Australian Marxist Review

AMR Interview with Comrade Sally Mitchel May 2023

Part 1: Eureka Youth League/YSL/Soviet Union

USSR crowd


SM: Sally Mitchel

AMR: Hello, today we are recording on the 14th of May 2023 just after a very successful party school in Adelaide. I have here with me Comrade Sally Mitchel who is a member of the Central Committee and a long time member here who will speak to us about party history. We are so glad to have you here Sally.

SM: Thank you.

AMR: So Sally, we are wanting to start with how long have you been a member of the communist party, or rather (laughs) based upon the discussion we have had, how long you have been associated with the with the party?

SM: I have been associated with the party arguably all of my life, in that I grew up in a family of communists, and equally had grandparents who were communists. So, it is like growing up with a religion, we grew up with the party. In terms of actually joining, I have joined the party a couple of times though most recently about 6 to 7 years ago, I think it was the case that when I was looking after mum I rejoined the party, but didn’t become more active until you know post Briton leaving the party.

AMR: That’s great, what were your parents’ names and involvement in the party?

SM: Jim Mitchel was my dad, dad passed away in his 90th year in approximately 2002. Dad was born in Liverpool in 1911 or something around that. He joined the party when he was 16, after coming to Australia he was living in Hamilton and joined the Communist Party of Australia at that age. Mum joined the party a bit later, but before she was married to Dad. I think dad might have recruited her mum and dad as well. Her brother was a member of the party. Mum and her brother, they was ostracised from their own family as a result of all that, as was her mother. They kicked them out and didn’t do anything to assist them again because they were comms.

AMR: Did you ever hear many stories from your parents about what was going on with the party or did you hear more details later on?

SM: Well, yeah the party and its history. Well the split in 1969 I am aware of that as mum was due to go on an overseas delegation right at that moment, and the delegation was postponed because of it, and so it was delayed. I was aware that there was a political problem going down, but I was only around 9 at that time so I wasn’t afae with all of the details that was going on that, other then all the people that we knew were soon thereafter meeting in our lounge room.

AMR: Oh wow, do you remember much about these meetings in your lounge room, and did you witness or see them?

SM: The lounge room would be full, it was like a suburban lounge where lots of the branches would meet, not necessarily in rooms but in people’s houses. If you look at the ASIO files of the parents you will find that all the number plates were listed outside those meetings, someone outside was taking down the number plates of attendees. That’s in their ASIO files, cross referenced to the appropriate file. They would have discussions, our job as kids was to go around and take the tea and coffee orders and make up the biscuits and deliver supper to the group. We were sort of not participating in the meeting by any means, but were supporting the meeting in that way.

AMR: That’s really wonderful, and I guess an effective use of the kids by the parents (laughter).

SM: That extended back even to for example my dad was elected as a local councillor to the Woodville council here, but way way back when I was much younger then that, and as kids we were regularly at polling booths handing out leaflets, if we ran out of the how to vote cards the kids would be sent inside to get them out of the bins and things like that. You know, polling days were always a centre of activity; at one of our houses where everyone would come and get their instructions on how to and where to go. And as kids we were leafleting, we knew how to fold leaflets by the time we were knee height of a grasshopper, we could do it really quickly, letter-boxing all that was just part and parcel of what we did.

AMR: That’s really interesting, were you a member of the party’s youth league?

SM: Yeah, yep. We all were. The EYL, the Eureka Youth League at the time. My mum was a member of the Eureka Youth League in her time, and um it was great to be able to, I couldn’t wait to join. You know, because my older sisters and my brother were all in the Eureka Youth League. I was a bit too young but they were doing all these exciting things and going away to annual camps and having a great time with people and I really wanted to be part of that. So the moment you could, you were there.

AMR: What sort of activities did you do as a member of the Eureka Youth League?

SM: We would meet regularly, when I first joined that and was involved in that we had rooms Hindley street, one of the main streets in Adelaide, one of the busiest streets regarded as a ratbag street. It was where the party had a bookshop as well. And so we would meet upstairs there and hang out and do all that stuff and but we would have schools, we would have camps, we would have discussions we would have social activities, we would have car rallies, we had a basketball team, we had all sorts of activities going on within the league,.. you know, and an annual camp that goes down in history that many people can tell you about.

AMR: Say think of your favourite camp that you went on, what were the activities that you did at that camp along with everyone else?

SM: They used to have a camp based out at second valley, which is down the coast from Adelaide about an hour’s drive at the most and it was in a caravan park. At the bottom of that caravan park there was a shed, inside that shed was all of our stuff. It was our (Eureka Youth League) shed! I don’t know how that happened and I don’t know the history of that, but every year we would go down and we would have big marquees, and we would have to set them up and dig the channels because it would always rain!

AMR: (laughter)

SM: You know! and you would get water right through the tents and the sleeping bags and everything! There was a girls tent and a boy’s tent and they shall not mix, and we would have a mess tend for eating, and we would do a camp concert to which the whole of the caravan park would be invited to. And there was people from around the country that you would want on your team as they were bloody good at it, and you could win the competition with it. (laughter). Bruce Hune from Victoria comes to mind with that. And that was it, we would come together with people from interstate regularly every year, and so we had that closeness and that camaraderie across the organisation across the country.

AMR: That’s really excellent, and I have heard from comrades that their time in the Eureka Youth League made them want to join the party, did it play that part for you?

SM: Very much so! At that time it was the stepping stone and the party’s membership was benefited by those coming out of the league, it was all age based you know, so once you got too old for the league then you joined the party and participated within that.

AMR: How old were people when they aged out of the Eureka Youth League?

SM: I can’t remember that exactly. I think it was on that brochure we were just looking at with Lou Chin’s signatory on it. I think the age range was 16 to….. It must have been twenties, couldn’t be any older than that surely.

AMR: I have scanned them so just bear with me for a moment.

SM: Just hold on we will get a date on that. And they went on post that, the venue changed, I think that the caravan park changed, and so we ended up having camps in later years in two different other spots. [Macoldsviles] up in the hills was the location for some time, it was just like a scout camp we used to hire each year, and then another place down [Oldinga].

AMR: So the brochure for the YSL (Young Socialist League – youth league of the Socialist Party of Australia) that we were looking at for the Christmas camp in 1972 had an age range of 16 to 32 years.

SM: There we go, we count the youth young.

AMR: (Laughter)

SM: You don’t get out of the youth! One of the great things about the camps was that it wasn’t just party members, in particular with the youth camps was that we would look at and get sponsorship from unions to be able to invite along kids that were maybe outside the party but close to the party and give them a chance for a holiday, kids that wouldn’t have had any chance for a holiday. This was our annual holidays as kids, you know others would go away to the snow and this and that, we went down to the youth camps and did politics.

AMR: That’s wonderful. How old were you when you joined the party for the first time coming out of it.

SM: I must have been in my twenties. It must have been around that time, its going back some years now it would have been forty odd years ago.

AMR: When you joined the party, what branch of the party did you join?

SM: Port Adelaide! Born and bred down this way, it is the only branch I have ever been associated with.

AMR: So tell me about the Port Adelaide branch when you joined it, what was it’s area of work, what was it’s activity and what did it’s members do?

SM: You are racking my brains here! Predominantly I saw that, if I just backtrack here and say that Dad was a major influence in what I did, Mum and Dad. Dad joined the wharf on instruction from the party. If he hadn’t of done that he may have became a teacher or something like that. He, like many went where the party needed them to go to organise. So he and the wharfies and the waterside workers union, and the activities around that were very much part of what we did and was interconnected into party work. So at times it really is hard for me to distinguish the two because what we did with union work and later on for me in union work tries to reflect in my mind a party position in that. Later in my life when I was a metal worker I was more aware and participated in the role of the CPA within that union.

AMR: So the port Adelaide branch, it is a locality branch but with a very close association with the port?

SM: Yeah! And at that time when it was first established whether it be in the CPA or whether it be in the SPA it was associated with an area that was fairly high in employment, had a lot of members working in the workforce and they were there doing their job in organising on the job. There had been a lot of years behind them in what they were doing by that point.

AMR: So, while we have been down here we have had a really wonderful discussion where we heard about how you as a teenager went to live in the Soviet Union, in Moscow for a number of years. Could you tell us about that experience and how it came about?

SM: And it was, it was an experience! When I was 15 so in 1975 Dad had retired from the wharf, he took a package off the wharf at 60, there was an opportunity so he did, and he was asked by the party, he had an opportunity, he was asked to be the party’s journalist in Moscow for the paper. This is through SPA at that point. I don’t know if there were any journos prior to him, it was a great opportunity and he said that he would do it as long as he could take his kids who were still in school, which is myself and my younger sister, and my mum with him. I was 15, May was 13 and we up and went to Moscow. She and I, mum stayed there for 18 months with Dad, he came home a little bit later then that.

So I ended up in Moscow at 15 years of age and that was an incredible experience to be proud of. So it was during the Brezhnev era, it was as much as I knew and had been around things Russian and Soviet for so many years and we had visited every Russian ship and seen every Russian theatre and performance group that had ever stepped foot in the country, to then be in the country was a whole different ball game.

AMR: What was it like to first go to the Soviet Union and how did you feel?

SM: We knew the basics: ‘Hello’, ‘Goodbye’, that was it! We did not speak Russian; they did not speak English. We arrived and got taken to a small apartment, it was in May so it was in that cold time, snow was on the ground, it was grey there was no colour anywhere, and for some reason they had given us a housekeeper for a few days while we settled in. She was trying to give me Russian food and I was going “I’m not eating that” being a precocious teenager. And so we landed and it was a real culture shock basically. Within a month my sister and I were shipped off to a youth camp! In the middle of the forest outside of Moscow. [Zhavinygarodka] camp where nobody spoke English.

AMR: (Laughs) That really would have been quite the experience! What was it like to go to the camp and what did you experience there?

SM: Thank god we had each other I think! Seriously, I don’t know how you travel if you don’t have hands! How do you point at things and try and explain things, like eating, you use your hands to describe these things. I often wonder how do you travel if you don’t have that ability and you cant speak a language? Really interesting, one of the things that I learned from that experience is that our Australian accent is broad and difficult for anyone else to understand. We had an interpreter with dad. At the camp with these kids we formed friendships, we did everything that everyone else did; we didn’t always understand… We tried, we didn’t know we could take lollies or buy lollies so we tried to get someone to buy some lollies, we used a Russian-English dictionary to try and spell out ‘please buy us some lollies’, we used all the basic words for it that meant nothing when you put it together! We used the flow of words as how we would say them, that is not how they would say them. They really didn’t know what we were doing. Fortunately, one of the nurses worked it out and said ‘do you want some lollies’, and right we got some! (laughs). We did everything they did, it was an absolute experience, one that we did enjoy very much.

AMR: What was some of the activity that you participated at that camp outside of Moscow?

SM: We went bike riding, we went swimming, we did running, and athletics, this is stuff we never did at school here. We went to a farm and did a day’s work; you know doing that rural work. It was just activities constantly; you were not allowed to sit around and do nothing (laughs), you were kept busy! A lot of it was physical activity you were outside, and a beautiful, beautiful environment.

AMR: Did you go to school in the Soviet Union?

SM: Ah now that started in September, we arrived in May, so you imagine somewhere around June we get put into a camp where nobody speaks our language, and then we go to a school, called a ‘special English school’ not far from us, we could walk to it. We had the uniform, the uniform was a brown dress, you could get different designs of that dress, but brown! Every school had the same colour and you would have a black apron for everyday and a white apron for special occasions. They could be a frilly or as plain as you could wish to choose from the shop. I went to the school, the ‘special English school’, which meant that they taught English to kids at grade 2 level. That was why it was called that. Not because everyone spoke English, not because the teachers spoke English, only one did and that was the English teacher. So we didn’t know Russian still, and we couldn’t study the subjects, we couldn’t read the textbooks or anything like that, so we looked like every other kid, I would sit at the back of the class, I am not sure what May did, but I would sit at the back of the class with a book where I read every book I could lay my hands on, I read Angela Davis, but teachers would initially go ‘Why are you not paying attention’? I didn’t know that they were even saying that to me (laughs). So you are going to school for a year, going because you need to, the only subject we could participate in is English, but then we would get asked a grammatical question and to give an example, and we would not know the answer. Only because we didn’t know that degree of grammar, we hadn’t studied it in the same way. They probably got better marks then I did! And then secondly the sport activities, and that was a new experience. Here, when I was at school here I did basketball and hockey, and those things that we do here in Australia. Netball! They don’t play netball over there. They do indoor gymnastics. You see them all at the Olympics. They have uneven bars; they have that little narrow bar that you flip on and all that. We were expected to do that because they had been doing that for all of their school life. And we have just come into it! I did the parallel bars, I don’t know how well I did it, I didn’t fall off and I didn’t break any bones, but um it was a whole new, a steep learning curve. The only bit I didn’t enjoy was cross country skiing. Hard work!

AMR: Oh yeah? (laughter)

SM: Oh yeah, its like walking on slippery stuff.

AMR: While you were in the Soviet Union what other impressions did you get of the country did you get during the Brezhnev era?

SM: Listen, it was an exciting time! We used to get sent packages of newspaper cuttings from here so it kept us a little bit in touch. Something I remember is that most letters that we received had been read. We knew that as we all used to mark envelopes to know if they had been opened or not. I think a couple of times we got letters and things had been crossed out. We believe it was at the Australian end of things, not the other end. At the other end we were friends; there was no reason to be concerned. This end of things was where they were wondering what the hell we were up to. We grew up knowing that our phone calls were being listened to, our mail would be read, and that everything that we did was under surveillance. You know.

AMR: Would you receive letters at home in Australia where it was obvious they had been opened and read?

SM: No, not obviously this end, that end they were just not very good at hiding it. So you if you were aware of that, I must admit that I think maybe I’m a bit blasé with some of our younger comrades about this issue because I have grown up just knowing that the government will spy on you, the government are arseholes, they do invade your privacy, they do things that they don’t tell the rest of the world that they are doing, they do listen in on your phone calls. I now recall clearly, I was back home here, Dad had gone back and we were not sure when he was coming home. It was around that time that I was expecting to get a call from him to let me know. I got a phone call from somebody else. ‘I hear that your dad is coming home on such and such a date’. There was no reason for that person to know that sort of information. Absolutely none whatsoever. It was so far out of the realm, I knew that they were family friends that sort of thing, but for them to have that sort of information, there was no way he got it through anywhere else other than ASIO. You know. We always knew that they were doing it. Dad used to say when we were kids ‘no staying on the phone any longer than 2 minutes’, 5 minutes whatever. You would here clicks in the line and things like that.

AMR: That is fascinating. Just to return to back to the Soviet Union, what were you able to do while you were not at school, with your family in Moscow and elsewhere?

SM: It was a great period of time, we went everywhere and we did everything. Never had any sense of not being able to do something. Somebody tried to suggest that everything we did was organised or controlled! I said ‘should that have been the case then by Christ they are good’! (Laughter). We literally lived day to day, we got up in the morning and went and did something. How anybody would be able to plan, to organise that you were only able to see what you were meant to see I think was a bit far-fetched. We lived day to day, we went shopping, we went for medical treatment, we went and did all of those normal things, we got on the train in the metro, a great form of transport the metro. We went to ballet, we went to markets, we did everything you did, we visited with people, we went to the movies. Occasionally there would be a movie in English so you went there so you could hear a movie in English. They would be reading the subtitles for a change (laughter). But yeah, lots of theatre and that kind of entertainment.

AMR: While you lived in the Soviet Union you lived in Moscow, did you get to travel to anywhere else or did you mostly stay in Moscow?

SM: We would frequently go to the outskirts of Moscow, to the river and go picnicking and we would often take other Australians who may have been there on delegations out that way, get a little boat row around. There’s a photo of my sister rowing, I must have organised that well. We also, May and I also had the opportunity to travel through to East Germany. We were put on a train in Moscow and went over to East Berlin and stayed with a comrade, Fred Rose. Fred had been an archaeologist here in Australia who had been blacklisted as a result of the Petrov commission and could no longer work here and ended up working in and living in East Germany for the remainder of his life. Great people, Fred and [Nita] Rose and their kids. They were all grown up by then. We stayed with Fred and Nita and they took us everywhere and it was just a wonderful, wonderful visit.

AMR: What were the differences between East Germany and the Soviet Union?

SM: East Germany seemed to be a little bit more western. It had a little bit more availability of things then maybe they did in Moscow, but I think that’s just the reality of the west being straight across the road so to speak. It felt like it was more modern, It was a little bit closer to what you would expect in the west compared to what Russia was. So the supermarkets in Germany were more like our supermarkets then what they were in Moscow. In Moscow you went to the shop, and it might be the general grocery store, so say we were going to buy cold butter, sausages, and stuff like that. You would go in and you would spot it in the cabinet, you would work out the price, you would go over to the cashier separate, would tell them how much it was that you were getting, they would get out an abacus, I got very good at them no calculators, and pay, get your receipt, go back and collect your goods so only one person ever handled money. That was a whole different style of thing, but you got used to it, and yes you stood on a queue sometimes, but those places worked through them pretty well. You would walk down the street and there would be a truck that would have just unloaded a whole pile of watermelons, and you would just stop and line up and buy them. Or you would walk past a shop and every so often you would struggle to find a few items like washing powder or toilet paper, they would often be available somewhere, but you saw it you stopped and joined that line and waited. If you saw a line you would stop and ask ‘what are you waiting for’ in case it was something I needed, and you would buy 10 rolls of toilet paper or something and they would tie it all together with string. I learned how to carry a dozen eggs wrapped up in paper, into a cone that they were put in. I learned how to tie things up with strings and paper and carry them long distances, onto public transport and off public transport. Lots of boxes of something all tied together with string.

AMR: That’s very interesting but also very different.

SM: (laughter)

AMR: What were some things that through the process of being able to live in a socialist country like the Soviet Union for a long time, and visiting East Germany that you learned about socialism through living there and being able to observe it?

SM: When we lived there in 1975 I never saw any homelessness and things like that. Listen you saw lots of people [full of the boot], alcohol problems and those sorts of issues. You saw people who were not wealthy in the terms of how we would understand wealth. You never had a sense of people being hungry or things like that. With the population numbers I thought it was remarkable in that regard. Did they have everything that people may have wanted in terms of a western style of economy? Not as much as people may have wanted but it was also a whole range of factors impacting in on that. It wasn’t just one side of the west making it about making sure they were going to make life hard for people. It struck me that we were able to ascertain and obtain and get, find, buy or locate whatever it was that we required really. Just the luxury goods stuff. On the day to day basis, the bread shops were fantastic, wonderful bread.

AMR: There was also the artistic and cultural life as well, earlier you mentioned the theatre and going there quite regularly.

SM: Yeah, working class people, I can’t believe how much we were exposed to art in our lives, both here in Australia initially through the union, the big centre of the union was the hall, and the kids we did ballet there as well. An admin support worker in the office taught us ballet. We put on concerts. There was this view that culture was a really big part of life and should be accessible to workers. When we were in Moscow of course, we went to the best of theatres at the Bolshoi and the palace of congresses, saw the best dancers in the world. That was just wonderful. I have been and seen Red Army Choir more than once. (Laughter). And folk dances. I always remember that the circus was one of the best in the world I have ever seen. I have seen them here, seeing them again in their home turf where they have got their permanent building is a different thing again. Oh, the puppet theatre! The puppet theatre was amazing! This special puppet theatre where you go in for a performance and your in there in the dark and watching these puppets, and the perception that you have that they are life sized the way it is done. I don’t know if it is the way the theatre works or something. I still cant work out how it worked but you are sitting there in this performance and by the end of it you are convinced they are life sized puppets and then they turn on the life sized puppets and bring out the marionette puppets and they are just dolls, and you go wow. That was an incredible theatre and great skill those people had.

AMR: So, after having had this incredible experience living in the Soviet Union for 15 months, what was it like to come back to Australia after that?

SM: We came back because May and I needed something to be done about our education really that was fundamentally it. We returned to Australia with mum and returned to school. I went back to school. I had left around year 9, second year high school, and I went back into class two years later with people who I had been in class within previous years. It was different because I was older. By that stage I was 17. School had changed. I could do technical studies, I couldn’t do that when I was there previously. Things had started to change with education here. Two things I know when we came back. Firstly we spoke very, very clearly. Our accent had declined at that point in time, its probably come back now. So that was the experience with talking to people whose English was not their first language, you learned to enunciate your words much clearer. Secondly we had come back when we were older, we knew we needed to go back to school and be educated so there was a different approach to it. I only lasted three quarters of the year mind you, because circumstances had it I ended up getting an apprentice-ship and left school.

End Part 1