Russians in Queensland
The successive waves of Russian emigrants who have come to Australia over the past 124 years have almost all been drawn to our shores by the same reasons: wars, lack of arable land, changes in socio-economic and political structures. Queensland’s vast territory and relatively small population made it an attractive prospect, a land of opportunity for starting a new life, working their own land free of the restraint that existed in the Old World. Most Russians who came tended to seek naturalization as soon as possible. The success of the various waves of Russian emigration may be judged by the fact that there are now some 9000 – 10000 people of Russian descent living in Queensland, many of whose careers have contributed both professionally and culturally to the development of this state.
The earliest mention of Russian settlers in Queensland dates from 1886 when the Legislative Assembly reported the presence of 67 men and 12 women of Russian origin living in the colony. Virtually no information has survived about these settlers except that they included miners, surveyors, carpenters and agricultural labourers. By 1891 this number had increased to 235. Census records indicate that these 207 men and 28 women tended to settle permanently on the land in rural areas, often marrying into local families and anglicising their names. The majority of these Russian emigrants would have come here via England, most probably encouraged by contacts with Agents–General in London who, on behalf of the State, were offering subsidised fares to prospective European settlers, with no restrictions as to where they wished to live or work. The reason for their emigration was largely economic. The lack of sufficient arable land, which had long plagued the Russian Empire, became particularly acute with the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.
Brisbane became the main destination for a new wave of emigrants from the Far East following Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. Soldiers and civilians, followers of minority faiths such as Baptists, Jews and Old Believers, began to leave Russian territories that had been ceded to the Japanese. The main route was through Shanghai, Dalny and particularly, Harbin, an important Russian city within China. Transport to Australia was usually by Japanese freighter and the heavily subsidized fares (only GBP8/10/-) encouraged many to set out across the Pacific.
The composition of this new wave, however, comprised family units, rather than single men. By 1911 there were 581 men and 214 women, making the Russian community the fourth largest ethnic group in QLD with its own Honorary Vice Consul, a Mr. B.W. Macdonald. More than two-thirds of the Russians took up farms in the Darling Downs, Herberton, Maranoa, Maryborough and Rockhampton regions. Settlements were established at Ambrose Siding and Yarwun, where many Old Believers engaged in share-farming. Those who elected to stay in the city tended to live in South Brisbane, an area that has remained a focal point of the Russian community throughout the emigrations.
The years 1911 – 1914 saw numbers of Russians arrive as political refugees with strong anti-Tsarist views. The majority of them tended to be urban dwellers, working in factories, railways, shops, at meatworks or on the waterfront. After the Revolution in 1917, some of the more radical of these new arrivals returned to their homeland.
The revolution in Russia caused the Australian Government to declare an embargo on Russian emigrants from 1917 – 1922. During this period many Russian nationals, mainly members of various White Armies, Monarchists, Cossacks and their families had retreated across Siberia and thence to China, where they lived in very straitened circumstances. Their only hope was to emigrate again.
Lifting the embargo in 1922 gave rise to the largest influx of Russians into Queensland so far. From 1923 onwards a steady stream of Russians flowed into the State – their population increasing to approximately 3000 by the late 1930s.