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Russian Revolution centenary: Missed conversations with India need to take place

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The Soviet Union was present in India in hundreds of ways. Even Indian languages were on trial: how best could the phrase “lumpen proletariat” be translated?

It’s the centenary week of one of the grandest political experiments in history, the Russian Revolution. The commemoration, though, shows a reluctance, for the tragedies seen in the USSR were so monumental.

Still, the Revolution, an epic event by any token, filled with romantic optimism about social equality, demands the dignity of remembrance.

Released in 1927 to mark its 10th anniversary, Sergei Eisenstein’s magisterial film, ‘October’, conveys a sense for the idealism and hope that animated the Revolution. The promise of peace, bread and land to all, the film reminds us, had great popular appeal.  More than anything else, the film serves up a feel for the texture of revolutionary fervour: the expectant faces of common people, the movement of large numbers of people across wide streets, the symbolic villainy of the Winter Palace – it had “1100 rooms” – in Petrograd (later renamed Leningrad).

Dziga Vertov’s film ‘Three Songs about Lenin’, made on Lenin’s 10th death anniversary in 1934, is as much a paean to the leader as it is to the utopic aspirations of Soviet Russia: mechanised agriculture, heavy industry, orderly science laboratories, to name a few. But already, by this time, Stalin had started letting loose the horrors: the purges, the Gulag, the massive invasion of privacy, the forced collectivisation of agriculture, and the relentless assault of official propaganda. He sent 20 million Russians to death.

Jawaharlal Nehru, in two letters to his daughter included in his ‘Glimpses of World History’, offers a thrilled account of how the Bolsheviks won in the wake of the installation of the Provisional Government after Tsar Nicholas II had been deposed.  He strains, in his autobiography, to separate the value of the ideals of communism from the gross misdeeds done in their name in the USSR.

Nehru takes credit for making space for some of the core values of communism in India’s democratic imagination. Consider the Indian Constitution. One of the Directive Principles affirms that “the State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing… (b) that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as to best subserve the common good (c) that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment”.

The idea of the Five-Year Plan in the country’s economic imagination derives from Soviet planning models. The idea that the government provides universal primary education and health care also shows Soviet influence. And, even as the doctrinaire position of the Indian communist parties made them hesitant in engaging the worlds of religion and caste, their seriousness about land reform and literacy was not matched in other parties.

The Soviet Union was present in the country in a hundred other ways: the spectacular performance of its athletes and gymnasts in the Olympics; its marvels of space technology; its glossy Sputnik magazine that could surface even in remote parts of India; the inexpensive, beautifully produced copies of Russian folktales; the animation films.

The labour of translation that went into making the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and a host of lesser-known communists available in major Indian languages is a separate discussion unto itself.  Indian languages went on trial: how best could the phrase “lumpen proletariat” be translated?

Inspired by communist ideals, the Indian People’s Theatre Association movement and its activists were a vibrant political presence in theatre and Indian cinema for decades. And, of course, there is no forgetting the heavy rounds done by the US-made phobic material about the USSR. The Sylvester Stallone starrer ‘Rocky IV’ is among the pure specimens here.

A centenary after the start of the communist experiment, the acts of violence that the Soviet state committed on its own people seem, readily, and rightly, so many instances of monstrosity. But its gigantic visions of economic modernisation and its faith in technocratic schemes less so. They continue to fascinate Indian planners.

The kind of ideas that allowed for an epic political line-drawing during the Cold War have thinned out. The harm they did is clear to see too.

On a large poster of Lenin, which he brought from his visit to the Soviet Union, Prasanna, the founder of Samudaya, the Left theatre movement in Karnataka in the 1970s, has sketched a speech balloon where the leader admits, “I like Gandhi”. Now a Gandhian activist, Prasanna explained: “Lenin and Gandhi do not mention each other in their writings. I wanted them to come together.”

The ideas of building non-violent societies and economies where technologies don’t harm nature – ideas which Ruskin, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and so many others tried to work with –continue to offer valuable entry points for thinking constructively about the modern world.

The missed conversations need to take place at least now.

Chandan Gowda is a Professor of Sociology at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru.

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