Hey! You just missed Petrov’s car!

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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

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