Russian ANZACs and ANZAC legends

Dr Elena Govor is an Australian writer and historian, born in Minsk, Belarus. She specialises in the history of Russian-Australian contacts. In 1990  she  came  to  Australia,  the  country  of  her  childhood dreams, and now lives in Canberra, where she received her Doctorate in History from the Australian National University in 1996. She has been widely published widely in Russia and Australia. Among her books are “Australia in the Russian Mirror: Changing Perceptions, 1770-1919” (1997), “My Dark Brother: The story of Ilin’s, a Russian-Aboriginal Family” (2000), “Russian ANZACs in Australian History” (2005), “Russian Sailors and Travellers in Australia: Documents, Letters,  Memoirs”  (2007)  and  “12  Days  at  Nuku  Hiva: Russian Encounters and Munity in the South Pacific” (2010).

Currently, she exploring the history of Russians travellers in the South Pacific and working on the tragic story of her family’s experience of Revolution, Stalinist repression and War.

Elena Govor

When we lived in the Soviet Union, in Russia, we did not know about Anzac Day, moreover, we knew very little about the Great War, which in the official Soviet history was labelled as an  imperialist  war,  from  which  Russia withdrew  after  its  Bolshevik  revolution.  Quite naturally the memory of it was overshadowed by the following revolutionary struggle, civil war, and the horrendous Stalinist genocide during the so-called Purges. But we had our Great War too; it was the Great Patriotic War, the Russian term for their part in the Second World War. And we had our own great day similar to Anzac Day: Victory Day, the 9th of May, when the Soviet Union, with the loss of 27 million lives, triumphed over Fascist Germany.

Living in Australia I began to understand how similar and how different such days could be in the national psyche. For Russians, Victory Day is foremost a day of triumph, glory and military might, and many Russians aspire to preserve unchanged this legend about their glorious past, handed down to them by their Motherland. For Australians, Anzacs Day, which in fact was the beginning of the most tragic and senseless defeat in the country’s military history, is a celebration of brotherhood and the unity of the young Australian nation. It is part of the Australian legend too, but as this nation grows, each new generation of Australians invests into this legend its own understanding of the past, creating an amazing equilibrium when we learn to reconcile the spirit of the legend and the new facts of history.

My book Russian Anzacs in Australian History is part of this new trend of reassessing our past. Ever since Charles Bean’s official history of the Great War, it was assumed that the ethnically Australian army was almost exclusively Anglo-Celtic, British. Not surprisingly, the immigrants who settled in Australia later and currently comprise a quarter of its population felt themselves alienated when Australians celebrated their Anzac Day. It was not their war. But times have changed. With the support of the National Archives of Australia, I dared to confront this aspect of the Anzac legend. It took me two years to study thousands of archival files, and, with statistics in hand, I was able to prove that about one thousand Australian Anzacs were born in the Russian Empire. Moreover, the former Russian subjects constituted the largest national group in the AIF of non Anglo-Celtic origin.

Service records for Coultchuk Azieff, an Ossetian from Humalag, village in the Caucasus, who fell on the Western Front in 1916

The Australian archives provided a rich field for my research; they had service records for each serviceman, containing detailed information about the place of birth, citizenship, next of kin, and religious denomination.   These files also listed all army transfers, awards, letters from the relatives, and – after the war – letters of the serviceman and his descendants, which often allowed me to trace the path of their lives. In some cases these service records were supplemented with court martial files, for those who got into trouble, and Red Cross dossiers for those missing in action or captured as prisoners of war. The former would contain letters of their mates, the latter letters of the prisoners. Besides this, for many Russians, the archives had their naturalisation or alien registration dossiers and, in some cases, records of the Australian secret service. Now all these files are being digitized by the National Archives of Australia and the Australian War Memorial and are available for viewing online. And finally, one more recent online resource are digitised Australian newspapers, which allow further insights into the lives of many Anzacs.

Ethnic composition of Russian Anzacs

Perhaps the expression Russian Anzacs, which I use as an umbrella term for the thousand Russian born servicemen in the Australian Army, needs some clarification. The Russian Empire was a multinational country where ethnic Russians comprised  only  half  of  the  population,  and among the emigrants who landed in Australia by the beginning of the war, we can count about two dozen different ethnic groups. The composition of the Russian Anzacs reflected this diversity: many of our Anzacs were not ethnically Russian, moreover some of them fled their native land because of ethnic or religious persecutions by the Russian state. Ironically, in the eyes of the Australian state and people, they were considered ‘Russian’ in spite of their ethnic differences, and my task was to determine the original ethnic origin and self-identification of these Russian Anzacs.

William Averkoff

They were different, and different ways brought them to Australia on the eve of the war. A significant group among our  Anzacs,  about  one  third  of  them,  were  seamen  of different sorts. We find them mostly among the Latvians, Estonians, and Finns, who often left home in their youth to work the seas. I must say that service records allow us to uncover the seafaring past of a person through the detailed descriptions of their tattoos, which were painstakingly described in their enlistment documents. But the most significant group among the Russians were labourers, many of them part of a wave of immigrants pouring into Australia from the Far East. Most of them came here to earn a bit of money rather than to settle on the land, but the war did not allow them to return home.

It would be tempting to assume that this mass Russian enlistment in the AIF, a volunteer army, could be explained by the Russians feeling ‘patriotic’ towards their adopted country. That would mean, if true, having to reassess the traditional view of these early Russian immigrants as ‘radicals’. In reality, the causes of Russian enlistment were diverse – as diverse as the ‘Russians’ themselves were – though feelings of duty towards Australia were indeed not uncommon among them, notwithstanding the influence of the radicals. Among those young men who had come to Australia from Russia as children in the years before the war, a feeling of duty had developed – towards Australia, their new home – intertwined, perhaps, with a spirit of adventure.

For instance, William George Averkoff added two years onto his real age of 18 years, and joined up, despite having just become the family breadwinner. The sons of several other Russians with whom I spoke proudly remember their fathers’ commitment to Australia.

Justin Gooliaeff

‘When World War I broke out’, Justin Gooliaeff’s son George relates, ‘he decided to join the 1st AIF: his idea was that if a country was worth living in it was worth fighting for.’

Nevertheless, the majority of Russians enlisted for pragmatic reasons: seamen, for instance, stranded here after the outbreak of war, joined out of necessity, this happened for instance with Basil Greshner and Favst Leoshkevitch after they jumped their ship in Geelong. The Russian consulate – and especially Alexander Abaza, the consul-general, based in Melbourne – played an important role in the mass enlistment of Russians in the AIF. At the end of 1915 Abaza passed on to the Australian Ministry of Defence the czar’s order for all Russian reservists ‘between ages of 21 and 38 years to immediately rejoin the colours’, and those who were unable to return to Russia from abroad were, ‘required to join the ranks of the armies of the Allied Nations’. Australia was just as keen to get the Russians to join up. In October 1915 the Australian Department of External Affairs decided, as a measure to compel the Russians to join the army, that no Russian aged between 18 and 50 would be granted naturalisation. This denial of naturalisation significantly affected Russian immigrants and had the effect of fostering increased suspicion of them as non-naturalised aliens, and it was harder and harder for them to get any employment, while in the Army they could enlist without any naturalisation, a statement that they were ‘Russian’ was enough. Ironically, a number of Germans born in Russia joined the AIF as Russians and hardly had any troubles on the account of their origin. Russians in the Australian army were so numerous that Russian Jewish Anzac Haim Platkin even negotiated with the Australian authorities about establishing a special Russian unit in the AIF, and although this plan did not eventuate, each battalion had between half a dozen and two dozen Russian-born servicemen. Ethnic Russians were especially numerous in Queensland infantry battalions, Ossetians – in South Australian battalions, Jews – in the Melbourne detachments. While in 1912 the Russians complained on the pages of the Echo of Australia that they live besides Australians without mixing with them, now, departing for the front in the AIF, they found themselves in the midst of Australians. But although they wore the Australian uniform, the Russians did not become Australians overnight. The process of adjustment was long and painful, but finally some of them won the right to be named ‘mate’. One of the stumbling blocks here was the lack of English, which Russians often had to pick up already in the trenches from their new comrades. But the greatest force behind this newfound mateship were the dangers and joys of shared combat operations, and the first of these was the Gallipoli battle.

There were about one hundred and fifty Russian Anzacs in the Gallipoli battle alone. The iconic painting by Ellis Silas, “Roll call”, captures a glimpse of an army unit after bloody fighting for Queen’s Post on the 9th of May, soon after the landing. Name after name is called; the reply a deep silence. The prototype of the commander conducting this roll call was the Gallipoli comrade of Silas – Lazar Margolin from Belgorod in Russia, the commander of the 16th West Australian battalion.

Ellis Silas ‘Roll call’

In spite of his Russian accent, soldiers loved him as their own father and nicknamed him ‘Old Mardgi’. In passing it may be noted  that  the  official Australian Army artist George Lambert was born in Russia as well, although he never had Russian citizenship.

One of the Russian Gallipoli heroes was William Deonck from Belarus, and his original name  remains  a  mystery. He landed at Gallipoli in August 1915 with the 17th Battalion and was one of the last to leave when the peninsula was evacuated. He was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery there.

His commander, Lieutenant-Colonel E.T. Martin, wrote in his recommendation for the award, ‘As a bomber on Quinn’s Post, where bombing was exceptionally heavy, he proved himself reliable, keen and energetic. His demeanour among his comrades is invaluable owing to his cheerful disposition under the most adverse circumstances.’— for Russians, about whom military command seldom had a kind word to say, this was unusual praise. A major stumbling block for the Russians was their lack of English and, as I was reading Lieutenant-Colonel Martin’s words to Dorothy, his daughter, I asked her about her father’s lack of English. She replied, ‘It would not worry him. He spoke in a broken English but he could mix with anybody, he had that sort of personality.’

But the story of the Russian Anzacs involved not only those who fit well into the legendary fighting brotherhood of Australian Anzacs. My focus was not only on the heroes, but also those whose service went badly or even tragically – those who refused to fight, were expelled from the army, convicted by court-martial, came under suspicion ‘on account of Russian nationality’, became insane or committed suicide – and they were many. Among them, for example, is the story of Alfred Markowicz. He was Polish, a worldly, well-educated man. In the chaos during the first days after landing his knowledge of languages, his courage and initiative helped him to prevent the loss of many lives and saved many from capture by the advancing Turks. But, instead of being awarded, he was detained and deported in Australia; interrogation by Intelligence officers there did not reveal anything, nevertheless he was discharged for ‘Disciplinary reasons’ — words which, in his personal service-record file, are followed by a pencilled annotation ‘No Crime. Doubtful name’. The stain of this episode blighted Markowicz’s life. Later, as a member of the RSL, he fought for servicemen’s rights, disclosing corruption among military bureaucrats, and his opponents dragged up the circumstances of his discharge. This ungrounded suspicion ruined his life and he finally committed suicide in 1935 in Sydney.

The army service of Peter Chirvin from Sakhalin seems to be lucky; he fought at Gallipoli and on the Western front for four years, being wounded twice. Risking his life, he carried the wounded from the battlefield, for which he was awarded the Military Medal. He returned to Australia  aboard  troopship  Anchises  in  1919  soon after  the  so  called Red  Flag riots  in Brisbane, and soldiers aboard the ship started heckling him on account of his nationality, abusing him as a dreaded ‘Bolshie’. The commanding officers knew about this but did not interfere, considering that this was ‘the usual teasing that most foreigners got’, and Chirvin was driven to suicide aboard the ship. His widowed mother in Sakhalin never learned the cause of his death. All she got from the Australian authorities was his Military Medal…

These Russian Anzacs, whose fate does not fit the Anzac legend, can now also be part of the modern, multidimensional, multiethnic Australian military history.

The walls of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra honour the names of each Anzac and there are 160 natives of Russia on its walls, one of every five of those on the battlefront perished.  But my quest was  also about  the living,  about  those Anzacs  who  returned to Australia to become Australians. And here along with archival documents, I relied on the memories and tales of their children, grandchildren and, now, great grandchildren. It was not so much about finding the “facts” that I wanted to speak with them, but to understand how events of the past live in popular memory. For instance, some descendants of our Anzacs believe that they fled to Australia from the Bolsheviks, although the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia much later. But this tells us about how it was for them to live in Australia, being natives of the dreaded Bolshevik Russia. Many of them choose another option – silence. They did not want to tell their children either about the war, nor about their past in Russia. Many of these descendants are often unaware that their “Russian” grandfather was in fact Ossetian or Ukrainian. They did not retain their ethnic culture in the modern sense of the word, they did not teach their children Finnish, Russian or Latvian. Many of them were indifferent to religion, they did not unite around churches, as the following waves of Russian immigrants did. They did not build a Russian or Estonian church in Australia. But speaking with their children and grandchildren, I realized that they were building a temple in the hearts of people surrounding them, and this was no less important. Australians learnt from them that people could be Anzacs but speak English with an accent, that people could be Russian, but not Bolsheviks, that people can believe in Socialist ideals and still be good mates. They, this thousand Russian Anzacs, became those bricks which served as the foundation for modern Australian multiculturalism, inclusivity, openness. As for their lost language and culture – they are not lost. Now their children and grandchildren aim to learn about their origins, to reunite with their lost heritage, some of them are even learning Russian. I managed to reunite several Australian families with the Russian relatives from whom they were separated almost a century ago.  One of these stories was the Egoroff family. Alexander Egoroff left his native Bestuzhevo in Central Russia in 1909 and came to Australia in search of a better life. He joined the army and his granddaughter Barbara remembers that during the Somme winter of 1916–17: ‘He said that he had to sleep outside the trench as the Australian soldiers told him there was not enough room for him in the trench. So he covered himself with the blankets and slept outside the trench. It was snowing and his hands were stiff when he woke up.’  And  she  adds circumspectly,  ‘It could have been because he was Russian, but we do not really know’.

Alexander Egoroff’s children at the reserve where their father once toiled the Australian land

Yet, after the war he had a special day once a year — Anzac Day. Even when, in the 1930s, he was making his living at Plumpton as a gardener and raising his ten  children  by himself while  his  wife was in hospital, every year on that day he would put on his best suit and head into Sydney for the reunion of his 17th Battalion. He bore no grudges. The men he, as a stretcher-bearer, had carried off the battlefields recognised him and showed their appreciation, even if sometimes he himself could not remember their faces. And, together, they sealed their comradeship with a drink. So, the Anzac mateship did take root, although with some delay. He died in 1940, while three of his children were serving in the Army in the Second World War. Inspired by their aspiration to find their Russian family, I helped them to contact Bestuzhevo and the miracle happened: we found the family of Alexander’s Russian brother in Moscow and soon both families had a reunion in the Blue Mountains. And translating for them a video about the humble village of Bestuzhevo in far away Russia, I felt how important for them was this rediscovery of their Russian heritage, which they missed for decades. The location of the Egoroff farm has been transformed now into the Alexander Egoroff Reserve, with a memorial plaque dedicated to the Russian Anzacs.

My study of the history of Russian Anzacs continues after the publication of the book. A constantly updated website http://russiananzacs.elena.id.au/ has a page dedicated to every Russian born Anzac, with biographical information and links to digitized archival documents, newspaper articles and photographs. It helps Russian and Australian families to find each other and easily access the original documents, which chronicle the thorny path of the heroic generation of the Russian Anzacs.

Elena Govor

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