A Bolshevik in Brisbane

The People’s Train
By Tom Keneally
Vintage 2009

Life in Russia at the start of the 20th century under Tsar Nicholas II was intolerable for the mass of workers and peasants. An intense period of capitalist expansion and development, especially over the 1890s, had transformed Russia socially and economically. The predominantly peasant population, living a semi-feudal and impoverished existence, was the primary source of labour for the new industrial districts.

While serfdom was legally abolished in 1861, the new relationship between peasants and the large landowners and the state increasingly robbed peasants of their land and drowned them in debt. Without land or other means of supporting themselves, or needing to supplement a meagre income, peasant labourers led a semi-proletarian existence and were drawn in as the workforce of the new capitalist enterprises. Agricultural production lagged well behind the rest of developed Europe and the United States, while the largest factories in Europe sprang up in Russian cities. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky noted, by the early 1900s Russia had “the most concentrated industry in Europe based on the most backward agriculture”.

For most workers, a long and arduous work day — up to 16 hours — in large, unsafe factories, mines and mills was common. Workers were treated harshly by the bosses and had little redress. The 1948 autobiography of A.S. Shapovalov, a St Petersburg worker who later became a Bolshevik, recalled life as a worker in a factory. “Recognition of their human worth was rare among the workers”, he wrote. The workshop owner “was a ‘tsar’, a ‘god’ … When he walked through the workshop, the workers … would humbly bow, stutteringly remove their hats and say: ‘Good morning, our lord and master!’”

The autocracy of the tsar was harsh and authoritarian, and anyone who dared challenge or organise against the established order was punished. This did not prevent growing demands for democracy and justice, however. Politicised workers, students and radical intellectuals organised to bring about change. They were the seed bed for the revolutionary ideas and action which gripped Russia in 1904-05. The uprising in 1905 was unlike anything previously experienced in Russia, with increasingly militant protest action, including a massive strike wave. While the revolution stumbled and failed to overthrow the tsar, it was the prelude from which lessons were learned and tactics sharpened for the successful revolution in 1917.

Fictionalised history

Tom Keneally’s The People’s Train traces the life of one revolutionary worker who was involved in both the fervour of 1905 and the victorious revolution 12 years later. A historical novel based on a real Bolshevik worker, the book is a fictionalised account of Fedor Andreyevich Sergeyev (known by his nom de guerre Artem), who at the time the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 was a member of its central committee. When he died in an accident in 1921, he was secretary of the Moscow party committee and head of the Mineworkers’ Union.

Like many workers and dissidents who took part in the 1905 revolution, Artem was imprisoned and sent into exile in an isolated work camp in Siberia. Escaping from the prison gang and tsarist brutality, via a circuitous route Artem made it to Brisbane, joining a small but growing community of Russian exiles. Here he dedicated his time to organising the Russian exile community, while attempting to integrate into the politics and radical milieu as it existed at the time in Australia.

In the first part of the book, Keneally writes through the eyes of Artem, describing the personal and political aspirations, along with the frustrations, challenges and struggle in the life of a revolutionary Russian émigré in the misnamed “workers’ paradise”. Artem is quick to throw himself into trade union activity, arriving in Brisbane just before the tramway and general strike in 1912 and the infamous Black Friday (or Baton Friday) demonstration. An illegal but peaceful march of 15,000 unionists and supporters on February 2, 1912, was attacked and dispersed by mounted police and special constables — setting the tone for police brutality against protests in Queensland through to the present era. Artem and other Russian workers played an important role in the strike committee.

Notwithstanding the watchful eye and harassment of the police, Artem helps galvanise and politicise the Brisbane Russian migrant community, along with those spread through the state working as gangers, cane cutters and labourers, who numbered in total close to 1000 (around a third of the Russian émigré population in Australia). A printing press is established and the Union of Russian Workers is formed, holding regular meetings in venues across south Brisbane, where Russian teahouses and shops had been established.

Repression in Australia

As the warmongering prior to World War I takes hold in Australia, Artem and fellow Russian activists face increasing suspicion and surveillance. Their press is closed down, meetings disrupted and members of the union arrested on trumped-up charges. With the advent of the February revolution in 1917, Artem leaves Brisbane for Russia, where he arrives in July to a tense pre-revolutionary situation (in real life, Artem’s last political activity in Australia was to help organise a May Day demonstration in Darwin).

For the Russian émigré community that remained in Brisbane, the October revolution and close of World War I brought a rabid anti-Russian hysteria, with the Queensland Police, Commonwealth Police and Special Intelligence Bureau covertly supporting reactionary “loyalist” and returned soldier organisations. The draconian War Precautions Act and other anti-sedition laws heightened the pogrom-like situation in Brisbane, which culminated in the red flag riots in March 1919.

The second part of The People’s Train is viewed from the perspective of Artem’s Australian socialist friend and fellow activist Paddy Dykes. In real life Artem did indeed attract a number of Australian socialists to Russia, though none as early as 1917. According to Keneally, the fictional Dykes is “entirely my creation, though based on a characteristic Australian working-class radical of his time”. Through Dykes the revolution is evocatively portrayed, including with a touch of confusion and bewilderment.

Released towards the end of last year, The People’s Train slipped by with only a few reviews. Some of these are predictably critical of Keneally’s relatively favourable portrayal of the revolution. It deserves much more acclaim and attention than it has received to date. Keneally has deftly intermingled events in Brisbane and Russia, bringing to life some forgotten (or highly distorted) gems of Australia’s and Russia’s radical past.