Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000
National Biography Award nomination
The most astonishing things are those that actually happen.
There is nothing more surprising or improbable than real life.
Derek, a young man with an open smile, black curly hair and dark skin, on coming to our place in Canberra introduced himself: ‘Nicholas Illin was my Russian great-great-grandfather’. Nicholas Illin (1852–1922), a Russian intellectual, and his son Leandro (1882–1946), who emigrated to Australia in 1910, had been the subjects of my research for some time already. This encounter with Derek was the result of my attempt to trace their descendants in Australia. It was a real surprise to me to discover that these descendants, because Leandro’s wife was an Aboriginal woman, consider themselves Aborigines. At our first meeting I told Derek about my studies and plied him with questions. He, an urban Aboriginal, a cook from Townsville, told me what he knew. He did not preserve any ‘Russianness’ and had only vague knowledge of Russian history and the circumstances of Nicholas’s life in Russia and his emigration; Derek even mixed up tales about Nicholas and Leandro. From the point of view of academic history his tales were far from the ‘facts’ on which a ‘serious’ historian is supposed to rely: ‘Leandro sang the French anthem on the street in Russia, someone has warned him that he could be arrested for that and he had to flee. He left for Southern America alone at eleven. He wrote to his parents and they came to him ...’.
But then Derek suddenly said something which — I felt — has been preserved in their Aboriginal family for generations as a sacred belief: ‘My great-grandad Leandro taught his children to be proud, he told that all the people, black and white, are equal; he taught us to help the downtrodden and underprivileged and to distinguish between right and wrong’. It struck me like lightning — this simple philosophy was the essence of the credo of the Russian intelligentsia. The difference was that while Russian intellectuals seldom managed to apply this philosophy for the practical benefit of the people, the Illin family seemed to provide me with the results extending over the period of a century of the practical implementation of these ideas. In Leandro’s marriage to an Aboriginal woman and his raising of an Aboriginal family, at a time when racist attitudes in Australia were not only prevalent but enshrined institutionally, we see just one aspect of these ideas being put into practice by one man. Indeed, this philosophy had had a remarkable practical application: in helping this family to live with dignity and self-respect through those harsh years. And among the descendants of this family mythologisation of their ancestors’ deeds seemed to have played an essential part in this process. Parting with Derek that day, I realised that my respect for facts alone, that my traditional view of history as the analysis of the ‘facts’ belonging to the past, had cracked. Facts seemed to mix with myth here and both shaped the present and the future.
The life of their Russian ancestor, Nikolai Dmitrievich Ilin, or Nicholas Illin as he subsequently called himself, as it can be traced now from the available sources, is an amazing combination of fact and myth. Born into a provincial family of a military nobleman, he came to destroy its century-old traditions. Instead of pursuing a military or civil career he, from his youth, was obsessed with the ideas of truth and justice. But his passionate nature, as I see it now, never allowed him to realise his ideas in full. Often he, with his moral extremism, went too far in his fight for ‘the truth’; then, to escape from his endless failures, he as ‘a hunted wolf’, in his own words, would rush from one end of the globe to another — from St Petersburg to the United States of America, to Turkestan, to St Petersburg, to the United States of America again, back to St Petersburg, then to Argentina, Patagonia, Australia, Colombia, and finally Honduras — patching, in his imagination, the rough material of life with his idealistic vision of himself and of the surrounding world. And in this dizzy flight, which lasted for over fifty years — a flight from himself, I believe — he would be followed by his only true supporters: his wife and children. They would preserve their own truth of him, which might contradict the ‘facts’; they would pass it on to their children and grandchildren. And they, the Australian Aborigines and the Central American Hondurans, in turn further developed this combination of truth and myth in the light of their own traditional cultures.
Nicholas’s personality is not simple by any means. The opinions of him are so polar that they hardly seem to relate to the same man. He himself believed that he possessed an ‘extremely complaisant and always jovial disposition’. In his autobiographical prose and poetry he depicts himself as an idealistic fighter for truth and justice. His descendants — he has over three hundred of them scattered all over the world — remember him with love and pride. ‘My grandfather, we called him Deda, was a very patient man and showed us much love, as my Baba (grandmother) did also. They both were just very, very nice people, very gentle, and very sweet’ (Ellen [Nellie] Dale Flores, granddaughter, United States of America). ‘He was enlightening the people, he was preaching too much what [the authorities] did not want the people to know’ (Flora Hoolihan, granddaughter, Australia). ‘My grandad Nicholas, he was a barrister of law, and a doctor, and a poetry writer’ (Harry Illin, grandson, Australia). ‘He was doctor in international laws, poet, writer, jurist and journalist’ (Sam Mackay, great-grandson, Honduras).1
His Russian contemporaries had quite a different attitude towards Nicholas: ‘a strange dreamer’, ‘cheat or psychopath’, ‘nasty wretch’ (Ilia Repin, the famous artist); ‘petty creature corroded with vanity and an aspiration for European fame’, ‘morally deformed personality’ (anonymous critic); ‘I think that he is not only a wrong man, but simply insane, he is ill, there is no other explanation for such muddle-headedness in his enterprises’ (Nikolai Ge, the artist). Leo Tolstoy also considered him to be a lunatic, adding that ‘in lunacy, as in intoxication, what was concealed before becomes apparent’.2
Modern Russian scholars consider him ‘an easily carried-away schemer’, ‘vulgar and mean-spirited person’, and they all suspect that gain was a driving force behind his actions.3 Nicholas did not leave indifferent even my Russian research assistants, who hand-copied his writings for me from the Russian archives. ‘He provoked a mixed reaction in me, first I felt that I would not have the psychological strength to figure out the essence of all the affairs of such a, to put it mildly, nervously depressed and immoderate man but then I became keen on him and even felt compassion towards him ... How well I know this type of a Russian male failure who struggles through life and is never able to evaluate the situation adequately. ... Still one can envy his persistence and courage. But poor, poor family!’ (Olga Artemova). Another could not help commenting on the margins of his transcripts of Nicholas’s texts: ‘He must be fibbing here’, ‘He must have invented this, it cannot be true’.
The facts of his life suggest that he was an extremely impulsive man, who constantly got into conflicts and troubles, and several times had to start from scratch, being a gambler both in the literal and figurative meaning of the word — a gambler driven by passions and ideas. Obviously he was prone to hyperbole, but, unlike many Russian intellectuals who were apt to condemn him, his rhetoric was followed by action and the main achievements of his stormy life were his work-hardened hands and his children, who carried out his ideas in real life.
The more facts and judgements I received about Nicholas Illin, the more difficult it was for me to tell where the truth was. The hero was not just double-faced or poly-faced. He was something different. To my frustration, the truth did not emerge from the analysis of the hero as a historical personality. And then, reading his autobiography, with its skilfully placed emphases and omissions, I was struck by a thought that was both simple and a paradox. What he has left behind for us — his deeds, writings, and other people’s memories of him — is not a heap of chance materials in which the historian’s task is to separate the truth from myth and lie. It needs a quite different approach. He was a writer. Well, a strict literary critique would say that Illin was a failed writer. That is true but, nevertheless, he did leave one literary masterpiece — his own life, an elaborate combination of fact and fiction. If his life is considered as a literary work, then everything fits together. Such an approach opens an avenue to study the story of Nicholas Illin and his family, giving equal respect to historical documents, to the family tales of his Aboriginal and Honduran descendants, and to his own literary and biographical writings. For over two centuries in this family the historical ‘facts’ have been continually cycled through literature and myth, enriching the real lives of succeeding generations of family members with the creation of a history in which myth and fact have become intertwined in a rich background tapestry, continually evolving to this day.
Indeed, does not what we believe to be the truth of our past and present, the ‘facts’, have elements of myth? These elements are in our attitudes to the past, to our ancestors; they are in our shaping of the present for our descendants. It is not correct to treat these elements of myth as simple distortions, as faults of memory; they have their own value responding to the most essential needs of our soul, sorting out from the flow of historical events the facts that are most important from the point of view of the myth’s creators and recipients.
The balance between myth and fact in the life of one man, in a family history, is only a particular instance of the balance between fact and myth in history in general. European historical tradition pretends to objectivity, considering that the only trustworthy research is research based on so-called historical facts and documents. But the objectivity of historical facts and documents, of historical memory, is an open problem itself. It is obvious now that whole fields of history written in the past and believed to be trustworthy have turned out to be mythologised, ideologised or presented from various particular positions, such as a Eurocentric one, or a racist one, or a male-oriented one, and so on. Now modern historians revise them: take, for instance, the history of the colonisation of Australia or Siberia. But who can be sure that historians of the future will not disdain the honest, modern historical writings as yet another myth? This mythologisation seems to be an inevitable process, and I believe that myth has its own value, being an essential part of history. In a way myth has the same reality as fact, but it is a spiritual reality. As the construct of collective consciousness, myth is just as much objective fact as so-called historical fact. History based on myth (for instance, Aboriginal Dreaming) and history based on documented fact (the European tradition, for example) are two parallel histories, each in its own right, and I would not despise either of them.
Using the word ‘myth’ in the field of a family history which deals with events not more than a couple of centuries ago, I certainly do not claim that this type of ‘myth’ is as developed as the classical myths of antiquity. What I describe as a ‘myth’ is the result of mythologisation of recent history. I believe that ‘myth’ is a more relevant expression here than ‘legend’, as, amazingly, these ‘myths’ are constructed in accordance with the essential patterns of ancient myths. For instance, ancestors assume features of typical cultural heroes, possess dual natures, conquer evil, or perform journeyings which, in traditional society, would lead to the sacralisation of the landscape (see ‘The czarina’s goblet’ and ‘The Russian cultural hero in the Australian landscape’ in this book).
My research into the Illin family is an attempt to learn how myth and fact interweave in the lives of ordinary people through several generations and how their ethnic traditions might colour their historical memory. It also tells how a life considered to be a failure in one sense became, owing to a myth, a victory in the future. At the centre of the book is a comparison between two principal characters: Nicholas Illin, who seemed to surround himself with ‘ideas’ and legends, and his son Leandro, who put these ideas into practice, and thus gave grounds for the creation of the new myths.
The diversity of my sources has determined the genre of the book: at times it is a historical, anthropological or literary study; at times, a documentary novel. It is polyphonic: the voices of several generations of the Illins — a Russian intellectual, a Russian-Australian labourer, an outback Aboriginal girl, and the new generation of Aboriginal intellectuals — all mingle with one another to convey to the reader the unique experience of this family.
* * *
I embarked on this research not knowing what I might meet on the way. In July 1996 I visited Queensland following in the tracks of Nicholas and his family, and met the numerous descendants of Leandro. They, and especially Flora Hoolihan, his eldest daughter, shared with me the wealth of family tales of their Russian and Aboriginal ancestors. Flora who, having grown up in the outback, never went to school and could hardly read English, let alone Russian, preserved through the years of her wandering life as her most treasured possession part of Leandro’s archives, including Russian manuscripts of her grandfather Nicholas. The other part of the archives travelled for years around Queensland with the family of Leandro’s son Richard Illin, and I gained access to it on the Atherton Tablelands, where the Illins started their farm in 1910 and from where Leandro’s Aboriginal wife Kitty came. They knew how to preserve their past.
Then, full of impressions and family tales, I started the hunt for facts in Russian and Australian archives and libraries. I aimed to verify each word of the family tales by facts and thus to understand the laws according to which these tales have been created. Even for me, who grew up in Russia and knew the research world there, obtaining the Russian materials was a hard job. Living in Australia since 1990, I could not visit Russia myself and I had no money to pay Russian archives for the research. All my hopes rested on the help of my Russian colleagues and friends. At times, when one attempt after another failed and months of fruitless waiting turned into years, I began to suspect that the materials concerning Nicholas were enchanted, that he did not want us to dig further for ‘the truth’. And in some cases I had to give up, leaving open the question ‘what was the truth’. But my Russian search did bring considerable results and, besides the copies of Nicholas’s numerous writings, I made a lucky acquaintance with Valentina Provodina, the head of the local museum in Turki, not far from the village of Ilinka, where Nicholas was born. There are plans now to open an exhibition in the museum devoted to him and thus to reunite him with his countryfolk, in the name of whom he conducted his struggle ‘for the people’. The names of all my numerous helpers in Russia are listed in the acknowledgements.
Nicholas Illin left descendants, not only in Australia, but in Honduras (Central America), where his son Romelio (1886–1976) and daughter Ariadna (1890–1971) founded large families, numbering over a hundred descendants, and in the United States of America, where some of those descendants have moved (in an Appendix at the end of the book most family members referred to in the course of this book are listed by name, with a brief note on their place in the family to help identification; a separate Appendix contains family trees). The recollections of these descendants, family tales, and some documentary evidence and photographs contributed considerably to this book, too. Unfortunately, I had no opportunity to visit this part of the family and thus, inevitably, the account of their life cannot be as thorough as that of the Australian side.
Most rewarding was my painstaking research in Australian archives and libraries, which enabled me to tell in detail the story of Nicholas’s son Leandro — the second hero of the book. I read about him first nearly twenty years ago in Russia, when I had just started my studies of Russians in Australia; I read a 1912 Russian newspaper account of Leandro’s trip to the Northern Territory to explore it as a potential place for a Russian colony. The article did not give his name and was just signed ‘N.Il.’. Who could foresee then that one day, in Australia, I would discover the manuscript of Leandro’s travel diary for this very trip in 1912! Then came dozens of his letters to the authorities in connection with the treatment of his Aboriginal family and other Aborigines, his numerous contributions to the North Queensland Register and the Herbert River Express. Leandro, who throughout his Australian life was nothing more than a labourer and who died in oblivion, turned out to hide under, what he called, his ‘ungainly appearance’ the talent of an outstanding democratic writer of whom Australia can be proud.
But Leandro was more than a writer; he was a remarkable character as well, copy and opposite of his father at the same time. Although both were guided by the same ideas, the life of each of them went differently and Leandro, unlike his father, managed to put those ideas into practice. While Nicholas was a public servant and a St Petersburg lawyer, Leandro became a ‘bush lawyer’ in the best meaning of the word and a people’s councillor. While Nicholas aspired to change the whole world, Leandro accepted life as it was. While Nicholas carried his family through five continents, Leandro stayed with his family in one area. The story of Leandro’s family does not fit into the pattern of a traditional family history, telling who married whom, and where they lived. It is the story of a family whose genesis was in the love of two people from different sides of the globe — the Russian man Leandro and the Ngadjon Aboriginal Kitty Clarke — but it is more than that, too. It is also the story of a family that emerged out of Leandro’s passionate belief in the forthcoming universal brotherhood of people and his courage in defending the principles of honesty and justice. He needed this courage throughout his life — to endure the battles with the officials to protect Kitty from deportation to a reservation and to marry her at a time when such marriages were prohibited by the authorities; to part forever from his own parents in order not to separate his Aboriginal stepson from his mother Kitty; to raise six young Aboriginal children in outback Queensland after Kitty’s tragic death; to struggle for the rights and dignity of his children and all Aborigines whom he met throughout all these years, till his death in 1946. And day after day he, a lonely fighter, discredited and crushed by the authorities, would rise again and again, struggling for justice and literally saving the honour — I am not afraid of this word — of the Australian nation when it was still suffering outbursts of racial prejudice whether it was towards Russians, or Aborigines, or Italians.
The events of the past were not the only aspect of my research. More and more I became captivated by the modern life of Leandro’s Aboriginal descendants — their ethnic self-identification, their connections with their Aboriginal past, their attitudes to their European ancestors. Even though in this book I often refer to the members of the Illin family as Aborigines, the reality is more complex. They might consider themselves as people with Aboriginal descent rather than as ‘Aborigines’; or, as Glenda Illin, Leandro and Kitty’s granddaughter, recently told me: ‘I am I’.
But what most impressed me in this family was their everlasting aspiration for justice, which they had inherited from Leandro and Nicholas. Several of them have stood at the cradle of the movement for Aboriginal rights in Queensland since the 1960s and some occupy important positions in different Aboriginal organisations, and they now constitute the new generation of the indigenous intelligentsia. It is symbolic that even Eddie Mabo — one of the most important figures in modern Australian history — was ‘awakened’ years ago by Leandro’s Aboriginal son-in-law Richard Hoolihan. The seeds sown into Australian soil by the Illins, these Russian rebels, have yielded their first crop ...