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Saturday, May 14, 2011

The White Russians of Yarwun

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It’s probably not necessary to say it, but I will just to be on the safe side, that the White Russians I’m talking about haven’t been defined here by their skin colour, though the only ones I knew were white in that sense as well. The term comes from post-1917 in Russia following the ‘Red’ revolution – in what soon became the Soviet Union.

    I don’t want to go into Soviet history here, but the White Russians were those who had no intention of being Red. Supported by outside powers about as unsuccessfully as irredentism now is in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, the White Russians found themselves driven by the Reds further and further out of North Asia. Some ended up in Manchuria and others, knowing that they had no chance of restoring Tsarist Russia or creating their own republic, migrated to other parts of the world. The Maoist revolution in China in 1949 sealed their fate.

    And so, at some time after the Second World War, a community of White Russians was established just west of Gladstone, Queensland, at a place called by its Aboriginal name of Yarwun. This isn’t something I’ve researched so don’t expect historical precision here – I just want to get them settled in so I can tell my personal story about my White Russian friends.

    Oh, just one other thing, and the history lesson, such as it is, is over.

    Australia welcomed these heavily bearded men with their shawled, headscarved and seemingly docile women. All of this was quite alien to my parents’ generation living on farms and in townships in rural Queensland.

    They were white in skin colour, and they were strongly opposed to communism, so they didn’t have much trouble being accepted as the right sort of migrant for mid-twentieth century Australia. Australia was no friend of the Reds, especially rural Australia where I came from. None of us had ever seen a communist, and the propaganda we grew up with painted a scary picture – not that people like Stalin helped the communist image.

    So, politically, the White Russians were regarded as 100% safe.

    I’m guessing there must have been about a hundred of them – families and single men. I have no idea what they must have thought of their new home patch. They brought enough money with them to buy land, and why they chose Yarwun I can’t imagine, except the soil in the river valleys wasn’t bad and it was safe and peaceful, and no-one was shooting at them. That must have been a bit of a relief.

    It was land suited to growing pawpaws, and that’s what they did. How much knowledge they had of pawpaws before coming to Yarwun I don’t have a clue. Probably not a lot. BUT many of them were peasants, used to hard labour, very heavy work, living on the smell of a greasy bullock, fresh air and cabbage, and if any migrants were going to make it in a not particularly hospitable place, geologically speaking, it was them. OK, ‘they’, you grammar Nazis. Go away. I have a story here, and I’m nowhere near as far along as I wanted to be at this point.

    Pawpaws you may know as papaya, or papaws. For us in central Queensland, they were pronounced and spelled ‘pawpaws’, so don’t expect me to change now just because another name looks more upmarket.

    Pawpaws are palm trees, and if you were as lucky as we were, you could reach through the kitchen window and pick one, dead ripe, straight from the tree, and have it in a fruit salad in minutes. It’s a beautiful fruit, although I see people buying green ones in chain store fruit and veggie areas, and they must be bitter and tasteless if they don't let them ripen fully. They’d certainly put me off pawpaws if I’d never tried them before, but we loved the delicious ones we grew.

    Bitter or tasteless? Not so the ones the Russians developed in Yarwun. They were spectacular in quality in every way, and Yarwun pawpaws became famous all over the east coast of Australia as far as they could be shipped before overripening. Yarwun pawpaws in that sense had a similar reputation to Bowen mangoes – the best of the best you could get your hands on. (Oh, and I have to add - they are absolutely the perfect antidote to a sluggish digestive system!)

    The White Russians thus prospered, and no-one begrudged them that, not for a second. We all knew what hard work went into this success. Although they weren’t unfriendly, they kept pretty much to themselves and were totally law abiding as a community and as individuals - except for one minor incident I'll come to later.

    They were of course the objects of curiosity for some of their strange ways. I‘ll give you an example

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