Australia in 1979 wasn’t perfect. The dour Fraser government; the ructions of the World Series Cricket war; the appalling state of public wifi there was a lot to complain about. But for some, it was paradise on Earth. Among their number was Liliana Gasinskaya, an 18-year-old Ukrainian woman who had seen photos of Australia in a magazine and bethought herself, “You know that looks pretty bloody nice”. And a quick glance at the state of things in the Soviet Union at the time kind of confirms that, for all the dourness and cricketing schisms, Australia was, by comparison, a sunny Utopia.
Of course, it wasn’t easy to get out of the USSR, because the Communist Party was quite aware that, life under them being a bit grim, if they just let people leave whenever they wanted, the whole place would empty out like a cracked egg timer. But Gasinskaya had a plan: getting a job as a waitress on a Russian cruise liner – and frankly, even having cruise liners doesn’t seem very Soviet, does it? It’s just giving the citizens a chance to see what they’re missing – she waited till the good ship Leonard Sobinov sailed into Sydney Harbour, and promptly leapt through a porthole. Like a character in a wacky silent comedy or something – it was as ballsy a move as a Ukrainian waitress has ever pulled.
Splashing into Sydney Harbour, Gasinskaya quickly attracted attention, for two reasons: 1. She was a symbol of the universal human yearning for freedom; and 2. She’d jumped out the porthole wearing only a red bikini. The Daily Mirror newspaper managed to outfox Russian consular officials and whisk young Liliana away to a secret location. Protecting their scoop, they even put a cadet reporter in a red bikini and had a Russian translator field media questions on her behalf to keep people on the wrong scent.
A furious political debate erupted over whether Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar should grant Gasinskaya asylum – as a rule, ship deserters were deported. MacKellar’s decision to let her stay sparked angry accusations of “sensational cheesecake immigration” – which frankly sounds pretty wonderful on the face of it – from the Opposition, who questioned whether aspiring immigrants were assessed on the basis of how they looked in a bikini. Not the worst system, even if so, if you ask me. Others questioned why refugees from wars in Asia, fleeing for their lives, weren’t welcomed with arms as open as the “Girl In The Red Bikini”, as the press had somewhat unimaginatively dubbed her. And it was true that as a rule, Asian asylum seekers in the 1970s were treated far less sympathetically – and that as a rule, they didn’t arrive in bikinis. One media pundit was more positive on Gasinskaya’s arrival, writing “I would say that being young and nubile makes her a desirable immigrant for the simple social reason that our past immigration programs have left us with a surplus of young, single men”. A good point, well made.
Whatever one’s political views, it couldn’t be denied that Liliana Gasinskaya fully embraced Australia, and western capitalism in general, as after settling Down Under, she quickly made history for a second time by becoming the very first nude centrefold in Penthouse Australia’s inaugural issue. It was a groundbreaking move by the plucky young Ukrainian, who had confirmed her initial impression that Australia was a real land of opportunity. In Soviet Russia, nude modelling opportunities had been thin on the ground.
Gasinskaya kept on kicking goals in her new country. Declaring her intention to become an actress, she enrolled in modelling school, went on to become a professional disco dancer and DJ, and appeared on TV in Young Doctors and Arcade, a show now almost as well-remembered as former Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar.
Gasinskaya also demonstrated just how appealing a girl in a red bikini could be, when a photographer from the Daily Mirror left his wife and three kids for her. Truly, she had proven the viability of the Australian dream, and the fact that if you’re young, determined and smoking hot, you can do anything. Forty years on, that’s still worth saluting.