THE BOBROFF SAGA
The impending threat of revolution had been hovering over Russia for some time and finally, in February 1917 a popular revolution forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas 11 and established a provisional government. In the October revolution of that year, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, later known as Lenin, came to power and the following civil war lasted from 1918 to 1920, ending in victory for the Bolsheviks.
It was during this turbulent time that Maria Ivanovna Bobrusova met Jacov Petrovich Bobroff. Maria was born in 1892, at Arhubinsk, on the Volga River near Astrakhan. After completing her education in Astrakhan she spent seven years at the Teachers’ Academy, after which she returned to Arhubinsk to teach.
Jacov Bobroff was born in 1892 at Kaluga, where his father was the village blacksmith, the engineer of the town. He and his brother attended the Military Academy, in Moscow, and graduated in 1916, after which Jacov became a forestry surveyor with the rank of Lieutenant.
Maria and Jacov were married at Tsaritsyn in 1918 by her brother, who was an ordained priest. Then they, and most of their families, fled to Astrakhan and from there attempted to reach Gur’yev, a distance of nearly 400 kilometres. They travelled through the middle of a very severe Russian winter. Some survived the five day storm but, sadly, Maria’s mother and father and other members of her family died because they could not endure the driving snow and winds of that terrible weather. They arrived at Gur’yev in September 1920.
Jacov & Maria Bobroff.
At Gur’yev contact was made with a Cossack General Tolstoff (a graduate of the Military Academy, in Moscow) who had gathered a detachment of Ural Cossacks for an attempt to strike south for Fort Alexandroff, and thence into the desert along the Eastern border of the Caspian Sea into Persia and safety; some 1750 kilometres. At the Fort the party was overtaken by a Bolshevik delegation of 12 people on horseback who offered amnesty to the General and the party if they returned with them. This was refused. The Red Army detachment followed them for some time, but eventually, gave up as the operation was too expensive. They were not pursuing a disorganized rabble, but a disciplined band of Cossacks.
Some 800 souls, men, women and children, set off with whatever they could carry and with whatever arms they could muster, for not only did they expect pursuit from the Red Army but opposition to their passage by the very militant Turkoman tribesmen - desert brothers of the Afghans.
As expected, the journey was not easy. Of the 800 who left Gur’yev, less than half survived to enjoy the hospitality of the British Army in Persia and Mesopotamia. Lieutenant Bobroff worked with the Army for two months during which time he was employed on plans, drawings and surveys.
As the news from Russia worsened, all thoughts of a quick return vanished and the only hope seemed to be Vladivostok, on the eastern coast of Siberia, which was still in monarchist hands. The group embarked on a British troop ship which took them to Vladivostok, but sadly, the money that they had been carrying so carefully proved worthless when they arrived there. Some of the group went to Habin, in China.
In 1922 the Bobroffs were living in Nikolsk-Ussuriysk, some miles north of Vladivostok, where, on the 13th August, their son, Orest Jacovlavich was born. In Australia he is known as ‘Bob’. He is an Ural Cossack, like his father. His birth certificate was issued by St. Sergei Church in Nikolsk-Ussuriysk.
Ussuriysk, a city in southern Maritime Territory far eastern Russia and north-eastern Asia, is an industrial city and rail centre. It lies on the Razdolnaya River 112km north of Vladivostok. The city was known as Nikolsk-Ussuriysk until 1935 and as Voroshilov until 1957. It is an important transport hub. It is a junction on both the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Chinese Eastern Railway and a stop on the highway between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.
As things deteriorated still further and living for refugees in Vladivostok and China was not easy, small groups of Cossacks made their way to Australia where they earned enough money by cutting cane to provide passage money for those who were willing to risk the new land. In those days, there were no assisted passages, no migrant hostels or Government handouts and the Great Depression of the 1930s was already beginning. In fact, the Labour Government then in power made the emigrants sign a paper saying that they would never be a burden on the Australian Government before they were allowed to enter the country – quite different from today.
Arriving in Australia in 1925, in Queensland, with a three-year-old son, the Bobroffs joined a group cutting cane at Cordalba, with Maria cooking for the gang. The conditions were very primitive for they lived in tents with no running water or electricity and no toilets. The next season was spent picking cotton, again living in a tent, outside Monto, and Maria would have her small son strapped to her back whilst doing her work. After another attempt at cane cutting, the family settled in Brisbane where Jacov became a house painter, later graduating to sign writing. Not only was he a sign writer, but an artist and a sculptor.
Their house was a focal point for their fellow refugees who came to be with familiar people and to sing and talk and eat traditional food prepared by Maria. They supported one another and in this way gained some comfort from each other in a strange land. On one occasion, Anna Pavlova, the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet who was visiting Australia, joined one of these gatherings and Bob, as a small boy, remembers talking to a charming and very human person – one who would become a legend in the world of ballet.
Before World War 11, Jacov assisted in building the Russian Orthodox Church, in Vulture Street, Brisbane and painted all the icons in the church. The pennant of the Ural Cossacks, on which Bob’s name is written on the ferrule, hangs in the church, because he is a Cossack like his father. General Tolstoff, also an Ural Cossack, carried the pennant with him during their long journey. He and his family, when they first arrived in Queensland, lived in a tent but the Queensland weather was not suitable for preserving a red and gold brocade pennant, so it was placed in St. Nicholas Church, in Vulture Street for preservation and safe-keeping. When Sid Tolstoff, the General’s son, and his wife, Vicky, were in Russia, in the 1990s, they met the leaders of the Ural Cossacks who asked if the pennant could be returned to them. However, as at March 2003, the committee of the Vulture Street church, none of whom spoke Russian, refused to agree to return the pennant, nor would they allow anyone to see it. Happily, recently, the pennant has been returned home to the Ural Cossacks, in Russia.
Jacov had a remarkable tenor voice and was trained by the Church in ecclesiastical singing and so he had the knowledge and skill to establish the choir of the Russian Orthodox Church, in Vulture Street. He conducted the choir there for many, many years. Bob was an altar boy and fondly remembers Father Valentine, an archpriest of the church. He had a long beard and wore a stovepipe hat. Bob remembers him as a true Christian who lived very simply and gave away his money to any who needed it.
Bob was growing up and he first attended Ithaca Creek State School and then went on to Brisbane State High School, where he spent four years from 1935 to 1938. He did well at school, but one of his teachers, Miss Orr, wrote in his autograph book – “the will is needed to carry out the purposes of the mind”. Bob and Jack (a fellow student) were good friends and keen rowers and were well matched in that sport. They have remained life-long friends. Bob learnt Japanese, too, and his teacher was Professor Saita. He also played Rugby, joined the Army Cadets and the Bardon Scouts and became a patrol leader in 1936, aged 14. At about this age he built a kayak which foreshadowed his love of sailing. He finished his Senior Examination at 17 years of age. Bob also played the Spanish guitar and the balalaika.
In 1939, Bob went to Tully and became an articled cadet with Staff Surveyor of the State Survey Office, Torlief Hein, who later became Surveyor General of Queensland. In 1939, Percival Harvey was the Surveyor General.
World War II had started and Bob returned to Brisbane to be with his parents for Christmas 1940, after which he joined the 5th Australian Field Survey Company, on the 29th January 1941, at Kelvin Grove Barracks. Major Egling was the Commanding Officer at the time. Bob did his basic training at Kilcoy, headquarters of the Company. The Company worked all over Queensland and Thursday Island and commenced the trigonometrical survey of Australia. During the last year of the War, the Survey Company was sent by American convoy to Borneo as part of the 9th Division. They served in Borneo in Labuan and Muara.
Bobroff at age 19.
At the end of hostilities, the Company returned to Australia on board the S.S. “Manoora”, which they had to load due to a strike by waterside workers. They were not demobbed straightaway so Bob spent about six months at Kilcoy, where he had to help put down a mutiny. He left the Army as a Warrant Officer Class 2 in 1946.
When he returned home to Paddington, he intended to go to the University of Queensland to do a degree in surveying, which was to be paid for by the Army but decided that that was too tame after Army life and sat for the Survey Board’s examination, in Brisbane, instead. He passed this examination and became a licensed surveyor in 1952.
Bob then moved to Cairns and went into private practice. In Cairns he met and married Jill and they had two sons, Peter and Paul Robert. They, too, are Ural Cossacks.
Bob built a 20ft Yvonne catamaran, the first in North Queensland, which he sailed for many years, often to Green Island, either alone or with his friend Jack, and also to Badara, Dunk and Hinchinbrook Islands. He sailed single handed from Cairns to Townsville, a distance of 720 km. When he was growing up Bob built a canoe and a kayak and sailed them on the Brisbane River, but whilst in Cairns he was able to indulge his love of sailing. He also bought a green 1950 Standard Vanguard station wagon which lasted for many years. Later he bought a white Volkswagen Beetle which started his love of VWs – a passion which has lasted all his life. In later life, in Melbourne, he built the “Bobswagen” from a fibreglass mould of a Porsche. It travelled many miles from Melbourne to Brisbane and Canberra. Later he gave the Bobswagen to Ed Burke and then bought a green 1600 VW station wagon. It was known as the “grasshopper” because of its colour. Bob sold this to a friend, a German VW expert, and then, in 1995, bought a VW Golf, which still exists today.
Bob was not entirely happy in private practice so, in 1960, with encouragement from his friend, Ted Seton, he joined the Division of National Mapping, in Melbourne, and later was the Supervising Surveyor of the Geodetic Survey Branch. His career in National Mapping was involved with the Geodetic Survey of Australia, which mapped the continent.
He spent many years taking survey parties all over the country. These parties consisted of about 30 people, surveyors, technical personnel and support staff. They went out into the field during the winter because it would have been impossible to work in the heat of the summer in the deserts. The Geodetic Survey of Australia is one of the wonders of the survey world as it was completed in ten years – an incredible achievement.
Bobroff in the 1960s - at Well 35 and in the office.
There are many tales that could be told of their time in the wilds of Australia, but two especially stand out in Bob’s memory. One year they encountered members of the Pintubi Tribe who had never seen white man before. Apparently, whilst the survey party slept the Aborigines silently came and looked at them. In the morning foot prints and spear holes were found and the party wondered what was happening. Then a group of Aborigines appeared, men women and children. Neither group spoke the other’s language, but they communicated by signs and got on well together. The surveyors gave them some tinned food and then showed off white man’s magic by firing a rifle and hitting a tin can of petrol. The Aborigines were impressed but then took the survey party to a certain place away from the camp and told them to stay there. The Aborigines disappeared over a sand hill and promptly stirred up a willy willy which came to a stop near the survey party. It was the Aborigines way of saying “OK chaps, see if you can you do that”. Bob said that they were intelligent and curious, particularly the old man who was the head of the group. When they pointed at something they did it with their lips. The children were all well behaved and listened when elders spoke but then ran off and behaved like any other children. Bob has wondered since what has happened to them and how they have fared in contact with white man.
The second tale is about Jupiter Well , in 1961. Bob organised his party in Alice Springs to travel north-west to the Canning Stock Route in the vicinity of Well 35 as part of the geodetic survey of Australia. On Sunday the 2nd July the party of ten men in six vehicles left Alice Springs and travelled via Papunya and Liebig bore to their starting point, a journey of some 350 miles. Liebig bore was of interest as it was their last source of water, which had to be carried from there to all points west. They had to look for water and eventually a member of his party, Ed Burke, found a likely spot which proved successful and the party began digging a well and shored it up with timber. There was much discussion around the camp fire about a name for the place and, overcome with curiosity one night at about 11 pm with an almost full moon, they went to see how much water it had made and there, reflected in the bottom, was the planet Jupiter. So, of course, the place became known as Jupiter Well.
(Perhaps of even greater importance is that while the well was being dug Bob, Bob Goldsworthy and Bill Johnson drove west to Well 35 on the Canning Stock Route. This was the first time a motor vehicle had reached this point and their wheeltracks were later graded by WRE to make the current ‘road’ – Ed).
After many years of field work and supervising field parties, Bob retired as the Supervising Surveyor of the Topographic Surveys Branch of National Mapping, in 1982, in Melbourne. When he retired he was presented with the Parkinson and Fronsham chronometer which he had used in the desert for all those years. It was made in 1834 and something which Bob cherished. He gave it to his son Peter. Perhaps it should have gone to Greenwich?
Bobroff with his Chronometer at his retirement function.
In 1984, Bob married Sadie Edmonds, who was born in Newport, in South Wales, UK.
At the age of 90, Bob had to move to Buderim Views for full time care. In 2000, for the first time in his life, he had a very serious illness – an aortic aneurism and split aorta. A leading cardiac surgeon in Queensland, saved his life, but the illness has taken its toll. Sadie, who had been taking care of him could no longer cope with the 24/7 care, so reluctantly Bob was moved to Buderim Views. It was just next door to the Village so Sadie could visit as often as possible and even have lunch with him. He was looked after very well and had every care. Bob passed away quietly on 9 December 2013.
Sadie continued to stay in touch with Natmap people and many visited her when in the area. However, as time progressed she too moved into Buderim Views under full time care. In 2007 she corresponded with her old college in Perth on the occasion of their Bicentenary of Federation dinner. A copy of Sadie's letter can be viewed via this link. Sadie passed away quietly on 3 June 2017.
(It was Sadie who provided the full version of ‘The Bobroff Saga’, from which this is an edited version for the web. On Sadie's passing this account has now been updated - Ed., June 2017).
Bobroff providing his point of view!