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  • From Peasants to Labourers: Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration from the Russian Empire to Canada
  • Orest Martynowych (bio)
Vadim Kukushkin . From Peasants to Labourers: Ukrainian and Belarusan Immigration from the Russian Empire to Canada. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2007. xvi, 284. $80.00

Most historians still assume that emigration from the Russian empire to Canada was confined to Jews, Germans, Mennonites, and Doukhobors who fled political and religious oppression. In his well-researched and path-breaking monograph, the author challenges such assumptions and demonstrates that most of the Russian subjects who crossed the Atlantic between 1905 and 1914 were Ukrainian and Belarusan peasant sojourners attracted by short-term economic opportunities in Canada's resource frontier and eastern urban centres.

Based primarily on an analysis of untapped personal migrant files in the archive of the Imperial Russian Consulate (the Li-Ra-Ma Collection) at Library and Archives Canada, the monograph also draws on collections in Canadian church archives, in the Library of Congress, and in Russian and Belarusan state archives and libraries. Russian-, Ukrainian-, and Belarusan-language newspapers and periodicals published in the tsarist empire and in North America, and an array of studies on late imperial Russian, Canadian, and migration history, supplement the author's archival sources.

Kukushkin argues that the empire's western borderlands beyond the Dnieper River basin were 'the easternmost segment of the Atlantic migration system.' Acquired after the partitions of Poland, these lands retained cultural and commercial ties with the West. When rapid population growth, hereditary partible land tenure, low levels of urbanization and industrialization, poor soil in Belarus, and the dominance of noble-owned capitalist estates in Ukraine produced land hunger and few job opportunities, Ukrainian and Belarusan peasants chose migration to North America rather than seasonal labour in Russian cities or homesteading in Siberia. The westward flow of migration was strongest from Grodno province in Belarus and Podolia province in Ukraine, which supplied Canada with more migrants than any other province in the empire. Significantly, a majority of the Podolian migrants came from Kamenets, a border district adjacent to those Galician and Bukovynian counties where Ukrainian (Ruthenian) mass emigration from Austria to Canada was most intense.

The Canadian government made no effort to attract Slavic homesteaders from the Russian empire, but after 1905 railway, mining, and steel interests recruited unskilled workers. Consequently, Ukrainians and Belarusans came to Canada as migrant labourers, often after slipping [End Page 585] across porous Russian borders illegally. Most migrants were small peasant property owners in their twenties and thirties, over half of them married and eager to return to their wives and children with a nest egg. They identified themselves as 'Russians,' spoke a 'Russianized patois,' spurned organizations established by Ukrainians from Austria, and returned in large numbers to serve the tsar during the Great War. Kukushkin contrasts Ukrainian migrants from Russia with immigrants from Austria. He correctly stresses that the latter had benefited from cultural autonomy in Galicia and Buikovyna and were accompanied by a thin layer of the intelligentsia who played a leading role in national mobilization and community building. However, he overstates the extent to which Ukrainians from Austria were homesteaders looking for land; after 1905 a majority of the Ukrainians who left Austria for Canada were also migrant labourers without wives and children.

The author also provides an illuminating discussion of the culture of sojourning and its repercussions. Rowdiness and profligate behaviour were common among male migrants, and the absence of women, children, and families made community institutions, including Orthodox and Baptist congregations, ineffective and short-lived. Socialist sojourners were more concerned with revolution and land redistribution in Russia than with Canadian labour politics. Their organizations were shaken when many activists returned home after the fall of tsarism, and collapsed after Canadian authorities, who exaggerated Bolshevik influence among the migrants, cracked down on the Canadian left in late 1918. Although return migration, intermarriage, and the absorption of some leftists into the powerful Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association diminished the size of Canada's 'Russian' colonies, in the early 1920s up to twenty-five thousand Russian-born Ukrainians and nine thousand Belarusans still remained in the dominion where they maintained a 'Russian' identity and...


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