24 January 2015

Brisbane 1919 - racist red flag riots

This history comes from: The red flag riots: a study of intolerance by Raymond Evans, Riot Acts: The History of Australian Rioting by David Lowe, the SBS television programme Remembering Brisbane's anti-Russian Red Flag Riot and from my own Russian-Australian family. For a more personal history, see the work done by Marett Leiboff:  “The main thing is to shut them out: The Deployment of Law and the Arrival of Russians in Australia 1913-1925". Your Brisbane Past and Present provides good information on Brisbane's Russian Orthodox Cathedral and Russian Jewish Synagogue in the post WW1 era.

Brisbane was a gateway into Australia. In the years 1908-14, Australia operated an Immigration Bureau in Brisbane for eastern immigrants who were largely Russian - intellectuals, profess­ionals, workers and political prisoners from Siberia. They were searching for freedom yet they were not warmly welcomed; they were not British-Australian, were not Anglican and were not truly white. Worse still, these new immigrants wanted equality for all the workers.

Even though Brisbane was not a large city, a Russian com­mun­ity of 3,500 formed there with Merivale St as its centre, in the vicinity of their synagogue. In 1913 a Russian Club was established in South Brisbane, for coffee, discussion and reading Russian newspapers from abroad. A Russian language play was produced and staged in Brisbane. A local Russian newspaper began regular publication.

When WW1 broke out, Russian-born Australians quickly enlisted. [Read the book Russian Anzacs in Australian History by Elena Govor]. Then came the extraordinary news of the 1917 Revolution, greatly exciting workers across the country. A ship was soon chart­ered and 500 Russian im­migrants from across Australia returned to the country of their birth. Meanwhile all non-British immigration into Australia stopped.

When Leon Trotsky signed an early truce with Germany to end WW1 in Dec 1917, the Brisbane Russians became enemy aliens. People who hated the idea of non-British immigrants attacked the new commun­ity in newspapers and suggested that all Russian-born Australians be interned. The Governor-General of Australia contacted the Secretary of the State for the Colonies in London to ascertain that Britain's recent deportation of 100 "Russian Jew Bolshevist Propagandists" could serve as a precedent for Australian deportations to proceed. The Daily Mail called for the same deportation of socialist leaders from Brisbane, and 8 of these men were promptly deported by the Federal government.

Raymond Evan's book, The Red Flag Riots,
University of Queensland Press, 1988

Meanwhile the working people of Brisbane became divided over the symbolism of the red flag. While many workers’ organisations proudly flew it, others bitterly opposed what the flag represented. The conservative press grew more virulently anti-socialist.

Since May 1918 sections of the Commonwealth government’s Military Intelligence, the Special Intelligence Bureau and the Commonwealth Police were promoting anti-revolutionary initiatives by encouraging right-wing vigilante activism. Brit­ish loyalists merged with the rightist Returned Soldiers' Organisations. The Queensland Commissioner of Police, Frederick Urquhart, organised an anti-socialist, paramilitary vigilante force to defend loyalty to Britain and to ensure White Australia. Common­wealth surveillance identified the activist Alexander Zuzenko and Peter Simonoff, the new Soviet Consul in Queensland as particularly problematic.

Consul Simonoff was interned. In protest, a peaceful march wound its way through Brisbane’s streets, led by Russian-Australians. After the march, lists of dang­erous Russians who had taken part were compiled. Military raids seized revolutionary mater­ial. The Russian Hall was wrecked; the Russian community faced evictions from their rented homes and job dismissals; their newspaper was closed; their leaders in prison, with some facing deportation. The synagogue was threatened. What shocks me is that most of the rest of the local labour movement did not rush to their aid.

New Russian club premises were established in Merivale St.

But it was now illegal to march under the red flag. In March 1919 a 400 workers met outside Brisbane Trades Hall. Police looked on. Surveillance agents mingled with the crowd. Suddenly Alexander Zuzenko and his followers opened three large red banners for the crowd. The march began and increased in size as the marchers app­roached the Domain. Police on horses attempted to move against the workers, but they were hopelessly outnumbered. The Russian-born workers seemed safe.

That night, several thousand ex-servicemen violently attacked a union meeting at North Quay. Russians and workers were seized, mauled and stabbed. Then 2,000 men crossed Victoria Bridge to attack the Russian headquarters. Police stood by and watched.

Early next day military police ransacked the treasured workers’ lib­rary stored at Merivale St and Russian homes were ruined. That night, fuelled by alcohol, anti-Russian editorials and an inflammatory meeting at North Quay, 7,000 British-Australian ex-servicemen and loyalists marched on the Russian Club chanting ‘Burn their meeting place down!’ and ‘Hang them!’ Commissioner Urquhart was wounded.

After the Brisbane Courier defended the actions of the pro-British mob, further violent riots went for three days. The riots were followed by months of intimidation and individual assaults upon people who were, or might have been Russian-born. For the terrified Russian community, the Brisbane pogroms had started.

The Brisbane Courier Mail
25th March 1919
The police force was not mustered to protect Russians, so this was confused reporting.

Instead of punishing the rioters, commonwealth and state authorities turned against the victims i.e the Russians and the workers who had been the target of public attack. They gaoled 15 workers for flying banned red flags. The state govern­ment offered its police forces and gaols to the Commonwealth, helping in the deportation without trial of 11 Russians. Lists were compiled for the expulsion of 60 more, but this was thwarted by British Authorities. For 2+ months after the riots, enormous rallies loyal to British Australia decried anything foreign or radical in their midst.


In what context can we possibly understand these racist riots in Brisbane? By early 1919 local fears of the Bolshevik Revolution became mixed up in conservative minds with hatred of non-British immigration. Feeding these fears was the local conservative press, describing revolut­ionary Russians as Bolshevik swine, guilty of repulsive bestial­ity, lawlessness and lust. And leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches were preach­­ing against the alarming spread of ungodly, atheistic communism.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the civil liberties march of workers, including Russian-born Australians, from Trades Hall on the 23rd March 1919. The march was planned to protest the continuation of the draconian War Precautions Act in peacetime and internment of the Russian Consul Simonoff. But what chance did these young migrants have? The vast crowd was literally screaming for lynchings.

Both newspapers, the Brisbane Courier and the Daily Standard, reported the following day that something quite exceptional had happened. The Daily Standard viewed the rioting as one of the maddest and most disgraceful scenes ever witnessed in any part of Australia. But The Brisbane Courier saw only wild and thrilling magnificence in the riots. Nothing approaching it, the editor gushed, had ever been witnessed in Brisbane before.


Andrew said...

Quite a shameful time in Brisbane's history, but it could have happened anywhere in Australia. I would like to think that generally people can't be manipulated as much for political purposes now, but I am not so sure.

Deb said...

I wonder if the news of the riots got into Melbourne newspapers. We had an Eastern European community down here too... they must have been watching their own homes and shops. Shame, Australia, shame.

Hels said...


I cannot imagine a more difficult time for young Australian men across the country - ex-soldiers coming back physically injured or mentally disturbed, unemployment everywhere, endless strikes for a minimum wage.

Agreed!! it was a situation ripe for political manipulation. I suppose if the riots were not anti-Russian, the rabid right would have found other scapegoats to target - Italians, Chinese, Yugoslavs, Aboriginals perhaps.

Hels said...


The Argus newspaper in Melbourne mentioned Brisbane's anti-Russian riots quite a number of times. But it was as if they were reporting on another country, analysing the situation but not "feeling" the terror.

Deb said...

Berthe Walker is very interesting.

in Melbourne the President of the Returned Soldiers & Sailors' Imperial League of Australia, Col WH Bolton said: "I regret to learn that amongst the rabble that formed the procession in Brisbane were a few men wearing the returned soldiers' badge. Bolshevism must be stamped out and must be dealt with as a German spy would be if he was discovered behind the Australian trenches." So rallies of returned men were held in many Queensland towns including Ipswich and Toowoomba.

Solidarity Forever, chapter 11.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen,

This is a most fascinating account.

Of concern in our unsettled contemporary times is that if conditions are 'right' then riots can flare up at any point. Given the wide scale youth unemployment across Europe today and the feeling that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor, then this is a tinder box just waiting to be lit.

There are lessons from history as you outline for us here, but do we ever learn from them?

Hels said...


Great reference! The president of the Returned Servicemen's League in Melbourne was making a big public statement: that the Russian Australians in Brisbane had indeed fought in the Australian Army during W1. But they were still traitors and needed to be rooted out.

Good grief! The RSL was insane.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

Nod... There is always the possibility of riots, destruction of houses and businesses, attacts on women and children, the gaoling of men. Racism is familiar to communities in most countries of the world.

But the conditions you are describing almost _guarantee_ riots, right wing responses and racism. If young people are unemployed by their milions, they will certainly resent immigrants and refugees. It won't take much for simmering resentment to turn into violence.

Lux G. said...

I'm not really into history but this is an interesting read. :)

Hels said...


Thank you.

I have two reasons for including this story. Firstly my post called "1949 New York State - anti-black, anti-Jewish and anti-Soviet riots" had an enormous readership. People were obviously very interested but they pointed out that the USA wasn't the only modern nation with horrible and racist episodes.


Secondly, if the economy becomes problematic again, the racist rioting could easily happen again.

the foto fanatic said...

It's a shame that some of us see migrants as taking something from us whereas they mostly ADD to our community. Our own history of immigration seems to be littered with episodes like this that are to some degree counterbalanced by recognition of the benefits of plurality.

Perhaps Peter Fitzsimons was right in his SBS piece - somehow the ugliness gets recognised for what it is (xenophobia) and the the pendulum swings the other way.

Hels said...

foto fanatic,

It seems that the unemployment rate in Brisbane was 15% and rising quickly, just as the very time when returning servicemen were being demobilised in late 1918 and into 1919.

Many of these young men were injured or depressed or shell shocked. But on top of that they were often unemployed. So they were easily motivated to blame the immigrants who "took their jobs".

But what happens if unemployment goes up again one day, as it inevitably will? Or if more boatloads of desperate refugees try to sail here from bombed out Syria etc.

My bleak guess is that the only people who recognise the benefits of plurality are the children and grandchildren of refugees and migrants. I hope you are correct and I am totally wrong.

Thank you for Your Brisbane, Past and Present. It is one of my favourites.

Peter Eedy said...

Hi Helen

Thanks for your illuminating story about the Russians in Brisbane post-WWI. As 'Andrew' says above "Quite a shameful time in Brisbane's history".

Sadly, I'm not sure that the fundamental attitudes of some people have changed for the better ...



Hels said...


you are not going to believe this but tonight I had my first EVER discussion with an elderly Brisbanite who might have remembered the riots. She was actually born in 1921, 2 years after the riots but her Russian parents were still horrified by the violence throughout the entire 1920s.

Peter Eedy said...

Wow - that must have been thrilling for you to get an (almost) first-hand account of the events of the time!

Hels said...


I make the mistake that many academic historians make - that history is only what you read in official chronicles and in the contemporary popular press. Oral history may be just as valuable!!

Hels said...

At my next conference, there will be a fascinating paper called "Negotiating “Russian-ness”: Politics, Religion, Nationalism and Identity in the South Brisbane Russian Jewish Community, 1912-22". In the meantime, have a look at A history of Jews in Queensland by Morris S. Ochert.

At the turn of the 20th Century, 23 Russian immigrant families arrived in Brisbane, many of whom were tradespeople. This was one of the many waves of Jewish migrants to the State. A community of Russian and Yiddish speaking migrants settled in South Brisbane, later forming the South Brisbane Hebrew Congregation in Deshon Street. Most of the migrants came from China and Russia. Their passage was often subsidised by the Australian Defence Department. At this time, the trip from China to Brisbane cost £8.10

Throughout World War 1 (1914–1918), a number of the community enlisted in the various services, as recorded on a bronze plaque at the front of the Brisbane Synagogue. With the coming of peace, the steady migration from overseas was resumed. Just as Perth was the first Australian port-of-call for ships arriving from England, Palestine and Egypt, so too was Brisbane the first port for ships arriving from Asia. These ships brought Russian Jewish immigrants who had lived in Chinese towns such as Harbin, as well as those from Eastern European countries who made the journey via China.

Jenny said...

Thank you Helen, a very thorough and thoughtful account.
To contribute a little to the point "it could have happened anywhere in Australia" - I think actually there's good reason that it didn't just happen anywhere, it happened in Brisbane. I'm certain the Russian communities in Melbourne and Sydney were even larger and more noticeable as ethnic enclaves within the population.
One thing to remember about Brisbane at this time is that Brisbanites had been terrified of Russians for years. Fort Lytton (which you can still see and tour today) was built at the mouth of the Brisbane River in 1881 especially to protect the city from the fear of invading Russians, a string of underwater mines crossed the river just before the fort and the colonial militia stationed there in case of invasion. They knew they were the first major port if any Russian ships sailed south from China, especially after the Russians and British bumped heads in Afghanistan in the late 1880s, and they appear to have taken their imperative to be prepared to near-paranoid heights.
It's also worth noting the timing - a significant cyclone had hit the Queensland interior at the beginning of March 1919, which probably meant that men who would normally have been agricultural labourers were in Brisbane rather than up taking in crops. Queenslanders were also very good at mobilising cooperatively for riots - take the 1912 Black Baton Friday riots, the local Brisbane unions managed to get something like 40+ different union groups together to simultaneously strike, they had their communication networks in place expertly by 1919.
I think if you add all these things together, you get the kind of environment where not only was this sort of incident bound to happen, it was absolutely going to happen on a huge, horrific scale. One can only imagine that perhaps our beautiful Queensland weather was the only thing that prevented fatalities from occurring, it must have been a miracle none did.

On a related note, coming at it from your Jewish interest, I've been trying to work out how large the Jewish presence within the Russian Socialist faction for this riot might have been. It's tricky to tell, as proper committed Bolshevists would have of course been irreligious. One who wasn't mentioned in your post or Evan's book, but who I'm sure was likely instrumental particularly in the propaganda side of things, was Boris Taranav-Svirsky (Taranav was the name he left Russia under, the Svirsky he seems to have picked up in Australia when he rejoines his Socialist brethren.) He was certainly Jewish, and founder of the "Worker's Life" Socialist journal, and appears to have been quite the instigator. After the riots he seems to have gone back to Russia, where he became a government diplomat, and disappeared in strange circumstances whilst on a diplomatic mission to Iran, all very James Bond. You also touch on Alexander Zuzenko, whose Jewishness I can't confirm but I'd eat my hat if he wasn't. His girlfriend, eventually wife, who acted as secretary for his organisation and drafted her father and brothers into his Socialist activities (to their eventual deportation) was Civa Rosenberg, and I've yet to meet a non-Jewish Rosenberg! There were several Rosenbergs in the local Jewish community in the years immediately after this who pop up in New Farm, down the river, possibly just coincidence but who would ever know? Sadly the marriage records for the South Brisbane Hebrew Congregation are no more, lost in their 1976 fire, so if Rosenberg and Zuzenko ever married there it's lost to the ages.
Thanks very much for putting little Jewish Brisbane on the map for your readers!

Hels said...


I thought the AAJS Conference in Sydney was terrific, especially your paper since I was already so interested in the Red Riots. Thank you.

One thing I had not understood was that Brisbane then had been absolutely terrified of Russians for years. Flagstaff Hill Fort was built in 1890-1 to deter a possible Russian attack on Wollongong (NSW). At the same time fortifications on the tip of the Nepean Peninsula and Queenscliff protected Victoria from attack by Russians who might have invaded Port Phillip Bay.

That Fort Lytton was built at the mouth of the Brisbane River to protect against potential Russian war ships was therefore not surprising. That men in Brisbane went after individuals and groups of Russian-Australians living and working in town was shocking :(