Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
Ian Frazer, The Russian connection, Townsville bulletin, 24 February 2001.
A new book tells the story of Russian migrant Leandro Illin, who made a new life for himself in North Queensland early last century, married into an Aboriginal family and agitated for social change. It's a path some of his descendants also followed. Story by IAN FRAZER
A SMALL, wide-eyed Russian boy set sail from Hamburg to the United States in December, 1890, with his idealistic father and a haunting painting.
The boy was Leandro Illin, who later married an Aboriginal woman, Kitty Clarke and became a farmer, bush lawyer and Aborigines' advocate in North Queensland, eventually to die a lonely death in Townsville in August, 1946.
His father, Nicholas Illin, a writer and private attorney, relied on eight-year-old Leandro as his English interpreter during eight months of exhibiting the painting, called What is Truth, by the famous Russian artist Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge.
Ge's painting, depicting Christ in conversation with Pontius Pilate, was banned by the Czar after being shown in St Petersburg in February, 1890.
The painting, which nowadays can be seen in the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, presents Christ as a belligerent outcast, not the passive, benevolent figure of traditional religious art.
He stares from the shadows at a well-fed, gesticulating Pontius Pilate, having presumably just told him, "whoever belongs to the truth belongs to me", to which Pilate has replied, "and what is truth?"
Nicholas Illin, startled by this interpretation of Christ as an outcast, convinced Ge to let him exhibit the painting through the United States, offering Americans moral regeneration.
However, the tour was a flop.
Nicholas had a nervous breakdown, leaving Leandro to charm society matrons, then returned home on borrowed roubles to face accusations that he had blown the takings on gambling.
That, at least, is a precis of Nicholas Illin's quixotic adventure in art promotion, retold by Russian-born historian Elena Govor, of Canberra, in her new book, My Dark Brother.
The image of Christ as a champion of outcasts and the question, "what is truth" are central to this book which also rescues Nicholas and Leandro from obscurity.
Dr Govor suggests that father and son both fought in their own ways for truth and justice, following the example of Ge's Christ, setting an example for several hundred descendants.
The title comes from a phrase used by Leandro Illin in 1925 in a letter to the North Queensland Register under the pen name Meekolo, on race relations in the North : "I am an outsider and my interest in the question is only pity for my dark brother".
Leandro's Townsville grandchildren include Ernie Hoolihan, a founder of the Aboriginal and Islander Health Service and Alec Illin, a Vietnam veteran prominent for his work in social justice .
Dr Govor, who says she fell in love with Australia as a 13-year-old bookworm in Minsk, also celebrates the North Queensland Illins' Aboriginal ancestry.
She pays tribute to Leandro Illin's Ngadjon mother-in-law, Emily Russell, who was born in the Russell River district of the Atherton Tablelands, about 1870, and died, homesick, on Palm Island in 1955.
"The years and losses, it seemed, had no power over this bright woman," she says.
Canberra historian Ken Inglis says in his preface to My Dark Brother that it is a "powerful work of creative imagination" and "an inspiring text for anyone who cares about reconciliation".
Dr Govor, pronounced "G-vore", stumbled on to the Illins 20 years ago while working on her Bibliography of Australia, a list of 600 books on Australia written in Russia between 1710 and 1983.
She found and copied an article in a 1912 Russian newspaper, signed "N.I.", assessing the Northern Territory's potential for Russian settlers.
Dr Govor said in a telephone interview this week the story reinforced her idea of Australia as "an escape from everyday Soviet reality".
She hand-copied the article, emigrated to Australia 10 years later with her husband anthropologist Vladimir Kabo and discovered that N.I. was actually Leandro Illin, who visited the Northern Territory in 1912 on behalf of the Federal Government.
She found Leandro's report and diary on the visit in the Australian Archives in Canberra, while working on another book, Australia in the Russian Mirror, a study of Australia through Russian eyes, published in 1997.
"When I read his diary I realised it was unusual," Dr Govor said.
"I was captivated by his approach to Australia, Aborigines and social problems — it was different to other Russians."
She decided to research the Illin family and met Leandro's last surviving son, Harry, in Townsville, not long before his death, in 1996, aged 77.
She also met and interviewed their only surviving daughter, Flora Hoolihan, born in 1915, and Flora's son Ernie, born 1933.
Dr Govor writes in the introduction to My Dark Brother that she was impressed by the family's aspirations for justice, seemingly inherited from Nicholas and Leandro.
But she also found herself puzzling over Pilate's question, "what is truth" as she compared the picture of Nicholas revered by his descendants with what his contemporaries had said about him.
Nicholas Illin's descendants remembered him as an idealistic fighter for truth and justice.
His peers called him a dreamer, cheat, lunatic, poseur and chronic gambler.
She concluded that Nicholas, ultimately a failure as a writer, left just one literary masterpiece: his own life.
"If his life is considered as a literary work then everything fits together,'' she writes in the introduction to My Dark Brother.
The son of Lieutenant-Colonel Dmitrii Illin, a hereditary military nobleman from Ilinka, south-east of Moscow, Nicholas appears to have struggled to support his wife, Alexandra, and their six children.
Having been banned from working as a lawyer not long before his US trip, he later uprooted the family to become farmers in South America, followed by further new starts in the Atherton Tablelands and Honduras.
They spent 13 years in Argentina, and 11 years in the Peeramon district of the Atherton Tablelands known as "Little Siberia", before leaving for Honduras, in 1921.
Leandro stayed behind, having married Kitty, Emily Russell's daughter, in 1915. They had seven children to care for, three from Kitty's previous marriage, four from their own and another on the way.
Nicholas died in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in 1922, aged about 70.
Dr Govor concludes that Leandro was both a copy and opposite of his father, having managed to realise his dad's ideals in a simple, dogged life.
Ernie Hoolihan, who spent lots of time with his grandfather as a boy said this week he welcomed Dr Govor's interest.
He said Nicholas and Leandro both deserved recognition for defending the poor and needy.
He thought old-timers in Ingham could probably still remember Leandro's trips to town from his place on the Stone River, carrying a folding writing desk and paper to write letters on behalf of settlers with poor English.
But he thinks few knew his true, aristocratic background and his descendants had not paraded it either.
"It's not much use jumping up and saying you are half Russian," Ernie said "Once you have dark skin, they don't care where you come from," he said with half a grin.