Many routes of those who made a home Down Under

Russian community members in national costumes. Source: Edinenie

Russian community members in national costumes. Source: Edinenie

By the early ’50s, Sydney had two Russian community clubs. But despite being opposite each other on George Street, the clubs didn't mix.

This article originally appeared on on in August 2013


For twenty years, the two groups didn't communicate,” says Vladimir Kouzmin, editor of Australia's longest-running Russian newspaper Edinenie (Unification) — in publication since 1950.  "Australia's Russian community was split down Red and White lines, but when the USSR collapsed, there was no reason to call each other Soviet or anti-Soviet, so that problem disappeared.”

The 2011 Census recorded that 18,278 people born in the Russian Federation lived in Australia; New South Wales had the largest number (6861), followed by Victoria (6068). It also revealed that 74317 people had Russian ancestry, although Igor Savitsky, President of the Russia-Australian Representative Council, estimates that there are as many as 200,000 Russian-speakers in Australia (not all of whom have Russian ethnic backgrounds).

Major Waves of Russian Emigration

1880-1905: Jews flee Tsarist Russia to escape anti-Semitism and pogroms.

1905-1917: Tsarist political opponents and those trying to avoid compulsory military service in the First World War leave.

1923-1939: White Russian emigres, pushed east by the Red Army, escape Soviet Russia, mainly via Manchuria. Many leave China following the Japanese invasion in 1931. 

Post WWII: Russian citizens and Prisoners of War find themselves displaced in Western Europe after WWII. Many remain in Displaced Persons Camps for years before finding countries to immigrate to.

Early 1950s: White Russian emigres flee the city of Harbin, in Northern China, following Mao's Communist Revolution in 1949.

1971-81: A Russian-Jewish exodus of the Soviet Union begins, following a regulation which allows Jews to apply to Soviet authorities to emigrate to Israel for the purpose of family reunions. Being Jewish is jokingly referred to as "a means of transport" not an identity.

Post 1987: Reforms under Gorbachev allow Russian Jews to freely emigrate anywhere.

Post 1990: A wave of post-Soviet economic emigration begins across the states of the former Soviet Union.

The vastly different historical circumstances that prompted Russians to emigrate largely explain the cultural diversity within Australia's Russian communities.

Australia has seen trickles of Russian immigration since the nineteenth century, but the biggest waves followed World War II and the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Those who immigrated from Europe post war mainly came from Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany, Austria and Italy. Some had been Nazi POWs or slave labour, while others had fled during the German retreat. White Russian emigres, some of whom had been living in Europe since 1917, were also in the group.

The Chifley Government saw this reservoir of refugees as an opportunity to fill post-war labour shortages. With the International Refugee Organisation bearing the transportation costs, 170,000 DPs were brought from Europe to Australia (10,000 of whom were Russian). On arrival, they were taken to migrant camps near Bathhurst, in New South Wales, and Bonegilla, in Victoria,  before being sent for two-years labour to various public works across the country,  including the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme.

The second major post-war wave of Russian immigration was from China. Harbin, in Northern China, was established in 1898 to support the Russian construction of the China Far East Railway. By the twenties, the city was a vibrant multicultural haven for White Russian emigres who had left Russia after the revolution and ensuing Civil War. Harbin became the largest Russian community outside Russia, but after the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949, this stateless group was in a precarious position, and the bulk of them emigrated in the fifties.

In Sydney, they congregated in the Western suburbs of Strathfield, Cambramatta and Fairfield, which were cheap and close to Orthodox churches. Not having living through Communist repression, they were more devout than their Soviet cousins.

The next Russian immigration wave started in 1971, when the Soviet Government allowed Jews to apply to emigrate to Israel for the purposes of family reunions. Many used Israel as a stepping stone for other destinations.

Jewish emigration restarted in 1987 with Glasnost, and the associated liberal reforms, and in 1989, there was a mass exodus.

The number of Russian-speaking Jews in Australia has been estimated at between 6 and 30 thousand. Most settled in Melbourne (in St. Kilda, East St. Kilda, Caulfield and Ormond) and in Sydney (in Bondi, Redfern, Waterloo and Surry Hills). Russian Jews from this wave weren't readily accepted by the local Jewry, probably because many were out of touch with Judaic traditions as a result of Soviet religious repression and anti-Semitic policies.

The last wave of Russian immigration started when the Soviet Union collapsed.These newer arrivals are economic migrants: educated professionals with marketable skills and good English. Around 170 Russians leave Russia for Australia every year.

In Sydney, these newer arrivals have clustered in the greener outer suburbs of Hornsby and Sutherland, while in Melbourne, many have settled in Collingwood and Dandenong.

A unifying force in Russian communities is the Orthodox church, and Australia has 33 of them. Church communities have been important in helping new migrants settle and network here.

The Russian-language media is also a cohesive force. As well as a national weekly newspaper, Russkoe Radio (FM 98.5) and SBS community radio, this year has seen the release of a Russian-language lifestyle glossy Red Magazine — which this August will publish its second edition. Red aims to promote Russian culture and assist new migrants learn about life in Australia, according to its founder Olga Angelidis.

The entire Russian-speaking community also seems to come together around culture. The Russian film festival Russian Resurrection and Russian music and theatre performances are able to get everyone into the same room. Charities, sport, children’s Russian-language Saturday schools are also opportunities to connect.

Despite cultural diversity, the political and ethnic differences which were divisive within Russian-speaking communities during Soviet times seem to have largely faded. Russian-speaking new economic migrants, from a variety of national backgrounds, socialise together more comfortably than their post-war predecessors.

Worldwide, it's estimated that 35 million Russian-speakers live outside Russia and more than half of them are from former republics of the Soviet Union.

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