Russian roots are hidden in Anzac history

20 April 2015

More than 1,000 Russianborn Australians enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force; of these more than 800 served overseas.

In Australia, the legend of the Anzacs during World War I grows with each new generation. The Anzacs- the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps -were formed in Egypt in 1915 out of the First Australian Imperial Force and the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force. The Anzacs are best known for their bravery at the Battle of Gallipoli, and for generations, it was commonly accepted that the Anzac tradition was inseparably identified with Australians of British descent. This prevented many of modern Australia's émigré communities from fully engaging with the nation's Anzac past. Only now, almost 100 years after the formation of the Anzacs, is the true diversity behind this national legend finally coming to light - including Russia's contribution.

Examining the Anzac story through the lens of its Russian component poses challenges, as Russia was often considered an enemy rather than a friend of Australia. During the Great War, however, Russia became an ally of the British Empire, and Russian-born servicemen constituted the largest national group in the Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) of non Anglo - Celtic origin. More than 1,000 Russian-born Australians enlisted in the A.I.F.; of these more than 800 served overseas. It is not quite correct, however, to call these men "Russian Anzacs." The Russian Empire was a multinational state, and ethnic Russians comprised only half of its population. The composition of the Russian enlistees into the A.I.F. reflected this diversity: many of them were not ethnically Russian; moreover, some of them had fled their native land owing to ethnic or religious persecution by the Russian state. It was ironic then, that in the eyes of the Australian state and people, all Russian - born Australian citizens were considered "Russian," despite these split allegiances and ethnic differences. This complicates the task of determining the self-identification of these "Russian" Anzacs.

The largest group among them, more than half, were Baltic seafaring people - Finns, Latvians, Estonians, Baltic Germans and Lithuanians. Ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, Belarusians and Poles, who were then coming to Australia in increasing numbers as laborers, cane-cutters and, occasionally, as political refugees, accounted for roughly 30 percent. The remainder consisted of Jews, Ossetians from the Russian North Caucasus and Russians of Western European heritage.

Russian émigrés had a range of reasons for enlisting in the A.I.F., including patriotic sentiments toward their new country, pressure exerted by the Russian consulate, or even unemployment. But their acceptance into the famous Anzac brotherhood was often hard-won. A lack of English was one stumbling block. In battles fought together, a comradeship with their Australian friends was forged. Major Eliazar Margolin was a Jew who grew up with Russian humanist literature in the Russian town of Belgorod, 400 miles south of Moscow, virtually on the border with present-day Ukraine. He never lost his thick Russian accent. While commanding the 16th Battalion at Gallipoli, Margolin fought tooth and nail for the lives of his "boys," who lovingly dubbed him "Old Margy"- a recognition probably no less important to him than the official one acknowledging his bravery with the Distinguished Service Order.

New trials came in 1917 when Russia withdrew from the war and the Bolshevik Revolution began. Favst Leoshkevitch, a seaman who learned English in the trenches from his Australian comrades, later told his son: "What wonderful people our army people were, just soldiers, general soldiers. When the revolution erupted in Russia, nobody spoke to [me] about it and [I] thought that was wonderful."

The decision by these soldiers not to question a friend because of the actions of some far-away politicians in his country is an attitude that is still cherished by the Leoshkevitch family.

But the trials of history were not always so easily overcome. Peter Chirvin from Sakhalin fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front for four years. He was wounded twice. Risking his own life, he carried the wounded from the battlefield - for which he was awarded the Military Medal. He returned to Australia aboard the troopship Anchises in 1919, soon after the Red Flag riots in Brisbane. These riots, which took place throughout 1918 and 1919, were an outgrowth of a growing anti-union and anti-trade movement in Australia, coupled with fears brought on by the Bolshevik Revolution. When soldiers on board the Anchises started abusing him, the only Russian, as a dreaded "Bolshie," their commanding officers did not intervene, regarding the taunts as the usual teasing that most foreigners received. Chirvin committed suicide aboard the ship, the last Australian victim of the long war.

Integrating the Russian Anzacs into Australian life after the war was no easy process either. Here, Australian women were the first to brave the ethnic and linguistic differences in marrying these foreigners. Just like their Australian counterparts, these Russian Anzacs hardly ever told their families about the horrors of the war. But their silence went even deeper: They also left behind their Russian past. Many of them never spoke about it to their children, who grew up without hearing a word of Russian, Estonian or Ossetian from their fathers. In some cases, children only learned that their fathers were born in Russia when they applied for a passport. This was the case for Pamela Myer, the daughter of Norman Myer, a lieutenant on the Western Front and heir of the Myer Emporium, Australia's largest department store. These men had burned all bridges with their homeland because they had no wish to be associated with the Bolshevik-Stalinist taint of the new Russia. A few returned there, but many of them were arrested and perished in the Gulag.

During this centenary period marking World War I, the Australian War Memorial is projecting the names of those who fought and fell as Australians. This will include the names of the 162 fallen Russian-born Anzacs.

Elena Govor is a research fellow in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University and author of the book "Russian Anzacs in Australian History."

This article was first published in the International New York Times.