Richard Semenov: “We have a fabulous community and great opportunities for Estonians”

AIRI ILISSON-CRUZ 16. juunil 2012

Recently the Adelaide Eesti Selts called an Extraordinary Annual General Meeting in response to the resignation of the President, Lea Rebane. Richard Semenov, a Specialist Anaesthetist in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, was elected as the new President. On his interview to Meie Kodu, Richard speaks about himself and his Estonian heritage, and reveals the Adelaide Society’s plans for the near future.

Richard Semenov: “We have a fabulous community and great opportunities for Estonians”
Richard Semenov, a Specialist Anaesthetist in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, was elected as the new President.

What were the reasons that you agreed to start as a president in Adelaide Estonian Society?


I actually became Vice President of Adelaide Society purely by default as I had agreed to join the Adelaide Eesti Selts a few years ago. I was fairly busy with my personal life and I said to the members I would make up the numbers as long as I would not have to do too much. The Vice President role seemed perfect for me.


What we have as an Estonian community should be cherished and held with great respect. I have parents that were both born in Estonia, lived through difficult times as young children and had to immigrate to Australia. They were part of a culture that firmly believed that Estonia as a country would be overwhelmed by foreign aggressors and we here in Australia had to try to preserve our heritage. This threat has disappeared with our home countries basic desire for freedom and now where do we go from here in Adelaide...Well we have to re-assess things over time and this is where we can all help to change what the community is about. The idea of the Esto Pub Night was the brainchild of the Vikerkaar folk dancing group, with the support of the Social club and Thomas Sarapuu this has changed many peoples attitudes and brought countless people back to our community.


Lea Rebane has been holding Adelaide Estonian Society's president position for quite a long time. Why did she suddenly resign?


What happened to Lea? Well, the Australian Estonian community as with anyone in the world loves a bit of gossip or even better some controversy. This really was not the case here. We in Adelaide really have no factions we are all friends and have always worked well together. Lea was President for over 12 months and followed in the footsteps of the very popular Iivo Tuul who really was and still is the heart of our community. Many greats have held this position, Enne-Mai Reinpuu, Ilmar Magrakan, Heino Lomp, Richard Ollino, Leonard Trett just to name a few. Lea as President will go down in history of the Australian Estonian community as a first, she was the first of the 'X Generation' born in Australia Estonians that has grown up here to take on such a role. Lea brought in new ideas, fresh enthusiasm and energy, unfortunately due to the demands of her career requiring increasing amounts of travel, she has to cut back on many of her Estonian activities. Her reasons are plain and possibly personal. I respect her decision to take time firstly for her advancing career and travel demands. Also the desire to spend time with her very elderly and passing parent, Lea our entire community still has our deepest sympathy for your loss. We remain in close contact and look forward to seeing her daily updates on Facebook.


Please describe the Adelaide Society’s plans for the near future.


The Adelaide Estonian Societies plans are basically very simple. We do not want to have any changes for the future. I have recently attended our Naisring meeting and had a long discussion with them regarding future events here in Adelaide. Well guess what there will be no major changes! It was also good to see the few remaining war veterans having their meeting at the same time. We want things to continue as per usual. I agree I have been outspoken in our local E-News and also the occasional page 4 Meie Kodu article about 'Adelaide News'. My bombastic style even if I have an issue with slight dyslexia is probably what has pushed me into the position of president.


We do realize as a committee that we do have Australia's smallest Estonian community so we have been looking at ways to attract back Estonians to Adelaide. South Australia in general is delightful but a quiet and very conservative place; it is not necessarily the first place for a foreign tourist. We disagree here and want to change this attitude. We have a great state, a fabulous Estonian community and even greater opportunities for Estonian tourists and backpackers to spend quality time.


Overall our Eesti Selts committee is new and different to other states. We have always been innovative, Heino Lomp was president for over twenty years and always was progressive. We will continue to look at the events to keep things going and also to try to attract groups back to our spectacular venue. We have developed a ‘Discussion Paper’ and recently held a forum, it is essential that we as a group look at what has changed in the last sixty years and also what will need changing.


Please describe yourself and your background in a few words.


I am a Specialist Anaesthetist; I work two days a week in Adelaide's busiest public hospital, the Royal Adelaide Hospital and also am involved with an extensive practise as a Private Anaesthetist. I have three young children and my wife Shireen is the Head of Unit and the Director of Training of the Department of Dermatology also at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. We are busy people but we both have great respect, for the Estonian community and our heritage here. We are happy to spend our spare time assisting what we see as important for our children and for the future of a wonderful small nation and a great culture.


My wife is Australian, she was born in Malaysia and has Indian heritage. My first two children were born in the United Kingdom and have British Passports. Remy who is my third child and is the only true Australian was born here in Adelaide. I have high hopes for him opening the batting for Australia in an ‘Ashes Test’ while Max, my oldest son who was born in London, opens the bowling for England.... this would be a first for the world of Cricket.


If I was a real Estonian I would possibly want them to play basketball for "Kalev", with the hope of going to the NBA to make that ‘Shot of the Century’.... Shireen and I both being Medical Specialists are engrossed in our professional lives and careers but we see the importance of having a balance.


You have lived in Estonia 1 year and in London ten years. How do Estonians in Adelaide differ from European Estonians? Is there something similar about them to emphasise?


Estonians are the same everywhere. I was a young recently graduated doctor when I worked in Estonia. I worked for nine months at Mustamäe Haigla in Tallinn and then spent 3 months in the Cardiac unit at Tartu University Hospital. It was an interesting time as western medicine was new to Estonia and I was very young at the time and Estonia had only very recently gained independence so changes were also interesting for them. I have very dear friends from that period and gained valuable experience from all the cases I was involved with.


After moving over to the United Kingdom I started my specialist training and I was also privileged to be involved with the Estonian community in the United Kingdom. I met a young Anaesthetist, Veiko Herodes who I have become very good friends with and eventually talked into working in my department at the Royal Adelaide Hospital for twelve months. He was here in 2007, his two young boys slipped straight into the Adelaide Estonian children's folk dancing group and they all enjoyed the Sõrve Childrens camp at the end of their stay and still speak about a return... Sõrve is a great institution for Australian Estonians, we should all give our maximum support to this event.


What made you to come back from Europe?


Our heart was back here in Australia. In London I experienced the travelling every day for 50 minutes or longer to get to work. We saw many of the great and expensive restaurants and shows. We travelled extensively around the UK and Europe, but for me it was time to take a breath and look at my family. Adelaide is perfect! Property is affordable, travel is inexpensive and the distances are not too great. Sydney would have been interesting but I did not want to stretch myself and I still don’t understand the NRL. My parents and in-laws are here and the truth and bottom line is the best food and wines in the world come from South Australia and the people here are very friendly and it has strength in its simple qualities.


What do you think which one you are more – Estonian or Australian?


Many of my Estonian peers I have heard describe themselves differently to what I do... I am an Australian, born in Australia with Estonian background parents. My first language spoken at home was Estonian but I do not feel comfortable writing in the Estonian language. In summary I am an Australian with Estonian heritage. My time at Mustamäe Haigla as a Medical practitioner certainly improved my skills but this was some time ago and my confidence in the language has diminished.


The Estonian community is dear to us and we value the time we are able to contribute what we can to maintaining the future in Adelaide. I have to be honest that I very reluctantly took the role on as president of the Adelaide Estonian Society and thought that there were 5-6 better candidates than myself. Unfortunately I have been outspoken in the past with my EPN (Esto Pub Night) articles so the choice possibly was not thought through carefully. The decision has been made and I respect and thank everyone for their votes. Everything I take on I give over 200% and I am certain to engage the entire community in increasing involvement here in Adelaide.


If there could be 1 thing to change about Estonian Societies and/or Council of Estonian Societies in Australia, what would that be?


One thing? Where shall I start? Come on there are plenty of things to change....Do I really mean that, I am not too sure to be honest. I have always liked to be slightly deliberately controversial to try to get a response from people. We here in Adelaide are a small community with diminishing interest so some controversy is good. I have spoken about Estonian dishes such as 'Spagetti Tallinnase' and 'Mulgimaa Madras' without a single complaint. Still waiting for an email from Naisring.


I believe we here in Australia in the Estonian community have evolved in our functions. When my grandparents arrived in the 1950's there was a great support network for newly arrived immigrants. This evolved in the 1970's and 80's as support function for Estonians oppressed by a foreign force. Now again it is different to focus on appreciating our culture and encourage all to join into our small European unique culture while welcoming newly arrived Estonians and others into our community. So what would I change? Possibly nothing immediately but the importance is the focus and the vision towards the future. We have a magnificent culture a great heritage and we must realise that we are a distance away from Europe.


We here in Adelaide are realistic in that we need to attract people back to the Estonian hall. We are fortunate as we do have a fantastic venue that we all as small shareholders are a part of! This is why we need to create interest to preserve what we have. The next time you are in town remember drop in to see us, we hold many events in North Adelaide at Eesti Maja it is very centrally located, near the centre of town. The social committee may also be hosting an Esto Pub Night, drop in for ten minutes or stay for three hours, no bookings are required.