Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
Francesca Beddie, History written from the heart, The Canberra Times, 20 January 2001.
THIS IS the story of an unusual family — one of mixed Russian-Aboriginal heritage — facing the struggle to establish its identity. It is history written from the heart.
The story begins with Nikolai Illin, "a moral extremist" too passionate to realise his ideas of truth and justice. Illin rejects the status quo of the Russian landowner for a wanderer's life.
In 1910, at the age of 60, after trying to find a place in Russia, Central Asia and Argentina, Nikolai brings his family to the Atherton Tablelands. Govor's reconstruction of their first impressions of Australia are perhaps echoes of her own wonder at the wattle and jacaranda which she imagines greeted them as they sailed round the continent to Brisbane.
Nikolai goes about setting up "Little Siberia" on the Atherton Tablelands. He manages to attract some other Russian emigres, their biographies sad accounts of displaced people, battling the jungle, the damp and prejudice against foreigners.
The endeavour fails and Nikolai leaves disillusioned with Australian democracy to try again in the Honduras, followed devotedly by his wife, Alexandra, and two of his children.
The third, Leandro, remains in Australia with his Aboriginal wife, Kitty. Most of the book traces Leandro's life through the stories of his descendants, his own writings to officials and newspapers, as well as poetry and stories.
His fight with the authorities begins when 'he wants to marry a full-blood. His appeals are finally successful but are also the start of a battle of wills with the Queensland Protector of Aborigines, Bleakley.
When he appeals to allow his adopted full-blood son to go with the rest of the family to South America, Bleakley rejects his application.
Leandro stays, soon to lose his wife in childbirth, to wander around outback Queensland, scraping together a living, raising his children and fighting racism, often in brave outbursts in the newspapers or appeals to the Government. It was daring in those days to write to the Protector to tell him, "I mistrust the police and consider them as a body privileged to do harm to the Abos."
As he grows older, Leandro loses none of his fire, championing many causes in the letters columns, deploring the prejudice shown towards Italians and Christian hypocrisy, appealing for public lavatories in Ingham, or reviewing the cinema.
Govor has a wealth of material to draw upon and found it hard to cull, leaving us in the end with an impression of an eccentric old man, rather than the hero she first promises.
In his foreword, Ken Inglis describes Elena Govor as a "detective historian". She revels in what she calls the "miracles" of discovery that keep historians going, though also admitting to the tedium of much research. She pays just tribute to friends who laboured on her behalf in Russian archives, not blessed with the computer search engines which help her in Australia. What fascinates her most is the material she has gathered from Leandro's descendants. His daughter, Flora, although she could hardly read English, let alone Russian, has kept her own archive, as well as her memories of her father.
Govor interviews her and other members of the family, eager to "learn how myth and fact interweave in the lives of ordinary people". She checks the stories against the documents, not to point out mistakes but to explain how memory itself becomes important historical material.
Influenced perhaps by her anthropologist husband, whose book on the Australian Aborigines first aroused her interest in the fifth continent when she was still a teenager in Russia, Govor also makes forays into the interpretations of myth. Here, the results are less convincing. In one instance she talks of the "empty place" mentioned in the Dreaming stories told to her by Leandro's family, as "a mythological landscape before the Creation, it is primeval Chaos, which is transformed by mythological heroes into orderly Cosmos". She could have left the stories to reveal their own interpretations of creation.
Govor is explicit about her historical interpretation. We know from the beginning that this is her version of events, based on intuition and imagination as well as documentary evidence.
Her own Russian heritage is present in evocative descriptions of life on a country estate or a St Petersburg apartment. Her fascination with Australia is founded on meticulous scholarship, although it is sometimes tinged with romanticism about outback life, or interpolated with a touch of sentimentality: "What was sweeter," she asks, describing a gesture by Nikolai to the local schoolchildren, "a peach or an encounter with generosity, a generosity which came not from wealth but from the heart?"
Above all, Govor wants her history to make a difference, to bring people together irrespective of race by linking their heritage to universal ideals of love, honesty and justice.
In telling the story of one family who tried to live up to such principles, Govor has brought us a chronicle of the ill treatment of Indigenous people in the first half of the 20th century, as well as insights into Aboriginality today, where dispossession and the mixing of different cultures have made finding a sense of belonging such a complex endeavour.