The invisible city of Kitezh down under

The marginality of Australian settlement prompted
Bruce Chatwin to consider how it might have been otherwise
if a different people had colonised the continent. In Songlines,
he presents Alice Springs through the eyes of Arkady Volchak,
son of a refugee Cossack. Chatwin and Volchak—‘a
Pom and a Com’— develop a common antipathy to
the local white residents, or kardiya…

What would have driven Russians to the other end of the world?
And what role might they play in Australian society, beyond
buyers of cheap real estate?

In 1940, the daughter of one of these refugees, Nina Maximov,
encouraged Clem Christesen, of Danish descent, to establish
the Meanjin journal in Brisbane. Her childhood in St
Petersburg gave her a belief in the importance of intellectual
life, despite the lack of precedent in Brisbane. This belief
and guidance helped Christesen found the journal and bring it
eventually to Melbourne, where it became a vehicle for cultural
debate in the post-war period.

In The Hand that Signed the Paper, Demidenko told
the story of World War 2 atrocities through the eyes of Slavic
collaborators. There was nothing else like it being published
in Australia; it subsequently won the Vogel Literary Award,
the Miles Franklin award, and the Gold Medal from the Association
for the Study of Australian Literature. The Miles Franklin
citation contrasted this kind of literature with ‘fiction
about the more vapid aspects of Australian life’…

This, it seems, is one of the questions left begging after
the Demidenko affair. Is there nothing in Australian culture
to give expression to the ‘Russian-ness’ of life—the
tragic circumstances of people who are powerless to resist
authority, yet must win honour for themselves in defeat?

Within two weeks Tatiana had been processed by the popular
media into an Australian girl, with her image on the cover of
New Idea. From the taut, focused young Amazon of the Olympics,
she became a made-up doll dressed entirely in pink. Rather than
close-ups of her grim determination, the article featured a
succession of cheesy grins. In contrasting her gloomy life in
Russia with the bright prospects in Australia, New Idea transformed
the intense Russian Grigorieva into ‘our Tatiana’.
…like Demidenko, Wongar’s vision is tainted by resentment.
His prime objective does not seem to be a close understanding
of Aboriginal culture—Wongar uses the indigenous cause
to draw sympathy for the victimisation of Serbs at the hand
of Muslim invaders. His violent novel Raki draws a parallel
between police brutalisation of native Australians and Ottoman
oppression of the Serbian nation. It is as much a blind imposition
of a foreign paradigm as the importation of the English garden
to Australia.
"During one particularly severe drought, my grandmother
insisted on accompanying us boys out on a fishing trip. She
wrapped the icon in cloth and took it with her. When we stopped
in our spot, she started mumbling and praying in a weird way.
Then she got out the icon and threw it into the water. That
was it. It just sunk with all that metal on it. No way anyone
would find it now. It didn’t stop the drought, though."
The Guerassimoff story represents a negative encounter between
Russians and Australia—a dramatic loss of tradition and
assimilation into the sacred Queensland code. But what did the
original Guerassimoffs expect to find here, and why did the
grandmother throw the prize family possession, preserved at
great cost during the journey south, into the blue depths of
the Pacific Ocean? Did she wish they had thrown their religious
clutter into the Japanese sea rather than lose a son? Or was
there another darker reason, buried in the Old Believer psyche?
Govor’s highly embroidered history, My Dark Brother,
provides a detailed account of how an incarnation of the Russian
nineteenth century ideal managed to take root in Australian
soil. In this life of a Tolstoyan in Queensland, there lies
a clue to why the Guerassimoffs cast their family heritage into
the sea.
"Here in Australia I have become convinced that the religion
of the Aborigines has not died out. Rather, in those places
where it seems to have disappeared, it has temporarily descended
into the hidden recesses of the spirit, below the surface, like
an underground spring, to break the surface again at some future
time. The religion of their ancestors remains for them just
such an underground spring, nurturing them and helping them
to build their lives in a new reality, even though that religion
was never unchanging, and it continues to change, revealing
the potential it carries within it." (Vladimir Kabo)
The Soviet fantasy Amphibian Man (1961) tells the
story of a Russian scientist forced to pursue his research in
a Spanish seaside town. His son, Ichthyander, suffered a lung
complaint which his father cured by transplanting the gills
of a shark. Forced to live below water for long periods, the
professor consoles his son with dreams of an impending underwater
utopia, where there are no class distinctions. Eventually, the
world catches up with the pair and the son is forced to escape.
He assures his father that he will survive far away in the south
seas—in the land of Australia.

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