Thursday, October 20, 2011

Musings on Russia

Lately, I have been having an affair with Russia. I am reading Anton Chekhov (I have written a bit about it below) and accidentally the other day I heard a program on radio: From Russia with love. I can’t remember the channel I heard it on, but I found it quite interesting. It was a long program where the host interminably read out tit bits on Russia in Hindi, in news-reading style, with very occasional interruptions coming in form of Hindi songs. I couldn’t follow whether it was an Indian-government-backed initiative to promote our relations with Russia. Since then I have heard the program a few more times.

The program covers a wide range of topics – science and technology, literature, healthcare etc -and paints Russia with a very lofty brush. I found some of the stuff amusing. Let me share some of them. Somewhere in Russia, child psychiatrists are conducting an experiment where they are having friendly dogs play with mentally retarded children and after weeks of play and mingling with the canines, the children are showing the signs of improvement in their social behavior.

Now potatoes are an inseparable part of Russian diet, but they were not always so. Many centuries back, when a Russian czar went to Europe, he was introduced to the vegetable and he sent a sack of a particular variety of potatoes to a feudal lord back in Russia and asked him to grow the variety of potatoes in his field. After some years although the consumption of potatoes slightly spread in Russia, it remained restricted to elite circles, being served only at parties where boiled potatoes were served with sugar sprinkled on them.

Then, when famine came to Russia and the country slid into an excessive scarcity of food, the Russian monarchy forced peasants to grow potatoes. Forced to grow a vegetable they were not used to, the peasants revolted. The host couldn’t say what happened to the revolt, but the rise in potato consumption in Russia can be, the host informed, traced back to a few years after the breakout of the revolt.

What surprised me most about the bits of information the host shared is that everything sounded surprisingly novel despite the fact that Russia has been a long-standing foreign-policy buddy of India and the Indian-government has sponsored many TV and radio programs (especially on Doordarsan) as part of its relationship-building measures with the Soviet Russia. (The radio program, in fact, sounded like one of those initiatives which have outlasted their purpose and time.)

Had it been America or say Germany, would things still feel so unheard of? Many of the things would still sound novel but as a whole they wouldn’t sound as foreign and unfamiliar as Russia’s. And remember, the US, Germany nor any other country has been India’s friend for as long as Russia.

Our hobnobbing with Russia started in the post-independent Nehru era, although it was informal due to Nehru’s non-alignment policy. The relationship was formalized under subsequent governments as the cold war intensified with the passage of time and it became difficult to stay neutral. And it got an impetus when Russia sided with India against Pakistan during the Bangladesh war. In the early 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Russia and the start of market liberalization in India, we started getting close to the US and moving away from Russia.

But strangely, this long friendship never led to people to people relationship. Russia remained an obscure place where few people, not good enough to get admission in Indian colleges, went to study medical, engineering and other technical courses. We didn’t know enough about its people and society nor were we really interested in them. For us, Russia was a country behind a veil. Sadly, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, not much has changed about Russia. (Last week I read an article which said Russia is still not well understood by Europe.)

I think to us what glamorized American culture deglamorized Russia: Hollywood. If you see Hollywood movies of the cold war era, Russia was their favorite punching bag. Either it was Rambo outfighting the Russians in Afghanistan or James Bond (who is actually a British character but Bond movies and Hollywood are inseparable) outwitting a Russian spy.

In the cold war days, America fought Russia not just through the CIA but also through popular culture, demonizing everything Russian and lionizing anything American. And it worked, because the Soviet Russia didn’t have an equivalent of Hollywood which could combat US popular attack and sell its point to the world. Or being a communist country, did Russia prefer secrecy to transparency, never creating a Hollywood deliberately?

Perhaps that’s the reason why we still know so less about Russia.

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