Sasha Soldatow 1947 – 2006

Sasha was an old old friend. He gave me a writing lesson i never forgot when he edited an early version of my first novel Between Careers – also an editing lesson. I am traveling in Europe as i hear of his hospitalisation, coma and death.

I’ll copy below what i wrote for Sasha’s wake.
Also some wonderful photos, a tribute and more about Sasha’s work at Pamela Brown’s blog:

And see David Marr’s obituary “A spirit gone to another place” in the SMH (I’ll copy it below too) September 9, 2006

From me:

Dear Sasha,

Soon after we first met we sat together one day observing around us a large crowd of largely younger people at an outdoor pop concert, younger even than we were then, and we were young, beginning to make our friendship, talking of how we saw society changing. That was nearly 35 years ago. You would always remember it too. It was when we began “really talking”.

Conversations with you were exhilarating , everything mattered, everything was connected, everything was politics and sex and art; you had such a gift for stimulation, empathy, silliness, challenge, relief – and disruption. Whatever came after – infuriation, distance, differences, drifting away –to see you again, though as years passed that happened more and more rarely, still was to experience an instant reconnection, to plug into a charge of dear memories and associations and mutual loves and passionate ideas.

Back at home, I still have a picture of you on the wall of my writing room, you naked on red sheets posing like the famous Marilyn Monroe calendar: it’s a poster for your show The Adventures of Rock n Roll Sally. Late 70s. Among my photos there’s one of your electrifying performance, your short hair bleached platinum, wearing only tiny denim shorts, one arm raised high. Oh god you were fun. You were dazzling. There was never anyone like you.

Your position then on going overseas was that you did not go overseas. Now I’ve gone travelling again and am not back there in Sydney with all your many and various friends to say goodbye, to commemorate you; to tell our Sasha stories and Sasha memories and describe the Sasha-shaped part of our lives.

The last time I saw you, fittingly at a party, you met some new people – you did always rejoice in meeting new people – and charmed them to bits with some of the stories out of a repertoire that i might myself not have cared to hear yet another time, partly because it was not very heartening to see your more recent alterations.

The last thing I said to you was – Sasha darling do take care of yourself and the last thing you said to me, laughing, was, I probably won’t.

And David’s obit:

A spirit gone to another place

September 9, 2006

Sasha Soldatow, 1947-2006

SASHA loved a crisis. Friends rallied. He was the centre of attention again. Whatever the scrape – betrayal, eviction, injury, neglect or poverty – someone always came to his rescue. But the latest crisis got a little out of hand and Sasha hasn’t been around to enjoy the fuss.

After years of drinking, this impish writer and troublemaker died of liver failure at St Vincent’s Hospital early on the morning of August 30. As he drifted towards death, old friends and lovers hung about in the corridors trying to piece together the story of his life. It wasn’t easy. Each of us knew only fragments.

Alexander (Sasha) Pavlovich Soldatow was born near Stuttgart to Russian parents washed up in Germany after the war. The boy was two when they reached Melbourne in 1949. Raised by a suffocating troika of mother and aunts, he was playing the piano in the Box Hill Town Hall at six.

The piano became another of the many things Sasha could do but rarely did, like making love to women or holding down a job. When he fled Melbourne and his family for the freedom of Sydney in the early 1970s, he announced he was a writer and plunged into the politics of the Push, the only gay man in that hard-drinking hetero crowd of radicals. He played a brave part in the stoushes of those years with rotten cops and corrupt developers.

To fall in with Sasha at this time was a life-shaking experience. He marched and drank under the banner of Liberty. Behind him he trailed the notion that he was a spirit from another place – that his ideals, his taste, his thirst and his often-gloomy soul were essentially Russian. He had things to teach and he was not to be contradicted. The deal he offered was this: place yourself in my hands, and I will set you free.

Meanwhile, he was a dab hand at finding people to look after him. He lived in Margaret Fink’s fine Woollahra mansion for years. She said this week: “He handled poverty rather well, until the end.” He did it all on nothing in those early years – good lunches, good travel, good company and endless time for writing. Back then it was poetry, stories and gossip for pamphlets and a little magazine he roneoed himself called The Only Sensible News. Sasha was a highly principled gossip. He would insist: “It has to be true.”

His other career – for which there remains a discriminating fan base – was as Russian subtitler at SBS where he immersed himself for most of the 1980s in flagon red and the great classic films of Soviet cinema. When SBS tried to sack him – he always claimed it was for gossiping – the union had him reinstated. Thereafter, he didn’t bother to turn up to work. He argued: “They can’t get rid of me now.” But they did.

He craved literary recognition but he was nearly 40 before Penguin published a volume of short stories and portraits called Private – Do Not Open. “Soldatow is one to watch,” was this paper’s verdict. “He writes like no one else in Australia at the moment.” But he spent the next few years slaving over an edition of the work of Fink’s old flame, the poet Harry Hooton. This appeared in 1990 but was never destined to sell.

Frustrated by this failure to make his mark, he sued the Australia Council, claiming he represented “all those authors who have been set outside the cabal of chosen writers which distributes the taxpayers’ money each year”. He liked the notoriety and fuss, but his efforts yielded little. He was given a few residencies here and there, including three months as “writer in residence” at Sydney’s Long Bay jail. He told the press he trusted murderers: “You don’t have to have 15,000 dinners with them. You get straight to the heart of the matter quickly.”

The heart of the matter for Sasha was always Russia and in 1991 he embarked on the great adventure – and perhaps the great disaster – of his life. His attempt to live as a Russian in Moscow failed after a few months and he retreated to the luxury of Monica Attard’s ABC apartment.

Long smoky nights with drunken intellectuals followed. Then in midwinter he slipped on the ice, shattered his leg and after grim weeks in a Soviet hospital was shipped to Australia an invalid.

This was the beginning of the long slide – he was now addicted to Valium and drinking heavily – but the next few years were his best as a writer. After Mayakovsky in Bondi appeared in 1993, he was midwife to Christos Tsiolkas’s fine first novel Loaded, which enjoyed the instant celebrity that evaded Sasha all his life. His last book was an odd mutual biography the two men wrote together called Jump Cuts.

Old friends were dropping away. There were still flashes of the carefree naughty boy, the dangerous charmer of his heyday, but Sasha was becoming hard work even for the most loyal. After a doomed attempt to live in the bush, he retreated to Melbourne where he ended up in a room at Percy’s hotel in Carlton above a bar where intellectual conversation of a kind was available night and day.

Friends rallied and brought him back to Sydney. For a year or so he lived in Cremorne, talking a lot but writing nothing, turning into a little old babushka. He still loved a good lunch.

His last stop was a housing commission flat in Waterloo where Bruce Pulsford, the guardian angel of his last 20 years, found Sasha collapsed and took him after the usual arguments to St Vincent’s. He died five days later.

Sasha Soldatow is survived by countless people whose lives he changed; by great jokes and unforgettable conversations; by books published and unpublished; by the carefully catalogued memorabilia now in the Mitchell Library; by his mother and step-siblings. He asked for a literary prize to be established in his memory to honour writers who haven’t had the recognition they deserve. His last publication will be the words he ordered for his tombstone: I See.

David Marr

Copyright © 2006. The Sydney Morning Herald.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.