The war on Ukraine has been an unexpected catalyst for the unification of a unique, progressive and politically engaged Russian-Australian community.

The war on Ukraine was met with shock by many members of the Russian-Australian community because the mantra of Soviet, and later Russian, propaganda had historically been one of peace. It’s also common for self-defined Russians to have Ukrainian heritage, as well as relatives and friends in Ukraine.

Born in Minsk, Belarus, I emigrated to Australia, the country of my childhood dreams, in 1990 and consider myself part of this community, as well as a scholar in the history of Russian-Australian contact.  

While the first weeks of war had an enormously unifying effect on the Ukrainian nation, the situation for Russians was not so simple. The ‘Russian World’ doctrine promulgated by the Russian Embassy and official cultural organisations offers a stultifyingly stereotypical cultural identity of Maslenitsa (pancake) events, matreshka (wooden dolls) and celebrations of the Russian Great Patriotic War with children dressed in military uniform.

Feeling increasingly alienated from this cultural doctrine, hundreds of critically minded Russian immigrants have begun to develop a new identity. However strange this sounds, it was the war on Ukraine that served as a catalyst for this unification and a rapid shift from safe liberal values and small bubbles of close friends to a unique ethnopolitical community. This community is united not only by language, but by an expanding political position.  

Protesters rally in Brisbane against the invasion of Ukraine. Photo: EyeofPaul/Shutterstock.com

Within a few days of the invasion, President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine imposed a total ban on independent information, which affected the reactions of people in Russia. These reactions merit a special study, but from the vantage point of the Russian community in Australia, we have some insight into how those with access to information reacted and adapted to news of the war.  

Early expressions of support on Facebook were apolitical, such as a poster with two joined hands painted in the colours of the Russian and Ukrainian flags and the inscription ‘I do not need war’. But the words of Dmitry Muratov, Nobel Prize winner and editor of Novaya Gazeta, the last independent Russian newspaper, struck a chord with many politically engaged Russian immigrants: “Only the anti-war movement of the Russians can save life on this planet.”  

In present-day Australia, online, often transnational communities provide a place for cultural and social cohesion among younger, liberally minded, socially engaged Russian immigrants. In previous generations, this role was played by diaspora organisations, such as clubs and churches.

Among these online communities, a Facebook group named (with a sense of irony) ‘Adequate Australia and New Zealand’ provided a platform for critical political discussions and helped Russian-speaking people of different ethnic backgrounds to feel that they were not alone in their discontent with the toughening Russian political regime.

When the war started, activists from the ‘Svoboda Alliance’, an expatriate community organisation committed to defending human rights in the Russian Federation, were quick to encourage Russians to join Ukrainians’ rallies in major Australian cities.  

Starting from a sense of collective responsibility, Russians sought out visual symbols of their position. A few days after the first protests, a Russian activist wrote in the group that he felt “uncomfortable standing next to the Russian tricolour flag” at protests.

Dr Elena Gover (centre) with President of Svoboda Alliance NSW Ilya Fomin (left) and President of the Svoboda Alliance Victoria Evgeniya (Jane) Manakova. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

The group consensus was that while we needed to be visible as Russians at the protests, the flag under which Russia committed atrocities in Ukraine was no longer an appropriate symbol. An alternative flag was proposed — a white-blue- white tricolour, based on the medieval flag of the republic of Russian Novgorod. It was quickly imbued with powerful symbolism, encapsulated by an illustration of a girl painting the bloody red stripe out of the Russian tricolour.  

With the revelations of Russian war crimes perpetrated in Ukraine, and in the face of complicity and silence from the Russian state, the responsibility now falls on these activist communities to become the new face of a responsible and pro-democratic Russia around the world.  

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