The Union of Soviet Socialist Republic or USSR, no long exists. In fact, hasn’t existed for some years now. And the Russia we know today, is nowhere near the behemoth it was earlier. But for those of us who grew up in the 1980s India, there was no escaping USSR. It loomed large in our news, dominated our lives in many, many ways, and we were as much in love with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and that birth mark on his nearly bald head (which a clever cartoonist once depicted as an India map!), as his own people. It was a love affair like no other.
Despite our purported ‘non-alignment’, Pakistan and India were very firmly aligned on opposite ends in the Cold War – We with the USSR, and Pakistan with the USA. Here was the catch. We secretly admired and aspired to American pop culture and consumerism. We were crazily attracted to their stars and their TV shows. The USSR with its communist-socialist agenda, was austere, somewhat bleak. But repeated exposure to everything Soviet, turned us, perforce, into lovers of Russia too.
I remember reading a lot of Russian literature, in English of course. Anna Karanina, Lolita, Chekov’s stories and Russian folk tales were just some of the literature we were exposed to. I remember valiantly trying to read War and Peace and failing absymally. There were many nuggets about Russia which fascinated us. We were delighted to learn that when a woman took her spouse’s surname it was with a suffix of ‘a’ – Gorbachev’s wife was Raisa Gorbacheva. The Russian ballet caused endless speculation – how do the ballerinas stand on the tips of their toes? When the Bolshoi company’s ballet performances were televised, we watched avidly. We were introduced to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and spoke most intelligently about it.
The Bolshevik Revolution was discussed in much detail in school, even as we winced at the excesses of the Tsars, and lauded Lenin and later, Stalin. We learnt about the Communist Manifesto, and studied how we ourselves were much influenced by the USSR post our Independence. We took great pride in parroting that the first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova, from the USSR. The achievements of the USSR were our own. We felt secure under the enormous canopy of Soviet Russia! It was only later that I was introduced to Ayn Rand’s We the Living and her utter denouncement of the communist revolution. Suddenly, the blinkers were off. But then growing up is a lot about disillusionment too, isn’t it?
On their part, the Russians loved our movies and actors, especially Raj Kapoor. It puzzled me, as I couldn’t then see the charm of Raj Kapoor. Am not sure I see it today too, except that he was insanely good looking, of course. Presumably, the Russians were besotted with his looks too. There were exchange programmes between our students. I particularly remember a staid programme on DD (on its national channel, grandiloquently and imaginatively called DD1) where a bright young Russian girl mouthed a Hindi poem – ‘Sooraj mookhi, sooraj beena dookhi’ and it was hilarious. But also utterly charming.
And then there was Gorbachev. He was distinguished looking, a leader, a statesman. And when he introduced ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’, we lisped the phrases after him with much gusto. Eventually these led to the disintegration of the USSR, and with it, our fascination with USSR, which now no longer existed.
History has taken its course since 1991, and the end of the Cold War. We have been beset and preoccupied with our own problems. Our foreign policy has undergone many twists and turns. Yet, today, as 18,000 Indian football fans head to Russia for the World Cup, among them, the men of my family, I wonder how much of this history they will even relate to. To my son, I tried to convey something of the colossal history that is Russia’s. But to a generation exposed mainly to American culture and entertainment, it’s inexplicable that we were once so firmly on the ‘other’ side. His only introduction to Russia are the Russian signages that restaurants and department stores in North Goa sport. Every season, Russian charter planes brings loads of Russian tourists directly into Goa. They are everywhere during the season, on bikes, bargaining with the vendors, buying vegetables and fruits for their temporary homes.
The Russia of today is a far cry from the erstwhile USSR. The macho Vladimir Putin may beg to differ. But for us, that particular generation of Indians, those days were innocent days, when the world was either black or white. Life was more simple, and unidimensional. I don’t wish for those days to come back. But I can certainly look back and reminisce about that era when another country so dominated our mind space.
Here’s to Russia, with love! Hope you do a great job of hosting the World Cup…