Kolkata and the Kremlin: A Strategic Overview of Russo-Bengali Relationship

30.06.2017

The western frontier of India with Afganistan saw some active rivalry between Tsarist Russia and British imperialism, which came to be known as the Great Game, following the coinage of Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim. India's partition and the creation of West Pakistan in 1947 has been a British project aimed at keeping Russia at bay, modern research suggests.1

The way Bengal, located on the eastern frontier, was treated by Anglo Saxon imperialism may very well be called The Great Scheme, because Bengal too enjoyed a similar geostrategic importance and was similarly partitioned (of course Taliban was not the first and ISIS will not be the last: Anglo Saxon imperialism had a long history of feeding Islamic fundamentalism in the subcontinent, and Bengal has significantly suffered because of that British imperialist misadventure). Undivided Bengal stretched from the Himalayas to the Sea (West Bengal, that is, Indian Bengal with its capital in Kolkata still offers the shorted land route from Himalayan mountains to the Bay of Bengal). Prior to British partition, undivided Bengal enjoyed international borders with Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim (which was still an independent kingdom) and Burma. However, Bengal as a much coveted frontier zone for British imperialism is not our subject here.

Kolkata for a very long time was the centre of British Indian empire. Kolkata, with its high culture and commerce, used to be the nerve centre of India in the nineteenth century, and it was here that Gerassim Stepanovich Lebedev (1749-1817) was earnestly studying Bengal, its language, its culture and its people. Lebedev would later not just inaugurate Indology as a discipline in Russia, but was also to be credited as the father of modern western style proscenium theatre in Bengal. A brief biography will help us here. Lebedev, originally from St Petersburg, went to Europe as a part of a musical entourage, earning livelihood as a violinist and later joined an English military band, eventually coming to Madras (known today as Chennai) in 1785, and thereafter he migrated to Calcutta (Kolkata, as it is known today) which was to become his home for more than a decade until his expulsion by the British authorities in 1797. Lebedev was allegedly growing too close to the Bengalis for Britain's comfort, as a result of which he was forced to leave Kolkata in an impoverished condition. Lebedev went first to Cape Town where he labored to earn his passage money and then he went to London where he published Grammar of the Pure and Mixed East Indian Languages. Given that Lebedev's knowledge of Bengali was already exhaustive, this was but a natural outcome. When in Kolkata, he produced two plays in Bengali, and wrote a Bengali dictionary. He translated the great Bengali poet Bharatchandra Roy's (1712-1760) Annadamangal into Russian. After returning to Russia, Lebedev was employed in the Foreign Ministry, and soon he established a printing press with Nagari and Bengali types in St Petersburg, which was a pioneering act. Soon Lebedev came up with another study, which can be considered his magnum opus, titled An Impartial Review of the East Indian Brahminical System of Sacred Rites and Customs.2

Many other Russians continued to visit Kolkata in Lebedev's wake. We have a lithograph produced from a painting by Prince Aleksandr Mikhailovich Saltuikov dated October 1841 which depicts a procession of Goddesss Kali. It's one of the earliest, if not the earliest depictions of Bengal's patron Goddess Kali, from whom Kolkata derives its name (Kalikhetra was the ancient name). However, nothing definite is known about this artist and a Google search in English doesn't return any biographical information.

Quite interestingly, while the Crimean War of 1853-56 was ending in Russia's loss and in a victory of the Ottoman and British imperial powers, the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences gained a valuable ally in the great Bengali scholar and statesman, Raja Radhakanta Deb Raja Bahadur (Raja Bahadur being his royal title), who was one of the wealthiest Bengalis of Kolkata, the undisputed leader of Bengali elites and having produced his magnus opus Shabdakalpadrum (An Encyclopedia of Sanskrit), he was internationally renowned as a Sanskrit scholar. Radhakanta Raja Bahadur accepted the Academy's invitation to become an Honorary Member in his letter dated 21 March 1857 (this was again an interesting time as the Sepoy mutiny was about to wreck British power in India). Radhakanta Deb was known for his staunch Hindu credentials and yet he was a supporter of western education (he was one of the founders of Hindu College of Kolakata in 1817). While the history of modern Russia always witnessed a painful tussle between Slavophiles and Westernizers (very soon the latter camp got divided into two antagonistic sides, liberals and radicals, as Turgenev's Fathers and Sons brilliantly portrays), Bengal during this period had exactly a similar kind of antagonism between the pro-Hindu and the pro-West factions (and later on, the pro-West factions will split into liberals and communists). While Radhakanta Deb was solidly opposed to any British interference into Hindu religion (this position sometimes took him to painful extremes, when he opposed the British law banning the practice of Suttee), he was a promoter of western learning and modern education, and thus might have formed a very interesting model of amalgamation in times of an unabashed triumph of western liberalism. It is no wonder that the Raja's ideas and works might have found admirers in the Russian Imperial Academy.

Nishikanta Chattopadhyay, another Bengali who lived in St Petersburg during 1879-81, was a stipend holder of the Russian Government's Ministry of People's Enlightenment. Nishikanta Chattopadhyay was the first Indian to have studied in Russia. He continued to write on Russia after returning to Bengal. A letter of Chattopadhyay dated 6th February 1879 to Professor I P Minaev of the Russian Academy discloses Chattopadhyay's deep attachment to Hinduism while it upholds the necessity of modern science as an implicit counter-ballast to British domination in India. It also transpires that the Russian Academy regularly procured two very renowned Kolkata newspapers, Hindu Patriot and Amritabazar Patrika.

It is interesting to note that Russia and Bengal both had a flourish of radical politics during the later half of nineteenth century. Bengal witnessed some of the earliest workers' strike in the world. Karl Marx's First International received a memorandum from an anonymous writer in Kolkata, who was probably instrumental behind the setting up of the first Workingmen's Insititute at Baranagar, Kolkata in 1874, and the launching of a Bengali Magazine devoted to the working class, named Shromojibi (Workers).3 While Russia saw an emergence of Revolutionary politics, Bengal too was in the grip of anti-British armed revolutionary movements. However, Tsarist Russia was friendly towards Britain during this period, and therefore any alliance between Russia and revolutionary Bengalis was unlikely to take place. But the Bolshevik capture of power opened a floodgate of opportunity and very soon two Bengali radicals, already sympathetic to socialism, namely M N Roy (this being a pseudonym, his actual name was Narendranath Bhattacharya) and Abani Mukherjee migrated to Russia. Both of them were among the founders of the “Indian Communist Party” in Tashkent in 1920. Many other Bengali revolutionaries attracted to Soviet Union migrated to Russia during this period, most of them willing to escape British rule.

The complete documentation of Russo-Bengali relationship upto 1991 will require a study of encyclopedic length, because the connections were multi-facted and numerous. While cultural ties were very strong, politically too Russia exerted a very strong influence – Bengal even had a fringe political group named Bolshevik Party which continued to be a part of ruling left Front alliance led by the largest communist party, CPI (Marxist).

Perhaps the most gigantic public ralley ever witnessed in Kolkata's history was the one which was occasioned by the visit of Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Bulganin in 1953. I have come across a few Bengalis born during that time who were named Bulganin by their parents.

The noted Bengali thespian couple, Utpal Dutt and Shobha Sen extensively traveled across Russia. They went to USSR very often, and not only they produced dozens of very successful theatrical productions about Russia, but they also continued to write on Russia, producing articles and essays and memoirs. Subhash Mukhopadhyay, one of the greatest Bengali poets of twentieth century was known for his love of Soviet Russia and was known as Moscowponthi or Muscovite (more properly, Moscow-ist) in Kolkata.

The initiatives of Foreign Language Publishing House, and later Progress and Raduga, brought many other parts of the globe closer to Russia, Bengal significantly included. Two legendary translators, Nani Bhowmik and Arun Som facilitated many generations of Bengali readers with a close access to Russian and Soviet literary works. Arun Som is still among us, living in Kolkata with his Russian wife. translating Dostoevsky is a lifelong passion for him, and one major work that he recently translated was Bulgakov's Master and Margerita. I took an interview of him last year, which is available in Journal of Bengali Studies.4 Most Bengalis have fond memories of the books which came from USSR. Bengalis are usually nostalgic about the Russia they knew through those translations, and many of those books, out of print since 1991, have been digitised in recent times and those books which are very popular now continue to be locally printed in Kolkata. Russian Circus used to be a sensation (most probably it was a Moscow State Circus performance that the present writer, then an infact, saw in early 1980s in Kolkata) whenever it visited Kolkata. Bengalis who were in CPI were generally considered to be Russophile after the split in 1964 (described by many as a Sino-Soviet split, the new party CPI(M) havving elements considered close to China.

A proper study of the Russian cultural influence on Bengal will assume the shape of an encyclopedia, so I will not go into that. However, even Russians have been known to be fond of Bengali literature in translation. Outside India, most editions of Rabindranath Tagore were published in Soviet Russia. Tagore's visit to Russia in 1930 was a landmark event, and his Bengali work Russiar Chithi Letters from Russia brought the two cultures much closer. Sunil Ganguli, a renowned Bengali writer in his memoir Russia Bhromon (Travels in Russia) tells us about his works which were translated into Russian. Many other modern Bengali writers of the post-Tagore era were translated into Russian, Ganguly's travelogue documents.5

Since the collapse of the communist regime of Kolkata, most Bengalis were searching for an answer to the question of an ideology which might illuminate an otherwise baffling, crumbling world around them, and Professor Dugin's Fourth Political Theory in retrospect could very well prove to have been a timely intervention. Bengal is the last frontier of Eurasian civilization, and as the Bengalis are considered to have descended from the Indo-Alpines, Bengali being an Indo-European language, a Slavic-Bengali connection might have been more antiquated than we normally care to assume. This is not a place to share the many anecdotes about the phonetic similarities between Russian and Bengali, but one example might be sufficient. The fire god in Bengali is called Ogni, which is exactly what the pagan fire god is called in Russian.

While the present Hindutwa establishment in India has a traditional leaning towards the Anglo-Saxon axis since its inception, Russia might find in Kolkata Bengalis a natural ally with some ancient affinity and some modern political and cultural connections.

Reference

1. Narendra Singh Sarila. The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition. Noida: HarperCollins, 2009.

2. https://web.archive.org/web/20070823042637/http://www.russian-centre-mumbai.org/russianindology/personalities.htm

3. Details are well chronicled in the 15 volume study published by Communist Party of India (CPI) titled Banglar Communist Andoloner Itihash Onusondhan.

4. See the interview “West Never Liked Russia, Never in the History, Be It Tsarist Russia or Soviet Russia” Arun Som in Dialogue with Tamal Dasgupta. P 221 https://www.scribd.com/doc/313438377/Journal-of-Bengali-Studies-Vol-5-No-1

5. Ganguly, Sunil. Russia Bhromon (Travels in Russia). Kolkata: Ananda, 1984.