Entries from September 2009 ↓

Petrov’s Skoda – realpolitix or mythica?

From Cain - Wreck + caption

As the story unfolds, so the plot thickens. As it should in any melodrama.

From Cain - P with ASIO agent + caption

The “real story” of Petrov’s accident on the Cooma road at dawn on Christmas Eve, 1953, is a truly unlikely tale according to the myriad of sources now available to your iconophiliac. The police records, ASIO records, the numerous subsequent publications, plus the memories of local residents, are the very stuff of myth. All we need is an icon!

On 23rd April 1954 the Canberra Times rewrote the events of Christamas Eve as a “murder attempt” – probably the source of the mythology that persists in the public memory to this day. And published a photograph of the wreck the next day. Apart from the fact that it was the Christmas holidays, and that most of the police and ASIO officials were on leave when the accident occurred, the “official” accounts of what actually caused the accident, and what happened to Petrov subsequently, are as various as they are entertaining.

Frank Cain, in his ASIO: An Unofficial History (1994) gives a rollicking account of Petrov as a rather incompetent Walter Mittyesque figure, who was lured into in whisky smuggling and bawdy incidents in Kings Cross by ASIO counter-agents. On the story of the accident, Cain relates that Petrov was driving south “on a secret assignation” with a Madame Ollier, of the French Embassy. A colourful figure herself. In this version of events, after the crash, battered and bruised, he left the car, Petrov hitched a lift to Cooma, and then caught the train back to Canberra. No evidence of the truck which is said to have run him off the road was ever found.

On the evidence of the Royal Commission which followed his defection, Cain concludes that he was unlikely to have been a spy-master of any kind. The Royal Commission on Espionage, it is widely recognised, was as influential in Menzies’ re-election and Evatt’s political downfall as the visit of Her Royal Majesty in February and March 1954. Realpolitics in action. To set the scene (a Royal theme), here is Royalla today…


Senior Constable W.J. Osborne’s report relates that Petrov had “collided with a red vehicle” (surely that’s a giveaway: what other colour truck would the MVD drive?), and that he then “returned to Canberra on a train from Royalla”.

report detail

Mysteriously the accident is reported by ASIO as being “approximately 2 miles past the Royala (sic) siding” whereas local accounts place the event about half a kilometer to the north.


The secretive map of the incident site bears no relation to the topography of the area or to the actual path of the roadway, which ran parallel to the railway line for miles in either direction. No railway is shown on the map.

Other Police reports (recorded on the 4th January) describe Petrov as “a great hunter” who was traveling south to Cooma on a fishing expedition.


These different accounts from the Police and ASIO variously report him having returned home on the first train north (from Royalla Siding), while others relate how he hitched a lift to Cooma for his rendez-vous with Madame Ollier, keeping his return rail ticket as evidence when he subsequently defected. Others relate that he was in such a shaken state as to be unavailable for subsequent interview, as evidenced by the extensive bruising to the diplomatic buttocks. One wonders what else the MVD did to him when he returned home to the embassy sans Skoda.


In The Petrov Affair: Politics and Espionage (1987) Robert Manne wrote that Petrov knew he had been lucky to escape with his life. “He claimed he had been forced off the road by a truck, and not unnaturally given his present state of mind, wondered whether his Soviet colleagues were behind some attempt on his life. Inside the Soviet embassy he received little sympathy. Petrov had never renewed the insurance policy on the Skoda. Generalov demanded he pay for a replacement with his own money. When he eventually emerged from the Soviet embassy to speak to the Canberra police about the accident, he misled them on a number of points, at least partly because he wished to conceal from the the purpose of his trip to Cooma – a conspiratorial rendezvous with Madame Ollier of the French embassy. Only an unusually heavy evening in Sydney… to bring in the New Year could temporarily mask his growing despair.”

So where did the wreck of Petrov’s Skoda end up? John Goodall, who lives just downhill from the site in the old Royalla Post Office and phone exchange, which was run by his grandmother Gladys (“Gladdie”) Burke (nee Goodall) at the time of the accident, is the only person we met who knew anything about the event. From his house about a kilometer away, he pointed to the location on the hillside where he remembers the wreck of the Skoda had been laid to rest. Where is it now? According to John, it was brutally “buried by redneck road builders” when the road was moved 100m to the west in 1991. So there you are. On John’s authority, ever since 1991 you have passed over the ghost of Petrov’s Skoda as you headed south for the snow. By the time you caught sight of the tin cowboy, you were over it, literally…

For those who want to know more – we’re still searching for the pre-1991 aerial surveys – the GPS reference for the location of the buried Skoda is [Aus Geo 1984] 55K 0694889 6068431. And yes, the evidence needs further triangulation, but who wants to ruin a good fringe-urban myth? The FJ Holden which now serves as the symbolic “Petrov’s car” is to be found at [Aus Geo 1984] 0694700 6068433. Or see our Google Map here (with thanks to my collaborators-in-procrastination Annie Jay and Pammy Faye, for most of these arcane details).

Question for Ralph Nader: is it possible to roll a Skoda at 25 mph?

Question for local bandits: who stole the front suspension within 24 hours of the crash?

Question for anyone: who would have wanted a Skoda front suspension anyway?

PS Archives ACT October 2009 “Find of the Month”: the Registration Papers for Petrov’s Skoda

Hey! You just missed Petrov’s car!


Surely a myth can assume heritage value? Well here’s a contender… Just after you cross Guises Creek a few kays south of Canberra on your way towards Cooma, you see this gay happy-go-lucky silver cowboy, frantically signaling to you. What’s he on about? you ask as you zip past… Answer: he’s trying to tell you you’ve just driven past one of the best of Canberra’s urban myths. Petrov’s car.


Thanks to Annie J for the photograph. Here’s the backstory. I’m driving back from Cooma on a Sunday night with Tom’s dad Bruce – more on this adventure here – when Bruce casually lets drop “you can see Petrov’s car somewhere along here.” “What?” I exclaim, as I nearly fall out the window in amazement… Bruce calmly relates a story of a couple of years ago, when a friend, now a curator in Melbourne, showed him the wreck of “Petrov’s car” in a paddock amongst some pine trees, some 100 meters west of the road. Apparently, so the story went, the KGB tried to take out the Russian diplomat Vladimir Mihailovich Petrov three days before he defected, by running him off the road in a truck, and setting fire to his Skoda, diplomatic number DC 290 and all. Well, that’s how the story goes…


It was dark. “Somewhere here” says Bruce. It was hard to contain myself until the following Saturday when, assisted by an anthropologist and a cold war historian, armed with cameras, a GPS device and two crazy dogs, we set off on the quest. “Somewhere here?” asks the anthropologist. “Not that side, this side” says the driver. “There it is!” And so it was. And so it is, just as Bruce described.


Except. Except it’s an FJ Holden rusting out there in the paddock. Right vintage, wrong species. But now perhaps doubly iconic – as an Australian cold war icon. In its inimical, breathless, on-the-button mode of reporting, read what the Canberra Times had to say on Friday 23rd April 1954. This was twenty days after Petrov defected, and four months after the actual accident, on Christmas Eve, 1953. A “murder attempt”. Is this the origin of the myth? Perhaps it is. The whole affair has also been written about by Nic Whitlam, Robert Manne, Frank Cain, and others.  And there’s more to come on iconophilia, but you’ll have to wait until next week to hear the first hand stories, read the Police Report, and find out how you really experience Petrov’s car as you drive to Cooma. And then, there’s the story of Jack, Petrov’s Alsatian pooch, which I will bring you next week

architecture and eco-scepticism

You don’t need to look far to find the most extravagantly wasteful design paradigm in contemporary architectural practice: the ecological aesthetic effect. Just like the fad for wings on the bums of suburban peoplemovers (limited by law to 110kph), in Canberra the contemporary office building sports flamboyant enhancements just for the sake of appearance. But worse, they pretend to be useful…


The ACT Magistrate’s Court (Cox Architects) sports a giant corrugated iron tank on its roof. What on earth was the architect thinking? This is how we harvest water? Answer: it’s a fence which hides all the messy bits. Or it’s a reference to suburban vernacular. Either way, surely this is no place for gratuitous humour. Or does it signal that all those who enter this place will take a bath? Bad humour.


Just down the road, the #7 London Circuit building (Woods Bagot) faces east. It sports a massive loggia that looks as if it might control the fall of sunlight into the upper floors of the building. Except it faces the wrong way, and, surprise, the sunlight falls on the rooftop service structure. It’s highly decorative, “designed to make a strong visual statement”, but worse, it give the impression that the building is designed to be solar-efficient.

“Passive design measures were central to the design concept in a strategy to minimise energy consumption and create a healthy workplace. A veil folds from the roof to the west façade and increases the insulation to the western aspect of the building as well as reducing the extent of glazing to this façade. The roof was conceived to act as a fly roof does on a tent. It is open at its lower end and its form encourages the passage of air beneath it resulting in a further cooling of the shaded roof deck below.”

Roof deck, aka smoking area. Or for executive drinkies on Friday afternoon. Awarded a Highly Commended.


Similarly the ANU’s UniLodge (architect unknown) is peppered with brightly coloured decorative elements which do no more than modulate the surface of the otherwise box-form building. Does it have any effect on the fall of sunlight on the western wall? Minimal. Again, it fakes solar-efficiency.

when interests coincide


…and where those coincidences seem to occur. Above, I’m face to face (or rather, face to camera to face) with this plastic ewer seller in Herat in September 2007, while searching for the source of war carpets. This was an image almost forgotten until the image below was discovered by Zoe in the midst of our internet research. And so last week the photo archive of the American International School in Kabul, photographs taken in the 1960s and 1970s, revealed that not much has changed in the daily life of some Afghans. And the connection? Plastics and modernity is an ongoing interest. Afghanistan is more recent.


And tangentially, while on this theme, zoom into Chris Jordan’s paintings. Warning: it ain’t great art, but it’s worth searching his first series to find his Barbie Dolls! Thanks Christine for the link…

Indigenous science


Who says the Night Parrot is extinct? One example was scraped off the front of a road train near Boulia, in northwest Queensland in 1990, and more recently another was found dead after apparently having decapitated itself flying into a barbed wire fence. But this fabulous painted ceramic vessel suggests the ladies of the desert at Hermannsburg know more than we give them credit for. Sure, they’ve included many exotic species in their repertoire over the years, and yes, maybe some well-meaning whitefella bought them a book of bird pictures to work from – but. But it’s highly likely they know what they’re talking about. Who else, you might ask, knows more about poking clumps of spinifex grass than these naturalists? Is this evidence, or just nostalgia? This example of their trademark ceramic art was made by Sonia Davis in 1996.

inner space outer space


Anish Kapoor: Memory, 2008

Cor-ten steel, 14.5 x 8.97 x 4.48m  Commissioned by Deutsche Bank AG in consultation with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the Deutsche Guggenheim
Installation view: Anish Kapoor: Memory, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, November 30, 2008–February 1, 2009 Photo: Mathias Schormann
© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Now see it from the other side on Transit Lane. Or, thinking form and space…


here’s Sputnik 1, (at the UN Building in New York, photograph contributed by Jan Luedert).


“Tackling The Field” @ AGNSW: “a period which would threaten the “death of painting” altogether”. Infelicitous title. Dopey commentary. Maybe only one or two of the artists (Ramsden, Burn) had this kind of agenda in mind? At least the curator Natalie Wilson doesn’t take this position, quite. The scholars among you can read her essay online. A vast bibliography, curiously minus Ian Burn and The Iconophile’s Purity, Style, Amnesia from The Field Now, Heide Park and Art Gallery, 1984, or the exchange between Patrick McCaughey and Mel Ramsden . Why might that be?