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16 Gagarins in Moscow village: South India loves Russian writers and Russian names

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16 Gagarins in Moscow village: South India loves Russian writers and Russian names


Alexander Ryazantsev

Photo: Ratish Nair

Quite recently, the Russkiy Mir Foundation concluded an agreement to open the Russkiy Mir Office in the Indian city of Trivandrum. The office to be set up at the Pushkin Center for the Russian language, which is headed by Ratish Nair, director of the Russian House Trivandrum and Honorary Consul of Russia in that city. We discussed with him why Russian literature is popular in southern India and why parents give their children Russian names.

Trivandrum is the state administrative center of Kerala, India. It has a population of about 750,000 people. It should be mentioned that Kerala is a distinctive state. It is located in the south of India, and the population speaks Malayalam, a Dravidian language. More than 90% of the state residents are literate; thus, Kerala has the highest level of education and the highest life expectancy in the country. Kerala also has traditionally strong leftist forces, including the Communist Party of India.

This is also a reason why Russian literature and culture are rather popular here. The Russian House in Trivandrum makes a great contribution to the promotion and popularization of Russian culture.

"We would like to have the Russkiy Mir Office," says Ratish Nair. "More than 400 schoolchildren in four Trivandrum schools study Russian. There is also a Russian language department at the University of Kerala.”

Ratish studied at a medical school in the Soviet Union. Over time, however, his affection for Russia has not diminished.

"I do love Russian traditions, culture, and literature. I still learn the Russian language," he says. And he proves his case. Apart from Russian language classes, the Russian House in Trivandrum hosts meetings, seminars, exhibitions, and book presentations. Russians living in Kerala and Indians, including many young people, attend and enjoy these events. Nevertheless, the Russian Honorary Consul in Trivandrum has interests that go beyond Kerala. Now he has arrived in Russia to build up ties with the Russian regions.

"Russia needs PR"

– Your present visit to Russia involves the development of tourism relations between our countries. Can you tell us about this aspect of your activities?

– A bilateral tourism fair will be held in Trivandrum from November 29 to December 1, 2022. It has been initiated by the Russian House and Honorary Consulate with the support of the Russian Embassy. The participants will include tour operators from India and Russia. I have come to Russia to make arrangements with the Russian regions to participate in this fair.

I believe that tourism is essential as it combines business, culture, and people's diplomacy. When you visit another country, you explore it, see the architectural landmarks, get to know its history and culture, and fall in love with its people.

It is currently possible to fly from India to Russia and back without any difficulty. There are also flights from Russia to the south of India with a stopover in one of the Arab countries, so tourism keeps developing. On the other hand, I want tourists from the south of India to visit Russia and explore more than just the architectural attractions of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

We have many people who know Russian writers just as well as they know our own. These tourists can be offered, for instance, a visit to Alexander Pushkin's house (The Memorial Apartment of A.S. Pushkin on the Arbat - Ed.), and a tour to Yasnaya Polyana. If they go to St. Petersburg, I usually recommend them to see Dostoevsky's house (The F. M. Dostoyevsky Literary Memorial Museum - Ed.). Such things contribute greatly to people's diplomacy and the bond between our countries.

– You also promoted twinning arrangements between Russian and Indian cities.

– Ties between regions are vital. We initiated the establishment of twinning between Pyatigorsk and the city of Kochi, between Thrissur and Essentuki. We also reached an agreement with the mayor of Kozhikode (Calicut) to inaugurate Afanasy Nikitin Street. This is a city in the north of Kerala where Afanasy Nikitin arrived 550 years ago. The street was inaugurated on April 19, 2022.

We notified the mayor of Tver about it through the Embassy of Russia in India. They responded with an interest in signing a twinning arrangement between Tver and Kozhikode. While in Tver, I had a meeting with the vice-mayor and the minister of tourism of the Tver Region. We discussed how we could develop twinning relations and I invited Tver to participate in our fair. Currently, a delegation from Tver is preparing a visit to Kerala.

In my opinion, a very interesting route is to go from Moscow to Tver via Klin, where you can visit the Tchaikovsky Museum, and then from Tver to Novgorod to experience what civilization was like in Russia 500 years ago. And from there you can go to St. Petersburg.

– Do you expect many tourists to come from India to Russia?

– I certainly do as they are curious to explore different cultures and religions. They used to go to Europe because they believed it wasn't safe in Russia. Nevertheless, I was very impressed to see how Russia has changed in terms of tourism, particularly in the hotel business. Frankly speaking, very few countries can claim to have such a high standard, and there is much for them to learn from Russia. Many tour operators in India just don't know anything about it, and this is something we have to show them.

There is also an issue with transferring money. SWIFT doesn't work in Russia at the moment. This issue could be solved, let's say, through the Sberbank branch in Delhi. Tour operators would be able to transfer money by opening an account at Sberbank.

Furthermore, Europe will suffer due to the lack of power in the coming season, which means it would be cold in their houses in the winter. Russia has no such issues. This is why tour operators could bring Indian tourists to Russia to show them a genuine winter.

It is peaceful in Russia, but Indian tour operators are unaware of it. Russia needs PR and it can be provided through tourism.

Yesenin Award and the Russian Chess Club

– There are classes of the Russian language at the Russian House in Trivandrum. How many students are there?

– There were about 60 students before the pandemic.

– Is Russian popular in general? Why do students choose to study it? What is their motivation?

– It is sad to say that people have not had the same interest in Russian as they have in German, for instance. Nevertheless, there are those who love Russia and know that they will do business there. There is also the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, which Russia is building. It is not far from us, and there are people who want to work there. Also, some students want to go to Russia to study medicine, and technical professions, so there is some interest in learning Russian.

– What else can the Russian House offer to its visitors?

– There is a music school. Our pupils used to get their diplomas at Trinity College in London but now we are looking for a partner in Moscow so that they can get their diplomas in Russia.

There is also a chess club named after Alexander Alekhine. There are a lot of students. We hold tournaments. Recently we held a chess contest between five Russian houses in India.

We show Russian movies in a film club named after Andrei Tarkovsky. One year from now we'll celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mosfilm. So, we plan to host a big film festival on that occasion.

Russian compatriots come to us, and we celebrate the Eighth of March, Maslenitsa, and other holidays together. In July, for instance, we celebrated Love and Fidelity Day. We invited Russian-Indian married couples to the event and held a quiz. We invited Indian men to answer questions about Russia and Russian women to answer questions about India. In the end, we rewarded the winners with prizes.

People who learned Russian in past come to our Russian Speakers Club. Its meetings are held once a month. It is a place where only Russian is spoken.

We do not miss any significant dates. Last year, we held zoom presentations of Russian museums despite the pandemic. We got in touch with the Dostoevsky Museum on the anniversary of Fyodor Dostoevsky's birth. We also showed Mikhail Bulgakov's museum in Moscow on the anniversary of the writer's birth. We have been cooperating with the S.A. Yesenin State Memorial Museum Preserve for a long time, so we were keeping in touch as well.

People frequently visit us. We have the Youth Club. Usually, about half of the visitors are young people.

Russian fairy tales in Malayalam

– You mentioned in one of your interviews that people in Kerala know about Russia. Does this have something to do with the fact that the leftist forces are strong in the region?

– The political aspect certainly contributes to this. However, literacy in our state is almost one hundred percent, which is why we read a lot. Russian literature is very popular here; almost all well-known books by Russian writers have been translated into Malayalam, and new translations keep appearing. At the Russian House, we give translators of Russian literature the Yesenin Award on an annual basis.

– Are there translations of contemporary literature?

– Each year, at least two new translated books are published by the Russian House with the support of Rossotrudnichestvo. We have published translations of works by Bella Akhmadulina, Andrei Voznesensky, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Currently, we intend to publish translations of contemporary Russian writers. As a matter of fact, last year we published a collection of articles in Malayalam. Our writers shared how Dostoyevsky's work had affected them.

Natives of our state reside in many countries, so people have a broad perspective. We had a meeting of people with Russian names at the Russian House a while back, and there was one girl named Svetlana. I asked her mother why they had given her daughter that name. She explained that they had lived in Dubai for a long time, and they had a neighbor named Svetlana who was very fond of their little girl, so they named their daughter after that lady.

– During the Soviet era, Russian and Soviet literature for children enjoyed great popularity in India. And what is the current situation?

– We enjoyed reading Russian fairy tales in our childhood. They were published by Progress, Raduga, and other publishing houses. We used to miss them. In 2018, the Russian House published a collection of fairy tales for children in Malayalam.

– Let's also talk about the impact of Russian culture. You mentioned that you hold meetings with people that have Russian names. What names are the most popular?

– Yes, we have sixteen Gagarins and several Tereshkovs. There are Pushkins, Gagarins, Lenins, and even Stalins. The Honorary Consulate of Russia holds annual meetings of south Indian residents named in honor of Russian cultural, scientific, and political figures. One such meeting was held in the village of Moscow located one hundred kilometres from Trivandrum.

For instance, Pushkin is known by many people. Today I got a call from one writer I know. He wants to write a novel about the poet's last days. So, he asked me about places in Russia associated with Pushkin that he could visit.

– Recently a book about Tanya Savicheva and her blockade diary was published in India. It's a hard, difficult subject. Why did you decide to do it?

 Photo: Tanya Savicheva, Leningrad siege diary

– We have never neglected the 9th of May at the Russian House. Every year we hold a festival, seminar, or exhibition on that day. Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the war and the siege of Leningrad; I reported on the lives of people in Leningrad and, of course, on Tanya Savicheva.

My friend asked me to find some information about Tanya Savicheva because it's hard to find it in India. Alexandr Inshutin is the director of the Tanya Savicheva Children's Museum in the village of Shatki, Nizhny Novgorod Region, where Tanya died. He helped a lot in my search by providing me with materials, including rare photographs. So, I decided to publish the book. First, it was in Malayalam. Later, I supplemented it with new materials and published a new book in English.

Some time ago I met with an elderly woman in St. Petersburg. Her name is Irina Bogdanova. She is a siege survivor with a fate similar to Tanya Savicheva's fate. She lost her whole family during the siege. She also shared a lot of things and provided me with materials. Now I am preparing a new book about Irina Bogdanova as a sequel to a story about Tanya Savicheva. It will also be in English. I think it is very important to share such stories because a million people, including children, died defending their homeland during the siege.

The homeland is not just about land, it's about tradition, culture, literature, and the Russian language. If the Nazis had come, the Russian language might not have existed any longer. They died because they had a Russian soul. The children of Donbass also died because they loved their ethnicity, and their Russian language, so I don't see any difference between the children of Donbass and the children in the siege of Leningrad.

It is important for people to think and see what forms evil takes now.

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