From the Honest History vault: Russians came to Australia in peace

At a time when relations with Russia are bouncing along the bottom, it is worth reposting this 2021 review by Derek Abbott of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s book, White Russians, Red Peril: a Cold War History of Migration to Australia. 

Immigration into Australia seems always [writes Abbott] to have been a fraught and controversial issue. Whether it was the White Australia policy, prejudice against Jews, the use of language tests, the labour obligations placed on post-war displaced persons or, more recently, the maltreatment of refugees, and a Senator demanding that Australians of Chinese descent condemn the Communist Party of China. As if it was some sort of bizarre loyalty test. Australia’s approach to its immigrants has been an uncomfortable mix, in which altruism has all too often been swamped by self-interest and prejudice.

Sheila Fitzpatrick’s wonderful book examines a relatively small group of migrants in the years following the Second World War. Their treatment demonstrated that ambivalence. As the author notes her ‘focus is on the the various trajectories that brought Russian migrants to Australia’. As always, Fitzpatrick uses the telling individual example to illustrate her general points. In doing so, she illuminates the wide range of reasons that brought immigrants to this country and the mixed feelings they retained towards the countries they had left.

Russian immigrants always seemed to upset the Australian authorities. Early immigrants, political exiles from Tsarist Russia with their ‘anarchical doctrines and revolutionary sentiments’ were, in the words of the Queensland Police Commissioner in 1919, ‘a menace to the peace and well-being of this city’. This equating of Russian and ‘Red’, or at best generally suspicious, seemed to stick, despite the fact that most Russian immigrants were anything but pro-Soviet.

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