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A Russian treat for Indian travellers

A 13-member Indian expedition moved across Russian towns to get a glimpse of the varied towns, absorbing thier culture.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2006 08:43 IST

As our car expedition from St Petersburg to Mumbai following the footsteps of 15th century Russian trader Afanasy Nikitin winds its way across Russia, endless rolling steppes give way to green meadows and then the Caucasus foothills with their lingering autumn colours.

We shed our thick overcoats, and the miles of snow we saw in our first weeks seem a faraway dream. There's a surprise at every turn in our journey across Russia. At times it is the vastness and variety of the landscape. But more often it is the diversity of its culture and peoples.

We dig out bottles of wine stashed away in the three hardy Indian vehicles that have stood us in such good stead over the past three weeks and drink a toast to our first sight of the Black Sea.

We've completed more than half of our journey and are nearing the end of the Russian leg that has carried us from St Petersburg in the far north through Tver, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saratov, Volgograd, Astrakhan and the more obscure towns of Elista and Kropotkin to finally Sochi.

Our 13 expedition members are still digesting their impressions of Russia. Technical crewmember Sanjeev Thakur says, "Each town we reach is more exciting than the last."

As we moved across Russian towns, our reception got warmer and warmer with culture departments of local governments taking us on tours of their cities, and organising interactive sessions with university students and conferences with the media.

Ramakant Diwedi, an academic specialising in Russian and Central Asian studies, is a bit disappointed that official functions and cultural shows took over when he would have rather interacted with people—academics and citizens—to get a complete picture of Russia.

Hari Vasudevan, a professor of Russian history, feels his expectations of the trip have been fully met despite the "at times overwhelming hospitality of the Russian people".

There was a resurgent nationalism everywhere we went, whether it was the Bulgar Tatars in Kazan, the Kalmiks or the Kuban Cossacks. Hari, I suspect, was remembering the greetings of the deputy minister of culture of Kalmikiya who told us that Indians and Kalmiks must be related because we are all descendents of Genghis Khan and their people once ruled over vast swathes of Russia.

It's been a whistle-stop tour. If we wanted to absorb the essence and culture of places we would have had to do it like Nikitin, spending on occasions a month, sometimes three, at places along the way.

All of us agree that Astrakhan, Elista and Kropotkin deserved more than the brief visit we gave them.

We knew of Russia's ethnic diversity, but nothing prepared us for Elista, capital of the Kalmik Republic, one of the two Buddhist republics in Russia.

We trooped in with hundreds of Elistans to attend Sunday morning prayers at the gigantic kurul or Buddhist temple that is the centrepiece of the town, which has colourful oriental pagodas standing alongside Russian and kalmik heroes including Lenin.

The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and perestroika saw a resurgence of Buddhism in the Kalmik Republic. The main kurul has been designed and built in consultation with the Dalai Lama who will be visiting next year to formally consecrate the temple. The kurul, according to our Kalmik guide, is the largest Buddhist shrine in Europe.

Kropotkin is Cossack country. We are greeted by a group of black-coated, saber-rattling men singing folk songs to the tune of an accordion.

We went to the cultural centre where our hostess Natasha Mikhaleskoya, head of the city's department of culture, tells us we are the first Indian delegation to visit the town.

The Cossacks were groups of wandering warriors who settled in the fertile land around the Kuban river after a royal grant. They are a primarily agricultural community proud of being a warrior race.

Sochi is another world. A bustling resort town in summer, it is strangely empty in the winter evening. But the twinkling lights, beachside promenades, bars, cafes and a plethora of hotels leave us imagining how the town known as the Russian Riviera would look in summer.

We are to take a ship to Trabzon in Turkey after an overnight stay in Sochi. From Turkey we go to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. It is going to take us five weeks to reach home.

I get varied reactions as I ask my fellow travellers how they feel about their Russian journey. Almost all say it was an experience to remember but rather different from the expectations they set out with.

"I thought it would be more like Europe, but it is not as advanced," says the widely travelled Rajendra Jain.

Our dancer Sharmistha Mukherjee says she always knew Russia was a huge country but had not expected the ethnic and religious diversity we encountered. Cities like Kazan and Astrakhan have over 100 ethnic groups living harmoniously together.

As we walk aboard our ship at Sochi, we know that a few abiding memories of Russia will stay with us. Of a varied people who greeted us with warmth and curiosity though with occasional impatience for our very Indian disorganised ways; a people who are proud of their different and distinct identities in a post Soviet Russia; and everywhere a keen interest in India and a desire to know how we do things.

And of course we will not forget the little vignettes of India we found all along the way. The Indian medical students in St Petersburg, Tver, Moscow and Volgograd; the Russian girls dancing to Bollywood songs in Kazan; the plaque in memory of the Indian merchant community who lived in Astrakhan 200 years ago.

Russia's India connection may date back to 15th century Afanasy Nikitin, but in the 21st century it is as diverse as Russia's myriad ethnic groups.