Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
John Docker, Russian connection, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 2000.
We're not, perhaps, used to thinking that Australia could be a cherished object of desire for others. Elena Govor, the author of this remarkable book, had long had in the old Soviet Union an intense scholarly and imaginative interest in Australia. In 1990, she emigrated here and is publishing works on Russian-Australian connections and interactions.
The very form of this book is fascinating. Govor describes it as a "documentary novel", at times historical, anthropological, literary. Often she talks about the process of researching and writing, with its stubborn difficulties when you really want to know something ("I looked at the computer. . . and microfilm readers screens but they did not want to say anything"). She evokes her historical personages as if they are characters, heroes, antiheroes engaged in journeys that are epic, sad, comic, moving; journeys that become mythical in family histories.
Govor traces a meeting of Russian and Aboriginal histories in the stories of the Illin family. The early part of the book explores the life of Nicholas Illin (1852-1922), from a Russian noble family, a dreamer, writer, intellectual, democrat, a rebel to his class.
In 1890, in St Petersburg, Nicholas sees a painting called What is Truth ? by Nikolai Ge, a Russian painter and follower of Tolstoy. In the painting, the cynical Pontius Pilate confronts Christ, who appears exhausted, emaciated, haunted, suffering, persecuted. Nicholas weeps before it, meets the painter and, after the painting is banned by the czar, takes it to Germany and then the United States, running out of money and almost starving before he returns.
He then breaks with Ge and Tolstoy over the latter's story The Kreutzer
Sonata (also to be banned), because while he was away showing the painting to the world - taking with him his little son, Leandro - his beloved wife, Alexandra, converted to Tolstoy's teaching of chastity.
Tolstoy would consider Nicholas a lunatic and the Russian intelligentsia began to regard him as an impractical buffoon, wandering the world like a forlorn trickster trying to find a promised land of truth and justice.
Govor suggests that Leandro (1882-1946) would realise those ideals in Queensland after the family migrated there in 1910. He struggled against xenophobia and racism, married a Ngadjon woman, Kitty Clarke, from the Atherton Tablelands, became conscious that his farm was on her sacred country and fought to protect her and their children from the Queensland Government's protection policies towards "half-castes".
The values and ideals that Nicholas created live on in Leandro's family, which proudly regards itself as both Aboriginal and Russian, a diasporic double consciousness.
Govor explores affinities of spirit and cosmology between Russian and Aboriginal people, that for each the universe is sentient with ideas, stories, myths and ancestral beings that influence every moment of people's lives. For both, ordinary time and mythological time are entwined. Russian intellectuals would craft their lives in terms of paintings or the writings of Rousseau, Gogol, Tolstoy, Nekrasov, Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, or Greek legends such as Leander and Hero (Leandro's love for Kitty is fulfilled, until she dies during childbirth).
Aboriginal intellectuals shape their lives in terms of sacred always-present dreamings, creation stories and mythological wisdom. Yet this is a book for all of us, exploring how we are formed by previous generations, what we inherit, what shapes us in the mysteries of being.