India’s All-weather Friend


In today’s political climate, where friends are few, India can count on one steadfast friend and that is Russia. 2017 is celebrated as the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Russia. Both these great nations are united by their vast internal diversity, history and the traditions of their civilizations. This relationship is reflected in the exchange of Culture, collaboration in Trade, Science & Technology and of course, the ever-evolving Tourism.

Interestingly, the first reliable data on Indo-Russian contacts appeared in 15th Century when Afanasy Nikitin, a merchant from Tver journeyed to India and spent three years here. He wrote an account of his travels in A Journey Beyond the Three Seas. Over the next few centuries Russia strived to establish a trading relationship with India, at a time when both nations had set up large colonies in Central Asian Khanates and Persia. Two missions in 1675 and 1696 successfully established contact with the court of the Moguls. Trade flourished and continued during the reign of Peter - The Great and his successors until the 18th century. The colonialisation of India by England caused Indo-Russian trade arrangements to fluctuate.

But on the intellectual side, many authors, writers and artists strove to share knowledge on each of these countries. Notably Russian actor and musician Gerasim Lebedev, who stayed from 1785 to 1797 and founded India’s first European style theatre in Calcutta, is credited with being the first Russian specialist on Indian studies! Another notable friendship was between MK Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy , which dates back to 1900s. They exchanged correspondence on religion, resistance, politics, love, faith, nonviolence and more.

There was a constant flow of intellectual and literary exchange from the start of the 20th century, which  continued through the revolutionary movement in Russia and the freedom struggle in India. Tamil poet Subramania Bharati, Bengali Poet Nazrul Islam, well-known Hindi writer Prem Chand and others lent their voices and opinions on the Russian Revolution. During the Freedom Struggle in India, Russian author Maxim Gorky’s Mother was smuggled into India by revolutionaries. Rabindranath Tagore in his Letter from Russia (1930) described changes taking place at the time in education, culture, literature, religion and humanism in Russia.

As history took its course and India won her Independence in 1947, Indo-Soviet ties gained greater impetus. The exchange of literature, arts, education and culture intensified. Many will recollect Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker (1970) featuring Russian actress Kseniya Ryabinkina as a trapezist. In the USSR, Indian movies and Raj Kapoor’s films especially, were of great interest and solace as they inspired stories of optimism, good over evil and spirituality. Many Russians still sing the songs from this movie!

Alongside literary and cultural growth, India and USSR established mutually beneficial economic and scientific ties too. Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore were some of the principal architects of this friendship as they found the USSR’s culture, economy and educational and scientific developments intriguing, although they rejected its totalitarian regime. Independent India’s rapid industrialization and economic self-reliance as well as her territorial integrity and sovereignty were safeguarded with the assistance of Soviet technologies – the kind that were denied to India by the West at the time.

Over the years, Russia and India supported each other in global politics. The two countries signed the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, which set forth fundamental principles of bilateral relations, in 1971 and again in 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

With time and due to strategic alliances, both the countries began to improve relations and widened their horizons to include the spheres of hydrocarbon energy, nuclear energy, military technology & equipment, medical research and more. Regular dialogue and resultant cooperation on bilateral trade and investment, economic development, anti-terrorism, environmental protection and more have been facilitated via forums and summits like UN, BRICS, G20, SCO etc.

Some noteworthy Indo-Russian collaborations are listed below-

  • Metallurgical complexes in Bhilal, Vizag & Bokaro, mining in Durgapur, Neyveli thermal power station, antibiotics plants in Rishikesh, pharma in Hyderabad
  • BrahMos, a short-range ramjet supersonic cruise missile which is currently the world’s fastest anti-ship cruise missile in operation
  • Russian scientists and academicians contributed in setting up educational and research centers like IIT-Bombay, and institutes of petroleum research in Dehradun and Ahmedabad
  • India’s first satellite Aryabhata was launched by the Soviet Union in 1975 and Indian citizen Rakesh Sharma travelled into space aboard the Soyuz T-11 in 1984
  • Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project in Tamil Nadu, with two units of 1000MW each for peaceful use of Nuclear energy. The third and fourth units are under construction
  • Consortium of Indian oil exploration companies have invested in Russia’s Vankorneft for hydrocarbon exploration, and when all deals are completed, Indian holding will add up to 49.9%
  • India exports chemical intermediaries, tea, coffee, rice, meat, seafood and tobacco to Russia
  • Indian investors plan on opening dairy farms & protein production facilities in Samara
  • In the IT sector, the countries complement one another as Russia’s strength lies in product development while Indian IT is service oriented
  • Russia and India have set up a $1 Billion fund to promote mutual investments

Russian President Putin and Indian Prime Minister Modi have recognized the value of 70 years of Indo-Russian Relations and have vowed to continue, for many years to come, bilateral trade agreements, cooperation in anti-terrorism, collaboration in the fields of green energy, medicine, science, technology and culture. 

Apart from economic and scientific collaboration, Russia and India have always had a keen interest in each other’s culture and traditions. Hence tourism between the two nations has always thrived. More recently with the relaxation of Visa rules to Indians, Russia has opened its doors to tourism. Every year many Indians travel to Russian cities like Moscow, St Petersburg, Kazan etc for to explore arts, culture, historical monuments, food and more. India Russia Friendship Motor Rally 2017, marking the 70 years relations, is a road trip from India to Russia via Iran and Azerbaijan.

For Russians, the allure of India lies in the promise of inner peace. Thousands of tourists travel to various cities in India in search of tranquility. They explore India for her culture, heritage, cuisine and spirituality. The population of Russians in India are divided across various states, and comprises of engineers, scientists, students, diplomats and religious followers.

The Russian Centers of Science and Culture (RCSC), the representative office of Rossotrudnichestvo, offer a connect between Indians and Russians. Popular Russian traditions like Maslenitsa, New Year, Russia Day, Pushkin Day etc, are celebrated in these Centers involving Russian and local communities. Russian Language is taught at these Centers and every year they conduct Study in Russia programs offering scholarships to Indian students. These Centers offer an ideal way to explore Russian culture in India.

These 70 years are special, because India and Russia have maintained an unbeaten, historic friendship that has been tested by time and strife. They have stood by each other in times of global unrest, respected one another’s sovereignty, voiced support for the other’s rights in global politics and found unity in peaceful coexistence, spiritual values and culture. Russia, India – Friends Forever.

Article by Ketaki Chandrasekar