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Australia’s range of sanctions against Russia over their invasion of Ukraine is unlikely to cause the aggressor any great pain, but they are an important show of solidarity with other worldwide democracies. Since the post-war period our relationship with Russia has always been a curious one, especially when they expanded into the behemoth that was the greater Soviet Union. 

During the early part of the Cold War period in the 50s and 60s, when the threat of nuclear armageddon reigned supreme, the USSR was the West’s principal bogeyman. In America, kids were instructed to ‘duck and cover’ during a nuclear attack and citizens built backyard bomb shelters. Despite our geographical remoteness, a prevailing paranoia was that Soviet missiles could reach Australia and wipe out one of our capital cities.

Conservative politicians exploited the threat of communism and the defection of two Soviet spies,  Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov, in 1954, proved a watershed moment in Australian politics. At the same time as we looked for ‘reds under our beds’, we were starting to see a large influx of refugees from Soviet bloc countries seeking a new life, free from the tyranny of Russian domination.  

Whilst Russia was continually treated with great suspicion, and a degree of fear, during the 60s and 70s, we began to enjoy a period of cultural exchange pioneered by the entrepreneurial Edgley family. From the 1960s onwards they arranged a whole string of highly successful tours from the Bolshoi Ballet, the Georgian State Dance Company, the Moscow Variety Theatre and the Moscow State Circus. 

There was obviously a propaganda element in the Russian government endorsing and helping to facilitate these tours but it also highlighted the distinction that the average Australian made between an oppressive regime and the cultural heritage of the country. Whilst the tours probably did nothing to convert Australians to the communist ideology they no doubt encouraged a warming towards the Russian people at large. 

This still holds today and the invasion of Ukraine is seen here almost entirely as the lunatic workings of Vladimir Putin, rather than a nationalistic push or endorsement from the greater Russian population. We have also seen Russians in Australia taking part in street demonstrations with Ukrainians to support their opposition to the war. 

Whilst we bare no great hostility towards Russians in general, there is still an intense dislike of the Putin regime, the oligarchs who support him and the criminality of the Russian mafia and their government sanctioned hackers. Their alignment with China in recent years only intensifies this aversion and creates an atmosphere of fear – one that some Australian politicians are more than happy to exploit. 

It’s common knowledge that Putin was once an officer In the KGB, working closely with the Stasi, the notorious secret police that maintained order in communist East Germany. His ID pass was discovered amongst a mountain of Stasi files that the Russians left behind after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s said that his years spent in Dresden, in the mid to late 80s, had a profound effect in formulating his later ultra nationalistic beliefs. 

Around the same time in Sydney I can remember witnessing the KGB in action when the Mandolin Cinema in Elizabeth Street hosted the annual Soviet Film Festival. A leading Russian actress had been imported to appear at the opening and the session was a sellout. As she was introduced on stage, a number of protestors in the audience rose from their seats, holding up placards and shouting out anti-Soviet slogans. 

This was met with a quick and somewhat brutal response from a number of burly Russian security personnel (aka ‘goons’), attached to the local Russian consulate and almost certainly card carrying operatives of the KGB. The protestors, from various captive nation groups, were yanked from their seats and manhandled down the stairs of the cinema into Elizabeth Street – in what can only be described as an act of thuggery. 

It was a minor incident on the scale of suppression of free speech and protest but it was ugly and upsetting to watch. It’s a fanciful speculation but had he chosen a more exotic destination like Sydney, for his KGB service, Putin could well have been one of those thugs!

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