Mumbaiwale: From Russia with love

With the football World Cup kicking off in Russia, take a loot at Soviet connections around the city.
The Haffkine institute at Parel.(HT File Photo)
The Haffkine institute at Parel.(HT File Photo)
Updated on Jun 16, 2018 03:47 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By, Mumbai


Russian doctor Waldemar Haffkine set up the research centre in 1899, a few years after he’d developed a vaccine for cholera in Kolkata. He arrived in Bombay when the city was in the throes of a plague. But after three months of research, his team successfully developed an anti-plague vaccine (which he tested on himself, just like in Bengal).


Textbooks tell you that Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. Mumbaiites who lived through the 1960s will tell you that he was also the first cosmonaut to visit the city. The uniformed VIP flew into town and left Bombay starry-eyed in October 1961, just six months after he orbited Earth. He addressed a rally in Shivaji Park, and local reports state that there were thousands of people in attendance. An eye surgeon who lived at Marine Drive even hosted a dinner in his honour. Gagarin also visited Delhi Lucknow and Hyderabad.


A decade after Independence, when Jawaharlal Nehru was looking to set up a world-class technological college in western India, he asked defence minister VK Krishna Menon to approach the Soviets for help. A team of Russian experts helped set up the IIT’s Powai campus and lived in the city for three years. IIT-B began admitting its first students in 1958.

Less than a decade later, the Russians helped again. The city’s first computing activity began right on campus, with a Russian Minsk-II computer, in 1967. It took a year to install and set up (it didn’t help that the manuals were in Russian). In 1974, IIT-B acquired a Soviet-make EC-1030, another landmark machine that helped Bombay students hone their hardware and software skills early.

Several local professors also trained in the Soviet Union until the 1980s. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paid visit in 2010.


India’s earliest space dreams were fuelled by the USSR. The Soviets took Rakesh Sharma, India’s only citizen to travel in space, aboard the Soyuz T-11 rocket for a little under eight days in 1984. India honoured their contribution in 2011 with a bust of the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin at on the grounds of the Nehru Science Centre in Worli. The centre holds space-themed programmes every April 11, Gagarin’s birthday, to celebrate.


Diplomatic relations have given Mumbai sister cities across the world – among them Stuttgart, Honolulu, Yokohama and Shanghai. But the oldest connection comes dates back to 1967 when Leningrad was twinned with Bombay. Leningrad became St Petersburg in 1995; Bombay became Mumbai in 1995. A chowk on Appashaeb Marathe Marg was established in 1970 and still honours the old name. The neighbourhood is home to the offices of the World Social Forum, the All India Trade Union Congress and bookstore of socialist literature.

The CCI pavilion at Brabourne Stadium. (HT File Photo)
The CCI pavilion at Brabourne Stadium. (HT File Photo)


Bombay hosted a friendly football match between the Soviet national team and India in February 1955 and 35,000 fans reportedly showed up to watch. The USSR team had stars such as Nikita Simonyan, Boris Tatushin and Lev Yashin or ‘The Black Spider’ often called the greatest goalkeeper of all time. They beat us, and roughly the same team went on to win gold at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. India placed fourth.


Stop by the village of Chaul in Revdanda on your way to Alibaug. It’s where the first Russian set foot on Indian soil in 1469. Traveller Afanasy Nikitin kicked off an epic journey to central and southern India and his travelogue, Voyage Beyond Three Seas, gave Russia some of the earliest written accounts of our country. Chaul is India’s oldest-known Russian connection and to commemorate it, the Revdanda’s SRT high school has installed a bust of Nikitin.


Valdimir Putin became the first foreign leader to visit the atomic research centre in 2000. While Russia and India have collaborated on peaceful nuclear energy projects since the 1970s, BARC would Russian-language courses in the first decade since its inception in 1954, to help Indian scientists understand Soviet atomic energy journals and research publications.

BOMBAY HIGH, Arabian Sea

The oilfield 170 km off Mumbai’s coast has a Russian connection too. It was discovered by an Indo-Russian team aboard an exploration vessel mapping the Gulf of Cambay in the 1960s. India’s biggest crude oil jackpot nearly fell into American hands. By 1968, the US expressed interest in leasing the field. India was in a fix - we had neither the money nor the experience to prospect for oil. But in the spirit of self-sufficiency, we refused the US offer and went ahead ourselves. Bombay High’s first offshore oil well was drilled in 1974. Along with smaller fields on the western offshore, it accounts for close to 44% of our domestic oil production.


    Rachel Lopez is a a writer and editor with the Hindustan Times. She has worked with the Times Group, Time Out and Vogue and has a special interest in city history, culture, etymology and internet and society.

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