I have had many jobs in my life. When I’d finished my formal schooling at the exciting age of 17-and-a-bit, having turned 17 halfway through my final year at Fort Street High School, I looked for work, any work, that would enable me to fund my new and entirely consuming addiction to motorcycles.
Did I care if that work was fulfilling?
Was I concerned it needed to be satisfying on a philosophical and emotional level?
Was there a drive to attain some qualification, identify a career path, and seek to improve myself?
Hell to the fuck no.
I just needed money to spend on motorcycles.
So, I was prepared to, and indeed did, a lot of things that simply provided funds for me to spend on bikes.
It did not matter what the job was. All that drove me was money. If strangling cats paid more than sweeping Woolworths storerooms, the broom would be in the bin, the gloves would be on, and Mitten’s slitted eyes would be rolling back in its head.
I was utterly amoral in my pursuit of money to spend on bikes. If there was some left over to spend on girls, great. If not, the bitches went without flowers.
And there was one particular gig that scarred my brain and left a still-smoking brand on my consciousness. I remember it with a mixture of revulsion, awe, and some kind of perverted fondness.
Three days after I’d turned 18, I got a job at the Russian Club in Strathfield as a bartender.
I had been a frequent attendee at this astonishing den of neo-Czarist tub-thumping. My mother and my aunt both worked there as barmaids, and had for some time, and I was a frequent visitor in my teenage years because it was a great place to pick up girls.
No-one gave the remotest fuck about proof-of-age. I never saw a police officer enter the place. There were dances and discos every Friday night. And everything you’ve ever heard about wog chicks being groomed and dressed to jaw-dropping intensity, from the time of their first period until their first grandchild, is absolutely true. European girls try very, very hard to look as amazing as possible because their mothers teach them it is the only way they’re ever going to get a husband, crush his spirit, suck out his soul, and make him their slave. This is the way it has worked for centuries in the old country. And just because they were now in Australia, where nightclub make-up was not required for going to the supermarket, not a single woman or girl saw any need to stop trying.
So each Friday night, at the “young people’s dance”, the Russian Club, like its Greek counterpart, the Kastellorizan (or Kassi) Club, was jam-packed with first-generation wog-youth eager to get its hormones out. This was also true for the fabled Marconi club, where teenage Italian seductresses danced as if their fathers weren’t watching (they always were), and at the beaut Hakoah Club, which provided a never-ending parade of Jewish princesses looking to get hitched. Yes, I did get around some in my teenage years.
But I did most of my girl-chasing at the Russian Club because mum and auntie worked there and my drinks were free. And, truth be told, it wasn’t as sexually handicapping as telling Greek, Italian, and Jewish girls you weren’t part of their tribe.
Obviously, these ethnic clubs were nothing at all like the RSL clubs Australians frequented. Sure, there were pokies, and dining rooms, and maybe old battle flags and yellowed photos of bearded army commanders. But that is where any resemblance stopped. Ethnic clubs were all about remembering and celebrating the particular ethnicity of their members, and getting the kids hitched to their own kind.
And they were party central. There was none of this stop what you’re doing, stand up, face the eternal electric flame and listen to the Ode while a pokie chimed out a feature in the background. When Slavs commemorated a war or a battle (and there were many of them going back more than a thousand years – the Serbs still remember the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and the Russians still toast the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380), they did it by drinking savage spirits, crying, cursing, wishing each other health, and then bursting into heroic songs hundreds of years old.
The Russian Club hosted just about every Russian wedding, 21st (including mine), christening, anniversary, or Czarist commemoration that was ever held by Sydney’s Russian diaspora in the Seventies and Eighties. The diaspora itself was riven with conflict, which was clear to all the Russians involved, but entirely obscure to Australians.
The Russian émigrés from China did not get on with the Russian émigrés from Europe. After the revolution, many Russians, including members of the White Guards who fought the Red Army, fled to Shanghai instead of Europe because it was closer and the Chinese were easier to manipulate in the early 20th century.
Of course, many of them also pissed off to Europe, because that was closer to where they were in Russia, and some of them ended up in Serbia, an Orthodox country like Russia, like my maternal grandmother. And that is a tale for another time, I think.
Anyway, both camps despised the Russian émigrés from the Soviet Union, who were referred to as Sovyetchiki, and imagined them to be spies and informants for the hated Communists, which some of them doubtlessly were.
Remember this is the late Seventies, the world was deep into the Cold War, and Australia was full of European immigrants who were still trying to assimilate, and whose children were trapped in a strange xenophobic purgatory.
Our parents relentlessly insisted we retain our ethnic links to the homeland, via language, religion, and cultural customs. But we had been born in Australia, and we regarded Australia as our homeland, even though most of the population called us “wogs” and imagined trying to flog our love for salami sandwiches out of us was the only way Australian culture could flourish.
We desperately wanted to fit in with our Australian friends, but we also did not want to disappoint our parents, and we did our level best to play on both sides of this divide.
So we occupied a rather unsettled place in Australian society. For some wogs it was worse, for some it was better, and it seemed a lot depended on the size of the wog diaspora in question. There were many more Italians and Greeks than there were Russians and Serbs, and eastern Europeans are fundamentally different from western Europeans. To the Australians, we were all just wogs. Our centuries-old inter-ethic rivalries, our ancient and storied histories, and our utterly incomprehensible world-outlooks, meant less than nothing to them.
None of this could be explained to our parents, who had been savagely reviled in the 50s when they first arrived in Australia as hollow-eyed but hopeful refugees from WWII. They would and did put up with the abuse, because for them there was no going back to a ruined Europe, and certainly in the case of the Russians and Serbs, to Communist regimes which would have killed or imprisoned them. And being called a “dirty wog” or being abused for not speaking English “properly” was as nothing to people who had experienced the German conquest of Europe.
What Australia’s antagonism against them actually did was encourage them to form groups, clubs, and associations where they could go and be with “their” people, eat familiar food, speak in their language without being abused, and give their Australian-born children a taste of their own distant land and culture.
I spent a lot of time in Serbian, Russian, and indeed Greek, Macedonian, and Italian clubs when I was a teenager, and it has coloured my world-view ever since.
But the year or so I spent working as a bartender at the Russian Club, skull-fucked me in ways I hope I have the ability to properly convey.
I was hired with little ceremony by the manager, a quiet, self-assured, and well-groomed man in his late fifties, called Tresnikoff. And I’m pretty sure he gave me the gig because he enjoyed flirting with my aunt, who was, I am convinced to this day, the Grand Champion of Flirting, having honed her skills in the salons of pre-war Vienna. She’d run away from Serbia at a very young age, and ended up in Vienna, where she met, fell in love with, and ultimately married a young Austrian man. He subsequently joined the Waffen-SS when the war kicked off, and the last my aunt saw of her beloved Hans, was when he was posted to Hamburg just days before the Allies turned the whole city into an incinerator. But that also is a tale for another time.
So Tresnikoff hired me, showed me how to pour a beer, what a nip of spirits consisted of, and how the till worked. And that was it.
It was 1979. Responsible Service of Alcohol was decades away. As was a wide selection of beers and spirits. XXX
There were three fancy liquors – Tia Maria, Benedictine, and Cointreau – and these were invariably ordered in shot glasses by men, some of whom had taken off their shirts by this stage, after midnight, but still some way to the three am bar closure.
Everyone smoked, so we also sold cigarettes behind the bar, provided ashtrays, lit people’s cigarettes with matches, and would no more have considered cutting someone off for being drunk than we would have considered spying for the Soviet Union.
There were no bouncers. There were, however, a few very hard-eyed former soldiers always drinking in the place, and if the rare fight broke out, it was usually left to run its course provided not too much furniture was getting smashed. That was the only time the combatants were pulled apart.
The bar I worked in – and there were two, one in the pokie room/dining area where my mum and my aunt did their business, and one in the main hall, where I and another bloke (or series of blokes) worked.
This bar was one of those “window” bars, a sizeable opening maybe three-metres wide and a metre high in the wall, and it was built like that for a very good reason. A drunk could not leap over it without dashing out his brains on the wooden beam running across the top of the opening. It didn’t stop them trying, from time to time, but it certainly put a rapid end to the leaping.
My first night at work saw me bartending a wedding. So apart from serving behind the bar, I would also walk the reception area, and take drink orders.
This was also not what you might think it was.
Russians (and Serbs) do not order mixed drinks. Or beer – which has always been viewed by Slavs as something old women, children, and soft-armed pederasts drink. As a consequence, we only ever had one beer on tap at the bar. It was KB, and I only changed the keg twice in the year I worked there. Sure, now and again there’d be some weirdo (usually an Aussie who had been brought along by a Russian mate) who wanted a “scotch-n-coke”, but invariably, Russians drank vodka. Chilled and neat.
See? I told you this nothing at all like an RSL club.
It was also Stolichnaya, because that was actual Russian vodka. Australians had not even heard of Stolichnaya in 1979, imagining that Karloff and Smirnoff were Russian vodkas. No self-respecting Russian would drink that vile foreign swill.
My memory tells me it was maybe ten bucks a bottle, so it was even cheaper than the stuff in the bottle shop. I could be wrong, but that price seems to ring a bell because I remember men coming to the bar and giving me forty dollars in exchange for four bottles of Stoli. And they had better be fresh out of the freezer, or I would be cursed out in Russian – which was nowhere near as appalling as being cursed out in Serbian, so that didn’t bother me much.
Russian cursing is pretty basic compared to the seemingly endless variance and glory of Serbian cussing, and rather similar to Aussie swearing, except for the bit where you’re told your mother will be fucked, as in “Yob tvayu matj” – and please don’t try to pronounce it. It’s not possible for westerners to ever correctly pronounce Russian, which explains why the CIA had never managed to infiltrate the KGB with a non-native Russian speaker. Then there was the multi-functional “Hooy” and “Pizda”, cock and cunt respectively, and variations on that theme as in “Idi na hooy” (get on the cock), and “Kakoy ti pizdets” (What a cunt you are).
So if I ever gave anyone a bottle of room-temperature Stoli, I would expect to (and not even take offense at) being told to get on the cock. It would serve me right. And Tresnikoff did point that out to me.
So the wedding…
Firstly, there was always a bottle of Stoli on every guest table at every wedding. The tables sat six people. There were also two bottles of red wine and two bottles of white wine, but I always had the feeling they were only put there for show, because I remember taking most of them back to the cellar after the wedding, and then hauling them out again for the next wedding. They were still paid for every time, and sure, some of them did walk out the door at the end of the night, but so few people leave a Russian wedding with their senses intact, it wasn’t often.
But there was never any vodka left. Ever.
So, the first bottle on the table was usually gone before the wedding party had even arrived. Six people can drink a bottle of vodka very quickly, especially if they are Russian. This is because the Russians traditionally toast everything three times. I understand this has something to do with the Holy Trinity, and I would beg you to remember Russia has been an Orthodox Christian nation for more than 1000 years. So that shit runs deep in their veins.
“Na Zdaroviye!” is the cry. It means “To health!” But it is not the toast. For example, someone will get up and say: “Let’s drink to the great General Kornilov!” The response would be “To General Kornilov – na Zdaroviye!”.
And this would need to be done three times because shut-up, Russians. And there are lot of Russian generals and battles to toast, and then they move on to toasting the guests, the wedding, the newlyweds (who had not yet arrived), and individuals sitting at various tables.
And everyone drinks. The women, the old people, and the kids – even though the kids are not given vodka – well, at least not full nips until they are over ten – all drink. And how this does not turn into a screaming vomit-fest is because “zakuska” is involved.
“Zakuska” (the plural is “Zakuski”), literally “something to bite on” accompanies everything at every celebration, and seems to mitigate the industrial-quantity of vodka consumption. Plates of black bread, salted herring, pickles, pickled mushrooms, marinated fish, and caviar, are always on the table and separate from any main dishes that may be served later.
So you make the toast, neck the vodka, and then immediately put a zakuska in your mouth.
As you can imagine, the first three vodkas just fuel the next three, which accelerates the need for three more, and then the music starts, so another toast to the music…and you get it.
Thus before the wedding party gets there (and an entirely new type of toasting commences), there would be a man from each table (and there could be 20 tables), who would come up to the bar and order more bottles of vodka. They would buy two or more at a time to save them coming back. Now and again, some concerned parent would ask for an orange juice for a child, or maybe a beer if someone was feeling poorly or driving, but it was invariably bottles of Stolichnaya.
Quite frankly, I am not aware of any pub or club run by Aussies in Australia where you have ever been able to buy anything but wine by the bottle. But the wogs? Yeah, fuck off telling us how and what to drink. The Greeks did ouzo, the Italians grappa, the Serbs rakija, and the Russians vodka. And we had a fat old time.
But at a Russian wedding, shit gets dialled up to another level when the newlyweds and their bridal party arrives…
AND WHICH I WILL TELL YOU ABOUT IN PART TWO, SHORTLY.
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Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.