How many Indians know of Russian society and politics as it has become lately?

Russia evokes a confused image today. For most Indians of this generation the present Russian society and politics might not mean much.

The image of Russia we have is one of the recent past that is the Soviet Russia of the Communist era. We have been fed on a strong diet of the Communist propaganda, we have pictures of Lenin and Stalin as dished by the then Soviet Union’s relentless propaganda, we have had the rather subdued picture of the  Russian state as articulated by Pandit Nehru,the Soviet economic planning played such a crucial role in shaping our economic thinking.

Of course we have to forget the unpleasant past.But our present day Indian Communist friends,the CPM and the CPI wont let us do that.They still,the CPM in particular,display the Stalin pictures in their offices,thus giving  room for most of the unsuspect Left symapthisers a fond hope that the old days would come one day.Marxist sympathisers in India are still lying low in various areas,in teaching and government services we have the trade unions and the writers in literature and journalism we have Marxists,some openly avow as Marxists.There is a large flourishing Leftist book trade.So all these and much else kindles a hope of sorts for the relevance of Leftist politics. The Communist and leftist parties have a considerable number of MPs in Parliament and thus, the present coalition at the Centre is at the mercy of these leftists.
So, all these and much else give a favourable flavour for Leftist politics in India.

Nehru of course flaunted his Leftist connection after his brief three-day visit to Soviet Russia in the late Twenties. This he used and his leftist supporters used beyond limits. The British Labour and the Socialist symapathisers were also friendly with Nehru and influenced his thinking, including V.K.Krishna Menon who was friendly with the British leftists.

I personally have known some of the British leftists. I knew personally the famous Leftist journalist, Kingsley Martin who edited the well-known weekly, the New Statesman. I was also a Fabian Socialist at that time. Though Harold Laski, another of my intellectual influence and many others became disillusioned with “the New Civilization” as the Webs called it. At one time I possessed every bit and scrap of paper written by Laski. One book as titled,”Faith, Reason and Civilization”(1944).But what a height of euphoria!

But it was too late. By the time the Cold War became “hot”, Communism itself  started losing its appeal. Eastern Europe rebelled and by the time Krushchev rose and fell, Gorchachev became a symbol of the changed face of Communism.  Of course the events of 1989 shocked everybody, the intellectuals and the camp followers became dumb beyond belief! The Western Marxists, Indian variety included, don’t feel obligated to explain the sudden collapse. They are now political liberals in the current Indian scenario! Neither the CPM/CPI feels an obligation to explain the “fall”. We in India continue to be as hypocritical as ever!

Today’s Russia itself is not well-understood everywhere, more so in India.

I went to Soviet Russia in 1961 on my way back to India from Oxford. I was a Fabian Socialist then but never became a Communist. But I was curious to know about how Soviet Russia’s politics and economic worked. Victor Gollanz’ Left Book Club books and Harold Laski’s books plus the Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s’ books also created much interest and also scepticism in me. I spent about a week in Russia. I traveled to St.Petersburg from Finland and then to Moscow(where I stood in a long queue and saw the Lenin’s body)and lastly went to Tashkent.(From there I flew into Kabul) I made several friends in Russia, including the brother of the poet  Boris Pasternak. I course, I became more disillusioned  after my visit and talks with Russian friends, youngsters, university students who were all interested to know about life in UK and also in India.

It was at this time I also came to read of Alexander Pushkin, I was already a great reader and admirer of Leo Tolstoy.  Russian society is a mix of many things, it is not yet a fully formed democracy nor is it a free society, or a free market economy. Vladimir Putin may be an elected president but under him many institutions are suppressed.

So, what new type of friendship India will have  under the present Russian political and economic system?
No one has a clue and no one speaks about it. No one wants to speak out. Our diplomats, the old and the young ones are nowhere to be seen or heard. The garrulous Mr.Natwar Singh doesn’t speak of big issues these days. His preoccupations are different. The losers are the common Indians who are guided by old images and older ,outdated history.

The Russian President  Vladimir Putin was in India for 7 days. This is his fourth and perhaps his last visit as president, his term ends, constitutionally in 2008.His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, visted India only once, in his eight years in power. Too long a time for a foreign visitor, that too for such a distinguished leader of a great country like Russia with which India had had a traditionally close friendship. Does that convey, this long stay of the Russian president in India? Not much, it would seem. Yes, he invited Sonia Gandhi for a long visit, he was said to have spent lot of time with her in St.Petersburg, his home city and  from all indications, and Putin has warm feelings towards India.

But then, we live in a different time. The old Soviet Russia is gone for ever. The new Russia is a very different place. We wonder how many in India, not just the common people, but also the elites, the academicians, the political establishment, we wonder  whether even the top hierarchy, at the very top itself knows enough to make a correct assessment of the potential of what holds for India in the emerging India-Russia friendship and trade and co-operation in other spheres as well.

In our opinion, not much hope lies in the  routine visits and plain smiles of our PM or the Sonia Gandhi visits to Russia. The subject is very important and needs much study and assessment and some  speculation and intelligent guesses as well! We have some knowledge of the former Soviet Union(we visited it in the late Fifties) and as such we can at least say that Russian psyche is a complicated one, having gone through years, nay centuries of Czarist oppressive rule and later the Leninist-Stalist regimes and the eventual horror of world Communism and the final dud effect of the sudden collapse and much else afterwards.

So, what we can say now, as for the future relationship with Russia, be it in geo- strategic and political spheres or in the plain hard-nosed trade relations. As it is the India-Russian trade is not much to speak about. In the good old days, the trade between the two countries was based on strategic friendship. Rice and tea exports was once all Russia-centric, not any more.

Even as Putin mentioned, not so elaborately, there is an uneasy relationship with much illegal immigration into Russia from the Indian subcontinent, the Indian students, a large number in Russia today, face racial attacks, some were murdered and thus to re-establish the old warmth is not going to be an easy task. Nor, the present Russian society is also an easy subject to grasp.

Before that, let us see how New Delhi saw the Russian president’s visit. In pure PR terms it is an “unqualified success”!. Russia promises export of nuclear fuel, co-operation in setting up more nuclear reactors. Of course, we would be importing a lot of Russian arms. Energy co-operation is another important subject. But in what way, considering the present Russian focus on the very large Russian oil and gas reserves is to untie its foreign ownership, the Shell and Exxon co.s are dismantled and Russian takeover and after would mean Russia would sell its energy resources in the more lucrative Western markets, India cant expect any concessional sales as such.

But the Russian interest in India would be judged by India’s emerging closer relationships with USA! That is where India gains and also loses! How far India can do just both? Russia sees Asia as a region where other players, besides India, namely, Japan, China and South Korea are equally important.

Nuclear co-operation with India is determined these days by several factors, first by USA and then by the international Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and in the current international tensions, over Iran and North Korea, India can’t have everything in its favour with USA p[laying a critical role. So, we have to qualify our optimism with Russia in the light of lots of other new developments in the near and far future.

Supplying of fighter aircraft,126 jets by Russia has to be seen along with US and other suppliers!

Our bilateral trade was just a miserable 2.7 billion dollars last year. It would be 10 billion dollars by 2010,not a big deal! India’s trade with China soared from one billion to 18 billion dollars in recent years. Russia’s trade with China, crossed 36 billion dollars. India is irritated by the visa regulations, businessmen harassed, dozens of them put on flights back home! Russia is irritated by the illegal immigration! The proposed North-South Corridor, through Caspian Sea is yet to take off, the transport costs is a hindrance.

All this fades in significance once we realise that Putin himself is set to leave office in 2008,in Russia everyone is talking about “the 2008 question”.

Visitors to Russia are confused about the sort of society emerging in Russia. Russia has a long history of oppression, for centuries, weak institutions and rule of law was unknown(even now, it seems).Writers on Russia would love to dwell on the Ivan the Terrible and the sorry history was written much about but Alexander  Pushkin wrote the historic drama. From that time onwards Pushkin was always a suspect. Says one writer today: “If Pushkin published his play today, who knows what would happen to him, especially in the wake of mysterious poisonings”. This is a direct reference to the poisoning of the Russian spy by the allegedly official  prompting, not long ago in London! Such is the reputation for Russian official machinery today.

The middle class is small but growing. But the democracy as such is much flawed. There is no rule of law as such in any clear and recognisable form. The Russian parliament is subordinated to” the Kremlin”. So too judiciary. “Russia is a crazy quilt of capitalist czars, mobsters, nationalists and aspiring democrats”, says a noted observer.  Oil and gas prices, the booming exports have created a new nationalist euphoria, if there is a plebiscite, constitution might be amended and Putin given a third term, says another observer.

An American visitor writes the Russian middle class today is a very worried lot. As it is the middle class is very small. They wanted to know what middle class was in America like. It meant a lot to them to  think they were linked up to a broader community of middle class. They ,the Russian middle class is all for  much material aspirations, not for any  banner-raising street agitations, they want to fight for their legal and civil rights. But the legal and civil rights are all caught up in a web of contraditions, much political authoritarianims, much blatant corruption and blatant crimes and killings on the broad day light as has been happening in Russia today. The middle class in Russia wants to disconnect from politics, they aspire for material things, “Russia has more cell phones than people”!

There are too many webs, freewheeling oligarchs. some ran away, some in exile and some in jail(Khodorkovsky),there is no press freedom, contract killing of journalists(Paul Klebnikov, Anna Politikovskaya)) and bankers(Kozlov) have rudely upset all friends of Russia. Such high profile murders on the streets of Moscow! What sort of society, outsiders wonder!  Even the possible successor talked about, the deputy prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev is tied to the gas giant Gazprom, yes, there is so much mix-up of politics and psu enterprises in current Russia, as we have a nominated PM with no power and with no credibility. How our Indo-nuclear deal would work, once Dr.Singh is gone or  who can shape opinion about our foreign relation policies would be shaped with USA and Russia in the next decade? Where are our think tanks or who else  can give the inputs for such larger questions and future probes?

If Russia gives an unpredictable future for India’s policy, then India’s lack of political ideological clarity would to that extent would keep the India-Russia  relations in the realm of pure blackout!

As in India, in Russia too “all credible contenders are beholden to the president, Putin has ensured that no independent political figures are visible”. How democracies are functioning? Of course, Russia is called a semi-free country, it doesn’t operate a free society, no free market either. In India we have also so many uncertainties. There are as many courtiers beseeching Putin to stay on, as we have courtiers, beseeching Sonia Gandhi to lead the country!

It is said that Russia under Putin might have regained its prestige and power but no vision for Russia’s national identity. In India we have our power and prestige, neither have we articulated our vision. India has to put forward a vigorous UN reforms agenda, so that Russia too feels that it can regain its international status as a  great power committed to international peace and disarmament. India celebrated the centenary of Satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi. We just talked and disembarked, we didn’t press one single great agenda in such a forum attended by great minds.

As for the  future of the India-Russian trade and economic co-operation, there is much that needs to be done. Military-technical co-operation is just  very uninteresting, right?

Russia is great producer of wheat. So, Russia can export wheat, instead of its arms to India! Indian agri products, mostly like tea, gherkins and processed foods can boost the  agri sector. Of course, the IT exports too is very much possible, given the fact that some of the big IT revolutions today are triggered by the Russian brain, the one Google founder is a Russian. There is evidence to note that  the Russian brains can match the Indian ones in this booming sector.

But we need political brains, political vision to revamp the India Russian relations, Russian culture, literature and much else too can be boosted as part of the exchange of culture and commerce and could act as a stabilising force for peace and much else.     

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