Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
National Biography Award nomination
Leandro and a Russian colony in the Northern Territory
Inside the former Australian Archives building on the outskirts of Canberra it seems to lack totally an aura of the past. Air-conditioning makes you comfortably cool after the midsummer heat outside; you are surrounded by microfilm machines, rows of modern folders with indexes and the latest achievement of technology — computer retrieval systems. I had been struggling with it for several days already in an attempt to find material about the early Russian émigrés in Australia. Finally, it was 1 February 1994, I decided to try the most primitive and rash method — giving it the command to show me all documents with the word ‘Russian’ in their title. The computer, after some hesitation, offered me over 600 entries and I bravely began to search through them all. When, an hour later, I reached the third hundred I felt that I was ready to give up, and suddenly on the screen there appeared ‘Russian Emigrants for Northern Territory, Parts 1–3, 1911–1913’. Soon I was loading the microfilm into the machine and in a few minutes the modern, sterile-white screen filled with the voice of a Russian man from 1912.
‘THE FULL MOON WAS SHINING — NOTHING CAN BEAT THE BEAUTY of these tropical moonlight nights on the sea shore. I looked round and saw the steamer which approached like an enchanted palace lighted by electricity. ...
‘During the night we had a performance by “dingoes”. It is really a pleasure to wake in the night, bright and moonlit, and listen to their wild howling — You feel then that you are in the middle of wilderness near to nature. ...
‘I have always, every day, drunk water from the creeks, swamps, billabongs, rivers, etc. I know Russians are not careful about their health, and if they come here they will do the same. Mr Vladimiroff tells me I will get malaria. If I do, Russians must not come here.’
It was a travel diary that captivated me from the start. I felt that its author — bearing such an uncommon first name, Leandro Illin — was a most unusual personality. But how could I predict then that this diary was just the beginning of an unfolding tale that I, together with his family, would pursue for years to come.
Gradually, the whole story about the project of the Russian colony came to life. It turned out that Little Siberia was not the only outcome of the Illins’ involvement with the destiny of the Russian community in Australia. The Illins had more ambitious plans, which for a time coincided with the plans of the Australian government. Since 1910 each Japanese boat from the Far East had brought dozens of Russians fleeing from their motherland to the ‘Australian Paradise’. By the end of 1911 the growing number of Russians arriving began to cause serious concern among Queensland authorities. Their unusual dress provoked the curiosity of Australians, too, a curiosity combined with apprehension. What to expect from them? Attitudes towards the Russians changed from day to day: fighters for freedom, criminals, experienced agriculturalists, dirty Asiatic Russians. The Russian consulate and the authorities in Russia published official warnings intended to prevent a mass exodus to Australia, but these had the opposite psychological effect on potential emigrants, who were suspicious of everything that came from the authorities. ‘They write it to discourage us from going there’, the Russian workers and peasants concluded, and continued to leave in ever-increasing numbers for Australia.
On 16 November 1911 the Russian vice-consul in Melbourne, Harold Crofton Sleigh, discussed with the minister for External Affairs, Josiah Thomas, the possibility of settling the arriving Russians in the Northern Territory. Thomas, a former miner and enthusiast for the development of the Northern Territory (newly taken over by the Commonwealth), appears to have had no prejudice against Russians, considering them to be good agriculturalists. He suggested that, if two Russians from Queensland could be selected, he ‘would make arrangements for them to visit the Northern Territory to spy out the land, with a view to getting as many Russians as would come to settle there’...