Rajesh K. Jha
Moscow-The Land of Utopia
Among my earliest memories from childhood I recollect the desire to study at the Patrice Lumumba University of Moscow or Shanti Niketan in West Bengal. Both these desires perhaps had their origin in the fact that my father was a communist and the area where I lived in Bihar was so very close to Bengal. However, by the time I started making a sense of the world, my father’s romantic involvement with communism had given way to a deep engagement with spirituality. But the ideal of Soviet Union as a grand vision of society still had a great hold on him. I used to accompany him everyday on his morning walk cum bathing session to the Ganges which flowed in its pristine form about a kilometre away from my house. Unknown to myself, these ‘walk the talks’ to the Ganges left a deep imprint on my mind. It put before me the vision of a world in which Marxism, rather the ‘true’ form of Marxism as opposed to the ‘spurious’ one practised by the communist parties, was the cornerstone. Of course, it was embellished and livened by a grandiose vision of Indian spirituality. There seemed to be no contradiction in the political vision of Marxism and the spirituality of Upanishadas, at least in my father’s eyes.
Moscow symbolised a trip to the world of utopia imagined in childhood. It did not really matter that the utopia had ceased to exist long ago.
It was well past midnight when the plane touched down at the Domdodevo Airport, Moscow. The crowd of passengers moved through winding staircases and narrow passages that seemed to lead to no where, as if on auto-pilot. Suddenly it stopped. We were in a large hall, milling with people. Apparently, there were queues that faced windows manned by Russian immigration officers. I tried imagining a line or a curved line or perhaps a semi circle that defined the queue but it was a free flow of people standing in various formations looking for opportunities to move closer to the immigration counter. Those who could not move forward, stood frowning. Finally, my turn came. The officer on the other side of the window took a good look at me, checked some manual list and let me go. I rushed to the baggage claim area where again the same chaos and uncertainty reigned. When my baggage did not arrive even after 45 minutes, I went to my contact who was busy helping others. He advised me to look for my baggage in a corner area where a number of suitcases, air-bags and variety of luggage were lying to be put on the conveyor belt. Lo and behold, my bag was calmly sitting there, waiting for me, as if. The childhood utopia had been dented a bit by the time I got into the taxi.
My worry that the driver may be sleepy at such an odd hour of night was soon put to rest. The Russian looking driver was in-fact a Rajasthani- Punjabi man who had come to Moscow 25 years back. He loved talking.
‘What do you find most remarkable in Russia?’ I asked.
‘Lady and Lada’, was his cryptic answer, perhaps meant to entice me into asking further.
I was perplexed.
‘Nothing can surpass a Russian lady in her beauty. Never sit in a Lada car while in Russia- it can ditch you anywhere. You can’t predict anything about any of them’, he gave me a slice of his experience in Russia. Later on, I learnt that Lada is an indigenously manufactured car of Russia which is cheap but quite prone to break downs due to poor technical quality. Often people equate it with the technological stagnation that marked Soviet era Russia.
He went on to narrate how corruption was all pervasive in Russia but more interestingly, how it has changed in the last few years.
‘Earlier, I was into smuggling of black Caviar, a rare fish, in partnership with a local politician but now foreigners can’t do business here,’ his voice bore a deep sense of grudge against this partiality in corruption.
The one hour journey from the airport to my hotel was a short course on Russian political system from a lower income expatriate who had dreamt of bigger things in life while leaving his own country. Of course he owned a Dacha- the Russian equivalent of a farm house, had a Russian wife in addition to his wife in India, earned good enough to send his son to Italy to set up his business but there was a touch of regret, perhaps sadness too.
‘Why don’t you go back to India? Why did you decide to stay in Russia?’ I tried to probe him.
‘If only India had better weather, did not have such extreme heat, I would have gone back’, he defended his decision to stay in Russia.
‘But, in winter, the weather is extreme here. Temperature goes down to minus 40 degrees’, I asked again.
‘Now there is no point thinking about it. I am happy here. Comfortable in my life. I have no regrets’, his voice betrayed annoyance at my persistent questioning. Truly, sometimes simplest questions of life are hardest to answer.
A few hours later, my friend arrived at the hotel. I told him that I wanted to see the Patrice Lumumba university before I left for Ufa.
‘The university is no longer known as Patrice Lumumba university. It is now called ‘Peoples’ friendship university of Moscow’.
Patrice Lumumba, the great Angolan revolutionary has been banished from Russia. My childhood utopia was jolted.
When I arrived in Ufa from Moscow, the weather was wet with a slight drizzle. It continued for the entire duration of the drive from Airport to the hotel where we were put up. My watch showed it was 9 in the evening but I could see the evening sun in the sky. It is known as ‘White night’, which is so very common in countries close to the Arctic circle, I was told by a friend. The days in such places stretch to more than 18 hours with just a few hours of night which too is not quite so dark as the sun lurks somewhere nearby on the horizon.
Next day after breakfast, I asked Adnan, my guide and interpreter at Ufa who had just finished his MBBS from Ufa, about important locations in the city. He gave me names of some parks, monuments and such places. I noticed that all of these places contained a common name- Salavat. I was curious. Who is Salavat? Is he a real or mythical person?
Salavat Yulayev is known as the national hero of Bashkortoshtan or Bashkiriya. The republic of Bashkortoshtan is situated between the Volga river and Ural Mountains which is the dividing line between Asia and Europe. It was brought under Russian kingdom in the year 1552 during the reign of Czar Ivan IV the terrible and city of Ufa was founded two decades later in 1574. It is now the capital of Bashkortostan republic. In Ufa, a grand monument has been built to commemorate the ‘friendship between the people of Bashkortoshtan and Russia’. The monument is known as ‘Druzba Monument’. Druzba means friendship in Russian. Standing near this grand monument with Belaya river flowing some distance away, I was unable to make out if the friendship between these two people- the Russians and the Bashkirs- was voluntary or imposed. No doubt, Salawat Yulayev represented the tension between the people forced to become a part of the bigger entity and its effort to retain the identity.
Salavat Yulayev was a rebel who revolted against the Russian monarchy which had gone back on its commitment given to the Bashkir people in 1552. He rose against the oppression of the peasantry and stood with peasant king Emelyan Pugachev as his most important general and ally. In the peasant uprising between 1773-1775 he fought with great courage and bravery against the Russian monarchy. He lost the war and was captured. He never came out of the captivity and finally died in the year 1800 but his legend as a liberating character and fighter for peasants rights has survived till date.
The grand monument of Salavat Yulayev was opened to the public late in the evening after the BRICS summit ended. The view around the monument looked majestic. Astride his beautifully carved horse, Salavat looked like the Russian Shivajee or Maharana Pratap. I could see children frolicking around the picturesque venue lined with blooming flowers and a breeze that grew sharper and cold as the night descended. Standing in the shadow of the Salavat monument in Ufa, my heart filled with a steady satisfaction. He was not a king but he won the heart of his people. He was not a winner but a fighter nevertheless. People remember him as a warrior but his poetry infects people with the spirit of hope-
“You are so far, my fatherland!
I would return home, but alas,
I am in chains, my Bashkirs!
The road home may be obscured by snow,
But come spring it shall melt –
I’m not dead yet, my Bashkirs!”
I don’t care whether Salavat was a historic figure or just a fictional character. I don’t care whether he was victorious in the war or languished in captivity for life. I bow to him because his sword gave people hope. I salute him because his poetry sustained the hope in the hearts of people.
Ufa, the Land. Bashkir the People.
Art & Literature
Bashkortostan! There is something lyrical in this word. It takes some effort to get used to it, but once you are accustomed to it, the sound of this word rolls off your tongue like a short musical piece. Its capital Ufa captures the cultural spirit of the Bashkir nation in its numerous monuments and places built to perpetuate the memory of its opera singers and composers, artists and literary personalities, apart from the customary tanks and war memorials.
Ufa prides itself of a long and glorious tradition of opera and ballet. The grand Bashkir State Opera and Ballet Theatre celebrates the opera and ballet tradition of Ufa as it is associated with the legendary ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev who defected from USSR while on a tour to France in 1961. He was a sensational ballet dancer by late 1950s but his rebellious temperament led to a running conflict with Soviet cultural authorities and the intelligence set up culminating in his defection to France where he died of AIDS in 1993. Flanking the Bashkir state opera building is the fountain with seven dancing girls which was opened recently and refers to an old Bashkir epic about seven girls.
Somewhat in contrast to Nuryev stands the monument of Zagir Ismagilov who was granted the title of ‘people’s artist of USSR’ in 1982. He was a composer who gave concerts for the army fighting during the second world war. He is credited with some well known opera productions such as Salavat Yulayev, The Ambassadors of the Urals etc. which put the Bashkir culture and history in the centre. His opera was performed on a wide scale in the republics of erstwhile USSR to countries of eastern Europe in those times.
Standing outside the house of great Bashkir literary figure Sergei Akshakov, it was hard to believe that the house is more than 200 years old. Akshakov was a contemporary of the Russian literary giants Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev and Pushkin who visited him in his lifetime. His semi-autobiographical work ‘A family Chronicle’ made him famous. The well preserved house and the park named in his honour jell perfectly with the quite and dignified pursuit of literature that Akshakov symbolised.
The imprint of Soviet era is also visible in the form of a number of ‘people’s poet’ tag given to literary personalities of Bashkir language. The beautifully maintained park near the Akshkov family house also has a small but distinct memorial built in the name of Rashit Nigmati, the people’s poet of Bashkortostan who was born in 1909 and brought up in an orphanage. He is credited with poems titled My Son, Kill a Fascist! And The Bolshevik.
Mustai Karim is another name associated with people’s poet. He lived in a village a few miles outside Ufa. I tried looking for his house in his village but none of the people could tell me with certainty where exactly his house was located. Instead we were shown a number of abandoned houses which could possibly be his ancestral house. It seemed to reflect the waning of the Soviet influence in the modern Bashkortostan since Mustai Karim was not just a highly awarded poet but politically too he was an important official of the Communist Party in USSR. I have no way of knowing about the quality of the literary work of any of these people but it certainly gave me the impression that art, culture and literature grew abundant in the Bashkir land.
The co-existence of the soviet era cultural symbols along with those for the rebels of the times seemed to be a frequently recurring phenomenon in Ufa.
Walking around Ufa, one cannot help notice a number of grand mosques and churches conspicuous by their colourfulness and opulence. I was tempted to visit a couple of mosques myself. Being a Muslim dominant republic, I was curious to find out if Islamic influence is creating any dissonance in the otherwise European and modern culture of this region. I visited the old mosque of ufa which is commonly known as Tukayev Mosque built in 1830. The place was quiet and elegant. Inside the mosque, a lone person was reciting Koran and another person took me inside the mosque. He asked me if I was a Muslim. He had a little difficulty in understanding that I was a Hindu, partly because the absence of English in Russia. There were other mosques too, specially the Lala Tulapan Mosque and another one which claimed to be the largest mosque in Europe capable of seating 15000 persons in one go. The architecture of the mosques was quite distinct. Unlike Indian mosques with domes, these mosques looked more like Churches with sharp and pointed minarets. Their serenity, cleanliness and poise could impress any one, though hardly many people seemed to be visiting the mosques for religious purposes. It is quite possible, however, that I may not have gone there at such a time when people gather for prayer.
In contrast though, the central cathedral Church of Ufa, which is built in the style of blue against the golden colour, was brimming with devotees in the evening. The Father was performing the evening ritual and the people gathered in the Church were quietly and devoutly listening to him, lighting candles and doing sundry other religious rituals. The atmosphere was distinctly religious there.
Bashkortostan is a multi-ethnic society of about 4 million people out of which Muslims constitute more than half of the total population. In the Russian federation, this region has the largest Muslim concentration in its population. Islam came to the region in the 10th century and by the 14th century, it had become the dominant religion here. The Bashkirs are predominantly Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi sect. But I was struck by the fact that there were hardly any burqa or niqab wearing women in the city of Ufa. In their dress and other cultural expressions the role of Islam seemed to be minimal.
In one of my interviews with a lady named Diana in the Zubobo village near Ufa, I asked if religion played any role in the social life of people of Bashkortostan and Ufa in particular. She was emphatic that it did not though people did believe in Islam. Women were mostly dressed in skirt and shirt or in a pair of jeans and shirt. In contrast, though, Rashit, the husband of the lady told me that he has a dream of settling in Dubai. When I asked him for the reason for preferring Dubai, he said, it had a better environment, people were religious, they did not indulge in vices like drinking or drug and the social life was ideal. It was also revealing to know that the man was an engineering graduate and employed in the Ufa municipality but took up the job of a part time cook, helper in a department store and took up other similar odd jobs whenever an opportunity arose. He had the ambition of becoming a Chef at a big hotel or airport. ‘Money, it is money, which is everything here’, Rashit informed me profoundly.
My visit to the Zubobo village and meeting with Diana was both revealing and rewarding. The contrast between the city of Ufa and the village was evident. The houses made of wood were beautiful, cosy and comfortable in their simplicity. However, the roads, just a few hundred metres off the main road were unpaved and kuchcha. Yet, the bumpy ride to the village was more than made up by the broad and toothy smile of Diana. She would not let me go without offering the world famous wild Honey of Bashkortostan, the national food of Bashkir region and Chuk Chuk- a sweet delicacy very similar to Indian Chikki.
Slowly savouring the honey, my mind wandered to the days when nomadic people called ‘Gulgulwas’ would come every winter to my father with a Balti full of wild honey, complete with remnants of the honeycomb floating in it for authenticity. The gentle haggling and bargaining, banter and repartee between my father and the honey-selling Gulgulwas before the deal was finalised flashed before my eyes.
Wild honey of Bashkortostan, wild honey form the banks of the Ganges- so distant yet so close!
Travelling in the Moscow metro is nothing less than being part of a living art exhibition. Whether it is the Mayakovskaya station with its ‘art deco stainless steel columns’ or the Park Kulturi station that faced suicide bomb attack in 2010, the visitor is overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of Moscow metro stations. Lighting, Paintings, mosaics and murals, stained glass panels, sculptures- all of it spread over 200 stations and a track length exceeding 300 kilometres. A perfect blend of beauty and utility, the Moscow metro celebrated its 80th year in May this year. No great surprise that it is the most popular destination for any visitor to Moscow. I was no exception.
I arrived in Moscow from Ufa early in the morning after taking a 25 minutes flight which had taken about 3 hours while I had gone to Ufa a few days back. The time zone difference between Moscow and Ufa seemed to have expedited the speed of the Siberian Airlines and it felt really good. I was keen on seeing a few land-marks in Moscow in a few days that I had there. Moscow metro was the first on my list. Starting from the Leninsky Prospekt flat of my friend Viru in the afternoon to the metro station was a walk of hardly ten minutes. The metro station looked gorgeous with granite flooring and modern sculptures and designs made of stainless steel. Soon the train arrived. However, it was somewhat disappointing to find the train extremely noisy though it moved at great speed. It was impossible to talk and I found it hard to even listen to the announcement being made. I noticed that the windows of the metro compartment were open and that created noise. Probably, the metro was designed this way to keep the cost of air-conditioning down which seemed a little odd considering the swanky look of the metro stations.
We had planned to go to the Kremlin and the red-square which could be reached by changing the metro at one place. However, due to maintenance work on a certain section of the metro, we had to change metro a couple of times to reach the station closest to the Kremlin. It gave me the opportunity to see some of the most astonishingly beautiful metro stations in Moscow. The construction of Moscow metro had started in 1935 and the early work on it was completed during and immediately after the World War II by the ‘volunteers’ called Komsomol. Some of Russia’s best architects had designed these metros along with experts hired from London Tube and other countries. The stations were made as works of art to prove the superiority of the Soviet system and also perhaps to fulfil the psychological need to see something beautiful after the ruin and devastation of the war. There was some change in perspective during the post-Stalin Khrushchev era when simpler and cheaper design was adopted for the metro stations. However, most of the stations near the centre of Moscow look exquisite even now.
Many of the stations on the Moscow metro had sculptures and bronze statues of dogs and other animals. People going out from the platform would come and touch the body of the dog and move on. Viru told me that it is considered an auspicious thing to do as it is supposed to bring good luck to the person. Setting aside my scientific temper and rationality for the moment, I quickly rushed to the dog and grabbed its nose which had become shiny because of being touched thousands of times by the commuters daily. Who knows, if it works, no harm giving it a try!
Taking the escalator up and down at the metro stations I realised that the metro stations were situated really deep. In fact the deepest metro station in Moscow Park Probedy (Victory Park) is built about 84 metres below the ground level while the average depth of the metro stations between 35 to 55 metres. The Moscow metro stations were also built to work as bomb-shelters during the seize of Moscow in 1941. It is said that during this period of World War II, Russian air-force headquarters were shifted to one of the metro stations. The Russian council of Ministers had also shifted its offices to the metro platform where Stalin made public speeches on many occasions.
As we made our way out towards the Kremlin, the rush on the platform and the escalator reminded me of the Chawri Bazar and Central Secretariat stations of Delhi metro. Apparently, for the Muscovites, metro is the life line of transportation as it caters to more than 9 million passengers on a daily basis. There are of course problems for the outsider who does not know Russian as all the signages are in Russian, announcements in the metro are also made only in Russian. The ticket is affordable and an unlimited monthly ticket costs around 2000 roubles or 2200 rupees. Of course, I had no problem as Viru spoke Russian and he swiped his metro smart card twice to let me in. It is perfectly valid in Moscow metro to swipe your card as many times as you want to let the other persons come in since the tickets or cards are generally limited by number of rounds allowed for travel.
The story of Moscow metro would not be complete without talking about the legend of the secret Line 2 built during the Stalin time. It is believed that Moscow metro has a secret tunnel network that connects Kremlin with important strategic and defence establishments inside and out of Moscow. It was built to allow for sudden evacuation of Soviet leaders in the event of a nuclear war. Associated with this are other stories of ghosts of the people who died building the metro, a ghost train that runs once a month in these tunnels with doors shut and lights off and giant radioactive rats that glow in the dark which can maul a stranded railway worker or two. No body knows how true or false these stories and legends are but they add to the mystery and attraction of the Moscow metro.
Of course, Moscow metro is unparalleled in its magnificence and exquisiteness perhaps rivalled only by the beauty and grace of Russian girls on the station, inside the train compartment and outside in the city.