Indian Diaspora in Russia: An incredible story of dream, struggle and adaptation

New Delhi | Published: March 29, 2019 5:52:20 PM

It may sound exotic to live in Russia, but life is not easy for the migrants. First generation migrants struggle hard to adapt to a new environment while carrying the emotional baggage of their homeland.

Caught between the issue of livelihood and the apprehension of losing the culture, they had little choice but to give precedence to the former. (Credit – Embassy of India in Moscow, Russia)

By Rajan Kumar and Rohan

The life of the Indian community in Russia is an incredible story of dream, struggle and adaptation in a milieu where everything from climate, language and food to culture is alien. Braving adversity, they work extra-hard to make ends meet and support their families in India. Numbering just about 14000, they are spread-out all-over Russia but concentrated mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Arriving mostly as students during the Soviet times and later, they settled there either for professional or family reasons. The Indian community in Russia is a mixed lot of people from far-flung UP, Bengal, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and other places. Roughly 30 per cent or 4500 comprises of students who came primarily for medical degrees in various universities in Russia. The medical field being a coveted profession in India, students are willing to pay a hefty amount and face the hardship in the hope of a settled career after finishing their degrees. Most of them return to India, but some who find work or venture into some business stay put in Russia.

Indian migration to Russia is not a new phenomenon and archival evidence show that Indian traders were present in Russia during the medieval times. Hudud-al-Alam, a tenth century chronicle, gives a candid account of Indians living in Bukhara; Hafiz Tanish’s Sharafnama-i-shahi and Majmu’a-i-watha’iq, judicial documents, give detailed accounts of Indian merchants who came to Central Asian and Russian towns from Multan, Peshawar, Shikarpur, Sindh, Deccan, Gujarat, Rajasthan and other parts of the sub-continent. The famous Arab geographer, Yaqut al-Rumi gives a description of Indian warehouses in Bulghar, which was situated south of the Volga River. By the fourteenth century, Bukhara had such a huge population of Indians that the place of their caravanserais was colloquially called ‘Hill of the Indians’. In Balkh, around the same time, Indians had a gate (bab-i-hinduwan), thoroughfare (saraq-i-hinduwan) and citadel (qal’a-i-hinduwan) in their honour eulogising their importance in the region. Famous Russian traveller, Afanasei Nikitin, travelled from Tver to India in the 15th century.

Indian merchants in the medieval times comprised of Punjabi Khatris, Rajasthani Marwaris, Gujarati Banias, Multani Khojas and Bohras, Shikarpuris and Sindhis. The Russian Tsars developed many fortified towns to attract the Indian merchants, and many settled in the northern Caucasus, Astrakhan, the central Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk, and up to Tsaritsyn, Saratov, Kazan, Nizhny, Novgorod, Moscow, Yaroslavl’ and St. Petersburg. By the nineteenth century, Russia had become one of the largest centres of Indian merchant diasporas across the globe. The Russian merchant community (gosti) feared the loss of market monopoly at the hands of the Indians. A separate Department of Manufacturers and Trade of Ministry of Finances of Russia was developed in Orenburg to promote Russian merchants replacing Indian merchants.

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In 1877, the Tsar issued circular (number 8560) ordering the expulsion of Indians from Russia by making it illegal for any Indian to own property, wealth, farmland or even factory in the region. Since late nineteenth century until 1947 only a minuscule population lived in Russian towns mainly because Russians wanted to keep the ownership of lands to themselves and they feared that Indian merchants could be the agents of the British Empire. The contemporary Indian community in Russia consists primarily of students who after finishing their degrees settled there for business purposes. During the Soviet Union, students went either through the Communist Party networks or through the state exchange programmes. In the post-Soviet period, the student migration slowed down considerably, and the medical profession remains the sole attraction for them. There is immense scope for reviving the cooperation in the field of education, but the information about Russian educational institutions is not readily available to the students in India.

The Indian community in Russia, though small in number, displays a unique character. The Soviet legacy continues to impact the liberal thinking and progressive outlook of the Indian diaspora, especially of the older generation. Their outlook is more cosmopolitan compared to the younger generation who are more professional and commercial in their approaches. Kashmir Singh, the president of Hindustani Samaj, the oldest organisation of Indian diaspora
in Russia, went as a student during the Soviet time, got married to a Russian woman and settled down there permanently, without taking the citizenship yet. The Hindustani Samaj works closely with the Indian embassy to promote Indian language and culture. Pragati Tipnis, the secretary of this organisation, informed us about the scholarship programmes launched by the Indian Embassy for the diaspora children. There are other organisations
representing other regions of India, viz., All Moscow Malayalee Association (Amma) for Kerala, Russia Tamil Sangam for Tamil Nadu, Moscow Durga Puja Association by Bengalis and so on. The Indian Business Alliance and Textile Business Alliance cater to the business-related needs of the Indian diaspora. Russia is one of the few places where Indian married Russian girls in good numbers- some successful, some breaking-up unceremoniously. Disha, an organisation headed by Rameshwar Singh, represents the interests of such hybrid families living in Russia. There are roughly 300 such families at present living in various parts of Russia.

Dealing with the Russian bureaucracy is one of the difficult issues for Indians living in Russia. Getting a public document or obtaining registration for the company or the NGO is a complicated and time taking process. The registration of an NGO is not an easy task in Russia, especially after the passing of a new law where all organisations receiving funds from the foreigners have to register as ‘Foreign Agents”. This problem was highlighted by Mukesh Kumar, the Vice President of the Overseas Bihar Association (OBA), an organisation initiated by professionals from Bihar based in Moscow to mark the 100 years of Bihar or Bihar Diwas, as they call it. They invited some popular Bollywood performers to celebrate this day. The president of the OBA, Anjani Kumar, expressed his desire to invest in Bihar if the government provided some basic infrastructure.

It may sound exotic to live in Russia, but life is not easy for the migrants. First generation migrants struggle hard to adapt to a new environment while carrying the emotional baggage of their homeland. The second generation, especially the younger ones, is split between the cultural burdens of their parents and the expectations of Russian society. Dichotomous expectations of “being Indian by the parents” and “Russian by the peers”
subject them to unprecedented pressure. As they get older, the first-generation migrants develop a ‘sense of double alienation’ for being distant both from the native land and their Russified children- who are Indian in colour and Russian in taste. Binti Kumar, a mother of two children and the wife of a medical entrepreneur in Moscow, was concerned that her children felt “more at home in Moscow than in Delhi or Mumbai”. She also expressed a
sense of guilt for not being able to tend her ailing parents in Patna. Among the Indian community in Russia, we witnessed a craving for the homeland, anxiety of forgetting the culture, and fear of never being accepted by Russian society. Such overwhelming emotions were widespread among the Indian community. Caught between the issue of livelihood and the apprehension of losing the culture, they had little choice but to give precedence to the former.

(Rajan Kumar is Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Rohan is Assistant Professor, Maitreyi College, Delhi University. Views expressed in the above are co-author’s own. This article is based on interviews with the Indian diaspora in Moscow in March 2019.)

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