Whispers of the Past: Remembering Ivan N. Korneev

Bomi Yoon

Ivan N. Korneev’s tombstone at Yanghwajin Cemetery in the spring of 2018 / Robert Neff Collection

Ivan N. Korneev’s tombstone at Yanghwajin Cemetery in the spring of 2018 / Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

In the summer of 1894, China and Japan were at war and battling for hegemony over the Korean Peninsula. Somewhat ironically, Korea, at the time, was often referred to as “the Land of the Morning Calm.”

The harbor at Jemulpo (modern Incheon) was filled with foreign warships ostensibly there to protect the foreign nationals residing in Korea, but some appear to have arrived merely to witness the war from a safe vantage point. However, the foreign legations in Seoul did request and receive guards of marines, and sailors drawn from these warships and remained in Seoul until the early part of 1895.

The American community in Seoul welcomed the influx of American sailors and marines. Social events were organized to entertain these young warriors and in return, American residents enjoyed dental services rendered by one of the ships’ doctors. However, among the sailors – and at least one officer – there was a degree of disgruntlement over the cramped housing and the tedium of guarding the legation.

The Russian warship Koreetz in the early 1900s / Robert Neff Collection

The Russian warship Koreetz in the early 1900s / Robert Neff Collection

Unlike the American Legation, the Russian Legation had ample space on its sprawling compound to comfortably house its guard of 45 blue-jackets (sailors). The Russian sailors, under the command of Lieutenant R. Faehlmann of the Koreetz, allegedly spent much of their free time drinking and molesting the virtuous Korean women they encountered. Indirectly, their acts caused the American legation’s guard inconvenience through mistaken identification and vilification by some of the American missionaries who mistook the Russian sailors for American sailors.

Of course, where there is smoke, there is fire. One American sailor deserted his post, sold his rifle to a Japanese merchant and then went on a drinking binge. After a couple of days, he returned to the legation and confessed that “he had such an irresistible desire for drink that he could not help going after it.” His desire for a drink cost him five years’ imprisonment.

The tombstone of Julius Max Domke at Yanghwajin Cemetery in the spring of 2023 / Robert Neff Collection

The tombstone of Julius Max Domke at Yanghwajin Cemetery in the spring of 2023 / Robert Neff Collection

He may have lost his freedom but he didn’t lose his life — others weren’t so lucky. On Nov. 14, Julius Max Domke, the 37-year-old secretary at the German Legation, died from pulmonary consumption (tuberculosis). His death did not come as a surprise as he had been deathly ill since the beginning of November. Although it is merely romantic speculation, Domke was determined to live long enough to enjoy his birthday. He barely succeeded.

A week later, there was another death — one that was completely unexpected. Ivan N. Korneev, a 35-year-old sailor from the Russian gunboat Bobr, succumbed on Nov. 21 from typhus fever – likely contracted from the fleas or lice that plagued the Jeong-dong area.

While we don’t know much about Korneev’s life, we know that his death helped bring change to Western funerals in Seoul. Many Koreans believed the area around Yanghwajin (now Hapjeong Station) was haunted due to its dark past (Christian persecution and executions in 1866-67). Hoping to appease the legions of dark spirits thought to dwell in the ground, air and water, they built a shrine. When King Gojong granted the land to be used as a foreign cemetery (now known as Yanghwajin Foreigners’ Cemetery), the planners had inadvertently placed the cemetery’s gate near the shrine. The local residents soon rose up in protest as they feared the malevolent spirits would be angered by foreign corpses being carried past the shrine. In order to placate their superstitious fears, part of the wall farthest from the shrine was knocked down and the Western corpses were ignobly conveyed through it to their final resting place. Thus was the fate of Domke.

The tombstone of Sergeant Henry Ellis at Yanghwajin Cemetery in the spring of 2023 / Robert Neff Collection

The tombstone of Sergeant Henry Ellis at Yanghwajin Cemetery in the spring of 2023 / Robert Neff Collection

However, following Korneev’s death, the Russian minister, Carl von Waeber, approached Henry G. Appenzeller, the American missionary in charge of the cemetery, for advice as to the method of interring the body in the cemetery. The American urged the Russians to march through the unused gate “and scatter the demons.” Waeber heeded the advice.

The funeral procession, the casket, borne by Korean coolies (laborers), traveled from the Russian Legation to the cemetery – where it encountered a group of Korean residents who had likely gathered partially out of curiosity and to ensure the foreigners carried the body through the breach in the wall. The Russian lieutenant, however, refused to comply and had the body carried to the gate and set down. He then ordered the Russian escort to point their rifles up the hill, towards the shrine and, “in the face of the hosts of devils,” gave the order to fire three volleys. With the malevolent spirits driven away by the sound of gunfire, Korneev was laid to rest in peace – no longer would funerals be denied access through the gate.

Much sooner than anyone had anticipated, this was verified when 34-year-old William J. Hall, an American missionary, died on Nov. 24. Sergeant Henry Ellis, a member of the British Legation guard, passed away on Dec. 8.

Ivan N. Korneev’s tomb after restoration in the spring of 2023 / Robert Neff Collection

Ivan N. Korneev’s tomb after restoration in the spring of 2023 / Robert Neff Collection

Many graves at Yanghwajin Cemetery – including Korneev’s – have been damaged by the 1950-53 Korean War and the ravages of nature. Perhaps even more damaging is the passage of time which has erased the memories of the past from the consciousness of the present. Such was the case of Korneev until the summer of 2020 when the Russian government took an interest in the Russian graves within the cemetery.

On Dec. 20, 2021, Andrey Kulik (Russian ambassador to Korea), his staff and other members of the Russian community took part in the opening ceremony of the restoration of Korneev’s gravestone. Archbishop Feofan of the Russian Orthodox Church in Korea performed the consecration of the tomb and the funeral liturgy.

The forgotten sailor lives once again in the memories of the present.

As a side note I would like to add, there are several beautiful pictures on the Russian Embassy’s page of the consecration ceremony in December 2021. I wish I could have included them for the article but was unable to find anyone to give me permission to use them. Unfortunately, the Russian Embassy still mistakenly states Korneev’s death occurred in 1899 – hopefully they will make the correction.

Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books, including Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.

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