Geographic Origins

The Russian Federation, formerly the core of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, lies in northern Europe and northern Asia. Russia has a northern coastline on the Arctic Ocean. It is bordered to the west by Norway, Finland, the Baltic Sea, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Black Sea. The Russian Federation is bordered to the south by Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan and China. It has an eastern coastline on the Pacific Ocean.

History of Immigration and Settlement

The earliest known Russian emigrants arrived in South Australia in 1910 and 1911. They emigrated for economic reasons, and travelled via the Trans-Siberian, North Manchuria and Chinese Eastern Railways, which were completed in 1903, before embarking on Japanese steamers that docked at Brisbane. It is not known how many of these emigrants settled in South Australia.

A further wave of Russians came to South Australia following the 1917 Revolution. Most of these anti-communist arrivals came via China and the Pacific Ocean. Some arrived in 1928, just prior to the Sino-Japanese War, from Russian communities in Harbin, Manchuria, which were established after the revolution. Although it is unclear how many Russians resided in South Australia between the wars, it is known that two Russian families lived in Adelaide at this time.

The most significant wave of Russian emigrants arrived in South Australia after the Second World War. Before 1950 a number of Russians left Europe under assumed nationalities. During the war these people had become Nazi prisoners of war or had been forcibly recruited by Nazi Germany to assist the Axis war effort. Under the 1945 Yalta agreement between Britain, the USSR and the United States, they were to be forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union. However, they had a well-grounded fear of Stalin’s regime, and assumed other nationalities so that they could be resettled elsewhere as Displaced Persons. The first Russians to emigrate in this manner arrived on the Goya transport ship in 1949. The forcible repatriation of Russians to the USSR ended in 1950.

The Russians who came to South Australia as Displaced Persons were employed on two-year contracts in semi-skilled or unskilled occupations in exchange for their passage to Australia. Some Russian DPs worked for the South Australian Railways, converting lines to a standard gauge, while others worked for the Highways and Engineering and Water Supply Departments, the Electricity Trust, or in General Motors Holden and other South Australian factories. Although these migrants were free to seek their own employment once their contracts expired, they were faced with numerous obstacles. Some with tertiary qualifications found that their certificates and degrees were not recognised in Australia. Many worked part-time while repeating degrees that they had obtained in Russia.

Russian immigrants arrived in South Australia from China between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s. The first group was anti-communists who had settled in Shanghai after the 1917 revolution. They were evacuated from Shanghai by the International Refugee Organisation just before the Kuomintang government fell to Mao Zedong’s communist forces in 1949. These refugees lived in camps on the island of Tubabao in the Philippines while they awaited resettlement. In South Australia they were also placed under two-year employment contracts with the Australian government.

A further group of Russians arrived in South Australia from China after the end of the Korean War in 1953. They were encouraged to leave China by the communist government, which was reluctant to include non-communist sympathisers in its citizenship. Russians mainly came to South Australia from Harbin and Trekhrechiye in Manchuria and from Kuldzha, Chuguchak and Urumchi in Xinjiang Province. These Russian immigrants were sponsored by relatives already living in South Australia.

A group of Russian Baptists and Pentecostal Christians arrived in Adelaide in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today there are Slavic Evangelical Baptist and Slavic Independent Pentecostal Churches in Queenstown. Interaction between these groups and other Russian South Australians is limited.

A small number of Russian Jews arrived in South Australia in the 1970s. After American President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, Soviet authorities made exit visas for travel to Israel available to Russian Jews. Many of these emigrants did not travel to Israel, or stayed there only briefly. Most of those who settled in Australia came via Vienna and Rome.

The most recent Russian arrivals in South Australia immigrated since the liberal government of Mikhail Gorbachev. Many of them are highly skilled in technical vocations.

Community Activities

Many Russian South Australians are Orthodox Christians. For further information, see Appendix 1, Religious Belief and Practice: Christianity.

A Russian Orthodox priest was among the DPs who arrived in South Australia in 1949. Under his contract with the Australian government, Father John Byerezovsky was employed sweeping floors at the General Motors Holden factory. He performed rites such as baptisms at Woodside Migrant Hostel.

The first Russian Orthodox Church services in Adelaide were held at a cottage in Byron Place in late 1949. In 1950 the Russian parish moved to a hall in Whitmore Square. Father Byerezovsky hung a curtain across one end of the hall to act as an iconostasis, the screen of devotional paintings in an Orthodox Church that divides parishioners from the altar.

Very soon after their arrival Russian South Australians began working towards the goal of worshipping in their own church. In the mid-1950s the parish purchased a double block of land on Greenhill Road. After further fundraising they began building a church. The Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas was built almost entirely through voluntary labour. It was opened by Father Alexander in 1969. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of the church. His memory is celebrated in the Orthodox Church on December 19 and May 22. For further information see Appendix 1, Religious Belief and Practice: Christianity.

The Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas on Greenhill Road is in the traditional style of Russian church architecture. It is a square building with white exterior walls and simple stained-glass windows. A blue, star-encrusted cupola, onion-shaped dome, on the roof, a belltower with a tent roof and a number of crosses are the only exterior ornamentation. The interior, however, is sumptuously decorated. Exteriors of Eastern Churches represent the secular, imperfect world, while interiors symbolise the divine realm of God. In 1990 and 1991 a trained iconographer, Antonina Ganin, painted most of the interior of the church with representations of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints. She prepared herself spiritually for each session with prayers, and kept her mind fixed on God as she worked. This religious discipline is reflected in the church’s frescoes. Solemn, stately and beautiful, the holy personages are depicted against a gold background, giving the icons the appearance of glittering Byzantine mosaics. Festival services are announced by tolling of the church bells.

Along with St Nicholas Parish in Waville there are three more parishes of Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia. These are St Patrick Mission in Kilburn, St Elizabeth in Happy Valley and Monastery of St Elias in Monarto. These parishes run church services in English.

As with other Christians, Easter and Christmas are the holiest festivals of the year for Russian Orthodox South Australians. For further information see Appendix 1, Religious Belief and Practice: Christianity. The congregation stands throughout Divine Liturgies and sings hymns unaccompanied by musical instruments.

During Great Lent, Russian Orthodox South Australians eat a very strict vegetarian diet. Common foods include piroshki, fried pasties filled with mashed potato and onion; vareniki, small potato dumplings; sauerkraut; steamed vegetables; and rice.

During Holy Week Russian Orthodox South Australians, if possible, live on just bread and water. During this week the congregation of Saint Nicholas’s Church prepares to celebrate the Resurrection. They bake kulich, tall loaves of glazed bread. Kulich are decorated with the Cyrillic letters X-B which mean Christ is Risen. Russian South Australians also paint Easter eggs and prepare meats and salads.

Holy Friday, the day of the Crucifixion, is the most sacred day of the year.  It is regarded as a day of high mourning. Members of Saint Nicholas’s Church attend a burial service in the evening. A plashinitsa, a three-dimensional, 1.5-metre representation of Christ, is carried by members of the congregation in procession around the outside of the building. It is then laid out in the centre of the church.

Divine Liturgies are held on Holy Saturday morning and in the early afternoon. After Eucharist the congregation fasts for the rest of the day. Midnight marks the end of Holy Saturday and the beginning of Pascha, Easter Sunday. Before the Midnight Divine Liturgy the plashinitsa is returned to the sanctuary of the church.

At the stroke of midnight the congregation takes the portable icons, torches and a horugvi, banner, from the church. The bells of Saint Nicholas’s church are rung while the congregation walks three times in procession around the church. They stop at the door of the church and sing, Christ is Risen! After the Pascha Divine Liturgy the priest blesses baskets of Easter food that members of the congregation have brought. A person will greet another by kissing them and declaring, Christ is Risen! The second person will happily agree, Yes, he indeed is risen! Members of the congregation return to their homes and share a joyous feast.

Rojdestvo Hristovo, the Nativity of Christ, is celebrated on December 25 according to the Julian Calendar, which falls on January 7 in the universally- used Gregorian Calendar. It is preceded by Christmas Lent, which begins on November 28. Sotchelinik, Christmas Eve, is a time of especially strict abstinence.

On Christmas Eve the congregation of Saint Nicholas’s Church gathers to celebrate Christ’s birth with festive services followed by Divine Liturgy on Christmas morning. On Christmas day members of the choir of Saint Nicholas’s Church hire a bus and visit the homes of Russian Orthodox South Australians to sing carols. They carry a Star of Bethlehem, the traditional symbol of carol singers. Stars of Bethlehem are often made of coloured paper. Some of them light up and spin while the choir sings.

A Russian Ethnic School, a youth group ‘Ladushki’ and a scout group, St George Pathfinders, is under the auspices of Saint Nicholas’s church. 

A bi-monthly newsletter, 'Pravoslavny Vestnik’ (Orthodox Messenger) is available for free download from St Nicholas’ Parish website. The paper copy of Vestnik is available inside the church. All publications are in Russian.

The Russian Community Centre (The Russian House) was founded shortly after the church of Saint Nicholas was sanctified in 1969. One of 20 Russian South Australians at a social gathering at the home of Nicholas Lobachevsky suggested the idea. A couple of weeks later Viacheslav Fortunatov, Peter and Galina Kalinowski, Dimitri Vaskin, Vasyly Plisko and 17 others met at the home of Yevgeny Juczenko in Croydon to inaugurate the Russian Community Centre of South Australia. John Strokowsky, Urey Pozydayev, Nicholas Donner, Luke Ambrose, Nicholas Kovanko and Ieva Tokmakoff were elected as the centre’s executive committee.

Over the next few years the Russian Community Centre held barbecues and dances to raise funds to purchase premises. In the early 1970s the centre bought a house in Rose Terrace, Wayville, between the showgrounds and Greenhill Road. This property was always intended as a temporary investment.

In 1976 Michael Churkin was elected President of the Russian Community Centre. Igor Kuzub, Aleg Kozin, Sergei Wroblewsky, John Strokowsky, Konstantin Tonkih, Valentina Nagel, Dimitri Vaskin, Vasyly Plisko, Ksenia Meissner, Peter Moszenin, and Urey Pozydayev were elected to the centre’s executive committee. This group worked tirelessly to establish a permanent Russian community centre. In October 1978 the community purchased a former Wesleyan church on the corner of Portrush Road and the Parade, Norwood. It remains the centre of Russian community life. Michael Churkin received the Order of Australia in 1990 in recognition of his contribution to Russian Australian cultural life.

The main cultural anniversary of the year for the Russian Community Centre is National Cultural Day at the end of July, marked by social gatherings, speeches and cultural performances. Groups affiliated with the Russian Community Centre include The Adelaide Russian Dance Ensemble, a choir, children’s dance classes ‘Kalinka’ and a children’s group ‘Ladushki’. 

Concerts, dinners, dances, activities for senior citizens, language classes, parties and lectures are also held.

The Alexander Pushkin Russian School is one of around five Russian language schools in Adelaide. The school is one of the largest Russian schools in Australia with students aged from three to eighteen years old attending. The main objectives of the school are to teach Russian language and culture programs and to keep alive Russian traditions and festivals. The school also supports new arrivals by helping them to adapt to Australian culture and lifestyle.

Sport plays an important part in the lives of Russian South Australians. The Tornado-Russian Volley Ball Sport Club participated in various age and gender categories at the Australian Masters Games in Adelaide in 2011 and earned gold, silver and bronze medals. The men’s and mixed teams also won gold at the 2015 Masters Games.

The Russian Community Centre also boasts a Real Aikido Club run by a Russian coach. This first Real Aikido club in Australia was opened in 2014. At present there are two Aikido clubs in Adelaide. Women’s self-defence programs, special training for body-guards and the military, kid’s training and self-confidence courses for teenagers are held. Special boxing programs are also taught.

Rhythmic gymnastics is a truly Russian sport with its popularity steadily growing in South Australia.

The Adelaide Russian Theatre is an association of people interested in the Russian literature and art-history and the culture, continuing in the traditions of K S Stanislavsky and Russian theatre as a whole on Australian soil. The theatre emerged in 1994 as part of the ‘Let’s talk together ‘Association established by the Russian-speaking natives of the former Soviet Union. Since its inception it has staged over 40 productions involving more than 150 people.  The theatre celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2014 with a play and a performance at the Lion’s Multicultural Centre, where it has been based since its foundation. Around half of those working at the theatre are young people, many of whom are graduates of the Russian Saturday school. All theatre performers and support staff are volunteers.

In March/June 2016 an exhibition ‘Russians in South Australia’ was organised by St Nicholas Parish Church and staged at the Migration Museum in Adelaide. 

August Pashkevich broadcast the first Russian radio program on 5UV in 1978.

Radio programs in the Russian language are broadcast nationally by SBS.

Organisations and Media

  • Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas. This church runs a Russian language school.
  • St Nicholas’ parish newsletter, Orthodox Messenger, published bi-monthly available through website. A paper copy of the newsletter is available inside the church. 
  • Russian Community Centre Inc.
  • Russian Molokan School
  • Alexander Pushkin Russian School 
  • Adelaide Russian Ethnic School Incorporated
  • Slavic Evangelical Baptist Church. This church runs a Russian language school.
  • Slavic Independent Pentecostal Church
  • 5EBI-FM Radio Programs
  • Edinenie, Unification, a national weekly paper with a South Australian correspondent


The 1981 census recorded 1,195 Russian-born South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 989. 2,868 people said that they were of Russian descent.

According to the 1991 census there were 576 Russian-born South Australians. 1,848 people said that their mothers were born in Russia, and 1,752 that their fathers were.

According to the 1996 census there were 911 Russian-born South Australians, with the second generation numbering 856.

The 2001 census recorded 941 Russian-born South Australians, while 4,522 people said that they were of Russian descent.

The 2006 census recorded 1,021 Russian Federation-born South Australian, while 5,103 people said that they were of Russian descent.

The 2011 census recorded 1,246 Russian Federation-born South Australians, while 5,620 people said that they were of Russian descent.

The 2016 census recorded 1,256 Russian Federation-born South Australians, while 6,169 people said that they were of Russian descent.

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Dennis, B, Ethnic Development in South Australia (Adelaide: Good Neighbour Council, 1974)

Jupp, J (ed), The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins, 2nd Ed., (Cambridge University Press, 2001)

St Nicholas Parish Church website.