East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Stepan & Nina Smigunov


The Smigunovs, or Smigs as Ella Maillart called them, traveled with Fleming and Maillart from Peking to Lanzhou, where they were stopped by the Chinese authorities, and turned back – thus disappearing from our story.
We do not have a photograph of them, and biographical informations are sketchy at best.

erik norinStepan Ivanovich Smigunov was a former commanding officer of a Russian poison gas squad during the Great War, and had come to the Chinese-Mongolian border with a group of other disbanded Russian soldiers fleeing the Bolshevik revolution. Together with his wife Nina – apparently, the brains of the outfit – he started running a business in Tsaidan.
Both Stepan and Nina spoke Mongolian, Turkish and Chinese, and knew the area inside out.
They were therefore hired by geologist Erik Norin, a member of the Sven Hedin expedition that had been stopped by General Ma Zhongying (we’ll talk about him, one of these nights).
Norin was set on getting out of the Xinjian area, and together with the Smigunovs they traveled south, to India but, the road been blocked, they turned east, and finally ended in Tientsin.
It was Erik Norin (“the Swedish Geologist” mentioned by Maillart) that suggested to Fleming and Maillart they could hire the Smigunovs as guides and travel companions.
In Tientsin, Stepan had found a job as a waiter in a restaurant run by Russians, and he jumped at the proposal – he and his wife hoped to go back to Tsaidan and start again their commercial venture. The Chinese authorities had other ideas, and the Smigs were sent back.
And this is more or less all we have about them.

book329Meanwhile, there’s the matter of Stepan Ivanovich Smigunov’s own book, Kunlun Travelogue (or something like that), that I’ve been able to track only in a 1968 Japanese language translation, as コンロン紀行.
About the book, the web remains silent – and indeed, I was quite surprised when I found out that the first resource mentioned in my language about the Smigunovs is my book Avventurieri sul Crocevia del Mondo.

Anyway – any further information about the Smigunovs, and about Stepan’s “Travelogue” is welcome.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “Stepan & Nina Smigunov

  1. Some links…

    there is a Nina Smigunov, who died in san Francisco, April 1st, 1986, and who was born in January 27, 1911 in China … at least curious. Born in China? Or travelled from Tsien Tsin to California?


    Is this the same Nina that was sent back in Lanzhou in 1935?

    In fact, the name must be Nina Smigunova or Nina Smignova, but nobody appears under this name.

    But we are more lucky with Stephan Smignov (and not Stepan Smigunov) who wrote not one, but two Travelogues, edited both in Japan, although translated, so.. may be there is a previous version.

    One is the one you have found, Konlon travelogue, originally edited in 1944, and the other one an Altai travelogue, edited in 1946. By the way, Kunlun Range is a mountain range that stays at the South of Takla Makan


    • I had tried some search with the alternate spelling of Stepan/Stephan’s name but I had missed the two books.
      Nina Smigunov born in 1911… I find it unlikely for her to be “our” Nina, as she’d have been very young at the time of her meeting with Stepan, and their merchant activity in Tsaidan. But who knows, maybe they started young in those days and places 🙂


    • And on the other hand, it would be interesting were this Nina our Nina… how the heck did she end up in San Francisco?
      What a story would that have been…!


  2. I wander how to get Stepan’s books. It is not easy, I have perused half the Internet to find copies in Japanese and in (Public?) libraries, but no way to find the original (although the original may of course have been the original manuscript written in Russian) nor even an e-book that Google may (or may not) translate

    And eventually, the history of Stepan, who was returned to Tsien Tsin with his wife Nina in 1936, and who wrote two books in Japan 10 years later is surely interesting, too. Anyhow I doubt that China Travelogues have been bestsellers in 1946 Japan, who had just started its recovery after WWII and their defeat, with the loss of China, so probably the books lie, covered of dust, in some obscure japanese bookshelf

    So, there is a lot to do before arriving to Xinning and its lamasery (Kumbun for Peter, Koumboum for Nina, and with a Chinese different name – which appears in my Kummerly and Frey map at 1:5.000.000 !!). But of course, it is easier to find when you know the name 🙂

    You know, I guess that I will start writing my own blog on the trip that I will (or will not do) in a year from now.


    • Yes, the Smigunov adventure sure sounds like something I’d like to know more about. As for the Japanese books, there was a copy of Konlon Travelogue on eBay a while back but it’s gone.
      And this story of books by a Russian living in China and published only in Japan sort of reminds me of “Three Days of the Condor” – and I fantasize about espionage and mysteries…
      And I look forward to reading your blog, of course 🙂


  3. Since I read ‘news From Tartary’ many years ago, I always wondered what happened to the Smigunovs. For a brief instant, they entered recorded history > but then disappeared!
    So imagine my astonishment when reading ‘The Alluring Target’ by Kenneth Wimmel (1996) they are mentioned >> page 222 > ” it was only much later, after they completed their journey, that they learned what had befallen the Smigunovs. From Tientsin, they were able to gain passage by ship out of China to the West. They eventually landed in Uruguay where they settled down”.

    It was this that spurred me to goggle their names >> and come across this posting!!
    moreover, I am now equally curious as to the publications mentioned in the above thread. If anyone has further info as to these of their subsequent lives in South America (or elsewhere??) would be most appreciative!
    Thanks in anticipation !!!

    Liked by 1 person

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