In 1979, an extraordinary story of a Ukrainian woman Liliana Gasinskaya dubbed as the ‘Red Bikini Girl’ made to the headlines in Australian papers and quickly spread worldwide. In the time when there was no internet or social media platforms, the story made to the places no one had expected. 18-year-old Gasinskaya, the glamourous Soviet teenager had jumped off a cruise ship into Sydney Harbour to start a new life. As she was only wearing a red-coloured swimsuit, she is often dubbed as the ‘Red Bikini Girl’. This is her astonishing story that will keep you on the edge of the seat until the end.
Gasinskaya worked on a cruise ship with a plan
Gasinskaya, the daughter of a musician father and actress mother, hated Russia and its communist system. She wanted out from her country, and the day she saw photos of Australia in a magazine, it became her first choice to spend the rest of her life. The 18-year-old came up with a plan that will grant her the wish of being in Australia. When her story unfolded, she revealed that it was part of the plan to join the crew of cruise ship SS Leonid Sobinov, which operated from the Black Sea port of Odessa, so that she can bid goodbye to her homeland.
Defecting from the Soviet Union raged a war between news agencies in Sydney. Debates erupted over queue-jumping refugees as well as her instant celebrity level. Being someone from the Soviet Union, she was not the one whom everyone will trust instantly.
On January 14, 1979, a day before the day of her ‘freedom’, she excused herself from a crew party in the night and got ready for the swim of the lifetime. Gasinskaya somehow managed to squeeze through the porthole of a cruise liner to swim ashore in Sydney Harbour. After emerging from the harbour at Pyrmont, she saw a man walking his dog and asked for his help. In broken English, she asked for clothes and assistance.
She practised English to ask for refuge
Assuming she would need to know English to ask for refuge on arriving Australia, she used to practice the language while being on the Ship. Reports have suggested that a piece of paper was found in her cabin on which she had practised key English words which she might need in Australia, including how to ask for ‘refuge’.
Daily Mirror penned the dramatic escape from the Ship and Russian Soviet in her words. She said, “I put on my red bikini and left my ring on my finger because I knew that I could not carry anything at all with me otherwise I might be caught. I climbed on to the bed and squeezed through the porthole and fell into the harbour.” She swam ashore without clothes, passport or any other documents or money. Everything was found in her cabin.
Daily Mirror got hold of her before the Russians
Russian consular officials were soon informed about her arrival in Australia, but before they could react and track her down, the Daily Mirror tracked her and whisked her away to a secret hideout. The news agencies’ quick reaction gave them access to a spicy yet intriguing story, a series of interviews and tons of bikini pose photos.
There was a time when this story was so important for the Australian media that the Mirror staff once stage draped the head of a female cadet reporter and used a Russian translator to field media questions to sway away from the rivals. Their prized possession was well guarded, and it paid.
Gasinskaya’s entry in the world of glamour
The penthouse was coming with its first Australian edition, and Gasinskaya got the chance to become their mule for the centrefold. She was paid $15,000 for accepting the offer. At that time, Gasinskaya said, “In Russia, we don’t do these things or anything that could be considered sexy.” It was a new world for her, and she was enjoying the fame. The reality show contestants in today’s time find fame almost instantly. Penthouse’s cover line ‘The Red Bikini Girl – Without The Bikini’ was an instant hit.
However, time was different then. She announced that she wanted to become an actress, enrolled in a modelling school and got a beauty makeover before becoming the centrepiece for the cameras.
“Should she be deported?” was the million-dollar question
Then-Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar was at the centre of the debate that if Gasinskaya should get asylum or she should be deported back to her motherland Russia. Deportation was the customary fate of the other ship deserters of that time. After a lot of drama, she was allowed to stay. However, the immigration department’s move to allow her to stay was not welcomed by the asylum-seekers of conflicts in Asia who constantly faced fears of persecution and did not get a similar welcome in the country.
The government was accused of “sensational cheesecake immigration”. Ben Humphreys, a member of Australian Labour Party, alleged that the eligibility for immigration to Australia was not based on the possible persecution but on the media appeal of the candidate and “how they shaped up in a bikini.”
The critics said that the refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia had more credible grounds for asylum. While they were risking lives on rickety boats to flee from war-torn countries, Australia gave Gasinskaya preference because she was white and filled out a bikini. However, MacKellar said that Gasinskaya had ‘showed initiative’ and rejected the claims.
Now-declassified KGB file reveals how Russia tried to bring her back
SBU, the secret service in modern-day Ukraine, where Gasinskaya originally came from, has finally declassified the papers from the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) that translated to Committee for State Security, the secret police force of Russia, into Gasinskaya’s defection. While her life was unfolding in Australia, Leonid Sobinov’s KGB officer followed her ashore. He showed her photograph to the Australians and asked about her. When he failed to find her, the liner continued without her to Melbourne.
Her alleged betrayal was disgusting for the Young Communists. The group secretary Y Makhlaichuk minuted his aggression in the group meeting. He said, “It is bitter and insulting. For peace on earth, our parents shed blood, gave their lives. Gasinskaya’s treacherous act amazed me, shocked everyone who is on duty here, far from their homeland and their relatives.”
A criminal case was filed against her by the KGB in USSR. 29-years-old senior lieutenant Nikolai Shumilo was in charge of the case. The files suggested that he analyzed the press conference of Gasinskaya and concluded that she was coached “by the secret services or an anti-Soviet organization.” He also noted that she had no access to state secrets. However, Shumilo did not rule out her escape being a part of propaganda by Western intelligence.
In the KGB file, it was mentioned that she had met sailors from Greece, Italy and the United States, and Iraqi cadets and bought ‘fashionable foreign items’ from them. It further added that she had bad working habits and often tried to socialize with foreign passengers that were strictly prohibited. Ship’s captain Konstantin Nikitin in his KGB interrogation over her defection said, “As I learned, she began to meet with some foreigners and kiss at night on the passenger decks.”
It was later believed that she continued to interact with foreign men in an attempt to improve her English despite the warnings from the authorities on the Ship. She was transferred twice from her position to avoid her interactions with foreign men, but they could not stop her. The file further claimed that she had secretly gone to the cabin of an English musician on the board who claimed that his possessions were missing. Gasinskaya, however, denied the allegations.
KGB had confiscated letters that she wrote to her family back in Russia in which she had asked for forgiveness for her actions. The file concluded, “The motives that prompted Gasinskaya to illegally go abroad were her political naivety, frivolity, moral decline, desire for a “beautiful life” and unwillingness to work.”
Was she really ‘a desirable immigrant for young and single men?’
While supporting her claim to asylum, one newspaper commentator wrote, “Without being sexist 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.”
However, she might have ‘shattered’ dreams of many young and single men of Australia when she started being in a relationship of a married Daily Mirror photographer Graeme Fletcher. He at that time had three children but left his family for Gasinkaya. Under his management, she found work as a professional disco dancer and DJ. She also appeared on several TV shows including The Young Doctors and Arcade.
Later in 1984, she married a Sydney property developer Ian Hayson that faltered in 1990. She then moved to London with her family, where she lived out of the limelight. Until date, the Red Bikini Girl is one of the most colourful chapters of Australian immigration history.