Food

Restaurant Closures, Covid, and Things I Know About Resilience

After fleeing Soviet Russia to open a restaurant in Melbourne, I know there's always light ahead.
September 4, 2020, 4:53am
covid restaurant shut down melbourne

Our last day of trade was March 14. After that, people began cancelling their reservations en masse. Restrictions were tightening, case numbers were growing, and the Australia we knew was closing down.

In the months before coronavirus hit, my restaurant, Rasputin, was thriving. A 200-seater dining hall nestled in the heart of Malvern, it was reminiscent of Dr Zhivago—complete with red carpets, columned walls, high ceilings and chandeliers. We served Eastern European food; cuisine that traversed Russia, Ukraine, and Poland: red caviar, pirozhki, blinkchiki. Our calendar was full of reservations, and on most days we were completely booked out.

Shutting our doors for the last time, it felt like my life’s work was falling apart. Shortly after, radios and news outlets would echo the same narrative: that everything would be different for a long time, but no one could say how long. It was awful, yet at the same time, awfully familiar.

You see, in the last few years I had finally felt like I was getting somewhere. I had felt like a success. I had built the place up with my own two hands, through years of long nights and exhausting days. And Rasputin was just starting to flourish. But the closing of Rasputin wasn’t the first disappointment I’ve known.

After growing up in Soviet Russia, and escaping to Australia thinking that I could make money as a musician, I know a thing or two about expectations. I know that assuming life owes us fairness is folly. I know that the path ahead is often difficult and unforgiving. But I also know (and continue to believe) that there’s always light on the horizon.

I was born in Odesa in 1959, at the height of Soviet rule and right before the Beatles skyrocketed to fame. Nestled in the port of Southern Ukraine, my childhood under the iron curtain was exactly what you’d expect: Soviet propaganda and communist dogmatism. People kept their heads low and their mouths shut, afraid to express opinions that would risk their jobs or put them in trouble with the law. With the Black Sea on one side and the Eastern Wall on the other, we were isolated and cut off from the rest of the world.

Despite this, I found solace in the black market. A window to the outside world, I spent most of my days combing through the Beatles records on sale and flicking through the crumbled pages of smuggled Neckermann. I wanted to look exactly like the models in the magazine, and even though there was scarcity in everything, I saved for months on end just so I could afford a pair of denim jeans. In the era of the Beatles, John Lennon and Ringo Starr were my idols, and all I wanted to do was play the guitar or the drums. There was nothing more rock and roll than that. But my father forced me to play the trumpet instead. There wasn’t ever any room for a trumpet player in the bands.

By the end of the ‘90s, the Soviet Union was falling apart. The economy was in ruin, organised crime was at its peak and people were left with no source of income, no future and no hope. There was a shortage of basic goods and services, and particularly of medicine. My father had motor neurone disease, and it was impossible for us to find what we needed to sustain his life.

When Australia announced a short-lived family reunion program, welcoming those with Australian relatives into the country, I knew we were being afforded a chance. My mother-in-law had a brother there and with Gorbachev in power, restrictions were easing. There was a narrow opportunity for us to escape. My brother and I took it and ran.

We flew from Odesa to Kyiv, from Kyiv to Sofia and then from Sofia to Melbourne, finally arriving on September 13, 1992. I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was cold and raining when we landed.

The adjustment to the Australian way of life was tough, especially coming from a communist regime. Western society was a completely different ball game. We had to learn to speak English, a slow and drawn-out process, and we struggled with many things, such as making sense of the television or the radio.

I had arrived in the middle of a recession and all I had was my musical training. I was left no choice but to commute to Sydney for work, a full day’s bus journey there and back all for one or two gigs. I spent more time on a Greyhound than in the city itself, and I spent many lonely nights thinking about what I had left behind. I was a successful musician in Odesa but in Australia, I was no one.

As hard as it was, I embraced Australia fully. I had fallen in love with the country; I loved its freedom, its culture and most of all, its barbecue. There was no access to foreign markets in Odesa, so we only ate what we could grow. We had to conserve everything for winter, from fish to watermelon. In Odesa, I had never seen let alone tasted pineapples or bananas, but here, I chowed down on them for months on end.

However, my memories of Odesa never left me. I was nostalgic for my youth, for the smells of the city in spring, the colours of the trees in autumn. I missed running down Deribasovkaya Street with my friends, I missed the sunflower seed vendors outside my apartment block, I missed the shimmer of the great Black Sea. Most of all though, I missed the people. In Odesa, everyone knew one another—you’d socialise in the courts, in the parks, in the flats. An Odessite proverb says it all: For better is a neighbour that is near than a brother far off.

I needed a way to express my love for the place that held a piece of my heart, and an escape from the loneliness of everyday life. I decided to do this the only way I knew how: through music.

In between working shifts at restaurants, my brother Igor Arbatov, my old friend Boris Bortnik and I formulated a plan: to record an album reflective of our time in Australia, and our longing for the early days in Odesa. Alena my wife wrote the lyrics (she’s an incredible poet) and we named it “Crossing Poles,” a homage to our venture from the Northern hemisphere to the South. We locked ourselves in a studio in South Melbourne for an entire week until it was finished.

We didn’t necessarily expect to make it big off the tape, but we did hope for a wide reception. Instead, we got nothing; only a letter or two in response. We had spent $7000 making the record—money that was extremely hard to come by at the time—and given just as much in heart and soul.

The defeat was hard to swallow, and it took me months on end before I could finally convince myself to let go and move on. Eventually, I opened up my first restaurant and the business overshadowed everything else, including the tapes.

A few weeks ago, my son was working at his café Applehead Deli when he was approached by a young couple. They asked him if he was related to Sasha and Igor Arbatov and told him that they had found a tape of Russian music in their parents’ garage dated from the ‘90s. They said they knew every single lyric to every song.

With their help, my son has recently digitised the tape. I thought that the spirit of the ‘90s was dead, but it lives on through the people listening to our music. In less than 48 hours since upload, one song has received more than a thousand views. Despite all odds, our songs are finally being heard, even if it is 25 years later. Knowing that my music is out there makes me feel young again; it reminds me of how I felt all those years ago when I first sat down in that little South Melbourne studio. It reminds me of my first love, Odesa.

Although the closure of Rasputin has been weighing heavily on my mind, I still hold out hope for the future. Through all the curveballs life has thrown at me, and all the disappointments I’ve suffered, I know that this too will pass. But until it does, I’ll be dancing in my living room, son in hand, “Crossing Poles” blaring in the background. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned about disappointment it’s this: just like that rainy day when I first landed in Australia, the sunshine is never too far away. Even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

You can listen to Alex’s music on YouTube