Greenmeadows, 2024

ISBN: 9780648363385

RRP: $34.99 (pb)

Reviewed by Keith Harvey




There is an increasing number of memoirs written by left-wing activists and now by their children. None of these could tell a stranger story than No Country for Idealists. Boris Frankel is the only son of Abraham Frankel, who was born in the Crimea in 1908. He left Russia with his family in 1921 amid the civil war and turmoil that followed the Bolshevik coup d’etat in October/November 1917.

Going initially to Palestine, Abraham Frankel ended up in Melbourne, where he married Tania, who was also a refugee – from Grodno (then in Poland). Tania left home in 1937, thus escaping the horrors of Nazism and the second world war which killed most of her relatives who remained.

Settling first in Carlton and later in St Kilda, both Abraham and Tania were active in left-wing and Communist circles. Abraham was active in the Australia-Soviet Union Friendship Society and took part in its activities, such as showing pro-Soviet movies in Carlton. In the post-war period, the Frankels knew officials from the Soviet Embassy and hosted them in their house. These visitors included Vladimir Petrov prior to his defection.

Abraham Frankel believed the propaganda that he helped disseminate and dis-believed any information contrary to a belief that a workers’ paradise was being built in the Soviet Union.

Indeed, Abraham believed this so strongly that in 1956 he decided that he would take his wife and three children to live in the Soviet Union. Frankel senior was the only one of the family who wished to go. Tania went reluctantly, not wishing to break up the family. The children, all born in Australia and Australian citizens (unlike their parents) had no choice.

Frankel took advantage of a Soviet repatriation program which at the time was encouraging former Soviet citizens to return home. The Soviet Government paid the fares of the family to return to the USSR via London. Abraham had a sister who lived in Baku (now in Azerbaijan) and he planned to join her in that city.

An early warning sign that this decision was not going to work out well came in London, where a driver of a Soviet embassy car sent to pick the family up whispered to Tania “that she was a mug to return to the Soviet Union”.

The nightmare proper began almost at once on their arrival in Moscow. Planning to travel by train to Baku, the family was stranded at Kazansky station in Moscow for three days waiting for a train to arrive. They could not leave for fear of missing a train which might (or might not) arrive at any time.

This proved to be the least of the family’s troubles. On the second day of the train journey south, Frankel senior struck up a conversation with an ex-prisoner, recently released from the Gulag having been arrested during Stalin’s reign of terror. He was, to quote the text in the memoir, “a living example of the havoc and irreparable damage caused by the combination of systematic and random terror of the previous decades”. As Frankel senior recounted this story to his family, “I could see how disturbed he was to hear this first-hand account of the terror. The penny had dropped,” writes his son, Boris. As a result, “my father’s long-held devotion to the propaganda image of ‘the society of the future’ was collapsing at a rapid rate”.

Things did not improve on arrival in Baku. Frankel’s sister’s apartment was too small to accommodate five more residents. No other accommodation or jobs were to be had in Baku. Frankel blamed his sister for misleading him about life in Baku and the USSR. “Why did you tell me to come if you knew conditions were so terribly bad?” he asked. She replied, “I couldn’t write you the truth as I would have been in trouble, and you probably wouldn’t have believed me anyway,” she replied.

Frankel decided (again wrongly) that he should take his family to live in his hometown of Kerch in the Crimea. But neither job and nor accommodation were to be had there, either. The family ended up in the even remoter town of Arshintsevo, where Frankel got a blue-collar job. The dwelling they were given was “as basic as it got. One small window, a wooden floor, a small stove but no tap with running water, let alone a small kitchen, toilet or bath”. Outside the apartment block were barrack-style open latrines. Personal washing took place once a week at the public bathhouse.

Disillusion piled upon disillusion. As Boris Frankel writes,:

[Abraham ]… was also struggling to adapt to life as a Soviet worker. As a trade unionist in Australia, he was particularly shocked by the poor working conditions in the “workers” state. Apart from the lack of protective work clothes and the absence of elementary occupational safety conditions, he couldn’t believe the extremely bad and dangerous conditions under which the workforce laboured. It was another huge shock to learn that he and other workers had to line up after work in the dark to find out whether their pay had arrived or whether it would come two or three days late…What Australian unions had struggled to achieve for workers by the mid-1950s was like paradise compared to the woeful treatment of workers in the so-called Soviet “socialist” system..

In the Soviet Union, the unions “although they were called trade unions, they were effectively just another arm of management”. The situation for women was equally dire, despite claims that women and men had equal status in the USSR. Domestic violence was rampant. Women did the toughest and dirtiest jobs. And “a new form of inequality permeated women’s lives when it came to making decisions, whether at the top in the Kremlin or in the factory or at home. The back-breaking work performed by women and their marginalisation in decision-making in all aspects of social life particularly shocked my parents, who once again were confronted with the gap between the ideology of gender equality and the reality of Soviet Communism”, Boris recalled.

While the accommodation later improved, the whole family was now determined to leave the Soviet Union as soon as possible. Tania refused to leave the very modest apartment in which they found themselves, let alone work as she would have been expected to do. The two eldest children “took on the role of obtaining food and negotiating the daily chores of surviving in a social system based on scarcity and corruption.” Tania did not leave their apartment for more than three and a half years, unless absolutely necessary.

The two older children refused all entreaties to get them to go to school, believing that this would simply enmesh them into the Soviet social system and possibly lead to Soviet citizenship.

Once the family was determined to leave, most of the rest of this memoir is devoted to the efforts to get out and return to Australia. It took nearly four years for Tania and her three children to get permission to leave and the right to return to Australia – in Abraham’s case, it was nearly seven years before he returned.

There were difficulties in both obtaining exit visas from the Soviet Union and a reluctance from ASIO to re-admit the family to Australia. In 1957, Abraham went to Moscow to try and contact two Melbourne friends who were visiting the USSR to attend a World Festival of Youth and Students. After briefly meeting them and arranging to meet again, Abraham was arrested by Soviet security forces for having contact with foreigners and interrogated for several hours, probably in the infamous Lubyanka. He was ordered back to his home where he arrived “distressed and shaken”. The outcome could have been much worse.

The Australian security service meanwhile had formed the view that Abraham was a subversive and that letting him return to Australia was a security risk. Neither parent was an Australian citizen, although the three children were, and neither parent had an automatic right of return.

ASIO had formed a view – incorrectly it would seem – that Abraham was a significant Soviet intelligence asset. While this was not true, his son concludes that the Soviets probably thought his father was a “useful idiot” but not intelligence operative material – accurate information may not have been readily knowable in the mid-1950s in the back blocks of the USSR.

For a significant period while the family was there, Australia had no diplomatic relationship with the Soviet Union, this having been ended in the wake of the Petrov defection and revelations of Soviet spying in Australia.

The deadlock over whether the family could leave the USSR and return to Australia began to be broken when the two eldest children (the author and his sister) went to Moscow on their own to seek help from the British Embassy (the UK was representing Australian interests at the time). The Embassy could not immediately help but the Ambassador later wrote to Prime Minister Menzies about the family’s plight.

This action seems to have started the wheels moving in Canberra. This was due, the author claims, to Australian subservience to Britain, but this view is impossible to substantiate and may be a jaundiced view. Eventually, the family was advised in September 1959 that Tania and her children could return to Australia, but that Abraham would not be re-admitted (due to ASIO’s ongoing objections).

Having received their visas, the four went to Moscow in March 1960 to find that the Australian Embassy had reopened. They were helped by the recently arrived First Secretary, Richard Woolcott who, as Frankel puts it “was incredibly supportive, and we may not have been able to leave without his decisive actions and invaluable help”. Woolcott later had a stellar career in foreign affairs, becoming Secretary of DFAT.

Since they could not afford the cost of their fares home, Australia House in London advanced a loan to the family of a net 392 pounds sterling, a substantial sum in 1960. Due to the family’s meagre circumstances back in Australia, the loan was never fully repaid and eventually written off.

It was another three years before Abraham was allowed to return to Australia and the family reunited. Tania and the children had been away just under four years; Abraham nearly seven. Abraham and Tania eventually both became Australian citizens, in Abraham’s case only shortly before he died in 1968.

What are we to make of this unhappy story? Abraham Frankel made two fundamental mistakes: firstly, believing his own propaganda and that of the Soviet Communist Party and, secondly, acting on it. When he returned to Australia, however, he withdrew from political life, eschewing former political comrades and activities, and devoted himself to personal and private interests.

He did not, it would seem, raise his voice to warn others of the true nature of the Soviet regime. The family travelled to the Soviet Union is 1956, the year Khruschev denounced Stalin’s crimes and the “cult of personality” (although the family did not know this before they left Australia). The author says that they were fortunate to arrive in the period of the “thaw” in the severity of Soviet communism. But the Soviet regime never completely defrosted until it collapsed in the period 1989-91. The Gulag still existed as the USSR dissolved itself.

In 1956, after Khruschev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalinism, the Soviet Union brutally repressed the popular Hungarian uprising and anti-communist demonstrations in Poland. In 1963, when Abraham returned to Australia the Soviet crackdown on the Czech Spring was still five years in the future. Repression of Soviet dissidents continued throughout the 1970s and right up to the final collapse.

The truth about the Soviet Union was well known when the Frankel family travelled to the Soviet Union (Abraham simply did not believe it). It took just a few days in the country to learn the truth for themselves. It is easy to feel sympathy for the plight of this one family who plunged themselves into this abyss and became trapped between two countries. However, there is a much wider issue and responsibility. They were among the lucky ones, who escaped with their lives.

Soviet Communism’s bloody legacy was deadly for millions of others, particularly Soviet citizens and those of Eastern Europe but also in many other places. Yet a conspiracy of silence about the realities of communism was kept and propaganda about the paradise that allegedly existed was spread almost until the demise of the USSR. Communist Party members in Australia including those in trade unions continued to promote visits to so-called “fraternal unions”, “peace” conferences and the like well into the 1970s and beyond.

Staying silent about human rights abuses suffered by those in Communist countries was never the correct moral choice.

Keith Harvey worked in the trade union movement for nearly 40 years and is a non-factional member of the ALP. His memoir Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior was published by Connor Court in 2021.