Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
Ann Curthoys, Immigration and colonisation: new histories, The UTS Review, vol.7, no. 1, 2001, pp. 170-179.
The continental Europeans, especially the Russians
Despite the British ascendancy in the Australian colonies, politically and culturally, there were from the beginning extensive continental European connections with and interest in Australia's Indigenous peoples. The Baudin exhibition at the Museum of Sydney and elsewhere in 1999 stimulated new work on French ethnographic interest in Australian Indigenous people.10 The connections between German and Indigenous Australian peoples have been especially numerous (and relatively well studied), with Germans as missionaries, linguists, scientists, explorers, anthropologists, filmmakers, and writers, all interested in and interacting with Indigenous Australians.
The Russians are of particular interest, given their long history of scientific interest in Indigenous peoples in Australia and the Pacific. Their interactions, however, have not been confined to the 'scientific'. Our understanding of Russian immigration and its impact on Australian society has been greatly enhanced through the work of Elena Govor, who migrated to Australia in 1990. The wife of Vladimir Kabo, the Soviet Union's foremost expert in Australian anthropology and author of the fascinating book, The Road to Australia (1998), she has explored Russian understandings of Australia in her own book, Australia in the Russian Mirror: Changing Perceptions 1779 - 1919 (1997). Recently, she has published My Dark Brother: the story of the Illins, a Russian-Aboriginal Family. This is a story of a Russian noble colonising family in Russia, Argentina, Australia, and Honduras, based on extensive archival research as well as interviews with the Australian Aboriginal descendants. Let's dwell on this story for a while.
Govor's story begins with Nikolai Illin, a Russian nobleman, intellectual, novelist, poet and liberal, who after a period as a civil servant in Turkestan and writer in St Petersburg, befriends and then falls out with Tolstoy, takes off for Argentina, and eventually establishes a farm on the Patagonian frontier. When promised land grants do not eventuate after thirteen years, the Illin family goes to another colonial frontier, Queensland in 1910. Here the father and sons become selectors on the Atherton Tablelands, initiating a Russian settlement known as Little Siberia. In these years, just before the First World War, hundreds of Russians fled their own country for Australia. Govor writes of 'Little Siberia in the heart of the Tableland jungle, - a microcosm, like a small piece of Russia planted there by the whim of fate . . . they came from all walks of life - peasants, workers, soldiers, professionals, office employees. They were of Russian, Byelorussian, and Ukrainian descent, and they came from all quarters of the huge Russian empire'. By late 1911 their numbers were starting to worry the Queensland government. There were fears of Russian difference, in politics, language, and dress, and talk at senior levels in the Commonwealth government of settling them in the Northern Territory, where they could be made useful. Two of the Russian Queensland setters, one of them Leandro Illin, son of Nikolai, were sent, all expenses paid by the Commonwealth government, on a fact finding mission to the Northern Territory in 1912. It came to nothing.
This is, then, a frontier and a settler story with a twist. Though the Illins, the focus of our story, had come freely, many of their compatriots in Australia in this period had fled political persecution in Russia. Some were intellectuals interested in Australia's reputation as a social laboratory, seeing Australia as a land of freedom and equality. Whatever their motivation for coming, once they arrived they took on hard physical labour, clearing of its tropical rainforest the land they hoped would become their base, their new Promised Land. Yet these exotic and passionate Russian emigres were settling on someone else's land, as Govor makes clear, and as the Russians themselves gradually realised. They turned the tracks still used by the Ngadjon and other Aboriginal groups into roads, and cleared land that was a sacred place of the powerful Rainbow Serpent. As Govor says, 'Some new settlers discovered that their "primeval blocks" (of land) were already occupied by the Aborigines - there were bora grounds and big dome-shaped huts; upon the paths and in the river-beds they encountered skilful traps for animals, birds and fish'.
Like other settlers, the Russians frequently had sexual relations with Aboriginal women. Leandro developed a de facto relationship with Kitty Clarke, a Ngadjon woman, and when a child was born did a most unusual thing: he decided to marry her. All intermarriage, however, between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people was strictly government-controlled, in an attempt to restrict the growth of the mixed race population and discourage the survival of Aboriginal people and identity. Leandro was at first refused permission to marry Kitty by the Protector of Aborigines, J.W. Bleakley. It was only after some serious political manoeuvring, involving two members of the new Queensland Labor government, that permission was granted.
From 1919 the Illins grew increasingly estranged from the majority of Australian Russians, who sympathised with the revolution of 1917. They had not done as well as they hoped, and faced debt and hard work rather than the prosperity they expected. They were also disturbed by the increasing xenophobia and political hostility directed against Russians after the Revolution, so great that many returned to Russia at this time. They decided to return to South America believing land there to be more plentiful. Queensland's Aborigines Protection Act, however, gave the Protector the power to prevent Leandro and Kitty taking Kitty's three children of full descent, born before the marriage, out of the country. When the rest of the Illins left for Honduras, for this their third colonising project, Leandro and Kitty stayed behind. Their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren still live in Queensland and are conscious and proud of their unusual combination of a Russian and Aboriginal heritage.
There are many meanings we can tease from this history, but the quite simple point I want to draw from it here is the contradictory experiences of this Russian family. Their immigration, for a multitude of reasons, political, cultural, and economic, is part of a history of colonisation, settlement, development, and displacement. Yet, in the cultural diversity it helped bring to Queensland settler society, and in Leandro's marriage to Kitty, their migration was also a harbinger of decolonisation. In interpreting and understanding these migrant histories, we do not need to choose between the status of agent or victim, coloniser or ethnic minority, for it is and was perfectly possible to be both.