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In the late 1970s, Australia was dithering on whether to allow those escaping Vietnam and Cambodia to resettle here. However, while this was happening, one woman in a bikini managed to jump the queue.
Seriously, I didn’t plan it like this. On the contrary, I chose this story because I thought it wouldn’t be about race. But then I started researching, and of course, realised that it was. Then again, it was about sex as well, so maybe you will still like the third installment in my little series about the weird and wonderful in Australian history: “red bikini girl”.
It was headline news around the world on January 15, 1979. The night before, a man walking his dog at the wharf at Sydney’s Pyrmont had found a young girl coming out of the water. She was dressed in a red bikini and asked him, “in broken English”, if he could help her find some clothes. She was, she said, a Russian defector, and was looking for political asylum. The man, Bill Green, a photographer at Sydney University, “took her back to his terrace house”, the Courier-Mail proudly wrote, “and put on coffee for the shivering girl. ‘We talked until 2.30am,’ said Mr Green, who is a bachelor. ‘I found her a good sport. She said she had no boyfriend in Russia.” With the article went a picture of a lovely 18-year old that made every man in Australia wish he had been the bachelor talking to the good sport. And rephrasing that sentence too, because Lilliana Gasinskaya was not so much a good sport, but a good sort.
The next few weeks, the story was featured just about everywhere. That was understandable, because it had the makings of a spy thriller. Lilliana, the daughter of a musician father and actress mother, was not so much Russian, but Ukrainian, from the port city of Odessa – although, that was all Soviet Union in 1979 of course, and that meant reds under the beds and commie bastards. Not happy with the lack of freedom she said she felt, Lilliana had been planning her escape for quite some time, and when she turned 18, an opportunity revealed itself in the shape of a job as cleaner on the SS Leonid Sobinov. She applied, was hired, and when the cruise ship arrived in Sydney, she waited for her moment. With armed guards and flashlights controlling the deck, it had taken her until a staff party on the 14th of January. Then she went to her bedroom, slipped into her red bikini and, taking only her ring with her – “because I knew that I could not carry anything at all with me otherwise I might be caught” – she jumped through the porthole. After 40 minutes of swimming in shark-infested waters, she reached Pyrmont and the gentlemanly assistance of Bill Green.
The captain of the SS Leonid Sobinov had predicted something like this would happen. He told the papers that she had been “a bad worker and a trouble maker” who would prove “a real pain in the neck for Australia”.
Obviously, that wasn’t the end of it. Russian secret agents went to look for her straight away, so our damsel in distress needed some big guns to get her out of this trouble. And none bigger than the crew of the Daily Mirror, who “whisked her away to a secret hide-out to trump their rivals with a series of bikini pose photos” and sort-of interviews. The headline writers had a field day. “Beauty flees red liner”, “Making a red-hot splash” and my favourite, by The Australian: “D-Day for young Russian defector: the girl who came in from the cold in a red bikini”. First, the whole of Australia was only salivating. And, of course, there was a bit of schadenfreude towards the Soviets: see what we’ve got and you don’t, suckers? Isn’t that proof enough your system stinks and we are fantastic? That is also what Lilliana kept saying: how she loved Australia, how beautiful it was, and how kind the people. She was right. In fact, we were so kind that our Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Michael MacKellar, gave her first refugee and then residency status within a week.
And that is when the kerfuffle really started.
The problem was that Australia was in the throes of a bit of a refugee crisis at the time. After the fighting in Vietnam and Cambodia had finally ended, millions of desperate people were fleeing the area. Whole families, walking for weeks, spending far too long on leaky boats, were doing everything they could to get to safety. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who knew Australia was partially responsible for the problem after its role in the war, was trying to let them in without causing anxiety – not that this was working really well. Andrew Peacock, then Foreign Minister, wrote in 1978 in a cabinet memorandum that the “stability of the region was at stake” and that the refugees would be “very serious strains on the unity and character of Australian society”. He thought accepting them would be “controversial” and “divisive”, and he was right. Although the numbers of actual Indo-Chinese refugees were tiny, you wouldn’t have known that from the worried letters in the papers. One called for a “stop to this unarmed invasion”, fearing that this was only the beginning of “a vast flotilla of boats ferrying hundreds of thousands of Asians to our shores in the not very distant future”. Others, even government officials, talked about “exotic diseases” that the refugees were apparently bringing into the country. Queensland Minister for Health William Knox was certain they were “a very big health risk to the nation”, while his NT colleague Jon Isaacs spoke of the “economic chaos” that would surely follow.
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So with this discussion very much in the forefront of everybody’s mind, people were asking questions when Ms Gasinskaya had no trouble being accepted into Australian society. Especially when MacKellar said that the reason for her visa was that she had “showed initiative”. In a letter to The Age, Colin James from Ormond was having none of it. “Thousands of Vietnamese are showing initiative in escaping from tyrannical communist governments and travelling thousands of miles in boats which by all maritime rules are not fit for sailing, yet are not permitted entry into Australia.” Could it be, James asked, that this difference was because they weren’t “good-looking females” with “white skins” who “wore eye-catching bikinis?” It was a sentiment widely shared, although one newspaper commentator said that “without being sexist, I would say that being young and nubile makes her a desirable immigrant for the simple social reason that our past immigration programs have left us with a surplus of young, single men.”
In October of 1979, the inaugural issue of the Australian Penthouse was also not being sexist and put the nubile Russian princess on the front cover as their first centrefold and “pet of the month”. “Lillian: the red bikini girl – without the bikini”, it boasted, Anglicising her name. There were 15 pages of lovely photos, chosen out of 2,000 “classy” pictures, and sub-headlines like “From Russia with laughter”. She was, the magazine proudly said, “the first Soviet girl in the world to bare her charms for a men’s glossy magazine,” and Australia lapped it up. It also loved the story about her romance with the Daily Mirror photographer who had photographed her on that first morning on the beach. Although he had left his wife and three children for her, they were going to get married soon, so all was well that ended well (also because he vowed to coordinate her career, which he faithfully did). For the next couple of years, Lilliana Gasinskaya was a go-go dancer, a DJ and an actress in Australian soaps like Young Doctors and Arcade.
Mick Young, Labor’s shadow Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, was critical. “Many believe that perhaps she has received too favourable a treatment which is not available to people from other countries.”
Then, in 1981, she got herself into a little bit of trouble (“unthinking” and “naïvely”, of course, seeing that a young girl with a nice figure could be nothing but a dumb blonde…). Homesick and missing her family, she had asked the Soviet embassy for a travel document to go back to Odessa for a visit. That, naturally, put her refugee status in danger, and the Minister at the time was fielding questions about whether it should be revoked. Especially Mick Young, Labor’s shadow Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, the man who had come up with the “It’s time” slogan for Whitlam and therefore knew a thing or two about what attracted the media, was critical about Gasinskaya – though mostly patronising and condescending. She was “the most famous refugee we have had in post-war Australia,” he said. “The young lady in question ought to realise that Australia has been exceedingly generous to her… There are many people in Australia, especially in the ethnic communities, who believe that perhaps she has received too favourable a treatment which is not available to people from other countries. We were really bending over backwards to allow this young Russian lady to stay (but) the tolerance of a lot of people in Australia is running out with this young lass.”
The young lass soon got the message, apologised, divorced her photographer and, in 1984, married property tycoon Ian Hayson instead. But after four years of driving the Merc around Cremorne that was getting a bit old too, so they separated and Gasinskaya moved to the UK, where she disappeared off the radar. In a way, the captain of the SS Leonid Sobinov had predicted something like this would happen. When she defected, he had told the papers that she had been “a bad worker and a trouble maker” who would prove “a real pain in the neck for Australia”.
But in the meantime, the country had enjoyed itself thoroughly with another example of the weird and wonderful we put on so well.