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Elena Govor

Russian-Australian relations

Russian-Australian relations began in 1807 when the naval ship Neva visited Port Jackson. During the period 1807-35 there were 17 naval visits, described by Glynn Barratt in The Russians and Australia (1988). Until the 1830s relations were harmonious and Russian perceptions of the colonies were enthusiastic. Australian hostility towards Russia emerged in the 1830s and intensified during the Crimean War, 1853-56. Australia experienced scares of Russian invasion and espionage in 1863, 1871, 1878, 1882, and 1885. Popular mythology still associates the Australian coastal defence system with fears of Russian invasion.

In 1857 Russian honorary consuls were appointed to Melbourne and Sydney. In 1894 the first regular consular representation, headed by career diplomat Aleksei Putiata, was established in Melbourne. Putiata and his successors championed direct Russian-Australian trade, leading to the creation in January 1917 of the Russian-Australian Bureau of Commerce and Information. Russians contributed much to the study of Australia. Considerable collections of Aboriginal artefacts were gathered by the early naval visitors and by Aleksandr lashchenko in 1903. The Russian scientist and anthropologist Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay, whose life has been explored by E.M. Webster, The Moon Man (1984), lived in Australia from 1878 to 1886, founding the first biological station in Sydney. He also championed an increasing Russian presence in the Pacific and provided information about Australia for the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The visitors praised new, democratic, 'un-English', as they believed, features in the emerging nation. Russian attitudes appeared especially enthusiastic at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Australia was perceived by Russian writers and visitors as an example for Russia — a 'Workers' Kingdom' distinguished by social reforms and respect tor the working man. This interpretation was contested by Russian revolutionaries who found exile in Australia after 1905.

The first ethnic Russian to settle in Australia was a convict, Constantine Milcow, who arrived in 1816. Initially immigrants from Russia were mainly of Jewish, Finnish, and Polish descent. Ethnic Russians began to arrive in considerable numbers in the early twentieth century, mainly from the Far East. By 1917 they numbered at least 2000. Political refugees numbered around 500 and they organised the Union of Russian Workers led by Bolshevik Artem. Early immigrants were sympathetic to Australian conditions to the extent that in 1912 the federal government sent Russian delegates — Leandro Illin and Constantine Vladimirov — to the NT to explore the possibilities of establishing a Russian colony there. The economic and political situation of the Russians deteriorated during World War I simultaneously with an increase in the influence of Russian radicals, which made the Russian community one of the most radical by 1919, when the Red Flag riots occurred. The history of pre-revolutionary attitudes and contacts is explored by Elena Govor in Australia in the Russian Mirror: Changing Perceptions 1770-1919 (1997).

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the imperial consul resigned in 1918 and Soviet consul Petr Simonov, unrecognised by Australia, held office 1918-21. Australian troops served in a British force which intervened in the Civil War. Russians participated in the creation of the Communist Party of Australia. The association of Russia with communism during the period between the two world wars gave rise to extreme support and opposition by Australians. Popular Australian attitudes to Russia were also influenced by Russian cultural achievements, especially in the performing arts, which were highly praised in Australia following the visits of the Russian Ballet with Anna Pavlova and singer Fedor Chaliapin in 1926. Russian migrants between the wars were mainly White Russians who had fought the revolutionary Russian forces.

During World War II, when the USSR and Australia were allies, both official and popular attitudes became more sympathetic, and in 1942 diplomatic relations were established. The Cold War period was marked by the Petrov Affair, which led to a breach in diplomatic relations between 1954 and 1959. In the period of détente, and especially under the Whitlam government, Russian-Australian contacts strengthened, to be followed by further confrontation until perestroika. Since perestroika and the collapse of the USSR, diplomatic relations have steadily improved. Now that Russia and Australia consider themselves to be part of the Asia-Pacific rim, further rapprochement and deeper contacts between the Russian Far East and Australia are developing, although current economic difficulties in Russia prevent significant growth of economic relations.

After World War II Australia accepted many Russian displaced persons from Europe as well as Russians from China. Although Soviet propaganda depicted working-class hardships and blackened Australian capitalism, popular Russian attitudes remained sympathetic. This was reflected in the aspiration of many Russian Jews to emigrate to Australia from the early 1970s. In contrast to Stalin's period, since the late 1950s Russian academics have made contributions to the fields of Australian ethnography, history, literature, and natural sciences. Over 1000 works of Australian fiction have been translated into Russian. The Russian community in Australia — recently studied by Maria Frolova, Russians in Australia (1996, in Russian), and Artem Rudnitsky, Another Life and Land So Far Away (1991, in Russian) — numbers at least 45 000 people. Different aspects of Russian-Australian relations are explored in the collection Russia and the Fifth Continent (ed. John McNair and Thomas Poole, 1992). Elena Govor has annotated Russian writings on Australia in Bibliography of Australia (1985 and 1989, in Russian) and Russian Sources on Australia (ed. Poole et al., 1993).

Published in: Oxford Companion to Australian History, ed. by G. Davison a.o. Melbourne: OUP, 1998, pp. 567-568.