Australia The strange story of how Russian Cossacks fled civil war to be peanut farmers in Katherine

00:15  01 february  2021
00:15  01 february  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a vintage photo of a group of people posing for the camera: Men involved in the 1918–20 Russian Civil War migrated to Katherine in the 1920s. (Supplied: Katherine Museum) © Provided by ABC NEWS Men involved in the 1918–20 Russian Civil War migrated to Katherine in the 1920s. (Supplied: Katherine Museum)

Of all the local histories of migration to Australia, the story of the Cossacks who became peanut farmers in the Northern Territory town of Katherine is perhaps one of the strangest.

In the 1920s, a small group of Russian men from one of the world's coldest climates found their way to the NT and grew peanuts in the formidable tropical heat.

Katherine Museum's local historian Simone Croft said many men were from aristocratic families.

"They had a huge skill set," she said.

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"They were artists, musicians, and had been to conservatoriums and done degrees on classical music.

"It must've been very difficult to transition from an aristocratic family … and then come and live on the Katherine river and endure all the wildlife, the heat, and mosquitoes."

Tundra to Top End tropics

One such farmer was Germogen Sergeef who was an expert violinist and artist.

He was nicknamed "Galloping Jack" because he rode his horse "flat out" around town, according to Ms Croft.

Mr Sergeef also built an elaborate planetarium, which remains on display at the Katherine Museum, out of a large collection of empty sardine cans he amassed because he was too paranoid to eat fresh food.

"He wouldn't eat anything from town unless it came out of a tin," Ms Croft said.

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"He was always scared he was being spied upon, or was going to be taken back to Russia, or poisoned."

The path from frozen tundras of Russia to the tropical heat of Katherine was not easy or direct.

Many of these men were so-called "White Russians" who fought against the newly formed Communist government in the Russian Civil War between 1918 and 1920.

The first fled to the northern Chinese province of Manchuria before travelling to Australia.

Many worked through Queensland by cutting sugar cane before being employed in the railway gangs that built the NT's Birdum railway and Katherine railway bridge in the mid-1920s.

The government of the day released arable land for peanut production and these Russian men took up the offer, clearing trees and seeding their crops by hand.

"Hard work was just every day and right around the clock, and [the Russian men] just worked and worked. I guess it was just their chance of a good life," Ms Croft said.

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Ms Croft said the NT's peanut industry collapsed and many farmers "went broke" in the lead up to World War II because of crop failure from erratic rainfall and a troubled supply chain.

The few remaining Russian farmers, like Ivan "Long John" Ivanetz, eventually sought permission from the government to grow other agricultural crops such as cotton.

The Russian brides

In the early days of peanut farming, Mr Ivanetz, a former White Army officer, lived alone in a shanty with a corrugated iron roof and an "ant bed" floor made of compacted ant mounds.

His daughter Neila Boyle, who still lives in Katherine, said her father and a few other Cossack farmers eventually returned to Russia to find brides.

"Four or five ladies came out and when they got to Darwin they wanted to turn around and go back because they didn't like it," Ms Boyle said.

"It was bush compared to what they lived in."

She said life was hard for her mother, who could only wash clothes in the Katherine River and refrigerate food with a wet hessian bag and a breeze.

"My granddaughters complain about their washing machine breaking down and I say 'try being nanny in the olden days with nothing but a scrubbing board'," Ms Boyle said.

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Katherine bombings in 1942

The town of Katherine marks the southernmost point of Japanese bombing raids during WWII.

Ms Boyle recalls the day bombs were dropped on the town.

"Dad grabbed Mum and the kids," she said.

"We had a creek down the back of our house, and we ran down there and just stayed there for the day.

"Every time I hear a siren I go all funny and I don't like it."

Ms Boyle's father was one of three Russian farmers who stayed in Katherine to supply soldiers with fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat.

"The American soldiers were over on Manbulloo Station and my father used to supply a lot of vegetables, poultry, and pork," she said.

"They used to bring back a lot of stuff from America.

"My brother and I used to get a lot of chocolate and Mum got parachute silk from old parachutes — she used to make a lot of clothes out of them."

Today, streets in the locality of Cossack to the north of Katherine are named after Russian families such as Zimin Drive and Tokmakoff Road — a reminder of this strange local history.

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This is interesting!