Russians Looking for a Brazilian El Dorado

Labour contract agencies were publishing notices in Europe offering not-to-be-missed benefits for farm-workers and craftsmen. The object of the exercise was to attract skilled tradesmen to clear the land and promote growth in Brazil. The advertisements held out the offer of free passage and land grants for anyone willing to set up farming communities in Brazil.

Some of those advertisements made it as far as Russia and the realm of the Romanovs and on 31 December 1878 1,366 hopeful Ukrainian peasants disembarked in Paraná, keen to find their very own Brazilian El Dorado. The invitations issued to European workers to lend a hand with the development of Brazil had carried the endorsement of Pedro II, but, for all the Brazilian monarch’s ‘fine intentions’, the contents had been very vague. Laziness and lack of commitment on the part of their partners caused serious suffering to these 1,366 Ukrainians.

Writing about these Russian workers, Lamenha Linds notes ‘the abuses practised’ and the ‘complaints inspired by such abuses’ and concludes: ‘Dumped in Vila Palmeira and stranded there, in that they were denied all transport facilities, the Russians finally revolted and insisted that they be repatriated, since the land allotted to them was of the poorest quality, as they had verified through the use of drilling equipment and chemical tests.’

The ‘rebellion’ put Pedro II on notice and he travelled out to Paraná to examine the lands refused by the Russians and saw for himself the huge numbers of stones that rendered the land unproductive. In view of this and to defuse the scandal created by his subordinates, Pedro II proposed to ‘feed the 928 families out of his own pocket for a two month period’, whilst ensuring that land of proven fertility, arable land would be granted to any who might want to remain in Brazil. The Brazilian government would see to it that the others were transported home to Russia.

About 200 families decided to stay. The majority, however, sailed for Hamburg and thence to the USA where they founded a settlement in Nevada. Others opted instead to try their luck in the settlements around Coronel Suárez in Argentina.

Of those who stayed in Brazil, a few set to work in the ‘Lago de Quero-Quero’ settlement between Ponte Grossa and Palmeira, and others headed off to Mariental, near Lapa.

Following studies by Professor Fiebig-Gerst establishing that ‘there were 62 grams of chlorophyll in every 1,000 grams of maté’, yerba maté production had been stepped up. Then there was the problem of getting the maté tea to other parts of the country. The Russian immigrants - most of them Ukrainian-born - wasted no time: they began to make maté shipments in huge covered wagons drawn by six or eight mules or horses. Only a few of them stuck with farming once they had recovered.

Years later, in an effort to ease their resentment, Pedro II made land grants in the area to immigrants from other countries, including the Italian Giovanni Rossi, an anarchist who came to Brazil to set up the Cecilia Colony.

Pedro II was deposed and a republic installed, so he was unable to check on the success or failure of the settlers, but as an exile in Europe he would certainly have known that his successors were still trawling for farmers. The republicans’ pleas reached the Ukraine and since, by the time that 1909 rolled around, everybody had forgotten the sordid trickery practised on the local farm workers by Brazilian politicians back in 1878, they fell for the propaganda about ‘a life of paradise’ in Brazil. ‘Twenty Ukrainian peasant families sold up all they had and sailed for London. The voyage from southern Russia to Santos, Brazil, was a long one and then there was the next stage - on to São Paulo. The republic’s immigration agents - just like Pedro II’s subordinates before them - took the peasants out to the Colonia Paricuera-açú and gave them some land to work, ignoring the fact that these folk were from a cold climate and were suddenly assailed by the powerful heat which left them soaking with sweat - and drained them of the physical strength they needed for farm-work.’

One of the victims, Elias Iltchenko, recalls how, after two years’ sickness, with several of their number suffering without treatment and all of them feeling the effects of hunger, they decided to pool what roubles they had and sell everything that they could to buy passage for everyone as far as the port of Iguapé, where they contacted the Russian consul who travelled up from Rio de Janeiro to listen to his compatriots. The immigrants asked to be repatriated: they were all feeling let down and betrayed and declared that they were ready to expose their plight to the European press.

The rebellion caught the Brazilian authorities on the hop, calling to mind the scandal surrounding the repatriation forced upon the monarchist government in the 19th century. To snuff out the revolt, the Brazilian authorities offered them land in Rio Grande do Sul (where the climate was more bearable for the Ukrainians), plus monetary assistance in launching their ‘new settlement’. Tired and hungry, with their children sick, and convinced that this offered the best way out of their suffering, they agreed.

They were then loaded on board a cargo ship bound for Porto Alegre where they lived for three weeks, sleeping in a huddle with only the meagrest rations and medical treatment. Later they were taken out to Erechin (since renamed Getúlio Vargas) and they spent several weeks living in cramped immigration barracks until their settlement permits finally arrived and they were allocated their land with a resentment that the then teenaged Elias Iltchenko could plainly detect. A few families ventured further, only to return after some weeks. They finally came back to collect the others and each family was allocated one or two 25-hectare lots, depending of the number of able-bodied members.

Transported on army carts drawn by mules, the 20 Ukrainian families set about ‘clearing’ the undergrowth; they had no tools and no idea how they were going to get out of there.

Mutual Aid And Anarchism

The lands granted held nothing but forest, streams and small, bare clearings. Apart from the land, every family was granted 500 milreis in vouchers, ploughs and one axe and one saw between every two families. But there were no access routes, no vehicles or other forms of transportation. They had to do it all on foot over untamed terrain. Nor were they given seed, livestock, poultry or guidance as to what might usefully be planted or how to go about it.

Bereft of rations, with no housing to shelter them from the weather and the wild animals, no medical facilities at all and no advice as to how to protect themselves from the mosquitoes that carried tropical diseases, the Ukrainian settlers started to fight for survival, relying upon one another out of sheer necessity and human solidarity.

Their numbers included farmers, teachers, physicians, nurses, magistrates, midwives and grave-diggers: everyone mucked in and there was no leadership or authority. Each family worked its own parcel or parcels of land, planting or harvesting the fruits of their labours, whilst, at the level of the settlement as a whole, they helped one another out in respect of felling and sawing up trees, building homes, streets, bridges over rivers, during planting and harvesting and they rallied round each other in the face of illness, births, deaths, accidents, drought, floods, during storms, etc. The same thing was true of the exchange of food and seeds, ferrying produce into town for sale and the proceeds of these sales were used to buy clothing, seeds, new tools and medicines.

With no help or guidance from outsiders, the settlers had to shift for themselves, working around the area in order to raise money and learning from those who knew how to deal with the soil. The women, children and elderly collected or grew a few things to eat. For three long years (1911-1914) they endured hunger, deprivation and regrets and the notion of returning to Russia surfaced again, mainly during the fist few months after the popular revolution that toppled the Tsar in February 1917.

But then the libertarian newspaper Golos Truda (organ of the Argentina-based Russian Workers’ Federation) began to reach the settlement and revealed facts about Russia that were a far cry from what these emigrants had imagined. The Bolsheviks did not think twice about arresting workers, many of whom had helped them overthrow the Romanovs.

Out in the fields, they learned from one another. In the tilling of the land they were all teachers and pupils, gradually mastering the task. At night, by the light of candles they learned and taught Portuguese, Spanish and (in the case of the youngest ones) Russian and Esperanto, through newspapers, reviews and anarchist books regularly dispatched to Brazil by the Argentina-based Russian Workers’ Federation.

In 1919, Russian libertarians were obliged to retreat into Uruguay for a time to escape harassment by Argentinean police. In Montevideo they published a newspaper entitled Rabotchaya Myssl, but it was not long before they were back in Buenos Aires and Golos Truda resurfaced as the mouthpiece of a South American Russian Labour Federation. From 1918 on it appeared as a weekly: it eventually switched to fortnightly publication until 1930 when the police of the coup-maker General Uriburu burst into the Golos Truda premises, arresting its officers and seizing more than 10,000 books from a library in Berisso and burning them. Russian-language anarchist publications published in Argentina and others published in Canada and the United States were circulated in Rio Grande do Sul. Teams formed by the peasants of Erebango saw to it that everything got through to the Russian immigrants all over Brazil.

Some of the peasants arriving in São Paulo in 1907 had books by Tolstoy and other, revolutionary, writers and they used these in teaching their children to read. There were also books around by Alexander Berkman, Voline and, above all, Emma Goldman and indeed of Mother Earth, literature that was circulated from hand to hand among the Russian peasants in Brazil. Like good Ukrainians, in Erebango they employed some of the methods of Nestor Makhno prior to his betrayal by Trotsky in the Ukraine.

By 1918 the Russian workers based in Getúlio Vargas (formerly, Erechin) were in complete control of the land and had the economic, psychological and vehicular resources to get together on a monthly basis and set up cohesive, active libertarian groups.

Precious Testimony On The History Of Anarchism In Brazil

According to Elias Iltchenko, the group that he belonged to along with his family had 40 members scattered through the area covered by Floresta, Erechin and Erebango.

In 1918 the following libertarian bodies were formed:

a) A Union of Russian Workers in Brazil branch in Getúlio Vargas, with a membership of 40. its best known leaders were (chairman) Sergio Iltchenko, (secretary) Paulo Uchakov and (treasurer) Simon Poluboyarinov. It covered a 4- 5- square kilometre area.

b) A Union of Russian Workers branch in Porto Alegre. Its chairman was Nikita Jakobchenko [Iltchenko.]

c) A Union of Russian Workers branch in Guarani, Campinas and Santo Angelo. Its leaders were Jono Tatarchenko, Gregorio Tatarchenko and others.

d) The Porto Lucena branch of the Union of Russian Workers. Elias could not recollect any names.

One of the most active militants in Rio Grande do Sul and distributor of the Argentina-based Golos Truda and anarchist reviews and book published in North America over the years between 1911 and 1963 was Demetrio Cirotenko. For over 20 years he was the main person liaising between and holding together the Workers’ Unions in Erechin and Erebango among other places. He died young as a result of a beating. His loss was sorely felt but propaganda activity carried on.

Someone else who left his mark on his travels through Brazil (Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná) was the writer, journalist, theatre critic, teacher and public speaker Casev Stefanovetchi, a native of the Ukraine who wore a full beard like Kropotkin’s.

In the course of an interview with Elias Iltchenko we picked up other details such as, ‘My father used the alias Nikita Jacobchenko and was secretary of the Union of Russian Workers several times over.

In those days, all of the founders of the settlement in Erebango subscribed through the South American Russian Workers’ Union to the newspaper Golos Truda. Consideration was given to setting up a Libertarian Farm Workers’ Youth group in Getúlio Vargas but the plan fell through and youngsters like myself joined the already existing groups.

The newspaper Amerikanskye Izvestia and the review Volna reached our community and the Unions from the United States. From 1925 on we also took Dyelo Truda from Paris. This review started to publish out of Chicago in 1930 after its publishers moved there. From 1921 on we got Probuzhdeniye from Detroit and in 1940 the publishers behind Dyelo Truda and Probuzhdeniye joined forces to issue a single review called Dyelo Truda-Probuzhdeniye that last until 1963.

Books by Russian anarchists published in Argentina, Canada and the USA reached Brazil and were distributed around like-minded peasant groups. Initially many of the Russian farm workers in Brazil were illiterate but then they started to learn Portuguese. Others of us who were of school age learnt Russian, Esperanto and Spanish.

In 1922 we learned that the Bolshevik government has expelled G. Maximov, P. Arshinov, E. Yartchuk, A. Gorelik and other anarchist militants from Russia and from exile they started to publish the 80-page Anarkhichecky Vestnik. We were outraged by the whole business and realised that the Bolshevik government was worse than the Tsar’s. Before Lenin, one could publish libertarian newspapers and meet clandestinely but that all stopped when he came to power. The Bolshevik police and informing upon its followers made any opposition to the government impossible.

We received the Portuguese-language press, La Voz do Trabalhador (Rio de Janeiro), A Plebe (São Paulo), and later Açao Directa, A Plebe, O Libertario, Dealbar and O Protesto. In Spanish, there was Voluntad, La Protesta, Tierra y Libertad, Acción Libertaria, Reconstruir, El Sol and Simiente Libertaria and so on.

I learned to read through Russian. With my old brother I learned from the books that my father had brought from Russia, books by Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Leskov, Chukovsky, Shevchenko and other classics which I read over and over again.

Later from the United States, Canada and Argentina, I received books by Kropotkin, Bakunin, Emma Goldman, Tolstoy, Bukharin, Nettlau, Malatesta, Jean Grave, A. Karelin, Makhno, Arshinov and other anarchists - all in Russian. For upwards of 50 years we received and circulated the Russian-language libertarian press published without interruption in Europe and America, building up a pretty good library.’

From: Adapted from Tierra y Libertad - Inquietudes (Mexico) No 459, May 1987. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.