Anna and Gregory Vaisman interview dancers from the St Petersburg Ballet for their TV show, Sputnik. Photo: Simon SchluterTelevision is a glamorous industry and like the big stars, Gregory and Anna Vaisman get front row seats on Australian life.
Oaks Day at Flemington racecourse, the Australian Dancesport Championship, the National Gallery of Victoria Winter Masterpieces Exhibition – the Vaismans have reported on all of them.
This week, through their impeccable arts contacts, the Vaismans were granted interviews with dancers from the St Petersburg Ballet, which is performing Swan Lake in Melbourne until June 24.
The only difference between the duo and reporters from A Current Affair or Today Tonight is that that in exchange for lugging their own camera gear across town all day, the Vaismans are not paid for their labours.
The couple, both aged 76, are volunteer producers – and hosts, writers, camera operators and editors – of the Channel 31 Russian television program Sputnik.
With a team of fellow volunteers, they have produced more than 1700 half-hour programs. Sputnik screens at 12.30pm on Sundays and is repeated 12 hours later.
The federal government has announced that Channel 31 will be switched off on free-to-air TV on December 31, and become an online-only broadcaster.
The Vaismans say their migrant audience is not internet savvy.
The future of their program is up in the air.
However, for now, the apparently indefatigable pair are celebrating, because Sputnik (named after the Russian satellite, it also means “spouse”) is 20 years old.
On Sunday at 5pm, they are hosting a three-hour classical music concert at St Kilda Town Hall.
More then 500 people are expected to hear composers including Rachmaninov, Gershwin and Chopin performed by artists including violinist Mark Mogilevski, pianist Elena Mogilevski and singer Nadia Tcherkassova.
The Vaismans, who are Jewish and from the city of Odessa in Ukraine, migrated to Australia with their three adult children and three grandchildren in 1991. The Soviet Union was collapsing, and anti-Semitism was rising.
However, Melbourne was in the midst of a recession. Gregory was a communications engineer but Telstra was laying off staff, not hiring, and Anna had no more luck resuming her former profession as a high school teacher.
As a young man, Gregory had dreamed of a television career.
“In 1958 – the year after the Sputnik satellite went up – I applied to the television faculty at [the] university [in Odessa] but though I got 23 out of a possible 25 marks in the entrance exams, I was excluded,” he says.
“It wasn’t until I went to a gathering of students who had passed the exam but didn’t get in that I discovered why; it was because I was Jewish. Everyone else in the room also happened to be Jewish.”
However, he adds that “in Australia, my dreams came true”.
A few months after Channel 31 opened in 1994, they jumped at the chance to start a Russian program.
They’ve recorded the stories of World War II veterans, interviewed then Victorian premier Ted Baillieu and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, and talked comedy with famous Russian clown Slava Polunin.
They’ve become conduits between often isolated Russian migrants and their new Australian life, doing segments on everything from a tour of outback NSW, to the Mornington Peninsula Hot Springs of Rye to interviewing runner Cathy Freeman, for a story about the Port Phillip Aboriginal community.
Vaisman says he is “thankful to Australia, because they gave us [the] opportunity to be useful and to do this job, which we like and which people like”.
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