Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Anzacs from Ukraine: Part 1

A new book appeared earlier this year which I think would be of value to anyone interested in late nineteenth/early twentieth century migration from the former Russian empire to Australia. Dr Elena Govor's Falling Stars: the story of Anzacs from Ukraine is an exploration of these migrants viewed through the prism of the First World War.

The men with origins in Ukraine who served in the Australian Army 1914-18 were a diverse group - they included ethnic Ukrainians, Jews, Russians and others - whose individuality as well as collective identitiy is brought out through a narrative with numerous biographical sketches. Many of these stories could easily have had Lithuanian parallels.  

Falling Stars examines the stories of 136 Ukrainian-born Anzacs. Although some arrived here in the late nineteenth century, most arrived in the few years immediately preceding World War One: this 'reflects the general pattern of emigration from the Russian Empire to Australia'.

The most common route for emigrants coming from Ukraine was via Siberia and the Russian Far East: 'nearly half of the natives of Ukraine arriving in Australia 1910-1915 took this route'. They tended to travel via Harbin, a Russian city in northeastern China, and then Japan 'from where Japanese steamships plied the Australian route, calling at Darwin, Cairns, Townsville, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne'. Most immigrants disembarked at Brisbane.

I was particularly interested in some of the background material in the book, such as the reasons for the growth of emigration through the Far East and the role played by the city of Harbin. Another fascinating story was the development of a 'Russian-born' immigrant precinct around the old Immigration Depot in South Brisbane.

Some of the biographical stories in this book are inspiring or even amazing (such as that of Alexander Sast who was captured by the Turks at Gallipoli, but then escaped from a POW camp in Bulgaria and made his own way across Russia to join the British forces at Archangelsk). Many are melancholic or sad, as some veterans were later affected by war trauma or others became victims of twists of fate (such as Alexander Sank, a veteran of the Western front who decided to return to his family in Harbin only to be arrested some decades later and sent to the gulags).


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