Russia – The Country that we chose to forget

(Article written in 2010)

“Medvedev practises Yoga everyday”, announced Moscow Times, the prominent English daily of Russia the day I landed in Moscow in mid-April for meetings with various Government and non-Government agencies. Quoting the wife of the 42-year old President-elect the paper went on to add that over 10% Russians have been attracted to Yoga, Meditation etc.
I remembered a senior ISKCON official in US once claiming that about 1% of Russians are today the followers of ISKCON and various other Hindu missions. As part of my schedule when I visited the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Culture (JNCC) which is a part of our Indian Embassy activity in Moscow I got to know that the Centre runs courses in various Indian cultural forms like Bharata Natyam, Odissy, Tabla, Flute, Vocal etc which are hugely popular with the Russian youngsters.
Such examples abound.
This is the new Russia that many in India didn’t know. We used to be obsessed with Russia in its erstwhile avatar as Soviet Union. Many households including that of mine used to get magazines like Soviet Land regularly. This was the case till the 70s. Things changed with the advent of Islamic terrorism. We got embroiled in Pakistan quagmire which continued till the dawn of the new Millennium.
Today the obsession for an average Indian is no longer even Pakistan. It is China now. Man on the street in India today knows and talks a lot about China. We no longer consider Pakistan as any competition or rival. We think we are much bigger and better. The new competitor is China, the big and mighty Eastern neighbour. We are obsessed with it in many ways – its size, population, development, Tibet, Arunachal, Sikkim, border disputes, incursions – anger, fear, admiration and awe mixed up.
Somehow post-Soviet we forgot Russia. But the Russians didn’t. Their interest in our country is still intact, and the knowledge too. The Hindi Department in the Moscow State University is a standing example. They speak fluent Hindi – students and teachers alike. What is more interesting is the fact that for them learning Hindi is a means to learning about Hinduism. Of course they are fond of Bollywood… this Khan and that Khan. They now talk not just about Raj Kapoor’s Aavara; they talk about the latest flicks like Jodha Akbar too.
They were curious to know more about Hinduism. In fact the Russian women like to marry Hindu men because of the strong family values, I was told. Visiting India is an important aspect of life for many in Russia.
My visit to the Russian Academy of Sciences was a revealing one. This Soviet era institution boasts rightly of having world renowned scholars on its rolls. It has numerous institutions and campuses. I was invited to the Institute for Oriental Studies, a premier Institution focussing on the Orient. Its Director is a burly old man, a great scholar himself. The 30-minutes time that I spent with him was a memorable one. He informed me that he was a disciple of Ramakrishna Math. He has keen interest in and knowledge of Hindu spirituality.
What transpired in the following meeting was another eye opener. I was invited to address the scholars of the India Studies department of the Institute. About 25 scholars were present and I noticed that I was the youngest among the group. Head of the Institute was a dynamic and scholarly lady who visits India frequently. When I rose to speak I naturally thought that I should start by introducing my organisation. However, before I could complete my first sentence about the RSS one of the senior scholars interrupted to inform me that they knew very well about the history of the RSS as they had been following it for last several decades. This was an indication of how keenly they were watching us right through the Soviet era till now. Before I could restructure my speech he quickly added: ‘We have been studying your organisation although you are the first RSS functionary to visit our Institute. We would like to know more about your organisation’s position on various contemporary issues’. Naturally, that made things easy for me too, the very fact that I was speaking to a group of scholars who know a lot about us.
The discussion that followed reinforced my view that this kind of engagement is necessary in view of the fact that we all live in a media-driven world. Many stereotypes, misconceptions and misunderstandings need to be corrected from time to time.
Another interesting aspect of my visit was my meeting with the senior officials of the Russian Orthodox Church. A very ancient religious institution, this body faced persecution under the Communist rulers. Religion was the opium of masses as per the Communist belief. The Orthodox Church was banned from undertaking religious activity. Its seminaries were closed down, the most prominent among them being the Sergei Passad – a priest-training centre of the Church about 100 miles from Moscow.
Post-Soviet era reforms saw the revival of this Church headed by a Patriarch. Today it is in a way the official religion of Russia. Russian Orthodox Church is considered the most orthodox and puritanical church. It doesn’t allow ordainment of women priests. It has a strict religious code.
But it has several interesting features that need to be noted by us. One of them is its commitment to non-conversion. The Orthodox Church is opposed to proselytisation. That puts it in conflict with other Christian denominations like the Catholics etc. In fact the Orthodox Church has successfully prevented the Pope from visiting Russia on the ground that he will bring Catholic religion to Russia and encourage proselytisation.
But the very same argument is being used to trouble organisations like the ISKCON. ISKCON premises in central Moscow were forcefully occupied by the local Government ostensibly at the behest of the Orthodox Church. Subsequent legal battles saw the restoration of the premises to the ISKCON. When asked about it, the Church officials argue that they were not opposed to ISKCON building a temple, but the size of it should be in proportion to their influence. ‘ISKCON wants to build a temple bigger than our Church in a neighbourhood which is predominantly Russian Orthodox. We opposed it and said that they can build it outside the city near the airport’, they told.
Is the Orthodox Church opposed to other religions? The officials vehemently deny it and say that they have respect for all religions. They organised a conference last year in which representatives from all world religions including Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism were invited.
In Russia four religions have the status of recognised religions by the Government. They are: the Orthodox Church, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. Practitioners of these religions have been there from a very long time. In fact a couple of States in South are predominantly Buddhist. Governor of one of the States openly expressed his support to HH the Dalai Lama. HH the Dalai Lama visited Russia in 2000 for the last time.
Can this status be extended to Hinduism also? The Orthodox Church seems totally opposed to that idea, at least for the present. Their opposition seems partly to be stemming from the fear of losing flock, the same fear that forces them to prevent the visit of the Pope.
The ISKCON is meanwhile trying to overcome the problems. It has a committed group of devotees and Sanyasis. Many other Hindu groups are also active in Russia.
The Indian Embassy in Moscow, the Ambassador in particular, is very keen to improve ties between Russia and India. There is enormous potential too. Russian oil economy is booming. Their cities – Moscow and St. Petersburg etc are full of activity. Infrastructure is very good. Yet, in a world dominated by powers that hate the rise of that country, Russia seems to be losing out on publicity front.
For India the strategic advantage relationship with Russia offers is immense. Russia is an important country in our vicinity. It is a democracy, however nascent it may be. It is a huge economy. It is also a free trade country. But the only problem is that the political climate in the country is still stifling. Although the Soviet era of Iron Curtain has gone, the climate still smacks of those very days of Big Brother Watching.

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