Thursday, July 09, 2009

ANATOL KAGAN 1913-2009

Australia has lost one of the last survivors of Tsarist Russia who actually witnessed the Russian Revolution first hand. Anatol Kagan, 1913-2009. died in a nursing home last week a couple of days after admission.

Anatol was born in St Petersburg in 1913, of Jewish parents. He grew up in Tsarist Russia and witnessed the horrors of war, revolution, starvation, and deprivation. Speakers at his funeral today told of a young Anatol witnessing a horse drop dead outside his front door, then watching as starving people came out with their knives to cut the flesh off the horse to eat. The events of his early years turned Anatol into a lifelong sympathiser and campaigner for the underdog. His family left Russia on the Intellectuals Ship, a shipful of those who even in 1921, were irritating Stalin. They were not necessarily friends of Lenin and Trotsky, but Lenin, with a remarkable growing concern about the future, encouraged them to leave Russia. So they avoided what was coming, the mass extermination of intellectuals by Stalin.

Anatol’s parents set up a book and publishing business in Germany, publishing such writers as Nabakov and Trotsky. Anatol was fortunate to read the drafts of Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” which converted him to Trotsky’s view of these events. But the Nazis were on the rise, and Anatol became a member of the German Underground. His family left Germany and arrived in Australia in 1939. When asked why he came to Australia, he said that it was as far away from Europe as he could get.

Anatol became an active member of the Balmain Trotskyists, led by Nick Origlass and Izzy Wyner. He had trained as an architect in Germany. In Australia he obtained work in the Government Architect’s Office in NSW, later setting up his own firm of Anatol Kagan and Associates in Melbourne. He met and married his current wife in 1949 . They had a long, happy and successful marriage, with children of their marriage, and Anatole’s earlier marriages, up until his death.

In 1957, Anatol submitted an entry to the competition for the design of the Sydney Opera House. History records that Joern Utzon won that competition. Anatol had his own views about Utzon’s design and Utzon the man, but in true comradeliness, when Utzon was sacked by the NSW Government, Anatol was the first to lead a walkout from the Government Architect’s Office. His designs were overlooked for many years, until 2007, when there was an exhibition to remember the 50th Anniversary of the Competition, and Anatol was contacted and asked to send his drawings in for exhibition. He and his wife Dawn extracted the plans from under their mattress where they had been placed to save space in their smallish Mosman flat, and sent them in for showing.

Anatol was a lifelong member of the Australian Labor Party. He took the view that he didn’t agree with the leadership of the party on many things, but it was better to stay in the only mass working class party in Australia, and fight the bastards, than leave. He joined the Balwyn Branch in 1946 and since then has been a member of the Box Hill/Taronga Branch, the Prahan Branch in Victoria and the Mosman, Ben Boyd, Hornsby and Harbord Branches in NSW. He was awarded Life Membership of the Australian Labor Party in 1994. At his funeral today messages were received from Mark Arbib on behalf of the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, all thanking Anatole for his contribution to the party. The tribute from Bob Hawke read:

As the longest serving Australian Labor Prime Minister, I pay tribute to Anatol Kagan for his devotion and dedication to our great Party. A member of the Party for the last sixty three years, of which the last fifteen have been as a Life Member, Anatol will be remembered as someone who was totally committed to his ideas and ideals for a peaceful, free and just world. Through this philosophy, he lived a rich and rewarding life, fulfilled in the hope and knowledge that his efforts were directed to fairness and equality of opportunity for all. I thank him for his efforts and send my condolences to his family. Vale a True Believer. (Signed RJL Hawke AC).

I knew Anatol in passing through friends, but I feel honoured to have been able to attend the funeral of this most interesting man. It may seem like a hackneyed phrase, but they don’t make them like Anatole any more. Farewell Anatole and thank you for your contribution to life,

(Thank you to Damien Stapleton for sending a copy of his speech to the Funeral Today which included the tribute from Bob Hawke).

Jenny Haines