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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Last Emperor's Translator

KHABAROVSK, Far East — Georgy Permyakov is 83 years old and so fit that he will spring to his feet and pound on his stomach to prove he still retains some of the strength of a former amateur boxer.

He never drinks or smokes, speaks six languages and sleeps on the balcony year-round. He chatters away in Japanese and Mandarin and is gleeful when visitors stare blankly in reply.

But just when you think he is through pulling tricks from his hat, he shuffles about in his study and finds a tattered schoolboy's notebook. There are essays written in Chinese, interspersed with pages of drawings made out of characters, such as a dancing man, a teapot and an umbrella.

"You know who draw these?" said Permyakov, persisting on speaking in a rough but fearless English. "Henry P'u-yi. Poo-yi, you Americans called him, but that is wrong. You know Henry P'u-yi? Last emperor of China. I was his interpreter and his teacher of Russian history and history of Communist Party."

P'u-yi was the last of the Ch'ing Dynasty, Manchus who conquered China in 1644 and ruled until 1912. P'u-yi ascended the throne in 1909 when he was 3 and later ruled as a puppet under the Japanese in the vassal state of Manchukuo (it included the occupied Chinese territories of Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia). And Permyakov was the emperor's translator during the five years that he lived in the Soviet Union — a prisoner, but that could hardly have been new for P'u-yi. He had been a prisoner every day of his life.

P'u-yi spent a cloistered childhood in Beijing's Forbidden City. Removed from his mother when he became emperor, he didn't see another child until he was 7, when he first met his brother and sister. But he wasn't allowed to leave the city, even after he was deposed. When a warlord finally expelled P'u-yi from the palace in 1924, he sought help from the Japanese. They crowned him emperor in 1934 in Changchun, where he lived until Soviet troops captured him in 1945.

Permyakov, too, grew up in China after his father, a wealthy soap manufacturer, fled the Bolshevik advance in the Far East. He is so comfortable in Chinese that he calls it his native tongue, and so upon his return to the Soviet Union after the war, he was chosen to work with this strange prisoner.

P'u-yi spent his life shaping himself to his captors' demands — he married at 16 when advisers told him to, publicly followed Shintoism and chose a new wife when the Japanese insisted on it, and eventually killed mice when ordered to do so by Red Chinese brainwashers (he was a closet Buddhist and considered killing a sin). So perhaps it is no surprise that he sought to please his Soviet captors. Or perhaps he was afraid of being returned to China.

"He twice sent to Stalin, requesting: 'Let me become Soviet citizen, work for socialism, work for communism,'" Permyakov said. "But MVD [the Interior Ministry] said, 'You cannot be member of Communist Party because we fight against monarchy.' So P'u-yi said, 'I will be first Communist emperor in the Russia.'"

There was another reason for his desire to stay in the Soviet Union, and her name was Maria Tishchenko. A big but beautiful woman, she was a graduate of a post office college and a war widow with two children, Permyakov said. She worked as cook at Special Object No. 45, the facility where P'u-yi was detained.

P'u-yi's record for bringing personal wealth into the Far East surely has yet to be beaten by money-laundering governors or the missionary who in 1992 arrived with millions of dollars worth of church-planting funds in a suitcase. He brought a valise full of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and platinum state emblems including a bird design. P'u-yi tried to give his translator a diamond then worth $60,000. Permyakov declined.

Until 1949, Chiang Kai-shek demanded P'u-yi's return, but the Soviets refused to hand him over. But after Mao Zedong's victory, the picture changed, and Stalin surrendered P'u-yi in 1950.

Before he left, P'u-yi gave his translator his wristwatch, a Japanese fan on which he had painted characters, and the notebook, which describes life, love, upbringing and husband-wife relations in China. He spent nine years in prison, and upon his release he was assigned to work as a gardener in the Academy of Sciences' Institute of Botany. Mao eventually ordered him to marry a party member. P'u-yi complied.

Russell Working is a freelance journalist based in Vladivostok.