WHEN a friend asked if I had seen the movie ``The Last Emperor,'' about Manchuria, I said: ``Manchuria? Really?'' ``Yes,'' she assured me. So after a long absence from movie theaters, my husband and I went to see the film. That's because I was born in Manchuria, in Harbin, and spent the first 25 years of my life there. The family went from Moscow to Harbin in 1906 shortly after the cessation of the Russo-Japanese War. My grandfather was transferred there by his firm. The city was growing rapidly then, because it stood at the place where the Chinese Eastern Railway, then being built from Moscow to Vladivostok, crossed the Sungary River.
In 1891 my grandmother had established a kindergarten and elementary school in Moscow and had achieved a reputation for excellence in education.
Immediately after arriving in Harbin and using the very best ideals of Russia, her native land, she founded the first private school in the Far East, the M.A. Oksakovsky Gymnazia. She gained the sympathies of wide circles and the local authorities and began her own building.
In those days Harbin seemed like a fairyland to a little girl. Grandmother's school buildings had the largest auditorium in the city, with a very high ceiling. Many cultural activities took place there.
At the level of the second floor the auditorium had two small balconies where my grandmother made her appearances, with me and my sister all dressed up for a concert, a ballet, or an opera. These balconies seemed to us our own little castles, and there and on the large stage we played such games as ``hide and seek'' and ``Cossacks and robbers.''
Outside the auditorium grew delicious raspberries, and we used to climb out the windows to pick them. I can almost hear one of our Chinese servants calling ``Malina,'' unable to pronounce the ``r'' in my Russian name Marina. We used to laugh because, of course, she did not realize that in Russian malina means raspberries.
In 1917 the revolution drove many Russians out of their homeland; people fled in all directions. Many of them came to Harbin. They all had to leave their possessions behind, and for the most part the adjustment was a difficult one.
As time went on, the effects of the Russian Revolution were felt more and more in Harbin. It was then a city of about 600,000, of whom 100,000 were Russian. There was a currency catastrophe, and those who had money or government bonds from the pre-revolutionary government lost them.
My grandmother's beautiful school building had to be sold and we had to rent other space. Even so, we were still better off than many people, and frequently we took care of those who arrived in Harbin not knowing where to go or what to do.
As soon as the Soviets consolidated their revolution, they took control of the Chinese Eastern Railway. Youth organizations began to form: the Komsomols on the Soviet side, the Musketeers on the White Russian side. There were conflicts and stone-throwing in the streets. These incidents soon subsided, however, since few Soviets had moved to Harbin.
The life of the Russian people was very difficult. My grandmother always invited the children to school activities, especially at Christmas and Easter. They received attractive bags filled with food, fruit, cookies, nuts, and candy - luxuries their families could not afford.
It was customary for men (but not women) to pay courtesy calls on the first day of Christmas and Easter, and our table was always filled with goodies for all to enjoy. My sister and I used to run away from these occasions so that we would not have to kiss the men with their long black beards. Grandmother extended the festivities to a second day so that the women could enjoy them, too. People came in all day long to pay respects to her.
Although these days were difficult, there were good times, too. In the summer the Sungari River provided relaxation. We could swim at only a few beaches, however, because whirlpools made the river treacherous.
In the winter when the river froze several feet thick, we rode push-sleighs to get to the other side.
Sleds replaced the carriages and buggies we used the rest of the year. Ordinarily two or three horses pulled these sleds, and they added a special charm to life. What a wonderful sensation it is to be riding in one of those sleds in brisk air, snugly tucked in with heavy furs - and on a moonlit night listening to the tinkle of the bells!
When my sister and I were in our early teens, we left Harbin for three years. We went to Tientsin, China, to study English. Our knowledge of English later shaped the courses our lives were to take.
From time to time the Soviets invited Harbin Russians to return to their native land. To carry on the revolution, they needed educated people, and Harbin was full of them.
Some Russians went back and occasionally letters would come. Then they would stop coming, and we could sense that it was not yet the time to return. When reports of the activities of Mao Tse-tung reached Harbin, people began to think about leaving. Whoever had any relatives elsewhere or friends who were willing to vouch for them began to leave.
Then rumors of a Japanese invasion reached us. After the ``Mukden incident'' and during the Japanese occupation, many Russians left. Some went back to Russia, but there was also a great exodus to San Francisco. (In fact, for many years there was a Harbin Bakery there.)
In 1935 my sister went back to Tientsin to work for a Russian firm. There she met and married an American, an officer of the National City Bank of New York. When they were transferred to Harbin, I went to live with them. We soon came into close contact with the expatriates in Harbin, mainly Americans. Later I secured a position with the American Consulate, which eventually made it easier for me to come to the United States.
We had American films in Harbin and somehow the idea of freedom became deeply embedded in me. Anything that came from America, some little gift or magazine, brightened our days.
During all our years in Harbin, the worst time was during the period when the Japanese were maneuvering to make Manchuria a puppet state and remove the Russian presence. At this time kidnappings terrorized the city.
After the so-called ``Mukden incident'' - during which the Japanese occupied the Manchurian city of Mukden - we got prepared for the eventual Japanese invasion of Harbin. When we knew it was coming, we were told to have black curtains over the windows, because air raids were expected. When the day came, we stayed behind the high stone wall and the locked gates of the school my grandmother had started. As it turned out, there were no air raids.
The Chinese were totally unprepared, and there was very little resistance. Within four or five days everything was under control.
Changes soon began to take place. The Japanese language was introduced into all the schools. Later the private schools were closed. The Japanese took control of the railway. They improved the roads in the city and built new ones. Rickshaws began to appear. Japanese policemen were always around. Arrests were made; people were taken in for questioning.
Finally in 1938 I was granted a visa to go to America. My sister, by then a widow, was living with her husband's family in Wisconsin. My passport was issued by the government of Manchu Ti-kuo, which government the United States did not recognize. I was told that I could not get off the boat when it docked at Japanese ports, and I was disappointed, because I wanted to meet some of my sister's friends.
When we arrived in Yokohama, my sister's friends were there to greet me. They got permission for me to stay with them overnight. The next day when we returned a little late to the boat, we found that Japanese gendarmes were looking for me. When they asked to see my passport, I had a hard time finding it. But finally the Empress of Asia and I sailed for America - a dream come true.