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100 yrs of Soviet Union: Nehru-Indira era over, but idea of USSR still rules Indian mind

Soviet babies were named Indira, Sita and Gita, Indian children were called Stalin, Stalinjeet, Natasha. The USSR was a blueprint for Indian nation-building.

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PastForward is a deep research offering from ThePrint on issues from India’s modern history that continue to guide the present and determine the future. As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Indians are now hungrier and curiouser to know what brought us to key issues of the day. Here is the link to the previous editions of PastForward on Indian history, Green Revolution, 1962 India-China war, J&K accession, caste census and Pokhran nuclear tests.

Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains, declared a young Vladimir Putin at the turn of the century.

It’s been 100 years since the Soviet Union was formed this week, and its centenary comes at a time Russia is reckoning with its global identity — with President Putin making one last bid for Soviet-style expansionism.

And the traces of the long shadow of the Soviet Union’s influence in India continues to this day. Outright, direct, unambiguous condemnation of Russia’s action on Ukraine is still hard to find. Instead, there’s been wordsmithery and roundaboutedness in responses – from Mohan Bhagwat to Sitaram Yechury.

“If there is no policy, power becomes a disorder. We can see that right now, Russia attacked Ukraine. It is being opposed, but nobody is ready to go to Ukraine and stop Russia because Russia has power and it threatens,” said Mohan Bhagwat, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief. “Those who are opposing have no pure (intentions) either. They are supplying arms to Ukraine, it’s like when the Western nations used to pit India and Pakistan against each other in the past and test their own ammunition,” Bhagwat added.

Meanwhile, Yechury declared Ukraine a theatre of war between Russia and NATO, and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said India was on the side of peace. A few months later, in September 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated to Putin that “today’s era must not be of war.” India hasn’t accepted Western sanctions and chose to abstain from censuring Russia in several resolutions by international bodies like the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC).

What became abundantly clear this year was that it is not easy to cut the cord between India and Russia: Especially after a century in which the idea of the Soviet Union completely captured Indian minds — and hearts.

Also read: On Russia, PM Modi’s language isn’t too different from that of Nehru and India will pay costs

The love runs deep, and Soviet-stalgia strong.

“There has been a bhai-bhai ka rishta [brotherly relationship] between India and Russia for years. It can’t be explained, the same way I can’t explain why I love my brother,” an official at the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) told ThePrint. In November, ICCR hosted 97 Russian performers and had to close the gates to the barrage of visitors coming to see Russian ballet.

“Though my brother and I may fight at night, I shall stand to aid him, and worry for him, if he gets hurt the next morning,” the ICCR official said. “So it is for India and Russia.”

India-Russia ‘bhai-bhai’ 

The USSR collapsed, Congress governments have come and gone, and yet India’s obstinate decision to subtly stick by Russia — even as the rest of the world urges New Delhi in the other direction — is proof of their long-standing relationship.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Nicholas Roerich in India, sometime in the 1940s | Wikimedia Commons
Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and famous Russian painter Nicholas Roerich (Indira’s right) in India, sometime in the 1940s | Wikimedia Commons

Ballet and Bollywood crossed borders, festivals arranged and tours conducted, friendship universities set up, and letters exchanged. Economists and scientists shared notes on space and steel, and a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was signed in 1971. Most notably, the Soviet Union made a strong overture of support during the Bangladesh Liberation War.

The people of both countries were engaging through films, music, books, dance, sports, magazines, and radio — leaving a lasting cultural imprint, way after economic reforms and the heady India-US bonhomie.

Who was the architect of this enduring entanglement?

Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi with A.I. Mikoyan, First Deputy Premier of USSR, 1956 | Wikimedia Commons
Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi with A.I. Mikoyan, First Deputy Premier of USSR, 1956 | Wikimedia Commons

It has become a fad to pile blame on Jawaharlal Nehru and his Marxist leanings — but while he laid the foundations for the India-USSR friendship, much of the strengthening of ties took place post the Nehruvian era, during the Indira Gandhi years.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was in Soviet newspapers nearly every day and on State television at least once a week. People lined the streets of Moscow to see her when she visited in 1976, and girls ran to her plane with flowers on the tarmac in Yerevan. The Indira Gandhi Square was inaugurated in Moscow in 1985, and her statue was unveiled in 1987.

A Soviet commemorative stamp for Indira Gandhi on her 70th birth anniversary in 1987 | Wikimedia Commons
A Soviet commemorative stamp for Indira Gandhi on her 70th birth anniversary in 1987 | Wikimedia Commons

Soviet babies were named Sita and Gita, while Indians named their children Stalin, Stalinjeet, or Natasha. And in the middle of Moscow, a Harrods-like store stood proud: Gang, named after the Ganges, selling Indian goods and wares. India declared its love too–from Begusarai as ‘the Leningrad of Bihar’ to Delhi’s ‘Tolstoy Marg’. The Soviet Union remained culturally open to India, even though it had its political fences up.

All the cultural camaraderie really meant that long after the Soviet Union had imploded, Indians couldn’t shake themselves off its influence for many years. It lingered even after former finance minister—and later PM—Manmohan Singh heralded a free market template to policy-making.

Also read: Mikhail Gorbachev was a rare case of ‘revolution from above’

Soviets, science, and socialism

To a new nation like India, the Soviet Union was a blueprint for nation-building — especially when it came to scientific innovation and nurturing an economy.

Indira Gandhi (L) watches son Rajiv Gandhi (R) as he dons a space suit at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre | Picture taken from 'Soviet Land' magazine | Courtesy: Russian Cultural Centre, Delhi | Sourced by Vandana Menon, ThePrint
Indira Gandhi (L) watches son Rajiv Gandhi (R) as he dons a space suit at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre | Picture taken from ‘Soviet Land’ magazine | Courtesy: Russian Cultural Centre, Delhi | Sourced by Vandana Menon, ThePrint

From the 1960s onwards, the USSR and India strengthened cooperation on the construction of power plants at Bhakra, Neyveli, Obra, and Kahalgaon. Just six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and India had signed a protocol of cooperation in the oil industry till 2000.

For example, India’s story as a steel manufacturing giant started under the shadow of the USSR. Soviet technology was both up-to-date and its prices lower than Western ones. On 2 February 1955, the Nehru government and USSR entered into an agreement, and three 1 Million Tonne Per Annum (MTPA) plants were set up in Bhilai, Durgapur, and Rourkela during the period 1956-61 in collaboration with the Soviet Union, the UK and West Germany.

Indian engineers became mere ‘understudies’ to their Soviet counterparts: they were meant to participate in all stages of the project as per the agreement but were mostly relegated to construction. This pool of construction personnel formed the nucleus of the workforce for Hindustan Steelworks Construction Ltd, a union government company incorporated on 23 June 1964.

Moreover, there was a massive import list assigned to the USSR and over-utilisation of Soviet personnel in the supervision of construction. The March 1966 edition of Construction—Hindustan Steel’s journal—expressed discontent: “Apart from saving a sizeable amount towards hiring and maintaining such personnel, it will also instil more confidence amongst Indian personnel and generate originality of thinking and action in the day-to-day work.” Between 1969 and 1983, 415 executives and 142 non-executives (including workmen) have been trained in the USSR, wrote author and journalist Bernard D’Mello in a 1988 article for the Economic and Political Weekly.

The Soviets also had a hand in Nehru’s Second Five-Year Plan in 1956. The Planning Commission itself was inspired by the Soviet Planning Committee, as were the Five Year Plans. In fact, Nehru has acknowledged their contributions in multiple letters and memorandums, thanking them for fruitful discussions and contributions.

PC Mahalanobis, the architect of independent India’s planning commissions, worked closely with Soviet advisors on the Second Five-Year Plan. The timing was fortuitous, following the 1955 visit of then-Russian President Nikita Kruschev and former Communist Party secretary Nikolai Bulganin to India.

According to British economist Andrew Schonfield, this plan was a “heavy industry” plan that was a “Soviet-type plan” — it relied on heavy industry and reduced the proportion of agricultural investment while still allowing for some consumerism.

“There is a school of thought in India, led by Professor Mahalanobis, which is trying to push this process of heavy industry in-breeding further and further. It was Professor Mahalanobis who told us about this idea of creating a kind of Krupps in India, as a first-priority project to make machinery for making steel plants, which will eventually make steel, and finally, perhaps in I970, some consumer goods,” Schonfield added.

Also read: Nehru’s Forward Policy remains a puzzle. But he had confidence in strong allies, soft power

Soviet support on international stage

Perhaps the image of Soviet softness toward India comes from the number of times it has publicly supported the country: As far as foreign policy was concerned, Soviet loyalty to India didn’t waver. The Soviets vetoed six times UNSC draft resolutions that were against India’s interests.

On the testy issue of Kashmir, too, Moscow stood by India in international fora. In 1957, the Soviet Union vetoed a US and UK-led resolution at the UNSC calling for a temporary UN force in Kashmir to bring peace. India objected, but nine members of the security council were in support of the resolution. However, because of the Soviet veto, the resolution did not pass, explained a former diplomat on the condition of anonymity.

“Of course, this gave them a certain level of leverage and influence in shaping some aspects of India’s foreign policy. Though, India deftly used non-alignment to maximise gains from all power blocs and sides,” added the same diplomat. But non-alignment, for the large part, was a fig leaf to hide its Soviet embrace.

And then there was the Tashkent Declaration, which historian Rudra Chaudhuri describes as Russia’s “coming-out party in the theatre and politics of South Asia.” Soviet Uzbekistan hosted the prime ministers of India and Pakistan from 6th to 10th January 1966 to flush out a peace agreement to end the war. Moscow’s role in facilitating the meetings, setting the agenda, and influencing a solution enhanced its stature in the subcontinent. It was part of a larger plan to expand its sphere of influence to South Asia.

Russia wrested arms supply for India from the UK just after Independence. Then began the capture of India’s defence by Moscow, which lasted as long as the USSR did. And even beyond.

“The Soviet Union acquired a dominant position among India’s major arms suppliers in the 1950s and maintained it until its demise in 1991,” scholar Ramesh Thakur explains. Researchers Kartik Bommakanti and Sameer Patil trace military transport aircraft as the first consignment from the Soviet Union.

“The Ilyushin Il-14 cargo transport aircraft were the first ones [in the 1950s] to be inducted into the Indian inventory, followed by the MiG-21 fighter aircraft,” they explain.

Twelve years later, the war with China entrenched India’s dependence on Soviet weapons systems. “After 1964, when India was able to formalise its military equipment relationship with USSR, Moscow became almost the sole source of arms for India for all three services,” K. Subrahmanyam, one of India’s foremost strategic thinkers, wrote. Nearly 70 per cent of India’s military equipment was Soviet-made.

And the Cold War only hardened the mould. In a paper in the  Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, authors mention how the dependence on Soviet weapons systems increased to 85 per cent, creating a ‘lock-in’ effect. Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that between 1950 to 1992, military supplies from the Soviet Union encompassed nearly all types and forms of fighter aircraft, transport helicopters, transport aircraft, tanks, towed guns, anti-ship torpedoes, and surface-to-air missiles.

The sweetheart deals of no-questions-asked template of the defence contracts, which started in the 1960s, spoiled India so much that it kept surfacing even as the US and India started getting closer in the 2000s. For years, New Delhi delayed and dithered on signing the three foundational agreements that Washington demanded, such as the Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA)—all of which were signed under the Narendra Modi government. A lot of the dithering was blamed on Congress defence minister A.K. Antony, but analysts said at the time that some of these concerns were ingrained in many senior military personnel too.

Also read: CPI was first communist party in world to win election. Then came its identity crisis and fall

Hard treaties, soft power

The year 1971 best sums up the ‘elder brother’ role the Soviet Union slipped into for India. This was the year when the USSR doubled down on its military support to India during the Bangladesh War, firmly casting its vote as an ally. It was also the year of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace.

These hard treaties, firm handshakes, and solid exchanges were rooted in India-Soviet relations older than 1971.

There was this belief that India and the people of the Soviet Union had linkages going back centuries—even to the Vedic age. “It is important to understand that relations between the two precede Soviet Russia. Before the Union, [even] Tsarist Russia had close links to India,” says Asoke Mukerji, India’s former Deputy Chief de Mission in Moscow.

Russia nurtured a cultural comfort that opened itself more to Indian influence. “The Soviets were closed to the Western world and didn’t want to expose their public to Western culture. However, with India, they saw a safe opportunity to open up and engage,” says Kanwal Sibal, India’s former ambassador to Russia. The 1971 treaty, therefore, had solid, layered intentions under its obvious strategic purposes.

And there’s agreement among scholars. Srinath Raghavan explains in his book 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh: “The treaty was not the product of a strategic consensus between India and the Soviet Union on the crisis in South Asia. For New Delhi and Moscow sought rather different objectives in concluding the treaty.”

And culture was the nerve centre of the diplomatic push — to gain influence in India, Russia saw soft power as its tool.

As a consequence, cultural interactions and engagements were promoted and flourished between the two through most of the Soviet years, Sibal adds. Both Soviet and Indian governments were in it.

A Russian ballet class at the house of Soviet Science, Culture and Art in New Delhi | Picture taken from 'Soviet Land' magazine | Courtesy: Russian Cultural Centre, Delhi | Sourced by Vandana Menon, ThePrint
A Russian ballet class at the house of Soviet Science, Culture and Art in New Delhi | Picture taken from ‘Soviet Land’ magazine | Courtesy: Russian Cultural Centre, Delhi | Sourced by Vandana Menon, ThePrint

India set up the Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Centre in Moscow in 1989 to promote Indian culture. This included teaching classical Indian dance forms like Kathak and Bharatnatyam, and imparting tabla and yoga lessons. Currently, the centre offers classes to over 800 students in Moscow.

The Bolshoi and Swan Lake ballet productions also came to India many times, facilitated by governments on both sides.

A Russian cultural performance in Mumbai | Twitter/@RusEmbIndia
A Russian cultural performance in Mumbai, 2022 | Twitter/@RusEmbIndia

If diplomacy sealed the India-Soviet friendship, it was common Indians who kept it alive. Hundreds participated in sharing their affection for Russians by writing letters to each other, sharing interesting news through magazines like Soviet Land, and calling in at radio shows like Radio Moscow. Radio Sputnik, for one, only stopped broadcasting in Hindi and Urdu in 2015 — discontinuing a 73-year-old tradition.

Copies of 'Soviet Land' magazine | Picture taken from 'Soviet Land' magazine | Courtesy: Russian Cultural Centre, Delhi | Sourced by Vandana Menon, ThePrint
Copies of ‘Soviet Land’ magazine | Picture taken from ‘Soviet Land’ magazine | Courtesy: Russian Cultural Centre, Delhi | Sourced by Vandana Menon, ThePrint

For example, one J.P. Mishra from Indore wrote to the magazine Soviet Land: “In its economic and industrial advance, India has benefitted abundantly from the aid and assistance rendered by our dependable and steadfast friend—the USSR. Not only in regard to the implementation of its development plans but also from making the world free from nuclear threat.”

Some lauded the USSR’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. “The Soviet Union deserves to be thanked for sending troops to Afghanistan and saving that country from imperialist-sponsored aggression,” wrote a reader, K. Maibangsa, from Haflong in Assam.

The Soviet-Indian Friendship Society was a medium for much cultural exchange between the two States. To facilitate greater interaction and exchange, the North Ossetian State University in Alania also set up a club of Soviet and Indian pen-friends. “It is one thing to read about India and quite a different thing to correspond with young Indians, and learn about each other’s problems and find similar views,” said Irina Stamova, the executive-secretary of the society. Due to the booming demand, the university library soon ran out of Hindi textbooks.

Then there was the People’s Friendship University of Russia— unregistered as an educational institution but affiliated with the republic’s central library — holding thematic evenings dedicated to Indian writers and artists. Works by writer Krishan Chander and filmmaker Khwaja Ahmed Abbas were also popular. A pensioner wrote a song about Indira Gandhi and performed it. Children from dance groups visited the Friendship University to leaf through Ramayan and Mahabharat.

The university also published a TV magazine called Our Friend India, one edition of which just had young girls named Indira. The first Indira was named after Indira Gandhi visited Ossetia in 1955, and the former PM kept enquiring about her namesake for many years. “The Indiras of Ossetia are proud to bear this name,” says a Soviet Land edition.

Also read: Shastri-Ayub Tashkent pact ended 1965 War. And brought Russia into South Asian politics

Culture as a tool

The cultural exchange peaked in the 1960s and 1970s and began to wane as the Soviet economy started crumbling in the 1980s. After the USSR fell, the two countries had minimal cultural activity for many years. By 2003-04, the Russian Cultural Centre in New Delhi only did about three-four events a year. Those were also organised after many requests for them, he added.

The Soviets couldn’t compete with the Americans in terms of money, so they had to rely on tools of soft power—like art, films, and theatre—to gain influence in India, according to former diplomat Vivek Katju.

“Significantly, the primary reason the Soviets tried to use culture as a tool to engage with India was financial,” he added.

All countries use culture and other tools of soft power to make friends and exert influence. However, an important divergence in the Soviets’ use of culture as a tool of influence was their focus on Indian languages, both regional and elite. Translated Sanskrit texts were lapped up in Soviet universities. “This was a major divergence from how the West used culture as a tool of diplomacy as they only targeted the elites,” said Katju.

However, the impact and influence they gained through this cultural exchange remain unclear. “Did anything—from Ballet to Bollywood—really take off? I don’t know,” Katju added.

Kanwal Sibal says the bilateral relationship between the two countries today is very positive. “However, that is driven by politics and economics. Russia sees India as a rising economic power that is more valuable than before,” he adds.

Also read: 3 realpolitik lessons India learnt since Indo-Soviet treaty was signed 50 yrs ago

The literary language of friendship

The literary exchange between India and the Soviets goes back to before the birth of the October Revolution, or Bolshevik Revolution, of 1917. Indian Independence activist Madam Bhikaji Cama published her own paper, Bande Mataram, in 1909, after being inspired by Russian revolutionary Ilya Rubanovich’s La Tribune Russe. She published it in the Swiss city of Geneva to avoid prosecution. Bangladesh’s national poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, wrote his famous poem Byathar Dan after being inspired by Bolshevik ideals. Writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s Soviet sympathy was most evident in his radio play Karl Marx. The synergy between M.K Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy went beyond the mere exchange of cordial letters and agreement on a non-violence movement — Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Bolshevik Soviet People’s Commissar, even called Gandhi the ‘Hindu Tolstoy’.

Then came the October Revolution and the birth of socialist realism for a whole crop of new writers — the working-class hero became the story. From the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) manifesto to Premchand’s 1936 presidential address at the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association, there are clear echoes of the idea that the duty of literature was to foreground common peoples’ stories left out of mainstream history. “[Rabindranath] Tagore, who was — by no means — a Communist or Marxist, went to the Soviet Union [in 1930] and returned very impressed,” says Sudhanva Deshpande, managing editor of LeftWord Books. The Bengali revolutionary found in Russia a “radical solution” to problems in Communism.

Several weeklies, newspapers and articles by Indian revolutionaries inspired by the USSR continued until Independence.

Newly independent India had a host of crises, but the dearth of Russian literature wasn’t one. Despite a massive paper shortage in 1947, a whole generation grew up reading Russian children’s books during the 1970s and ’80s. Hindi, Bengali, and Urdu were popular courses in Moscow, Tashkent, Tbilisi, and Leningrad universities. Works by Premchand, Mulk Raj Anand, Nehru, and S. Radhakrishnan were popular among readers. Tagore’s works alone saw more than three million copies published. Translations of the Mahabharat and Ramayan were abound in libraries.

An illustration for ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful,’ a classic Russian fairy tale found in Indian editions of Soviet books childrens’s books | Wikimedia Commons
An illustration for ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful,’ a classic fairy tale found in Indian editions of Soviet children’s books | Wikimedia Commons

The ninth World Book Fair was held in New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan from 14 to 18 February 1990, and the Soviet Union was its traditional partner, with publishers bringing out 300 titles annually in Indian languages. That was a number that became too large to be sustainable for the publishing industry — the production cost shot through the roof. V.S. Ostapin, Director-General of the Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga, a book trade association of the Soviet Union, reached an agreement with the Sahitya Kala Parishad to bring out 20 volumes of the works of selected authors of both countries.

Soviet-era copies of Russian fairytales in Hindi | Picture taken from 'Soviet Land' magazine | Courtesy: Russian Cultural Centre, Delhi | Sourced by Vandana Menon, ThePrint
Soviet-era copies of Russian fairytales in Hindi | Courtesy: Russian Cultural Centre, Delhi | Sourced by Vandana Menon, ThePrint

Also read: How John F Kennedy covered up a ‘quid-pro-quo’ deal with USSR that ended Cuban Missile Crisis

Navigating ideological anachronisms

Surprisingly, one of India’s most famous cultural exports — yoga — was strictly banned in the Soviet Union. It was so taboo that information about yoga and underground yoga classes would have to be passed “hand to hand”.

A 1962 article by Russian philosopher Vasily Brodov claimed yoga was opposed to the scientific temperament the Soviet Union was trying to cultivate. Brodov was an Indologist, but saw yoga as not fitting in with the rational enlightenment of Marxism-Leninism.

While a documentary was produced in the ’70s, it was shelved by the establishment as yoga became banned. Samizdat (the secret publication and distribution of government-banned literature) served as an instructional aid for underground practices.

Oddly enough, the ideological rejection of yoga didn’t stop the Soviet Union from exploring the practice for health training purposes, especially in the space industry. Famous yoga guru Dhirendra Brahmachari was called to Moscow in the 1960s to hold lessons for cosmonauts, and Brodov was included in this yoga club. It was only under ‘Perestroika’ (a political reform movement widely linked to former president Mikhail Gorbachev) that yoga became popular in the Soviet Union.

Eventually, Dmitry Medvedev — Putin’s number 2 — stirred up enthusiasm among long-time yoga fans and neophytes by talking about how he can do a headstand.

Also read: Raj Kapoor, the ‘greatest showman’ of Indian cinema

From Ballet to Bollywood

There was a time when Raj Kapoor’s photo hung in Russian homes. His cult figure status was based on the themes his movies portrayed—the underdog, poverty, and overcoming all odds—stories that resonated with the Soviets of the time. There was an active State promotion of movies like Awaara to inject a Raj Kapoor frenzy in the USSR, which deprived the Soviets of Hollywood. Indian films, just like its culture, were ‘safe’ to consume.

“Raj Kapoor’s songs were even sung at dinner parties. He was not only known in Moscow but even in smaller cities,” said Sibal.

His son, actor Rishi Kapoor, recounted how Raj Kapoor was able to enter Moscow for the shooting of Mera Naam Joker (1970) without a visa.

While the influence of Soviet Russian literature has a long history both on the artists’ and the public consumption side, the cultural impact of art forms like Soviet cinema on Indians was less direct. According to Deshpande, the idea of the need to foreground ordinary people’s perspectives and goals was apparent not only in mainstream Indian cinema made by and featuring the likes of Raj Kapoor and Balraj Sahni but also in more socialist realism-themed works by Bimal Roy or Ritwik Ghatak, as well as arthouse cinema helmed by Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani.

“The Raj Kapoor character you see in Awaara [1951], Shree 420 [1955] etc., is partly borrowed from Charlie Chaplin, who himself was inspired by the Soviet Union. There’s also Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin [1953], which is an example of socialist realism. Ritwik Ghatak was deeply familiar with Soviet cinema and used techniques like montages, which [film director] Sergei Eisenstein and his peers revolutionised. Seeing the moving image as not just a neutral observer or the camera as an impersonal recorder of events but integrating the idea of editing into the core meaning of filmmaking,” Deshpande, also a theatre-actor, added.

The Soviet Union imported over 200 films from India between 1954 and 1991, with Awaara, Disco Dancer (1982), Bobby (1973) and Mera Naam Joker ranking among the all-time top box office grossers in Soviet history. However, Soviet films themselves never really made a mark publicly in the hearts and minds of the Indian public compared to their Western counterparts. Mera Naam Joker’s circus and the Russian artists were the ultimate odes.

Cross-border interaction, though, wasn’t the sole determinant of India’ relations with the Soviet Union. Film festivals were another means for cultures to permeate each other. Small towns in Uttar Pradesh — Faizabad, Ayodhya, Darshan Nagar, Arkuna, Bhadarsa — organised film festivals so that people could get to know the lifestyles and social mores of the other country in an “intimate way”. Films such as Muslims in the USSR, The Chronicle Of October, Twice Born, and 30 Minutes of Soviet Circus were some popular Russian films featured in such festivals.

Meanwhile, there were Soviet documentary films about India that were screened in major metropolitan cities like Delhi, Bombay, Madras, and Trivandrum with English and Hindi dubbing. And Indians, too, made films about the Soviet Union – a five-hour film called Mahatma Gandhi to Mikhail Gorbachev directed by Gopal Sharman jointly with Novosti Press Agency was received warmly by India-Soviet relations enthusiasts.

In 1987, the Indian government also organised a ‘Festival of India’, or ‘Apna Utsav’, that showcased India’s diverse culture and ran for a fortnight in Moscow. As India Today reported, “The Soviets pulled out all traditional stops to ensure the festival’s success,” — and that “Moscow is signalling to India and the world that India is a very special friend indeed.”

The New York Times noted that the festival cost $14 million — nearly three times the amount spent on the Festival of India in the United States.

Sunil Mendiratta was a junior officer at the ICCR, helping organise the Festival of India in the USSR in 1987. “I can’t tell you about the amount of love and affection we got,” he said. “If you told them you were Indian, they would go gaga. In the lines for ice cream, they’d push you to the front to get priority.”

Tandoori chicken, chole bhature, kebabs, and jalebis were served at kiosks staffed with Russians as musicians like M.S. Subbulakshmi and Bismillah Khan took to the stage. Each Indian state performed on a grand boat that sailed down Moskva in a spectacle to remember.

Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi sat side-by-side, at one moment lifting and holding their hands aloft in a symbol of friendship. The two had a famous friendship, and took part in several state visits between 1985 and 1988 — Gandhi even cut short his trip to New York in October 1985 by two days to stop by Moscow on his way back to New Delhi.

Mikhail Gorbachev confers with his host, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, during a special session of the Indian Parliament addressed by the Soviet leader November 27, 1986 | Photo by Arthur Tsang, Reuters
Mikhail Gorbachev confers with his host, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, during a special session of the Indian Parliament addressed by the Soviet leader November 27, 1986 | Photo by Arthur Tsang, Reuters

In yet another astonishing moment in 1987, the Kremlin hosted a lunch for Gandhi, which was attended by the entire politburo. This invitation hadn’t been extended to any other foreign dignitary of the time.

“The collective invitation was a message to indicate that the Soviet Union would back the young Indian prime minister through the turbulence ahead…special gestures not lost on the Soviets,” an India Today report from Moscow said.

In his speech at the event, Gorbachev said that while “years and decades pass, generations of people in our countries come and go, but relations of friendship and cooperation between the U.S.S.R. and India continue to develop in ascending order.”

Gandhi, in his turn, told reporters smilingly at the end of the trip that he and Gorbachev had “discussed everything on earth.”

With inputs from Tanush Sawhney.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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