On 21 September 1915 four Russians came to enlist in the AIF in Toowoomba, arriving from Guluguba, where they were working on the construction of the railway.
The youngest among them was 17 year old Michael Dorofaeff. He was born in Bruslanovo near Lebedian in Tambov Province in Central Russia. His family moved to Chita in Siberia and from there Michael and his elder brother Vasily came to Australia in 1912. Here they were engaged in cane cutting and labouring work.
When enlisting, Michael stated that he was nearly 19 and his parents were in Russia. Three months later, his brother Vasily reported that he was just 17 and Michael was immediately discharged. In February 1916 Vasily himself tried to enlist in the AIF, but was rejected as medically unfit.
In 1916 the brothers moved to New Zealand, from where they tried to return to Russia with their families in 1936, but did not receive visas from the Soviet authorities when they reached London. They returned to New Zealand. Recently Michael’s granddaughter, Serena Dorf, visited Lebedian in the footsteps of her granddad.
Three other enlistees were more successful. They were the three friends, Gregory Matrenin, Nicholas Silantiff and Michael Wolkoff, from the remote village of Krasnoe in the River Volga area, about 200 km from Simbirsk. They all were 27 years old and left wives and children in Krasnoe. Ethnically they were most likely Mordovians. Like many other Russian immigrants they came to Australia via the Far East to earn some money, landing in Brisbane just a few months before the outbreak of war.
The Russian-language newspaper published in Brisbane reported that when the war started, the fathers of two of these men — Matrenin and Silantiff — wrote advising their sons not to return, to avoid being conscripted into the Russian army. The fathers were arrested by local Russian police, beaten and told that unless they demanded their sons’ return they would not be freed from jail. The unlucky immigrants from Krasnoe had no alternative but to join the army in Australia.
They were allocated to the 26th (Queensland) Battalion of the AIF and came to the Western Front together in September 1916. Within only a few weeks they suffered their first loss when Michael Wolkoff was killed in the battle for the Somme in November 1916. Their second loss occurred three months later, when in February 1917 Nicholas Silantiff was severely wounded in the right arm and both legs and was invalided to Australia. Finally, in May 1917, whilst waiting to attack at Bullecourt, Gregory Matrenin received multiple shell-wounds affecting his right eye, his right hand and forearm, his thigh and left knee. He survived this ordeal but became blind.
After the war their stories took different paths. Gregory Matrenin, demobilising in London, was placed in St Dunstan’s hostel for blind soldiers, where he received training in poultry farming and willow basket-making. He applied for his discharge in May 1920, stating his intention was to try to find his wife and two children in Russia. Luckily, he did not manage to get there. In 1928 he married an English woman, Alice Ballard, and worked as a wool rug maker.
Nicholas Silantiff, recovering from his severe wounds in Brisbane, had been left with a bad limp. When his war savings were gone he worked as a cane cutter and on railway construction. After several years of such life he applied for permission to return to Russia; it was finally granted in 1923 and he went soon afterwards to Krasnoe. There he met the wife of Michael Wolkoff, Praskovia, who received an Australian pension. In 1936 he was arrested for ‘anti-revolutionary’ activities (probably because he received an Australian pension); Praskovia Volkova was arrested as well. In 1938 Silantiff was arrested for the second time and deported to Kazakhstan. The trace of him ends there. Praskovia survived the ordeal and when the Australian Legation was opened in Moscow during WWII she came there, ‘having walked the greater part of the way from Krasnoe Selo’ to ask to renew her pension, which allowed her to survive.
A tribute to these Russian Anzacs from Krasnoe village was made during the Centenary celebrations at the Australian Embassy in Moscow with the participation of the Volkovs’ great grandson.