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Elena Govor


Russian Prerevolutionary Emigration to Australia: Socioethnic Background and Preconceptions


Australian statistics claim that Russian emigration to Australia was steadily growing from the 1880s up to World War I. By 1901 there were around 3400 лRussians╗ in Australia, in 1911 4500, and in 1921 7700. Who were these people, what was their ethnic origin, and why did they come to Australia? Basing my research on the Australian censuses and other statistics, as well as on Charles Price's data deriving from the naturalization records, I discovered that until the 1920s the ethnic Russians (and the closely related Byelorussians and Ukrainians) were not the dominant nationals among other immigrants from the Russian Empire. Jews, and especially Polish Jews and Jews from the Pale of Settlement, were the predominate group. They were little Russianized and had fled from the outer regions of the Empire fearing pogroms. The Jews are followed by considerable groups of Finns and Poles. The number of ethnic Russians at different periods was not consistently proportionate to the total number of immigrants from the Russian Empire, but grew from 4.4 per cent in 1901 to 9 per cent in April 1911 and reached nearly 30 per cent by the time of the February 1917 revolution (1). Immigration of ethnic Russians experienced an unprecedented growth in 1911-14, most of it to Queensland. From around 1911 among the new arrivals from the Russian Empire ethnic Russians were becoming the most numerous ethnic group, increasingly лdiluting╗ the predominantly non-ethnic Russian immigrants from the Empire who lived in Australia. The Australian statistics of arrivals and departures indicate that a significant increase in arrivals between 1910 and 1914 was followed by a considerable number of departures after 1914, which suggests that many Russian immigrants came to Australia not to settle permanently but to earn money and leave after a few years. Russian Jews, by contrast, emigrated to Australia to settle permanently from the very beginning. In the text which follows I use the expression лRussian emigrants╗ to mean ethnic Russians, Byelorussians, and Ukrainians as well as a small group of Russianized Jews, Poles, Germans and others. The later were mostly political emigres or, rarely, intellectuals and professionals.

Throughout the nineteenth century Russian emigration to Australia was quite rare. The dominating perception of potential emigrants was that of a far, almost unreal, country and their stories are stories of thwarted dreams and misadventures rather than of the routine emigration usual for Russian Jews, Poles, and Finns. Still there is a number of unique characters among the early Russian immigrants. The first was John Potocki (c. 1762-1824) born in Byelorussia. He spoke Russian and, if he is to be believed, served in the Russian army. In England he was convicted for stealing and he was brought to Tasmania in 1804 with the first group of convicts. By now his descendants number over two thousand. Another convict (the first ethnic Russian resident in Australia) was Konstantin Milkov (Milcow), a horsebreaker, born in Moscow c. 1783. He was sentenced in London for stealing a piece of bacon and deported for seven years to Australia in 1816. Several other convicts born in Russia were British or European by parentage or of Jewish origin.

A number of cases of desertion from Russian naval vessels and, later, merchant ships visiting Australia were mostly unsuccessful. They were prompted by the hardships aboard Russian ships for the lower deck crews and the attractions of shore life. The fact that these escapes occurred in Australia and not in previous ports of call suggests that this land might have seemed especially attractive to the Russian sailors in spite the fact that for the Russian lower-class seamen who did not know English, this step was more difficult than for their English or American counterparts. The distinction of being the first ethnic Russian deserter in Australia belongs to a drummer P. Elizarov from the Blagonamerennyi who left his ship in Sydney in 1820. He was followed by several sailors from the Otkrytie. The most notorious case was the rebellion of a group of Russian sailors led by Stanislav Stankevich from the Kreiser in Tasmania in 1823. According to Dmitrii Zavalish-in, four sailors, who had been working on shore, were encouraged by local runaway convicts and escaped. After negotiations three of them gave themselves up, while the fourth, the brightest of them, Stankevich, was never found or heard of again.

Cases of Russians who did succeed in settling in Australia were more the exception than the rule. The most colorful figure associated with Russia was Ivan Fredericks, known as лRussian Jack╗ (c. 1855-1904), a former sailor born in Arkhangelsk. He deserted an English ship in Newcastle and by the mid 1880s had joined a bold band of goldminers in the Kimberly district. He become a champion of Australian лmateship╗ and hero of goldminers' folklore to such a degree that in the 1970s in Halls Creek a monument was erected to commemorate an exploit in which he carried a sick digger лmore than 300 kilometers in a bush-made wheelbarrow seeking medical aid╗. As a result he was late getting to the new goldfield, but he saved the man. Symbolically, this personality, like one taken from Russian heroic epics, fitted perfectly into Australian frontier life.

The last decades of the nineteenth century brought to Australia a new type of Russian who may be described as a лromantic adventurer╗ personality. We do not know their exact numbers and names. They would have belonged to the educated strata of Russian society and would have dreamed since childhood of seeing the wonders of Australian nature. Usually they had an image of Australia as an exotic land and saw it as an integral part of the South Pacific rather than as an outpost of Western civilization. For them the Australian continent lost in the expanses of the Pacific Ocean satisfied a thirst for the exotic. This was exemplified by the case of the first лRussian colony in Australia╗. In 1886 Miklouho-Maclay's brief invitation to Russians лto settle ... on the Maclay coast or in the Pacific╗, published in Russian newspapers, unexpectedly provoked hundreds of applications from Russians wanting to follow him to the South Seas. Russian newspapers discussed this project as лRussian colonization in Australia╗ , obviously perceiving Australia and the south-western Pacific as synonyms. Professor V. I. Modestov captured the root of this movement believing that there were many courageous, educated people in Russia, unhappy with the present situation and лdesiring to exert their efforts not in the routine way ... but longing for a new life╗, longing for freedom. In fact Miklouho-Maclay's followers were romantic democrats attracted both by the democratic principles of the proposed colony and its situation somewhere in the Pacific, near Australia (accurate geography probably was the last thing to trouble them). Miklouho-Maclay with his proposal to create a Russian democratic Utopia in the South Seas perfectly caught this mood of the Russians.

The лadventurous-romantic╗ element in Russian society, though not large, may have had a deep impact on the Russian mind and the image of the South Pacific, including Australia. But it was not their destiny to be among the hundreds and thousands of Russians who came to Australia during the second decade of the twentieth century. These people came with one desire - to work; and either to return home with a modest fortune or to remain permanently settled.

The first ethnic лRussian wave╗, which reached Australia in 1910 and was rising for several years after that, came from the Russian Far East and Siberia across the Pacific to Queensland. The reasons for the peak of emigration from Russia at this time, which was a period of stable economic growth in Russia, actually its лstar hour╗, may be understood only in a wider context. Of fundamental importance were the effects of peasant resettlement from overpopulated regions of Central Russia to Siberia and the Far East caused by the shortage of land and the suppression of any peasant initiative first by serfdom and later by obshchina (peasant community). A free life on abundant land was the Russian peasantry's cherished dream, one of the determining characteristics of their consciousness and Siberia, in psychological terms, was a kind of Russian frontier. The newcomers were the most mobile and adaptable of the Russian peasantry and artisans. The numbers of migrants increased especially at the beginning of the twentieth century at the time of Stolypin's reforms. For various reasons many of them remained unhappy with their new land and the opportunities for employment there. This unsettled element increased after the Russo-Japanese war, one outcome of which was that a considerable number of soldiers and other servicemen preferred not to return to their original homes in Russia. They were joined by tradesmen who had been involved in railway work and were now unemployed (the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed in 1905), and a smaller, more intellectual group without a real trade, such as unemployed clerks and foremen, and unsuccessful businessmen and contractors. By 1910 Siberia and the Far East accumulated a growing number of dissatisfied people who were ready to try their luck once again.

        The exodus was facilitated by emigration agencies, connected with shipping companies, that specialized in attracting migrants to Australia. Their methods varied-leaflets distributed throughout the country and especially in Siberia, advertisements in local Siberian newspapers and personal trips by agents to recruit potential migrants. The common route was through Harbin, Dairen (Lu-ta) and Japan. From 1910 each Japanese boat departing from these places for Australia brought to Queensland dozens of Russians.

Not least of the propelling factors was the perception of Australia that had spread among the Russian working classes in Siberia after the 1905 revolution. Local newspapers stated with one voice that many Russians having a very favorable image of the country were interested in Australia and longed to get there. This attractive image was created by the letters of the first successful Russian settlers to relatives and friends, writings in the local press, and the tireless propaganda of emigration agents. For the first time in history Russian writings on Australia reached a new audience - the working classes - and received an overwhelming response. лInterest among (peasants of our village) in these articles was so great that the newspaper which published them circulated from hand to hand╗, a Far Eastern peasant named Pavlenkov wrote in 1910. In the broad sense of the term, chain migration resulted; the Russians selection of Queensland was due not only to the route of emigrant ships but also to the presence of the growing Russian community there and the publicity that community received in Russia through relatives, friends, press and emigration agents.

Russian authorities could not prevent this emigration. Newspapers from time to time published warnings by Russian consuls in Australia and by Australian officials. Some Russian communities sent their messengers or scouts (khodoki) to Australia to study the situation on the spot. The Russian warnings, though reflecting some real problems (for instance, difficulties for those without English), tended to be marked by extreme jingoism and xenophobia. They denounced Russian aspirations as лindecision of mind╗ because of лa lack of pride╗, and Australian freedom as лa vain and false chimera╗. With typical Russian prejudice, they warned: лAll good jobs are for the English, for Russians only unskilled labor╗. It was commonplace in these warnings to claim that the Australians treated the Russians especially badly, as the negroes were treated in America, or to allege that the differences between classes in Australia were so great that this was even лincomprehensible╗ for simple Russians. лIt is senseless and stupid to give up the results of your work for the benefit of an alien nation from which we see not a bit of good╗, argued the Russian messenger Pavlenkov. Characteristically, the official warnings had the opposite psychological effect on potential emigrants suspicious of everything that came from the authorities. лThey write it to discourage us from going there╗, the Russian workers and peasants concluded and left in growing numbers for Australia, Hawaii and the USA.

The memoirs of Nikolai Blinov provide a typical example of the mentality of a footloose, impressionable emigrant, and the influences he felt. They describe the role of prior perceptions and a common way of getting to Australia with the help of an emigration agency. Blinov was born in 1884 in Central Russia into a peasant family. After serving a compulsory term in the army he returned to his village to discover that he had lost his plot of land. He tried to work as a laborer for a лkulak╗ but exploitation and humiliation soon forced him to leave. He decided to лfollow his nose╗. A person on the nearest railway station advised him to go to Siberia, There he worked as a railway guard for several years but eventually became disgusted with the atmosphere in which the workers were expected to inform on each other and in 1914 he лdecided to go to Australia as from there information came that it was лa country of freedom╗. There were six of us. We all left the service at once. But how to go, how to get a passport which cost 25 rubles?'. He crossed the border illegally. On Changchun station Blinov and several similar escapees лwere met by a Japanese agent from an emigration bureau. He showed us where to retire as soon as possible... A few hours later we were met in Dairen by Japanese agents who already had collected in a hotel fifty Russian refugees heading to Australia. Here we were acquainted with Australia in all details by means of the emigration agency journal which was published in Harbin. It consisted almost completely of the letters of emigrants from Tsarist Russia who lived in Australia. And we left, persuaded that soon we would meet our compatriots in the country of freedom and sun, where there is eternal verdure and no winter.╗

In a study of the history of Farleigh (Mackay area) K.W. Manning referred to similar moods: лThey had heard Australia was a land of opportunity and general recollections are that they did not consider migrating anywhere else╗. In some cases the perceptions of emigrants had a more politicized character. As a miner named Kutuzov put it: лI am a miner and worked near Vladivostok in Suchan, and well, I thought: Australia- the fifth part of the world, a workers╗ country, what if I go there!' This image was so popular among the Russians that journalists who wanted to discourage potential emigrants often wrote sarcastically about this belief as a commonplace: лRussians rush to Australia. Of course! Kingdom of freedom and workers! Is it worth abandoning everything for the sake of some sort of free-thinking and some special high blessings (in Australia)?╗

Many of these migrants saw Australia as a good place to earn a modest fortune rather than as a country of permanent settlement. Blinov wrote about his compatriots employed on the railway works in mid 1914: лAmong us predominated people who simply dreamed of returning to Russia with money╗. Similarly, R., a political refugee, stressed that the majority of Russians were workers and peasants from South Siberia лwho emigrated to Australia to earn a couple of hundred pounds╗ and then would return home. Vasilii Starshinov, who came to Australia in 1909, provided a collective portrait of such emigrants in the person of Nikolai, a hero of his short story лNo luck╗. Nikolai's land allotment in Siberia was not big enough to support his wife and children. His attempt to earn a fortune in Siberian mines was not successful and in 1912 лhe heard from his mates, who received letters from Australia, that in this country wages were high and there were a lot of jobs╗. He left for Australia planning to return to his family in one or two years with money. This group of immigrants were mainly males in their twenties and sometimes thirties. Few came with families. Some sent money for the passage to their families later when they were themselves well settled. For instance, in 1914 on an emigrant ship with Blinov there were already a number of women with children going to their husbands.

Real peasant settlers interested in farming and long-term settlement were not as numerous as the above-mentioned лseekers of better luck╗. But the availability of land in Australia dominated their image of the country. Interestingly it combined with widespread Russian popular social-Utopian beliefs in the existence of a faraway land where each peasant could get free as much land as he needed and enjoy justice and freedom from oppression. Responding to this notion journalists warned that лland is not given free and one has either to buy it or to take it on lease╗.

Thus the preconceptions of economic emigrants had the most general, schematic nature-sun mixed with abstract freedom and an idealistic belief in the land of opportunities and a workers' or peasants' kingdom. Characteristically many Russians perceived this kingdom as a place of free land, easy work and high wages.

Political refugees from the Russian Empire, although proportionally making up approximately only one-tenth of the total number of emigrants, according to Boris Christa лhad the most powerful impact and made the Australian public keenly aware╗ of the Russian presence. Being of Russian as well as of Jewish, Lettish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Polish origin, they were predominantly Russian in culture and mentality, or combined Russianness with their ethnic culture. R., presumably one of the activists of the Union of Russian Workers, estimated that they numbered 500 before the February revolution. During 1917, after the revolution, nearly 600 Russians left Australia. Many of these were political refugees who could prove their political status and return at the expense of the Russian Provisional Government of Kerensky.

In general, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between political and non-political emigrants from Russia at that time. Some initially came to Australia to earn money but soon, under the influence of the extremely politicized Union of Russian Workers and Industrial Workers of the World, became involved in political activity, began to read social-democratic and other literature and were finally transformed into the psychological type of the political emigrant. Moreover, in a broader sense, most emigrants from the Russian Empire had some political, or at least non-economic, reasons to emigrate: a general desire for freedom, a wish to escape ethnic or religious persecution, avoidance of conscription, or desertion from the army.

A different picture emerges if we examine the stories of political emigrants in the narrow meaning of the term. Most of them came to Australia after taking part in the revolution of 1905. Their usual fate was imprisonment, exile to Siberia (mainly in the form of settlement in a Siberian village) and then flight across the border to China, Korea or Japan and finally to Australia. Artem's letters describe this route vividly. The spectrum of their politics was diverse - Liberals, Social Democrats, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries, Maximalists, and Anarchists. There were also members of a number of national and ethnic parties of social-democratic orientation - Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian and Jewish. The Ukrainian historian A. Chernenko considers that most political emigrants to Australia лformally had no membership of any party, though could be affiliates of one or another party╗. Before the formation of the Union of Russian Emigrants in 1912 the dominant role among political parties belonged to the more moderate sector of the socialist movement, but once the Union was formed the Bolsheviks mostly dominated the leadership.

The Australian historian Raymond Evans has formulated the most general basic reason for the political emigrants' choice of Australia: лThey had settled in Queensland almost by default - it was a Western outpost at the end of a tortuous escape route from political imprisonment, principally in Siberia╗. I believe that their perceptions of Australia, at least for some, were more specific than that, and that they were influenced particularly by the vision of Australian achievements in social reform. Mark Ostapenko, a railway worker, wrote: лWe left our native land to escape persecution and firmly believed that in coming to Australia we would find freedom and peace╗. Russian political emigre lu. logansen also considered that many believed that Australia was a free country with good conditions for workers. Artem wrote that, when leaving for Australia лI had very vague perceptions about it. The only perception that I had about Australia as a free, most democratic country, was based on Pavel MizhuevТs book The Advanced Democracy of the Modern World. Besides I was full of the most amazing rumours about this far country. It was said that Australia was a лworkingmen's paradise, God's own country, a lucky country, the ideal of democracy╗ etc, etc.'

The Russian press carried messages that made Australia especially attractive for Russian refugees: лOn arrival no one asks about any money and does not take any duty ... also, no one needs any documents - one can name himself by any name╗. Indeed, a change of name in Australia was very common among Russian political emigres.

They all - adventurers, fortune makers and revolutionaries - rushed to Australia across the Pacific Ocean. Soon they were to explore the лexotic╗ Australia, to meet Australian people, to see from inside the лworkingmenТs Paradise╗. Some were to find a home there, some - an untimely grave, some were to return to their motherland and there make a career or perish in Stalin's camps. Luckily they could not foresee their future when, young, strong and full of expectations for a better life, they headed to Australia on Japanese boats лhappy╗, - using Blinov's words, - лto break away from Tsarist Russia╗.

1. See bibliographical details in the book by Elena Govor, Australia in the Russian Mirror, 1770-1919, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1997.


Published in Россияне в Азиатско-Тихоокеанском регионе [Russians in Asia-Pacific Region], book 2. Vladivostok, 1999, pp. 54-62.

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