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Sunday, May 15, 2011

The White Russians of Yarwun (pt 4)

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My third and final story relates to vodka. I said previously that the Russian community was very law abiding, and that was true. But that didn’t mean they were angels. On the contrary, my sister Lyn had an encounter I had no idea about until the subject of the Yarwun Russians came up just yesterday. I'll let her tell the story as it's very much hers.

 It was on one of our Sunday trips to the Calliope River to fish on the downside of the bridge, and watch the water skiing above the bridge. The family, Dad, Mum, Kay, you and I were there, Jan being in Brisbane at the time, I think. We were parked in our usual spot below the bridge, in the shade of a big old gum tree.

     My efforts at catching anything had been totally unsuccessful, and I wasn't all that interested in the skiing, either, so had returned to the car to await everyone's return.

    I had noticed a group of Russian people just over from where we were parked, and there was a fair bit of loud talking and carry on. I was leaning against our car when I saw a solidly built young Russian man, definitely under the influence of strong drink, eyeing me off. He moved unsteadily towards our car and my heart started to beat a bit faster, as I thought, 'Oh no!  Don't tell me he is coming over here.'

    I looked round, but no-one was in sight, and the unsteady Russian with a big lop-sided grin walked crabwise over to our car. All I could think of to do was to slide along the side of the car. Perhaps I would be out of his bleary vision and he would lurch off somewhere else. He didn't! He just kept slowly maneuvering around the car as I desperately inched my way round, and though, recalling it, it must have been highly amusing to any onlooker, I was not one bit amused. 

    I'm not sure how many circuits we completed before I heard the welcome sounds of the returning fishing party. They all broke into large smiles at my obvious plight, but Dad's voice had the effect of sending the young man back to his own party - to my immense relief! I did get a bit of ribbing for a time afterwards, particularly from Kay, who had quite a sparkle in those eyes whenever she spoke of it.

    So there was one strong tradition which had no doubt traversed the seas from some northern Chinese port to a disembarkation on the great Island Continent - perhaps even the safe harbour of Gladstone itself. But a last word about the Yarwun Russians and vodka. As a teacher, I went to a party one evening at exactly the same spot on the Calliope River as Lyn was talking about, and I drove back to Gladstone from it fairly late in the evening. A few kilometres out from Gladstone, I saw a small truck off the road and down an embankment.

    I stopped and peered inside. A bearded middle-aged man was slumped over the steering wheel. The side window was down, which was a good thing as the vodka fumes would have gassed him if the cabin had been closed, as they almost did to me as I checked him out.

    I knew he was a Russian from Yarwun, as they all had that sort of truck – solid jeep-looking two-ton vehicles that could probably withstand a land-mine, if you could find one on the Gladstone to Rocky road.

    He was sleeping like a baby, with no sign of injury that I could discern, but how could I be sure of that? I faced a dilemma. Of course, this was thirty years before mobile phones, so I had no choice but to leave him as he was and drive home. I could have left him to sleep it off and winch the truck out when he was sober. But what if he had an injury I didn’t know about? For all I knew, his neck or back could have been broken. He could have been dead by morning.

    In the end, I called an ambulance from home and told them where to find him.

    That was the last I heard of the matter, until I read in the Gladstone Observer a few weeks later that on the night of whenever it was, Dmitry Fyodor Dostoyevsky (no no no, that wasn’t his name, for Pete’s sake - I don’t have a clue what his mother called him!!) was discovered by the police in a vehicle which had left the road exactly where I had seen the truck, and that he was taken into custody, convicted and heavily fined for driving under the influence of liquor.

    I guess I did my civic duty but felt a bit guilty about it. It could have been Alec’s uncle for all I knew, but then he shouldn’t have been driving in that state. If he’d got back on the road in that truck, he might have killed somebody. Neither he nor I would have wanted that, even if the fine was a bit stiff. Jail's a lot worse.

POSTSCRIPT: So what happened to Alec? Would you believe, I got a clue from (surprise surprise) Google. Like the dramatic story of my childhood friend Verdon Harrison and the shark attack, Google is the oracle. There was one item I uncovered. The author said this:

A couple of years ago I was in Gladstone installing an exhibition titled Symmetry. A stroll through the cemetery revealed a collection of Russian graves. The name Guerassimoff stood out. Puzzled at its presence in a quintesentially Aussie town, I inquired about the Russians and was told that a community of Russians lived in a town close by, called Yarwun. Imagining a Amish-style community, I made a brief visit and tracked down a Guerassimoff, Alex, who was working at the local store. He told me quite casually the story of his family, how they had escaped the Russian revolution by fleeing to Manchuria and then to Australia, where they established a pawpaw plantation.

    So there you have it. Alex (my friend Alec) has moved barely an inch from his home. I imagine the community is pretty well dispersed now, the Yarwun pawpaw farms all bought up by developers to create dormitory suburbs for the burgeoning city of Gladstone. The White Russian diaspora would have done what every other community over a couple of generations in Australia has – made its contribution and adapted fairly seamlessly into the multicultural life we share in this fortunate country.

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  1. My father, his mother and her sister fled White Russia during WWI, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Spanish Flu, which happened all at the same time. He went to Canada, and here I am in Australia. My father would be horrified at what a Bolshie I've become.

  2. Ah, but how could you avoid being a Bolshie in Oz? All the best people are! :)

  3. Thanks for the interesting info on the Yarwun White Russian community.

    I'm apalled, though, that there are apparently people who continue to identify with Bolshevism, including the author of this blog.

  4. Did you see the :) on the comment I made above? That means it's a joke. I am surprised you didn't get it. Your sense of humour is a little impaired.

    For the record, I am not a Bolshevik. The term 'Bolshie' now means someone who gets a little strident in their opinions, that all! It's nothing to do with being a revolutionary!

    Glad you liked the story.

  5. PS If you happen to be one of my friends 'avin a lend of me by calling me a Bolshevik, then I fell for it!

  6. In Canada, Bolshi means Bolshevik, but in the sense of being left-wing, not someone who kills you as a Capitalist if you own more than 25 chickens.

    Similar terms are "pinko", "leftie", "red", "Commie". While "Commie" is a bit outdated, and the term "Communist" has been massacred by people such as Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao, I won't flinch at being called "bolshie" in both the Oz and Canadian sense of the term.

  7. Hi Denis
    Alex (Alec) Guerassimoff here. Loved reading your story of our school days. Some of the facts may have been a little hazy but one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. After completing Senior at Rocky Grammar School I worked in Rocky and played football in Qld, NSW and Papua New Guinea. I lived in Gladstone for a time and have now settled back in Yarwun with my wife Diane.... who coincidentally is Laraine Rideout (your first love's) sister.
    We have two children....our daughter and family live in Brisbane and our son and family nearby in Yarwun.
    Enjoyed reading your stories.
    Good luck with the health problems.

  8. Well, what do you know?? Hello, Alec! Alex. Fantastic to hear from you. Man, the power of the internet! This is scary. Why don't I realise that the real people have relatives and friends, and the internet is so searchable!

    So now all the bits that I had to fill in get read by those others in the picture, and all my secrets get revealed to the last people I expect to find out about them.... I remember Diane - please give my regards to her. Forgive me if the details aren't right - as you can see, I had to do some research and in other cases patch over the cracks. That's what it's about. Your comment will definitely fill in some gaps and correct some misinformation about all the things you've done. The truth is, the blog got a life of its own. I started just writing for family and now look what's happened!

    The health problems - well, as you can see, there's a Use-By date, but we manage to extend it one way or the other.

    I wish you and the family the very best. Cheers, mate.


  9. Denis,
    Googled Yarwun looking for 'people leads' on a Yarwun family who lived on a pawpaw farm called Ascot Farm, Yarwun. Came up trumps with your series on the pawpaw farnmers and recall my Dad talking about the Russians in the district. Mum was from Mt. Larcom so she knew of similar cultural pockets around that area too. In fact my Mum's school was a small one teacher place called Cedar Vale which was originally named Siberia. in an seond bit to lobby for a school in the area, an astute farmer suggested a change of name from Siberia to Cedar Vale may be politically astute and it was.

    I'm cobbling together a title on South End, Curtis Island before it has a change of identity thanks to LNG train that is steam rolling the Harbour.

    This family had a house that they built and stayed in the 1940s on. Hooleys was their surname and if your school friend Alex could give a shout out to anyone who knows what happened to the Hooleys I'd be keen to follow through. First names include George & Alice, Billy, Lena & Don )

    Many thx

    1. Happy to be able to help. I never knew Cedar Vale was originally Siberia. I wonder when Siberia was named that Before the Russians came? That would have looked ominous to them but it may not be coincidental - maybe it was named Siberia because they came. A sort of joke like the most run-down part of Gladstone was known as 'Hollywood'.

      Do you know Mick and Kay Ole on South End? They were very good friends of mine many years ago. Yes, I know the eco disasters that are happening there. They began with the Alumina plant and the power station and now the LPG mob are coming in for their share of the kill. Jackals.

      You might need to visit Alex's shop and talk to him. We were only Rural School friends so our contact even then was limited to Fridays.

      The name Hooley rings a bell but I didn't know any of the family. The Mt Larcom-Yarwun-Targinnie mob were in a way quite far from us in village terms. No-one would believe that now that everything is connected by 'new' roads. Townships were incredibly isolated in those days compared to now.

      Thanks for the contact!

  10. I am trying to find Russian People in Australia so I can eat another plate of pelimini. I lived with the granddaughter of a Boshevik in Samara Russian Federation and taught English at 25 Soviet Army Street Samara. I did not want to return to Australia but had to for certain reasons. Svetlana was herself Komonsol. Now because the Soviet Union is no more, I have to make friends with the 'Enemies of the People' in order to get good Russian food in Australia. I am getting married soon to an Australian girl and unless I make a lot of money I can never live permanently in Russia. So that's my story. Vladimir

    1. Interesting. At first, I suspected this was spam but reading it more closely I believe it to be genuine. All I can say is that I hope you find a way to be content wherever you are and make the best of whatever is possible. If you are in Australia and are secure, remember that there are many worse places you could be. Australia is a good place to put aside old traumas and hatreds, or life will be bitter instead of what it could be, no matter where you are.

      It is more than 20 years since the USSR collapsed. You have to look forward. There must be many Russians here that you could meet, depending on where you live.

      Do you agree?


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