Varvara K – a woman with many names

“A bride at 15: a mother a year later; next a Russian prima donna, and at the same time member of a secret society; then a woman soldier fighting and roughing it with the White Army, five times wounded, three times decorated for bravery in the field; reverting to a prima donna to raise money for her regiment; wounded and sick, and sent to Lemnos; loved at first sight, and soon married by an English soldier (have been widowed by Bolsheviks); a successful tour in Scotland; health broken, and coming to Australia on SS Ballarat to seek peace and safety- such is the thrilling story of a passenger on the steamer named.  And every fact is verified by papers in her possession!”, The Daily News Perth 14 August 1922

This extract from a newspaper is probably the best short summary of the life of an extraordinary  woman named Varvara.  When I learned about her on Trove library, her amazing larger than life story caught my attention straight away, story worth telling nearly 70 years since her death.

Madame Varvara Kassovskaia, this is how she became known to Australian public for the first time, came to Australia in 1922.  She was a woman of “medium height, pleasant-looking, extremely temperamental, with dark Cossack features”.  Based on newspaper articles she was born in Taganrog in 1896.Varvara Kassovskaia 1926

Over 200 articles were written about her life by Australian newspapers, with the majority published in 1924. As always the information in newspapers was copied from one paper to another without any additional information that might have helped to solve her identity.  It sounds like she had created her life story and stuck to it. She did not want anyone to know who she was.  But those were the times.

I wonder if I will ever be able to solve her mystery.  My research begins.

It was relatively easy to reconstruct her life after arrival to Australia.  Internet helped me everywhere I went.

At first I encountered an article written by the researcher in Scotland who is also researching Varvara but under a different name – she is now known as Lul Gardo.  This is a very strange and unusual change of name but Trove library articles also confirm that she is the same person.  Genealogical sites and National Archives of Australia help me to find her immigration and marriage records.

Married life

This is what I have learned about Varvara’s life after Russia.  She fled the country in 1920 during the Civil War and came to Scotland the homeland of her second husband (first time she was ”widowed by Bolsheviks “)-an Argyllshire man, Mr. James McIntyre, whom she married on a ship at Lemnos.  Here she was discovered by proprietor of  slate quarries on the Isle of Luing, Dudley MacGowan, who also became her friend.  Together with James Varvara came to Australia in 1922, but her happiness was short lived.  James died relatively young in mid 1930s.  When drafting the timeline for Varvara’s life I have noticed that she had travelled from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Los Angeles on 24 December 1936 using McIntyre surname.  At that time she was already widowed but not remarried.

Her third husband, Alasdair Martin (1914-1943), was also born in Scotland but was nearly 20 years her younger (her first Russian husband was 30 years older than Varvara).  They probably married upon her return to Australia in 1936.  He enlisted for World War 2 at Paddington, Sydney and died aged 29 in 1943 as a result of wounds received during the war. His headstone in Sydney’s Rookwood War Cemetery says: ”N14501 Private A. Martin, 2/13 Infantry Battalion, 17th June 1943, age 29, Dearly beloved husband of Madame Lul Gardo”. [1]

Married three times , but unable to find love and happiness, Varvara lived a lonely live.

Music and Books

In Australia Varvara threw herself into music, performances and writing books.

As soon as she arrived she needed money to lead a comfortable life style and she started to sing.  Varvara was not a stranger to singing.  In Russia she was trained to be an opera singer by a famous soprano Nina Lenskaya (as the official story claims).  She had performances in Taganrog and continued to sing during the Civil war and when living in Scotland.

In 1936 after the death of her husband Varvara made a drastic decision to leave Australia and went on a tour to Buenos Aires in Argentina and Los Angeles in America.  Sometime during this absence she changed her name (and took on a stage name) and became known as Lul Gardo.  Using this very unusual name she published in 1938 a memoir ” Cossack Fury.  The experiences of a woman soldier with the White Russians’.cossack fury

The book was a success with all 200,000 copies sold worldwide.  Today there are only 4 books left in libraries in Australia.  I have managed to get one through the inter-library loan and read it.

Varvara’s life is an amazing story.  The problem is that, as with her first publicity stunt upon arrival to Australia, she managed to protect those close to her still in Russia (her sister and father).  She only used the first names or initials in her book.

During 1940s Varvara has changed many addresses in Sydney, mainly living in Eastern suburbs. Following the success of her first book she became a writer, a lecturer and was also giving the singing concerts. In her later years she was known as Barbara (English for Varvara) Martin and lived at 5 England St Brighton La Sands.

Varvara died on 21 April 1962 aged 66 at hospital in Concord after suffering tuberculosis for 5 years and was cremated at Rookwood cemetery. [2]

So who was she – Varvara Kassovskaia, Varvara McIntyre, Lul Gardo and Barbara Martin?  Stay tuned, more to come oh her life in Russia and fighting in Civil War. And proof, if found.


[1] Rookwood cemetery records online

[2] Death record from NSW Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths

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