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Anatol Kagan (1913–2009)

by Hall Greenland

Anatol Kagan, c.2004

Anatol Kagan, c.2004

By the time he arrived in Australia 70 years ago, Anatol Kagan had been deported from the Soviet republic and fled his temporary place of refuge, Nazi Germany. Full of hope, he immersed himself in the life of his new country, especially politics. To the extent that there were messages of condolence from three Labor prime ministers at his funeral following his death, aged 95, at the Montefiore Nursing Home in Hunters Hill, Sydney.

Kagan settled in Melbourne in 1939 and joined the Labor Party after World War II; he also recruited his own Trotskyist group before moving to Sydney in 1955 with his third wife, Dawn. In Sydney, he met Jim McClelland — later a Whitlam minister but then a Marxist revolutionary — who put him in touch with the Balmain Trotskyists, where he met such figures as Nick Origlass, Issy Wyner, Laurie Short, and Gil and Edna Roper.

While in Melbourne, his company, Anatol Kagan and Associates, designed the wonderful Mount Scopus College. State and media archives still perpetuate the myth that Dr Ernest Fooks was the designer, but he was involved with the administration of the project.

Born in St Petersburg, Kagan was a child of the Russian Revolution. He could remember being hurried home by his nanny as police were chased down the street by angry workers, with shots ringing out from snipers on the rooftops. It was 1917 and his family lived close to Znamenskaya Square, where the February Revolution began.

He recalled, too, the nightly fireworks displays after the Bolsheviks liberated the tsar's arsenal of sky rockets, and the ragged ranks of workers and soldiers marching through the streets with their tattered banners and red flags.

By the age of eight, he was visiting his father, Abram Saulovich, in prison. Kagan snr was a prominent Menshevik, an academic and publisher, and one of the 120 liberal and left-wing intellectuals expelled on Lenin's orders from the Soviet Union in 1922. To illustrate the different fate of dissidents under Lenin and Stalin, Kagan would point out that his family was given first-class tickets on a liner that took them to Germany.

The family settled in Berlin, where his father resumed his life as a publisher, and counted such titans as Carl Jung, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Nabokov and, eventually, Leon Trotsky, among his authors. As a 17-year-old, Kagan read the printer's proofs of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution and was dazzled and converted.

As a Jew, holder of a Soviet passport and by then a Trotskyist, they were dangerous times for Kagan after Hitler came to power in 1933. An architecture student at Berlin University, he was part of a small Trotskyist group that met secretly in nearby woods and left anti-Nazi leaflets on buses and trams.

After their leader, another Soviet refugee, Oscar Grossman, was arrested in 1934 and sentenced to two years in jail, the group fell apart. When Grossman was released, Stalin's police sent him to a gulag, where he disappeared.

In March 1938, Kagan's family, caught between two brutal regimes, were tipped off that the Gestapo intended to arrest and deport them back to the Soviet Union. If Nazi Germany was a dangerous place, Stalin's Russia was, at that point, even more so. The family quickly fled, the son making his way to London, before continuing on to Melbourne. He had received his degree in architecture from Berlin University in 1936, complete with Nazi swastika emblazoned on the certificate.

As a Soviet refugee from Nazi Germany, he had to register with police in Melbourne as a political alien. The policeman interviewing him asked about the scar on his chin: "I suppose the Gestapo gave you that?" Kagan replied: "No, my chest expander broke and hit me on the chin."

When he moved to Sydney, he joined the Government Architect's office. It was the 1950s; he entered the competition to design the city's proposed new Opera House, and was long listed. As a follower of the Bauhaus style, however, he was never entirely happy with the result of that competition. It was an unhappiness made worse by the fact that Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect selected to build the multi-function facility at Bennelong Point, on Sydney Harbour, had not complied with the entry conditions. "And those sails," Kagan would argue, "were just four inches (10 centimetres) thick in Utzon's winning design … if it had been built as designed, it would have blown away in the first stiff breeze."

Yet, for all that, he led the walk-out from the Government Architect's office when Utzon was sacked.

Meanwhile, he became actively involved in the Labor Party and for the next 40 years carried out all those mundane and necessary duties a party loyalist undertakes. In 1995, the party made him a life member, and when the end came, there were messages of condolence from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and two of his Labor predecessors, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke. It has to be added, however, that for some of that 40 years, Kagan had simultaneously been a member of the Greens, while still driven by the faith of his youth.

Kagan never gave up on his dream of a better world. Right to the end this gentle Marxist democrat attended his Labor Party branch meetings armed with resolutions or his latest letter to the prime minister about the need for genuine action to tackle the climate crisis.

He is survived by his wife, Dawn, children Peter, Natalie, Stefanie and Catherine, and numerous grandchildren.

* Hall Greenland is the editor of The Week. He met Anatol Kagan in 1964 and was a comrade of his in the Fourth International, the ALP and the Greens.

Original publication

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Citation details

Hall Greenland, 'Kagan, Anatol (1913–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/kagan-anatol-34176/text42876, accessed 20 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Anatol Kagan, c.2004

Anatol Kagan, c.2004

Life Summary [details]

Birth

4 October, 1913
St Petersburg, Russia

Death

2 July, 2009 (aged 95)
Hunters Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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