Vale: Yuri, the Russian Storyteller

My first event with Yuri happened in a folk festival at St Albans. He sat solid and held a wooden boat, a bit bigger than the palm of his hand. But instead of a mast, it featured a candle and, in a booming voice he declared that he was about to perform magic. First he lit the candle and told his audience that “I am about to transform this Russian storyteller into an Irishman”. He then moved the candlelight across his craggy face and there issued forth, one of the strangest Russo-Germanic-Australian accented versions of an Irish accent . Most I had ever heard. People smiled, but they sat there riveted by his story of a man called Willie the Wren, in a foggy and unworldly confrontation with demons. Yuri really did perform magic.

From then on we met at many festivals, often shared the stage together and drank endless cups of coffee.

Yuri, the Russian Storyteller had a German mother and from 1942 until the end of the War, he and his mother sat side by side in a Berlin air-raid shelter, while above them by day, American bombers and, by night British bombers rained down death and destruction.

He told many Russian stories, endless Russian jokes and spread wonder with recitations of such long poems as “The Highwayman” and the “Wreck of the Hesperus”. He was a reciter in the 19th Century style of the Grand Orator. Patrons in the front rows almost reeled from the volume Yuri would bring forth. No one in the back row could complain of not hearing.

Yuri travelled everywhere to perform at folk and Word Festivals. He regularly performed at the National (here in Canberra), and was the Featured Storyteller at a “Weekend of Storytelling” at the National Library. He became known as the doyen of Australian storytellers, heading up a revival of the oral tradition.

For all his success, Yuri limited himself to Storytelling for Adults. He didn’t tell stories to children. He had set his ambitions on straightforward stories, regardless of any inherent message in the stories. He saw himself as a teller and entertainer for adults. He also made his niche-market pay. He inspired an agent to arrange bookings for such gatherings as Sydney Rotary Clubs. Suddenly his income exploded from being paid $100 a night to $3,000. He really did work magic. But he wasn’t the only one.

At a festival in Cobargo, we were all sitting in a coffee shop with Yuri and his new friend, Melanie. Melanie was (and is), Irish. Yuri had offered her transport from Sydney. But that morning, out of nowhere he asked her to go to his car outside and to bring his candle box. His request sounded more like an order and in dulcet-Irish tones, Yuri was told to go and “get the bloody thing hisself”. From then on they were inseparable.

Melanie introduced Yuri to Shamanism and a different level of thinking. Her drumming and drum making was so stimulating, Yuri’s Storytelling rose to a new level. They were a folk duo and so, for the rest of his life Yuri himself had become the conveyor of magic.

Yuri was an all-right-guitar player and at one stage in the early 70s, he played with a group called the Huldre Folk. One of the group, Eric (I think) Misheloe played a Russian instrument called something like a Bandura. It was big, sat on his lap and looked like a combination of harp, guitar and zither. It had a great-huge sound and inspired Yuri to extend his Russian stories.

Yuri was only 72 when he died. He went quietly and peacefully in his sleep. It is probable that such an event was the only time he did anything quietly. Those who knew him, miss him greatly. He did nothing small and he leaves a huge hole. All our sympathies go to Melanie, the wild Russian’s, Irish partner. Slanté.

Brian Hungerford.