Inside Story

Red flags

Communist or not, postwar refugees from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe attracted the attention of Australia’s security services

Ebony Nilsson 8 February 2024 2338 words

Enemy alien? Surveillance photo of Lidia Mokras, one of the “displaced persons” who became the object of security service interest. National Archives of Australia

Jakob came of age in occupied Germany’s American zone not long after the second world war had ended. Living in a refugee camp, he heard rumours about what happened to people like him — a teenager wrenched from his home to become a forced labourer in Nazi Germany — if they returned to their homeland, which was now part of Soviet Ukraine. He chose resettlement in the West instead.

When the International Refugee Organization sent him to faraway Australia in 1948, it probably sounded like an adventure. But the nineteen-year-old found himself doing back-breaking work in an isolated mine surrounded by dense Tasmanian forest. He would later tell government officials that it was “200 years behind European working conditions.”

After a year, Jakob decided he was finished with capitalist Australia and would return to the Soviet Union. Many of his peers were unimpressed by his decision — it even sparked a brawl during which he was stabbed. But his pro-Soviet migrant friends considered him a true patriot. Celebrating with them and a little drunk, the young refugee boasted that he would give the Soviets intelligence on Australia and go to Korea to fight the Western capitalists.

Unbeknown to Jakob, his audience of friends and acquaintances that night included two spies: a Soviet MVD colonel and an undercover agent for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, or ASIO. Concerned by their informant’s report, Australian security officers began keeping an eye on Jakob. They followed him all the way to the docks when he sailed for the Soviet Union. Dissatisfied with the West and full of praise for his Soviet homeland, he was considered a threat to Western security.

This is not the familiar refugee story told in countries like Australia: a story of desperate, hard-working migrants who gratefully become loyal contributors to their new homeland. Jakob had certainly been desperate — he became a forced labourer at just fourteen — and, for the most part, he had worked hard in Australia. But the war and displacement produced complex, shifting identities that didn’t simply disappear when the shooting stopped. And life in the West didn’t always live up to its promises.

The second world war had left forty million or more people displaced in Europe. Some wanted nothing more than to return to their homes, but for others, particularly those from now Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, the home they had left no longer existed. As the International Refugee Organization worked to solve this “refugee problem,” thousands of Russians who had lived through the war in East Asia were being displaced by China’s communist revolution.

Most of these refugees, whether in Europe or China, were stridently anti-communist. Many had good reason to be, having lived as exiles after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution or through the Stalinist terror of the 1930s. The views of “White Russians” and Eastern Europeans who considered their homelands “captive nations” would fit neatly into the West as the fresh storm clouds of the cold war built on the horizon. Increasingly, each Soviet refugee was a propaganda victory for the West: these were individuals choosing freedom, expressing hatred of communism by voting with their feet.

Some, however, harboured more ambivalent views. A few could even be called “Red”: communists, socialists, trade unionists or, most commonly, pro-Soviet patriots who were proud of the victorious Red Army and their homeland’s achievements since the communist revolution. “Displaced persons,” known as DPs, were resettled primarily in countries that now defined themselves as the anti-communist West, with the largest contingents going to the United States, Australia, Canada and Israel.

The lives and experiences of anti-communist DPs — the refugees who became model migrants in the West — have been chronicled in the rich scholarship on postwar migration that has proliferated since the 1990s. Yet Soviet refugees with left-wing views, DPs like Jakob who did not fit the model, have remained essentially invisible.

Surveillance and the persistent shadow of espionage were central parts of their lives in the West. Former or current Soviet citizens who were Russian speakers and left-wing sympathisers threw up multiple red flags for Western intelligence organisations, which often struggled to understand their traumas, experiences and intra-community politics. Many had been socialised in the Soviet Union, their political views shaped by complex lives in Europe and China.

In the cold war West, their ideas took root in new ways. Ideological convictions — that the world could be better and fairer, or that the worker’s lot was difficult — mingled with personal ones, shaped by memories of lost homes, murdered family members or forced labour. These ideas made them potential threats, forcing them to negotiate the incursions of state security into their everyday lives.

In many ways, it is because these refugees loomed so large in the eyes of intelligence agencies that we struggle to catch sight of them. The lives of “ordinary” people are often difficult to locate in official records, but that marginalisation was compounded by cold war anti-communism and surveillance.

Left-wing Soviet DPs had particular cause to recede from view by lying about their politics and backgrounds or simply keeping their own counsel. They knew they were being watched; most were aware that both the state and other migrants regarded them with suspicion; very few recorded their experiences. History maintains a sense of irony, though: the very surveillance dossiers that marginalised these migrants can now provide the historian with a window into their worlds.

Intelligence agencies are notorious for their secrecy and reluctance to reveal the details of even decades-old operations. When they do reveal information, it is typically on their own terms and in the service of their public image — take, for example, the declassification of the CIA’s Canadian Caper operation, which formed the basis of the film Argo.

In some cases, researchers can appeal to legislation. In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act provides a well-trodden path to accessing FBI and CIA files. A similar provision in Canada allows requests for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s files. But both have, to differing degrees, proven limited in recent years. Britain’s MI5 is subject to very few access measures, releasing files only as it chooses. Further, its release policy targets higher-profile individuals, leaving the files of more ordinary subjects unknown and unknowable for historians.

By comparison, access procedures in Australia are quite liberal. A dedicated application process via the National Archives of Australia provides greater access to security files if one is sufficiently patient. These dossiers are still redacted, equivocal and frustrating, but they provide unique glimpses of a left-wing presence among the DPs. Presumably, similar migrants ended up elsewhere in the West.

Though they had chosen life in the West rather than the East, and in some cases had experienced the worst that Soviet communism had to offer, these migrants continued to align themselves with the political left. For the most part, they were not activists. They tended not to join Australian political parties and their ideas did not often fit neatly under labels like “communist,” “Marxist” or “Trotskyite.”

Their views were idiosyncratic patchworks rather than refined political doctrines, reflecting lives lived across East and West in turbulent times. Their experiences of Soviet terror and state support, Nazi and Japanese occupation, concentration camps and forced labour often informed their understanding of the twentieth century’s prevailing political philosophies more than books or manifestos. Their politics played out at street-level: in living rooms, church halls, night clubs, theatre groups, factory floors and discussions over glasses of wine (or vodka) at parties.

Though some refugees chose Australia specifically for its distance — the furthest they thought they could get from the Soviets — the cold war arrived there, too. By 1948, as the revolution in China compounded still-heightened fears of invasion by neighbouring Asian countries, anti-communism gained a firm foothold in Australia.

As the historian David Lowe has written, the cold war was “Australianised” with settler-colonial anxieties about maintaining white racial homogeneity and preventing territory loss. Australia saw itself as part of the English-speaking world but was surrounded by a decolonising Asia-Pacific region with a growing socialist and communist presence, and so sought the security of close ties with Britain and the United States.

One result was the formation of ASIO in response to American concerns about Australia’s lax security and a Soviet spy ring in Canberra. Domestically, the cold war flared in 1950–51 as Australian troops were shipped to Korea and prime minister Robert Menzies attempted to ban the Communist Party. A referendum on the ban saw the public drawn into an increasingly heated debate about communism, national security and civil liberties.

Similar tensions were sparked in 1954 by the defections of Soviet officials (and spies) Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov — an incident soon christened the Petrov affair. Vladimir Petrov had socialised extensively among Soviet migrants in Sydney and many of them waited with trepidation as ASIO investigated and a royal commission enquired.

Both moments were cold war watersheds for Australians, a time when debates about communism and espionage hit close to home. But they hit even closer for Soviet refugees as their homelands and the ideologies they had lived under and knew intimately were discussed in daily newspapers and nightly news broadcasts. Many of the refugees knew Petrov personally; the affair played out in their lives in distinctive ways, providing new, rich layers to our history of this event.

The Petrov affair’s most iconic and enduring moment — Evdokia Petrov, her husband having already defected alone, being escorted across Sydney’s airport tarmac by two Soviet couriers — was heightened by thousands of anti-communist Eastern European migrants. They turned out to protest what they saw as the forcible return of a terrified Russian woman to a dire fate in the Soviet Union. Many had themselves felt at risk of a similar fate, in Europe’s DP camps, and arrived with placards and raised voices to warn Australians and their government of the Soviet Union’s cruelty.

These anti-communist exile groups existed alongside and often in conflict with smaller communities of left-wing migrants. For some, joining a left-wing group related more to opposing diaspora norms — their vitriolic anti-Soviet rhetoric and strong attachment to the church — than cold war politics. Less conservative social mores and better entertainment often helped too, especially for young refugees. But whether they intended it or not, many were then cast into cold war conflicts.

Sydney’s left-leaning Russian Social Club brought DPs into the orbit of the broader Australian left and the Petrov affair. A corresponding Social Club was also set up in Melbourne, in 1952, though it seems to have been short-lived. These clubs facilitated migrants’ connections with Soviet embassy officials stationed in Australia, who were often working covertly as spies. A host of left-wing Jewish organisations were also established by, or drew in, postwar migrants, such as the Jewish Councils to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism in Sydney and Melbourne, the Volkscentre in Darlinghurst and Kadimah in Carlton.

Left-wing migrants often participated across multiple groups and sometimes became involved with Australian-run organisations as a result. The typical “communist front” groups which proliferated across the West — Australia–Russia societies (later renamed Australian–Soviet friendship societies) and peace councils — were also hubs for left-wing Soviet refugees. The Melbourne friendship society even had, for a time, a DP as chairman. These clubs facilitated migrants’ connections with Soviet officials but also attracted Australian surveillance, and thus, interactions with spies on both sides.

Most put down roots in Australia, establishing themselves in new communities and becoming neighbours, friends, fellow churchgoers and colleagues of both other migrants and those born in Australia. Some shifted between communities, burying their earlier years, and some became more conservative with age. Most were naturalised, giving up Soviet passports or statelessness in favour of Australian citizenship — though, again, they pursued this in order to access specific benefits, rights or stability just as often as a desire to become Australians.

With naturalisation, they became Australian voters. Soviet refugees’ voting patterns are near impossible to ascertain, but both Labor and Liberal parties tried to some extent to cultivate migrant votes. Few of the left-wing group (even if pro-communist) appear to have associated directly with the Communist Party of Australia, but some refugees joined or maintained connections to the Labor Party.

But not everyone settled down. Australia was not typically a refugee’s first choice, and some moved on to other countries, such as Canada or the United States. Some never made it past the two-year work contract, deported for absconding from their assigned employment. Others did their best to get themselves deported: one way to obtain a cheap ticket back to Europe.

The other way, for Soviets, was voluntary repatriation. The Soviet Union wanted its “stolen” DPs back and Soviet citizens who wanted to return could often do so at Soviet expense. Repatriation figures were only ever a tiny fraction of the tide of Westward migration during the early cold war — between 1947 and 1952, some twenty-eight Soviet DPs returned from Venezuela, twenty-two from Argentina, sixteen from Canada, nine from South Africa and only two from the United States. Nevertheless, they reflected the fact that life in the capitalist world could also be harsh, especially if you were a refugee.

In Australia, the two-year work contract was often a catalyst and some, like young Jakob, left soon after completing it, homesick and dissatisfied. Others remained longer, even decades, before making the decision to repatriate. China Russians could also return if they secured the appropriate paperwork, though the Soviets likely would not foot the bill. Nevertheless, some did repatriate.

But whether they chose to stay in Australia or not, many Soviet refugees lived through the early years of the cold war in the West. As these battle lines were drawn, they had to pick a stance: leave politics behind and remain quiet, become anti-communist “cold warriors,” or accept the surveillance and suspicion that came with life as a pro-Soviet “enemy alien.” •

This article is adapted from Ebony Nilsson’s new book Displaced Comrades: Politics and Surveillance in the Lives of Soviet Refugees in the West, published by Bloomsbury Academic.