Kronstadt Gardens is a Slavic aged care facility located in Dandenong, Victoria. As we know it, this is more than an aged care facility but is a central part of the Russian Orthodox Community in Australia, where families trust their loved elderly family members to care. Sadly Kronstadt Gardens, the residential part of Ruscare Ltd. will be closing October 11th 2019.
The Chairman of the facility is an Orthodox priest Very Rev. Fr. Michael Protopopov, has done a tremendous job of running the facility for the last 30 years. Those of us who have had a chance to know Father Michael as a person, know of his kindness toward the residents and his commitment to provide insightful and supportive spiritual care.
Fr. Michael has a PhD from the ACU in Melbourne in History. Besides his duty as Chairman at Kronstadt Gardens and Senor priest at the Church of our Lady’s Dormition, he has written several books about Russia in the world.
It is very kind of you Father Michael to agree to speak to us a little more about the facility. The first time that I arrived at Kronstadt Gardens was for my job interview September 18th 2018, which also happened to be my birthday. Having previously worked agency jobs, I was impressed how this place had a unique familiar and spiritual feeling to it. I really wanted to be employed here.
Fr. Michael, could you tell me about the beginning of the community?
‘The community began in Healesville, where with the support from the Australian Council of Churches we were ready to build a building to house old Russian refugees from China. But because of the bush fires, for the safety of the elderly eventually, we decided against it, and came here in Dandenong in 1977.’
‘The old hostel was the first part. It had been here since 1955 as part of the Russian Welfare Society. With continuous improvements the facility came to flourish to what we see today.’
I have another curious question: the facility has a many beautiful Birch trees, which remind me a lot of my homeland.
I’ve heard people say that you brought these trees all the way from Russia, is it true?
‘No, the trees are Australian. And they were put here for exactly this reason, to remind of the home surroundings in Europe and Asia.’
Fr. Michael, why did you choose St. John of Kronstadt to be the Patron Saint of the facility?
‘St. John of Kronstadt is a famous Russian Saint and Healer. He was a prayerful Priest who died in 1908.’
‘He was known by many people of that early generation personally, and he inspired people to do good things. To not only think of themselves but consequently think of others.’
‘It was a simple decision to choose him as a protector of our community.’
The staff of Kronstadt Gardens come from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds. Some languages spoken: Russian, Serbian French, Spanish, Punjabi, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali just to name a few.
Has this broad spectrum of cultures ever clashed in an unsolvable conflict?
‘Not unsolvable, but there have been situations where cultural differences emerged. Professionalism consists of being able to work with people who are very different from us; in this case to respectfully work together for the benefit of the residents.’
‘Caring for elderly demands more than plain theoretical knowledge, it uses our human capacity to listen, understand and show compassion. Caring for people with Dementia, I have seen staff being very understanding to their needs that the residents may no longer be able to express.’
‘Cultural difference is not a dividing factor, when we consider assisting elderly. It can also create a unifying and enriching environment to work in.’
What kind of advice can you give for the staff that loved the residents and are very sad to see them go, as the facility shuts down?
‘When someone looses a loved one from residential care, it is not only the family that looses someone, it is us also. In the earlier years, when the government regulations were different, some people lived here for 10-15 years, this was the only home they could remember. People that worked here, saw the residents are part of their family. We provided counselling not only for families but also staff.’
‘Things are also different in our day and age when it comes to employment. Now days it is rare to find people who stay in one job for long time. But we have some staff here who have worked for many years’
‘To the staff who have to leave the facility, I can say this is your opportunity to go, and make a mark in something else.’
‘In the present situation it is hard, not only for the families, staff but also for residents. The residents don’t want to go. They don’t want to leave. They all complain, but when it comes time to leave they don’t want to go.’
Can you share with me a few memories of events that moved you, during your time working here?
‘Over the years, I have seen residents who come here from a variety of occupations. Some were very simple people, others from very great culture and statue in their lives and these were the people who put the foundations to our community. We had University Professors, professional Russian Ballet dancers we even had a Russian royalty. And by giving them the opportunity to finish their lives with dignity and love and concern by people we show them that we respect them to the end of their lives.’
‘One time, we had the Standards Agency walking through and there was a little old man there. And as they passed him, they turned around and said ‘good Morning to him, he jumped up and said ‘Hail Hitler!’. And they were shocked to hear this, but it was in fact that he had reverted mentally back to the 1940’s when he was a soldier in the war. This is especially strange for Australian Anglo Saxons who have never experienced life in Europe in wartime.’
‘Another funny but sad situation, was another old man who tried to escape all the time, and when we would not let him out the door, he would say please ‘I promise to be good, don’t beat me’. And we understood that this was a man living back in the time when he was in a concentration camp during the war. So that was really sad too.’
‘I hope that the relatives and residents settle well into the new places, and keep good memories of their life in Kronstadt Gardens and we will keep in touch.’
‘And the staff who are searching for new places, they have gained valuable work experience that they can use in their new job.’