Alexander Kuleshov arrived in Melbourne by ship on 7 November 1956, together with most of the Soviet team. “With mixed feelings we came to Melbourne. What awaited us in this distant country?” he wrote in his diary, which he published as a book, Under the Southern Skies. The 34-year-old writer had come to Melbourne to report on the Olympic Games. A member of the Communist Party, he was a member of the Writers’ Union of the USSR and a trusted comrade. He worked as a sports commentator and journalist, and wrote detective and science fiction novels. His observations and responses to Australia are therefore interesting.
As the athletes disembarked, it was dark but this did not stop a large crowd meeting them at Appleton Dock. Many brought flowers, while press photographers flashes blinded them. Some protesters, probably anti-communist emigres, heckled from behind a police cordon.
Over the next month, Kuleshov had an opportunity to see how average Australians lived.
He was surprised on how spread out the city was, with single storey “neat houses surrounded by fences, front gardens and lawns, watered by artificial rain.” Presumably he is referring to sprinklers. Houses were adorned by either the Olympic Rings, Australian flags and even concrete kangaroos and koalas.
Kuleshov also had an opportunity to visit seaside towns along Port Phillip Bay, which he compared to Malakhovka, where many privileged Russians owned dachas (holiday houses).
While most of Melbourne was low rise, the central city area was different, with high-rise emporiums and multi-storey office buildings. He was particularly impressed with the diorama outside Coles. It consisted of a large figure of John Batman, the founder of Melbourne, who wore a wide-brimmed hat and smoked a pipe, while looking at the virgin forest. Suddenly the forest disappears and in its place is modern Melbourne.
Kuleshov also admired the Exhibition Buildings, on the edge of the city, with its green surrounds. “Next to a quietly murmuring fountain, an old man dozed on a bench and a big black cat lazily crossed the path.”
This was no capitalist hell Kuleshov was describing, although he did notice that there was a large difference between how the rich and poor lived. Describing Toorak, he wrote: “This area had large parks, and stone and iron fences hid two- and three-storey luxury villas. Here you can find the latest automobiles and nannies escort elegantly dressed children. In Toorak, there is silence, peace.” This compared to a poorer suburb Kuleshov saw. “There were large families crammed together were dark houses with rusty roofs, broken handrails on stairs, no yards, no lawns, and no front gardens.”
As he was shown around Melbourne, Kuleshov saw examples of poor driving, which he put down to “thoughtless attitude of drivers to the Australian beer.” Mind you, Moscow drives had a thoughtless attitude to vodka, making its roads just as dangerous.
Entering the Olympic Village was a trial, as autograph hunters besieged athletes. Sick and tired of signing their own names, after a while the Soviet athletes signed: Shakespeare, Byron and even Julius Caesar, showing a sense of humour, something that would have surprised Australians.
In the Olympic Village, Kuleshov was impressed by how well run it was, although the rooms were chilly, as Melbourne went through a cold snap in the weeks before the Games. There was even a sauna, although because athletes from non-Nordic countries were unfamiliar with saunas, it caught fire twice during the Games. With the weather particularly wintery, athletes queued up the Nestlé stand, which dispensed free coffee, cocoa and tea.
Many signs were multilingual, and helpful hostesses had sewed onto their tunics foreign flags, indicating which language they spoke.
At night there was entertainment in the Recreation Hall. Using sign language, it was “a little like a house of deaf-mutes.” Language barriers did not stop the athletes getting on well, and the Russians enjoyed playing chess, they read books and watched feature films. Later in the evening African American athletes showed the Russians how to jitterbug. “It was a fun, noisy environment, in which strong friendships formed and suspicions inspired by false tendentious propaganda was not to be seen.”
Outside the Olympic Village, Kuleshov was pleased to meet members of the Australian-Soviet Friendship, with whom he felt safe. However, he was wary of emigres, who he described as “dark personalities and just traitors to their homeland.”
But, of course, the athletes were not tourists, and they knew exactly what was expected of them. “After the XV Olympiad in 1952 we knew that the Soviet Union is a great sports power, and that our participation was essential to the success of the Olympic Games.” They were also under no illusion that when they left Melbourne they were expected to beat their Cold War rival, the United States.