Authors: Keneally Thomas
Tom Keneally won the Booker Prize in 1982 with
later made into the Academy Award-winning film
by Steven Spielberg. He has written ten works of non-fiction, including his recent memoir
Searching for Schindler,
and the histories
The Commonwealth of Thieves,TheGreat Shame
and 27 works of fiction, including
TheWidow and Her Hero
(shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award),
An Angel in Australia
The Chant of JimmieBlacksmith,Gossip from the Forest
were all shortlisted for the Booker Prize, while
Bring Larks and Heroes
Three Cheers for the Paraclete
won the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
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When I first came to Brisbane in the year 1911, I wrote often to my sister Zhenya Trofimova, as I had not done during my escape or while Suvarov and I were surviving in Shanghai. That I had not written earlier was not due to lack of affection, but to the fact I was so unsettled. But now I felt that for a time I had reached the end of journeying. I dedicate these pages, which were written in exile, to her.
Trofimov, my brother-in-law, was at that stage a Donetsk coal miner, a noble soul and a reader, who – although I did not know it at the time – had recently been overcome by gases and dust clouds in the Verkhneye No. 3 mine. When they first opened those workings, the priest came down the shaft with holy water and incantations. But no blessing would prove equal to the unholy atmosphere of the mine.
I move ahead too fast. Exile is my story, not black lung.
I was amazed at first arrival in the city by the fact that even the poor did not eat horsemeat. Yes, they ate rabbits, of which there are too many. Did that mean it was a working man’s paradise already, without a revolution? Well ... the men in the railway camp near Warwick, where I had worked early in my Australian experience, did not think so. The system remained the system. There were men I knew who fed their children a slice of bread and lard four evenings a week. Yet I remembered intelligent Russians who – having never been there – declared that Australia was a working man’s paradise. But the reality, even in a new country, was that the old world had been imported there in one lump.
However, this was a good place for a tired old prisoner to rest in the sun and between battles. Brisbane ran up a hill in a bow of river and sat without any fuss under the humid sky. And Russia had come there. I went along to a meeting of the Association of Russian Emigrants on the south side of the river, Stanley Street. There were Russians of all shades there, vague liberals, Mensheviks, disappointed Agrarian Socialists (who once lived with peasants but found them mean and wanting), Socialist Revolutionaries, anarchists and Wobblies. And also people who just wanted to take a rest from the tsar. The association was run by decent people, including an engineer, Rybakov. Old Rybakov had begun as a tally-clerk at Cannon Hill meatworks but, though always suffering bad asthma, was a figure of authority now that he had a good job as an engineer in the tramways.
My old friend from Shanghai, big lean A. I. ‘Grisha’ Suvarov was there, still a beanpole with freckles. Once he had walked two days from a place named Stanthorpe, through the bush to visit me at the railway camp. But now he had a job at the Cannon Hill meatworks and he had boasted he could get me a job too, as he did – lugging carcases of sheep and beef onto ships. The meatworks and the wharves were heavily Russian, apart from the Australians – there must have been two-fifths Russians there. After my sometimes exhausting adventures, I felt I needed to labour hard – the more carcases I hoisted the more my brain revived.
In any case, the trouble with this Association of Russian Emigrants was that, apart from wheezy old Rybakov, they seemed to be on a brain holiday too. They showed no consciousness and were purely social and charitable. They went on nature hikes to Mount Coot-tha and so on. I hated to see an organisation so wasted and wanted to make it into something more useful and active. The usual hikes and chess would be all very creditable if our political minds were engaged as well. But it was not so. As Suvarov said correctly, we needed a Russian league, one that looked after newcomers better, was not too scared or comfortable to greet them, and was a union of Russian workers as well. We needed a newspaper too, a political one, not a social flimsy. Where we could get Cyrillic type from in this city I just didn’t know. But at least Rybakov had got hold of the association’s constitution and was writing a new one.
After we’d discussed it, we all turned up – all we recent Russian arrivals – to the association’s next meeting. In the extra business, after the old committee had decided on a Russian folk concert at the Buranda Hall – to which Australian trade unionists were to be invited and asked to contribute a silver coin to a Russian famine fund – I rose to move that all places on the committee be declared vacant, and that a new committee be elected that night and immediately present a new constitution to the membership, allowing them an hour to read and approve it. So the new Soyuz Russkikh Emigrantov came into existence, and I was elected president. I felt invigorated. I was just at the stage again – after my long escape and pilgrimage – to become active.
At the next meeting of the
I moved that we produce a political and social newspaper every two weeks. The old music teacher, Chernikov, who had been president of the association for ten years, was appalled by the idea of politics.
But we have never had any trouble from the authorities, Chernikov said, his voice trembling. You don’t understand, he said. This is not a country for political philosophy.
I could hear Rybakov, in his alpaca suit, wheeze angrily. The climate here is bad for his breathing – it is humid and full of vivid flowering plants. One encounter with a frangipani, with its dolorous, opium-like scent, or a walk under a flowering jacaranda, can threaten Rybakov’s health as the cold of Manchuria never did.
Chernikov went on, The police took an interest in us in the past, but when they discovered we were more a social body, they were happy to leave us alone. Look now, I was a
when it was very dangerous to be. I knew the men of the Second First of March – we published a paper together. So it’s not as if I haven’t done my bit.
Rybakov kept wheezing angrily. I suppose you were hanged, he suggested. With Generalov and Ulyanov.
These were the names of men who had tried to kill Tsar Alexander.
It was important to soothe people who agreed with Chernikov, since we needed their support too. I was willing to edit the newssheet, to get it printed and published, and put my name to it. I wanted a good relationship with the government too, but that does not mean we could not discuss ideas. We could give the paper a pleasant, unprovocative name. I suggested
The old committee were half-consoled by that name.
As for setting the type, there was a Russian compositor who worked for a Polish printing company in Ernest Street. The owner already printed invitations to the union’s (formerly association’s) events. I said I would employ the compositor – I hoped on a voluntary basis. I would find a printing press – in the hope of having the sum needed to pay for it voted by the committee – and I would do the printing, distributing and posting of the thing.
And the enthusiasm of Rubinov, the tramways man, and of my friend Suvarov, a fellow member of the Australian Workers Union, clinched it. Both offered to contribute articles, as I knew they were dying to do. The motion was carried with excitement by the young men on the floor, and a frown from old Chernikov and his mates. It was further moved that some articles should be in Russian and some – social events, job advice for émigrés, that sort of thing – in English.
They have a saying at the abattoirs that busy people race around like blue-arsed flies. I was a blue-arsed fly in the next two weeks. It might have been easier to give ourselves a few months to get the first edition out, but that would have driven me mad with a sense that this great sunny place was howling for voices and I was not providing them.
I ran into problems. The Polish printer in Ernest Street was not an internationalist and told me he had no Cyrillic script and had come to Australia to get away from Cossacks and Russians. And the Russian alphabet, it seemed. Then I discovered that to begin a newspaper in Queensland you had to deposit a five-hundred-pound bond with the attorney-general of the state. So much for the freedom of the press in the sunny workers’ paradise of Australia! I had received from my membership a budget of one hundred and fifty pounds and did not intend to go back to them for more. Besides, with five hundred pounds, we could do so much for the cane-cutters who came to Brisbane for Christmas, or we could create a Russian library.
I sent away to Melbourne for Cyrillic script and I was allowed to rent an old, stand-up, Boston-style hand-operated printing press for ten shillings a week from the People’s Printery (the printery used by the Trades and Labour Hall). Our rented press and its printing frames had been rendered obsolete by newer, automatic machines, but when Suvarov and I and a few others dismantled ours in the lane behind the People’s Printery, loaded it onto a dray and took it to the Stefanovs’, where I’d rented a room for the press, I felt the old subversive exhilaration. I wanted our first edition of
to be out by the time the Russian workers came in from the bush for the Russian Christmas, which came twelve days after the Western one, on 7 January.
It was pleasant to have a reason to write again. It was pleasant to ask my friends for material. My lanky friend Suvarov was self-taught but a genuine thinker. He had already written a piece on the shortcomings and sentimentalities of agrarian socialism, which saw the peasant commune, despite all its narrow-mindedness, cheating, lust for land and money-lending, as the structure out of which a revolution could be made. Suvarov and I, being peasants, we knew how crazy the whole thing was – as bad as Tolstoy’s idea that by wearing a smock and helping bring in the harvest he was chasing more than a sentimental fantasy. Rybakov was in fact translating Suvarov’s piece into English for the weekly
but now I wished to set it in Russian.
Altogether, our little group of comrades would make some noise in the great Australian torpor.