In fact they have been coming here since the very early 19th century, and though they came in peace it would appear that, for a time at least, many Australians were concerned that a more sinister motive may have existed. Around 1880, Australian towns built fortifications to protect themselves against possible military invasion. Nothing of the sort ever eventuated from the Russians, but Fort Lytton in Brisbane, Bare Island Fort in Sydney and the fortifications at Portsea near Melbourne are testament to the seriousness of the perceived threats from Russia, France and Germany, all of which had appeared at various times in the Pacific.
In fact many Russians have made Australia home since then. We have welcomed Russian Jews and White Russians, Russian sportspeople, Russian tradesmen and Russian intellectuals. I had Russian schoolmates - I envied them their two Easters each year - and played football with a Russian who made his own football boots out of an old pair of his dad's work boots.
It is fair to say, though, that it hasn't all been plain sailing. What has been described as "a major riot" took place at South Brisbane in 1919 - it became notorious as the Red Flag Riot. I think Australia is xenophobic now. What else could you call denying residence to a few thousand starving and persecuted refugees (including children) who are trying to reach Australia on leaky boats, because they might somehow reduce our standard of living. I wasn't around in 1919 to make comparisons, but I'll bet that it was worse then. Some pro-Bolshevik migrants had been espousing their beliefs to the public-at-large, leading to local discontent about Russians in general. When someone unfurled the red flag at the Russian Community Hall in South Brisbane a crowd descended on the place. Police were called in to protect the building and those within it, but the hall was virtually destroyed in the mayhem. The aftermath saw Russians arrested and imprisoned, not those who took part in the attacks on the building. So much for free speech!
And in the fifties we had the Petrov Affair, lurid tales of deception and defection, rich with political overtones for the media to feed on. It's too convoluted a story to repeat here, but it spawned a Royal Commission and the political fallout was immense, particularly for HV "Doc" Evatt, the leader of the Labor Party at the time.
In 1923, a Brisbane house on Vulture St in suburban Woollongabba was converted to become the Russian Orthodox Church of St Nicholas. In 1935 that building was moved to the rear of the block to allow the construction of Australia's first purpose-built Russian Orthodox church. This is it, photographed in 1936, and below that a current image of what is now the Cathedral of St Nicholas.
In the 1950s a Russian immigrant named Evphimiy Shishkoff, who had purchased some land at Rocklea in Brisbane's south-west, set about building a Russian Orthodox church there. He was fulfilling a promise he had made to God when he and his family were facing persecution and possible death in Persia (now Iran) during WWII. The promise was that, if they survived, he would build a church honouring the icon to which he prayed - the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. Evphimiy and his son built this church themselves in their spare time with materials they bought at their own expense, and when it was finished, they donated it to the church. The Church of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God was consecrated on 26 August 1956. Tragically, only six months later, Evphimiy passed away. He became the first person to be buried from the church that he built. That structure still stands.
Click here for a Google Map.