: Inna, Li Lisan, Elizaveta Kishkina, their second daughter Alla

China was preparing for a complete break with the USSR just as the Cultural Revolution was gaining momentum. Members of the Communist Party fell victim to purges, and the clouds of repression began to gather over Inna’s father. Soon he was temporarily suspended from work. In 1967, he was sent to prison on charges of spying for the USSR. According to official reports, Li Lisan killed himself in prison by overdosing on sleeping pills, but Inna is convinced that it was not a suicide.

Prison and rehabilitation

Shortly after her father's arrest, Inna, her younger sister and their mother were also put behind bars. Two years later, Mao decided to soften the punishment for children in prison due to their parents’ crimes. They were instead sent to a re-education camp whereby they had to attend "courses for studying Mao Zedong's ideas". For years, Inna had no news of her parents, and only after her release did she learn that her father had long since died.

During her re-education program, Inna was taken to a remote village where she worked in the paddy fields during the day, and in the evenings she went to political classes. Soon foreigners began to come to China, and Inna was called to Beijing to work as an interpreter. 

There she fell ill with hepatitis and spent a month in hospital, after which she, as a “formerly contagious person”, was no longer involved in political work and was even given a single room to live in. Thus she became free. She met her future husband among other “formerly contagious persons” and soon they had a child.

In 1979, after eight years in prison and a subsequent exile, Inna's mother was fully rehabilitated. Elizaveta Kishkina, known in Chinese under the name of Li Sha, became the founder of Russian studies in China and was awarded the title of a professor of Russian. (She wrote an autobiographical book, From Russia to China - a Journey of 100 Years). Inna also managed to have her father fully rehabilitated.

Return to the Motherland 

In 1984, for the first time in more than 20 years, Inna went to the USSR. She had to wait 20 months for a passport and a visa. From distant China it seemed that her homeland was developing at a rapid pace, but upon arrival, she found that everything - the way of life, conversations, interests - remained the same. However, soon Gorbachev came to power, Perestroika began and new bilateral relations with China were established. Inna, as a specialist in Russian studies, began to be invited on official trips to the USSR.

By that time, she already had two sons. Both went to a Chinese school but at home she spoke Russian to them. The position of Russians (or Chinarusy, as Inna used to call them) in China had improved. They were allowed to get together and teach their children about their second culture. 

In 1989, Inna came to Moscow with her children and stayed for six years, having sent them to a local school. She spoke to them in Chinese at home so that they would not forget the language. Both of Inna's sons graduated university in Moscow but later returned to China with their mother - they did not find it comfortable to live in Russia in the 1990s.

These days, Inna Li (Li Yingnan) is a well-known Chinese expert in Russian studies, a professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. She calls herself a Chinese woman with Russian leanings. 

“There was a time when my two ethnic halves came into conflict. Thank God, now I have found some kind of harmony. It turned out that I was comfortable sitting on two chairs: if I find myself locked in one culture, I start to suffocate."

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