Russian Migration to Australia

The arrival of the first Russian ship “Neva” in 1807 marks the beginning of contact between Australia and Russia. Since then many Russians have migrated to Australia at different times, usually in response to major historical events such as revolutions, civil wars and political persecution.

Neva – the first Russian ship in Port Jackson in 1807. Harbour of St Paul on the Island of Cadiack, Russian sloop-of-war Neva. Drawn by Capt Lisiansky, engraved by I. Clark. Published by John Booth, Duke Street, Portland Place, London, 1 March 1814.

In 1957 the Australian section of the Historic Military Society issued a jubilee medal honoring the 150th anniversary of the visit of the Neva. In this way the Russians who settled in Australia immortalised the name of the first Russian naval ship which came to the shores of the fifth continent.

The jubilee medal which honoured the 150th anniversary of the first Russian navigation to Australia.
Revolutionaries of 1905 and 1917

During political upheavals in Russia and following the aborted revolution in 1904 -05 some political exiles made their way to Australia, settling mostly in Brisbane. They were active in unions, supported by the left wing, and advocated the founding of the Communist Party in Australia in 1920. By October 1920 the majority of Bolsheviks (members of a Russian communist party founded by Vladimir Lennin) or “Reds” as they were called, returned home following the overthrow of the Tsarist government.

The Bolshevik Revolution took thousands of Russian soldiers away from the anti-German war effort. Getty: L’illustrazione Italiana.
White Russians” – early 1920s

During the Civil War which followed the revolution of 1917, the “White Movement” was formed as a resistance to the take-over of the government by the Bolsheviks. White the “White Army” fought the “Reds”, millions of people were forced to flee their homes. By 1922, all the “White Armies” had been defeated by the Bolsheviks. The “White Russian” civilians retreated with the army by rail, on foot and by ship to Korea, Manchuria and China.

A small number of them found their way to Australia. Most, about 51%, settled in Queensland and worked as cane cutters or cotton pickers. In Brisbane they established the Russian Club, the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral and Russian Language Parish School. Those who settled in Sydney established the St. Vladimir Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Club.

During the Depression of the 1930s about 500 Russians, mostly Cossacks, formed a self-contained community in the virgin bushland in Callide Valley, Queensland, growing cotton and later diversifying into dairy farming and wheat growing. They also established the Queensland paw-paw industry around Biloela. By 1947 there were 2,500 Russians recorded in Australia, 1800 of them were born in Russia, 700 in China and other countries.

Displaced Persons 1947-1952

During WWII thousands of people had been forcibly taken from their homes by the occupying German forces as slave labour. After the war many saw an opportunity to flee from the Communist regime of their homeland and became known as the Displaced Persons or D.P’s. Australia was one of the countries that accepted about 5,000 of these refugees. Many changed their names and forged details of their origins to other nationalities, fearing the fate of thousands of Russians in Europe who had been treacherously handed over by the Allies to the Soviets (they were shot right on the wharves on arrival or sent to concentration camps) under the Yalta agreement.

Russians from China 1949-50 via the Philippines

The Chinese Communist conquest of North China in 1948 forced the “White Russians” to flee China. With the help of the international Refugee Organisation some 5,500 Russians, mostly from Shanghai, Tientsin, Tsingtao and Beijing (but some as far as Xinjiang) were evacuated to a small Philippines island called Tubabao. About a third of the refugees were accepted by Australia. The breadwinner had to sign a two-year contract to work as labourer wherever he was sent. In reality, on arrival, those over 16 were also signed up to work and were separated from their parents. The break-up of the family units imposed by the Government was heartbreaking to the newcomers. The majority eventually settled in Sydney.

According to the 1954 census the Russian-born population increased to over 13,000 but Russians born in China were not included in that number as they appeared in the statistics as Chinese-born.

Russians from Northeast China (Manchuria) – early 1950s to 1965

In the 1950s the Chinese Communist government decided to issue Russians with exit permits. Most people had to leave their houses and valuable behind without compensation and they could only take a few possessions. Australia accepted Russians from China and Manchuria on condition of sponsorship by Australian residents. Over 11,000 Russians from Manchuria came to Australia with about half settling in Sydney.

Russians from North-West China (Xinjiang) 1977-84

Over 4,000 Russians arrived in Australia from Northwest China in this period.

Early 1970’s Immigration from the Soviet Union

During the 1970s Australia opened its doors to Russian Jews from the USSR.

Post-Soviet Russian Migrants 1992

From 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians migrating to Australia have been accepted under the point-system, their skills and education benefiting Australia’s further development.

(Text  based on “From Russia with Love – Russians in Australia”, prepared for the 2018 Russian Arts Festival).