INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER ILLIN
This interview with Alexander Ilin was published in 1999 in a Sydney-based Russian newspaper HORIZON. The interview was taken by a Melbourn-based journalist and artist Ilya Burkun. It enables a reader to get familiarized with life, fate and views on destiny of Russia of one of her many sons who was born, grew up and lived through a lot of tragic events far away from the historic Motherland.
Sasha, I think, the readers would be glad to find out a bit about yourself, about your ancestors.
I was born in 1945 in Harbin. I belong to the third generation of Russian emigrants. My father was born in Orenburg, his father – in Tomsk. Both of my grandfathers were white officers. In 20-ties along with the White forces they came to Harbin, in China. It was a big junction on the Chinese Far East Railway (KVZHD) connecting China with Russia. Harbin was then a small town - about 1.5 thousand people, mostly the railway workers. Very quickly Harbin turned into a big city. About 4 million people passed through it the on the run from Russia. A huge flow! Naturally, not all of them remained in Harbin. Many settled in other areas of China. Others found a haven in the Western Europe, Brazil, America, Canada. Some migrated to Australia. My parents were born in Harbin where I was born too. One my grandfather worked on KVZHD, another was a bookkeeper in publishing house of the "Russian Word" newspaper. My mum perfectly knew English and French as four years she had studied them in an English monastery in Chifu in the south of China. My father also spoke fluent English and met my mother in the English club of Harbin. Unfortunately, they split very early. In 1953 my father left for Russia to work on the virgin lands. He worked as a combine driver in Kustanai. There he married for the second time - a woman who also had left China. Her father, a doctor of the Tsar’s army, had left Russia in due time. Subsequently my father with the family moved to Azerbaijan where he died in 1981. Unfortunately, I have not met him.
But we shall return to your story. Let’s return to Harbin. The forgotten world of Russia in China within several decades turned from a small settlement into a large industrial center. Let's recall a little bit of history. Why in general the Russians went to China?
The commander of the White Army Kolchak had been treacherously given away by the Czechs to the Reds. White movement was decapitated. The army was temporarily led by the general Kappel. In combat near Blagoveshensk the general was fatally wounded. The army receded, and there was a dilemma: either to move to Vladivostok or to use the KVZHD and to go to China. The decision taken by the majority was to retreat to China as the Chinese government did not impede it. The first station was Hailar - a very small station.
A plenty of the Transbaikalian Russians settled over there, but the main flow set to Harbin. On the 14th of May 1998 we in Melbourne celebrated the centenary of Harbin. It had flashed, as a matchstick and thrived for several decades, having turned into a big Russian cultural and industrial center. But, unfortunately, it quickly died out. In 1932 Manchuria was conquered by the Japanese. It had not effected the population of Harbin. How had it lived through the occupation? From 1932 till 1945 Harbin was under the Japanese occupation. In 1945 the Soviet Union unleashed the Rokossovskiy’s divisions on the Manchurian border - the divisions which had many penal battalions in its ranks.
The mankind had just left behind the most terrible of all wars, but for the soldiers of the Rokossovskiy’s army this war lasted not for too long. The advance of the Soviet army was so unexpected and rapid, that the Japanese actually did not render any resistance. Harbin was liberated in one day. How did the Japanese treat the Russians during the occupation? To the Russians they were rather tolerant, but not to the Chinese. They did not consider the Chinese as human beings at all. Near Harbin there was a concentration camp Pin Fan where biological experiments with people were conducted. Mostly the Chinese were subjected to terrible diseases and experiments. People were taken from the streets and they simply "disappeared" - hundreds of thousands of people were gone this way. About a hundred of the Russians got there as well - those who the Japanese considered as offenders. The Chinese built some special objects for the Japanese. Upon the completion of construction the builders were shot. At the end of the Second World War the Japanese gathered the OSANO units which included the Russians as well. When the Rokossovskiy’s army had approached, the Japanese urgently armed these units and wanted to throw them into battle against the Soviet armies, but no Russian soldier left the barracks. Taking into account, that they were armed, the Japanese did not dare touch them.
So, having gone through the Japanese occupation, your family, nevertheless, decided to emigrate. Why?
After the departure of the Japanese in China the nationalists and communists began their struggle for power. The communists led by Mao Tszedun won - not without a Soviet assistance. In 1947 China became communist. In a result the Russians, which had once escaped from communists, again found themselves under the communist rule and, as the history has shown, not less bloody, than in Russia. Before the formation of the communist China the Chinese treated the Russians very well. Then their propaganda began to work. A slogan "China for the Chinese" had appeared, amplified by the nationalists of all colors. The country was engulfed by famine. Naturally, it came to Harbin as well. All was distributed through coupons. My mum was receiving a roll of bread per day, and I, being a schoolboy, - half of roll. And even for this it was still necessary to stand in a queue. Some began to think of returning to the Soviet Union. In 1953 the USSR announced the beginning of development of virgin lands. And everyone who wanted to leave for Russia after the Stalin's death, was given a chance, with no choice – to go to the virgin lands. I do not think, that the former Soviet people need to be told, what were the virgin lands like. A train was stopping in steppe and timber and shovels were dumped on the ground – thus the arrangements for the winter were beginning... A credit has to be given to the Chinese authorities - they did not inhibit those who wanted to migrate to other countries. Naturally, everyone, who had relatives or any other slightest opportunity to migrate, left. At that time three countries agreed to accept us: Brazil, Canada and Australia. We have submitted documents to the Brazilian embassy. Four years of expectation and ordeal followed. Our family consisted of my mother, me and grandmother and, probably, the immigration authorities had not found it expedient to accept us. After four years of fruitless expectations my mother applied to the embassy of Australia.
By this time she had been dismissed from work. The famine was raging, even clothes were being rationed. We survived only because my mum, knowing French and English, was giving private lessons and translating embassy questionnaires for the emigration applicants. The regime was becoming tougher and tougher. Public executions were carried out in the city with the Asian cruelty. Executions of the enemies of the people alternated with beheadings. And we, year 7 students and senior classes, two persons from a class, were regularly obliged to be present at the executions, and then to tell our classmates about them. Even now there is a decapitated body before my eyes in its fatal convulsion, and the cut-off head falling into a basket. So one more year had gone - and, at last, the long-awaited permit was received. Then it was possible to reach Australia only by sea. On the 5th of January 1959 we arrived to the Australian shore. Our destination was the city of Melbourne. Somebody came on board and explained, that we were in the city of Adelaide. The port was on strike. It was not certain for how long the vessel would stay at the moorings. Those who were bound for Melbourne, were to be sent further by train. The matter was that in Australia we had sponsors due to whom we had got there - they had given the guarantee for our initial residence. It was the Strekalovskiys family. They lived in the city of Ballarat, near Melbourne. On the map of Australia I could not find it and asked my mother what kind of a city was it. It was the famous city of gold diggers! Jack London's stories quickly came to my mind. I imagined tents, people washing gold on the river banks... In the morning the train stopped in Ballarat. Small station. All our Russians co-travelers have gone further, and we got off the train. They should be meeting us… But the Strekalovskiys, knowing, that we were to come to Melbourne, had gone to meet us in the seaport. After several hours of waiting we went to the small town. All three of us had got was one pound and ten shillings. We came across a Catholic priest. Mother addressed to him and told about our situation. He immediately led us to a church and placed in a priest’s change room. Next day he began to look for the Strekalovskiys, and we had lived at his place until they returned from Melbourne.
In two weeks mum found a job in Melbourne in a government body as a draftsperson. After six months of the probation she worked at that place for five years. Why only five years? Unfortunately, it is the time she lived in Australia. A blood clot unexpectedly came off in her vessels, and she suddenly died. In the morning I went to the sea and when I returned she had been already dead. There was I with the grandmother: a college student, with no means. Somehow I had to live, you see, there were no grants or allowances then. I began to earn some extra money on a petrol station and kept going with my education. There was no automatic refueling then. Then I mastered a qualification of a mechanic. Later I met a girl who had a great interest in dancing. I was seeing her after work hours. Frequently, having come beforehand, I was watching others dancing in an ensemble. The head of it was a man called Karasev, a former dancer of the Ensemble of the Red Army. Once he asked me: "You spend time here, why wouldn’t you try?". I tried. The girl left me, but dancing stayed with me... After that I danced for 20 years.
Why did not it become your trade?
Strangely enough - war in Afghanistan prevented.
Probably, the wars in your life have not had only a symbolic role. You see, you were born in the year when the Second World War ended?
Yes, it is true. I will return to the Afghan war, but now I shall tell about another one I was a direct participant of. In 1965 I turned 20. Then the war in Vietnam was on, and Australia was among the fighting sides. During that war the mandatory conscription was introduced in Australia. I still was a student, my conscription was postponed until the graduation from the college, and in 1967 I was called up for the military service. I joined a drill battalion, and in January 1969 was sent to Vietnam as a field radio operator.
I must admit, that I for the first time talk to a participant of the Vietnam War. Any war is terrible. The war in Vietnam for me is associated with a very realistic movie of Francis Coppola "Apocalypse now". Really, this way it is feasible to imagine an apocalypse. But I was a spectator, you - a participant. What was this war about in the eyes of a participant?
An Australian military base was situated in the province of Fuk. Three infantry battalions, an artillery unit, a unit of armored troop carriers, helicopters, tanks. Our combat task was not to let the Vietcong to penetrate into the territory of the province. The Vietcong was fighting not only against the foe. No less severely they were waging a war against their fellow tribesmen who, from their point of view, did not render to us due resistance. There was neither front line, nor rear. Danger was awaiting us everywhere, even in our own toilet. Knowing the love of the Europeans to toilets with seats, the Vietcong invented a simple booby trap. An ordinary scythe, a piece of rubber and a holding stick. When you sit on the seat, the stick breaks and the scythe stabs you up to the guts. A knife, rubber and stretched fishing line were a mine of individual action on a track where the line was practically invisible. In general, a guerilla war is the most terrible one. At day a Vietnamese is hospitable and accepts you, at night he ambushes you on a land mined road. In general, those guys were very inventive. We knew there was a place in the mountains where the Vietcong had a base. They dug the whole system of tunnels. We destroyed one - they would dig a new one. And we understood, that we were not capable to win over them. Although the Australian garrison was not the most numerous, Australia lost in this war about 700 troopers (not absolutely correct – in fact, 519 killed, missing in action, died of wounds and illnesses - V.K.) and more than 2 thousands were wounded. The Australian army, in my opinion, was very well prepared for a war in the jungle. We received a four-day dry ration, ammunition and went into the jungle. We lived and conducted the war by the same rules, as the Vietcong. The helicopters delivered hot food to the Americans daily. Firstly, it unmasked the American units, and, secondly, had something happened to a helicopter - and that was happening frequently enough – a unit would have remained without food, and sometimes even without ammunition. We fought next to the Americans and I saw, how they conducted the war. To be honest, I lost any respect to an American soldier, having seen, what they did to the civil population. But, you know, the civilians did not spare them either. Yes, it is true, but it is necessary to understand, that the war situation had become usual for the Vietnamese, as they had been at war between themselves, and before that - against the French colonizers. They got used to blood.
I can only congratulate you that you returned safe and alive. How was your life after the demobilization?
After returning from Vietnam it was very difficult for me to adapt to the life in peace. My dancing hobby helped again. My friend with whom I had danced in the Karasev’s ensemble, told me: "They have announced a competition in Melbourne on TV. Let's try ". I tried - and reached the final. Unfortunately, I did not win the final, but it gave me a lot of inspiration. At that time there was an ensemble called "Kolobok". It’s chiefs used to be a solo dancer of the Moiseev ensemble named Golovanov and the solo dancer of Piatnitsky ensemble named Klimov. The ensemble was also trained by Borzov who used to run a chair in GITIS (The State’s Institute of the Theatre Arts in the USSR). After having my time with the ensemble I organized a theatre group which existed for about 18 years. Now I come back to a theme of the Afghan war and how it affected my life. Anatoly Borzov, having seen me dancing and having seen my work as a choreographer, suggested that I could study in GITIS. I was interested in it very much, and on the spot I began to prepare legal documents. Firstly, the institute was famous all over the world. Secondly, it was an opportunity to meet my father and see Russia. Because of bureaucratic delays the arrangements proceeded rather long. And at this time Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Australian government broke off relations with the USSR. Naturally, my trip to study in Russia became impossible. It was year 1980, and in 1981 my father died. So we have not met each other and I did not become a student of GITIS either. For the third time a war affected my fate. I had not become a professional dancer and had to return to my main occupation: designer.
Is it what you’re doing now?
For 27 years I have worked in the Melbourn University as a designer. I have developed various devices for PhD students, necessary for completion of their thesis projects. Over the recent years my work has been connected with medicine.
Sasha, for many years you have been the president of the Russian ethnic society in the state of Victoria. What is the aim of work of this society?
I have worked for 15 years in the Russian ethnic society, and for the last five years - as its president.
How was this society organized?
In Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, there was about 16 Russian public organizations, practically separated. Firstly, it was necessary to unite them. Secondly, we have members of our organization as representatives in all governmental and public bodies, including both local and federal level. Thirdly – the cultural life, support of ethnic values, assistance to newly arrived migrants in adaptation to the Australian life.
Tell us, please, about your connections with Russia.
The Soviet national ensemble from Omsk was the first to have come to Australia… After a concert we met the actors. We brought them to our families. During this period it was rather a difficult procedure. All was forbidden, everybody was afraid of deserters. We had close contacts with merchant seamen. Then, practically at any time there were not less than two Soviet ships in our seaport, mostly from the Far East and Baltic shipping companies, less often – from the Black Sea. With the seamen who had visited Australia more than once we had stable communications and dialogue. Later we got acquainted with and grew fond of the Vladimir Vysotsky's songs. The seamen presented me with tapes and I’ve kept them till now. The seamen who had visited us once, handed our addresses, phones to others - and there was a live chain. We acquainted them with the country. Many of them took away our exotic parrots. Now everything is much easier. Nobody interferes with anything, but, to be honest, unfortunately, the ships from Russia are not seen here any more. But it is easier to start contacts.
How do you maintain these connections?
Once there was a mighty Soviet Union. The contacts were very difficult. We, the emigrants who had left the native land, were considered as enemies of the people in the USSR. But people remain people and there has always been attraction on both sides. The Australian-Soviet society of friendship was formed. It was supported by the Soviet consulate. Through this society numerous collectives with concerts came here. Here we gave reception to Zykina, Voronets, Tolkunova. It was great that the composer Kabalevsky became one of the most active members of this society. Now, certainly, no problem exists. The Iron Curtain fell, and our connections, certainly, only strengthened…
Sasha, let's talk about other things. The Iron Curtain fell, the freedom came - and with it a flood of cynicism, violence, permissiveness rushed in. Russia descended into the Middle Ages. The West had passed through it long ago. What do you think of it?
You know, on the Russian emblem there is a two-headed eagle - very symbolic, one head looks eastward, another - westward, as the Siamese twins: two heads at one trunk. Interests of the East and the West have never coincided, and Russia, being on a joint, is torn apart by contradictions. And there are a lot of other reasons for trouble. But I am an optimist. At the University, where I work, there is a center of the Russian and the East European studies. Not all the forecasts of this center are justified, but the economic forecast is that the recession will last till 2001, and then a rise will begin. And it has its ground. The mafia structures will get nourished, the division of property and reformation of the society as it took place in other countries - America, Germany, will have ended, bank capital will be legalized and will begin to work, as in any civilized society. Well, Russia has always been rich of brains. She supplies the world with brains. It’s not a secret, that Russia has supplied America with computer brains for the next 10 years. But Russia has always loved extremes. The so-called principle of a pendulum operates this way: the harder is the suffering now, the stronger is the pleasure later on. Now the pendulum is in amplitude of suffering, but it has reached the maximum point and it will rock to the other side. My brother George was born in Russia. Now he lives in St-Petersburg. In 1988 I invited him for a visit. Here, at the Tulamarin airport, we met each other... We remind each other very much in character and intelligence. Since then I have visited Russia five times and found many friends there. And I am not indifferent to their fate and the fate of Russia.
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