Rediscovering friendship: why Russia and India need a richer intercultural dialogue

December 19, 2021
Like any old friends, the two countries need to revitalize their friendship as many perceptions of each other are stuck in the Soviet era which is not helping when countries want to promote their technological advancement, emerging tourism and educational sectors, and simply do more and better business together.

The number of Indians who studied and worked in the former USSR is still quite significant. Many of them are still very fond of Russian culture and Russians in general and  still feel a great bond between the two nations. However, it’s different when it comes to the younger generation. Russia for them is almost  ‘terra incognita’. Their perceptions are limited to ‘military supplier’ and ‘India’s long time friend’ cliché. And it is not  surprising given that the cooperation between the two countries is generally limited to G2G defence and energy deals. Each one of them is labeled as ‘major step ahead’ which has close to zero impact on the relationship between the ordinary Russians and Indians, be it common men or artists or entrepreneurs.

Let’s talk business

For two nations calling themselves ‘preferred strategic partners’ for such a long time as India and Russia do, there is an oddly limited understanding of how to deal with each other beyond government deals. This is a loss for both nations. While Russian civilian technologies, products and services are missing an opportunity to grab the Indian market–probably, one of the largest (despite quite complicated to operate on), Indian companies, too, remain unaware of many opportunities Russia offers to investors and highly skilled specialists.

It’s not the government-to-government business which brings stability and real bonds. G2G can be the bone of economic cooperation but it is private enterprise and MSME which makes its flesh and soul.

Russia and India set up ambitious goals of increasing bilateral trade and investments, and boosting B2C trade could be the key factor for achieving them. While manufacturers in both countries offer a great range of products,  they find it extremely difficult to market them and reach an understanding with local partners. Without understanding the specifics of the consumers in the targeted market, no marketing strategy can be worked out. No joint venture can be set up, no private capital raised if the parties are not willing to acknowledge and respect each other's cultural differences.

The lack of cultural dialogue results in underestimating the difference of perception of the word ‘result’. For Indians, to get something done you need to push a thousand times and have a thousand meetings. This approach is logical for the country with the world 's second biggest population, highest level of competition in any field and unavoidable involvement of many middlemen in whatever deal is. For Russians, the result is usually associated with a strike of immediate action. The meeting has to be fruitful or it’s considered a waste of time. Holding hundreds of meetings just to create a network and awareness in the field sounds like a very strange idea.

A scene from this author’s personal experience tells a lot about the misunderstanding Russians and Indians have about doing business. Negotiations on a big ticket deal for nitrate ammonia to be supplied from Russia came to a standstill when the Indian party inquired about the packaging  material to be used, stressing that certain packaging is cheaper and better. The Russian was furious: “Signing a multi million deal, they want to know the cost of the package? Are they serious?.” And the Indian party was shocked: “Signing a multi million deal, they don’t want to get back on the cost of the packaging? Are they serious?” Needless to say, that agreement was never finalized.

Cultural gap

Today, India for Russians remains largely a country of yoga, Kamasutra, Gandhi and Goa. While the senior generation in Russia still remembers the song ‘Jimmy, Jimmy’ and considers Raj Kapoor as one of the greatest Indian talents, the effect of cultural curiosity and interest that was created by Indian movies back in the Soviet era could be well multiplied by exposing Rusians to latest Bollywood movies.

As for Russian movies, they are hardly ever screened in India. While a certain number of co-productions between Indian and Russian companies have emerged over the past few years, after the countries have agreed to intensify cooperation in the field of cinematography in 2016, it is yet to get traction in the public domain. Hopefully, this will change soon once Yash Raj Film’s Tiger 3 starring Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif is out next year. The film is shot in several locations, including Saint-Petersburg. The production will refund almost US$650,000 as per the cash rebate program run by the Russian government.

This is the first project, which will receive a rebate from Russian Export Center and Ministry of Economic Development within the federal rebate program, Evgenia Danilchenko, head of creative industries support at Russian Export Center told ‘Rossiyskaya Gazeta’ earlier this year. The Russian government refunds 40% of production cost (within the territory of the Russian Federation),  based on the declared budget for production in Russia at the time of submitting the application.

The positive development, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Few months before  Tiger 3 shooting took place in Saint-Petersburg, another Indian production tested the ground. The scenes from the upcoming Tamil film Cobra starring ex-cricketer Irfan Pathan were shot in Saint-Petersburg and its picturesque suburbs, Gatchina and Pushkin in -20 C temperatures. The production has later discovered itself in a soup over payment issues raising concerns of trust among local industry professionals.

Russia’s attempt to popularize its cinema among Indians could not yield much results so far. The Russian Film Festival, started on a promising note in 2016, with celebrities from both countries gathering in Mumbai, repeated the fate of most of the foreign film festivals in India. The handful of people particularly interested in Russian cinema is not enough to grab the attention of Indians whose taste for  cinematography is influenced by Bollywood, Hollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood and the likes. Five years on, the Russian Film Festival is still there but had to move from the cinemas halls to Disney + Hotstar OTT platform.

Many languages

Several generations of Indians grew up reading Russian children’s books, famous classics, and magazines not only in English translations, but in local languages—hindi, marathi, tamil, bengali. One shouldn’t underestimate the efforts the USSR put behind the making of its soft power: the books and magazines were being translated into hundreds of languages by highly skilled translators of the Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH) in Moscow. And it wasn’t only for the language that those publications were popular in India: the cultural ties were well promoted at all levels of diplomacy, supported by the cinema and thousands of students going to Russia for studies.

In the digital era and the online space dominated by English language hardly anyone in India today reads Russian contemporary literature or children’s books (although one cannot deny the popularity of ‘Masha and the Bear’ across Bharat). However, modern Russian literature doesn’t really find its way to India, and the same goes for Indian literature.

Still, there are hidden treasures in this field that could be supported with a greater effort by both governments. For example, in 2016 Pune-based Pioneer Prakashan published a collection of 31 short stories for children, ‘Deniskiny rasskazy’ (‘Adventures of Dennis’) by Soviet writer Viktor Dragunsky, translated for the first time directly into Hindi and Marathi by Indian translators Dr. A. Charumati Ramdas and Dr. Anagha Bhat.

While Indian Russists translate Ivan Turgeniev, Ivan Bunin, Mikhail Bulgakov and many other authors, finding a publisher often remains an overwhelming task, limiting the audience for those translations to a tiny group of Russian language teachers and enthusiasts. The initiative to promote literature has now been taken by various social media communities and clubs, operating mainly through the Facebook platform. In September,  the F. M. Dostoevsky Book Club of the India-Russia Friendship Society of Western India along with the Russian House in Mumbai, organized a literary meeting dedicated to ‘Adventures of Dennis’. The organisers managed to invite the writer's son, Mr. Denis Viktorovich Dragunsky, the eponymous protagonist of this book, who shared his memories of his father writing stories later compiled in one book, at the family dining table in their apartment in Moscow.

Literature per se and cultural exchange at large should not be underestimated by policy makers in India as well. Around 15 years back, the book about adventures of a Russian middle class young man in Goa skyrocketed the popularity of the coastal state among Russian tourists, helping local hotel owners and tour operators earn millions of rupees due to the inflow of generous spending travellers from all regions of Russia. A total of 3.11 lakh Russians arrived in Goa from January to October 2018–almost two times more than British tourists during the same period of time.

While the five Russian Centers of Science and Culture (RCSC) in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Trivandrum are doing a good job in promoting the Russian culture among Indians, with exhibitions, performances and other events held every month, the crowd attending those events is limited to Russians living in India and few students of Russian language courses or those who ever studied and worked in India. A new paradigm of how to attract more people, especially young ones, must be found. It could be through a wider cooperation with local schools and universities, business and cultural associations, or by inviting  modern Indian influencers.

Young people travelling to another country for studies are one of the most important soft power  tools as they naturally become cultural ambassadors of the country of their studies in their native towns and villages, telling the stories and sharing the photographs and memories. However, this area of cooperation, too, has seen a sharp decline. Today, Russia receives just about 14 000 of Indian students annually, compared to 1,30,000 in the US–despite the fact that Russian education is much more affordable for an Indian middle class family.

Both Russians and Indians need to accept that the long-time all-weather allies have become rather strangers. For our countries’ interests, efforts and intentions to be heard and relevant to the common man, we need to look forward, and not rely on the legacy of the past. In the world of digital media and zoom-powered interactions, we need to rely more on social media influencers and the communication channels of the future.