From the Collection of Articles "Yesterday and Today" (1976)
My ‘Affair’ with Russia
Not long ago, there was a review of my latest book, A Diplomat Speaks, in a leading Indian newspaper which is not noted for its friendliness towards the Soviet Union. ‘Diplomats,’ said the review, ‘have been known to fall in love with the countries where they are sent to represent their governments. In the annals of such affairs, that of the Indian Ambassador to the USSR is a notable contribution, both for its duration (1952-61) and for its loyalty.’
It may be of general interest to analyse the nature of my ‘affair’ with the USSR, which sometimes causes a needless controversy. People seem to forget the fact that my so-called affair with the USSR reflects my own country’s affair with that friendly country, which also causes a needless controversy.
My affair did not begin in 1952, my first year in Moscow: it began earlier. Nor did it end with 1961, my last year in the USSR.
My acquaintance with the Soviet Union began in 1943 in British times in Chungking, where I was appointed Agent-General for India in China. That was the first time I set my eyes on a Russian Ambassador, or, for that matter, on a Russian. Paniushkin’s attitude towards the Indian Agent-General was very different from that of the majority of the diplomatic corps. The British Ambassador to China, Sir Horace Seymour, one of the finest diplomatists and one of the finest men I have come across, was overwhelmingly friendly. So were Sir Edward Eggleston, the scholarly Minister of Australia, and Gen. Odium, the vigorous and outspoken Minister of Canada. The other Heads of Missions, however, began by being strictly formal in their relations with the Indian Representative. They seemed to think that ‘the Agent- General’ was an intruder into the diplomatic corps. Technically they were right.
Diplomats attach much attention to protocol, and all major matters of protocol are still regulated by the Convention of Vienna which was signed a century and a half ago. Under the Convention diplomats are divided into three categories: ambassadors, ministers and charge d’ affaires. There was no such entity as Agent-General with the rank of
Minister. According to protocol, I paid my call on all the heads of missions, who were scattered on both sides of the River Yangtse. None of the non-Commonwealth heads of missions, except the Soviet Ambassador, returned my call in person. They merely sent their cards.
Paniushkin demonstrated his regard for India in another unconventional way. He invited the Turkish Ambassador and myself to dinner and seated me to the right of the hostess and the Turk to the left. The Turkish Ambassador naturally protested against the blatant breach of protocol, as an Ambassador ranked above a Minister, let alone a mere Agent-General. Paniushkin replied that he gave me the place of honour as the representative of a country which had fought bravely on the side of the Allies, whereas Turkey sat on the fence.
Soviet friendship for India was further impressed on me in 1944 in the course of my overland journey from India to China. Schesterikov, the Soviet Consul-General in Kashgar and his gracious wife, who was so gracious that I noted in my diary that ‘beneath the red complexion of many a Russian runs the blue blood of an aristocrat’, and Evsev, the Soviet Consul-General in Urumchi, vied with Gillet, the British Consul-General in Kashgar and my genial host in Sinkiang, in showering their kindnesses on me.
I came to know the Russians better when I became independent India’s first Foreign Secretary. It was then that the first trade agreement between India and the USSR was signed. Let me recall a significant incident which occurred then. In the draft agreement there was a proposal for the exchange of experts and technical personnel. This draft was sent to other ministries. The provision for the exchange of experts and technical personnel was strongly objected to by the Home Ministry which was then headed by that ‘man of iron’, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. H.V.R. Iengar, the Home Secretary, came to me and said that the clause in question was a dangerous one and that under that clause spies and saboteurs might enter India in large numbers and wreck our economy. The Ministry of External Affairs, however, insisted on retaining that clause. Since then thousands of Soviet experts have come to India and there has not been a whisper of suspicion that any of them have indulged in any undesirable activities. They have conformed to the law of the land in every respect. They have been conformed to the law of prohibition, a hard thing for a Russian to do!
Thus my affair with the Russians began in the forties. It might have begun even earlier. In 1934 my wife and I wanted to visit a number of countries in Europe including the USSR. Anujee’s passport was endorsed ‘to all countries’; my passport, ‘to all countries except the
USSR and Turkey’. It was feared that Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey as well as Communist Russia might contaminate the mind of a young Indian!
The Government of India could prevent a mere civil servant like me from visiting Russia but not a man like Jawaharlal Nehru, who was beginning to have international fame, nor a poet of world stature such as Rabindranath Tagore. Nehru visited Russia in 1927, and Tagore in 1930. India, wrote Nehru on the conclusion of his visit, is an Asian country. So is the USSR sprawling over Asia and Europe. ‘Between two such countries,’ said Nehru, ‘there can be amity or enmity. Indifference is out of the question.’
Tagore was even more enthusiastic about what he saw in the USSR. ‘Nowhere else in man’s history,’ he wrote, ‘have I seen any lasting reason for good cheer and hope.’
If my ‘affair’ with the USSR did not begin with my Ambassadorship, nor did it end with its end. Soon after retirement, I was elected President of the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society and in that capacity I have been privileged to continue unofficially the mission of promoting the friendship between the two countries.
One word in the passage from the review, quoted in the first para of this article, needs comment, namely, loyalty. If the reviewer had used the word, consistency or intensity, it would have been understandable. But loyalty is a different matter. This is a faint suggestion of divided loyalties on my part. There is even a doubt whether loyalty to the USSR is altogether consistent with loyalty to India. ‘Winning friends abroad,’ this review says, ‘is part of an Ambassador’s job. Staying friends with people who matter at home is another. Menon did both with equal ardour.’ I would like to think that it is precisely because I have won friends for India abroad that I have stayed friends with people who matter at home.
The comments of the reviewer remind me of a somewhat similar experience which I had with another newspaper some ten years ago. At a meeting of the National Council of the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society in Ernakulam, I said that, having spent a fourth of my service—and those the most mature years—in the USSR, I had begun to regard it as ‘my second home’. A Bombay weekly, The Current, published a report with the heading: ‘KPS calls Russia his motherland.’ I wrote to the then Editor, D.F. Karaka, and pointed out that it was unfair on the part of the reporter to have left out the word ‘second’ and to have substituted the word ‘motherland’ for ‘home’. A man, I said, can have two homes, but only one mother; and India is, and would always be, my motherland. Karaka was good enough to publish my correction prominently.
Thirty years have passed since I first met a Russian, 25 years since I became Foreign Secretary; and a little over 20 years since I was appointed Ambassador to the USSR. During this period there has been a remarkable development of Indo-Soviet co-operation. Bhilai, Bokaro, Suratgarh and dozens of other places in India have passed into the Indo-Russian political vocabulary.
Apart from economic aid, politically, too, the USSR has stood by India. India could count on Soviet support, whenever her territorial integrity was at stake, whether in Goa, Kashmir or in her relations with China and Pakistan. And in 1971, during the Bangladesh crisis, the USSR stood by India like a rock. It was then that the ever-growing friendship between the two countries was crystallised in the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation. And it reached a new high water-mark during the visit of Brezhnev to India at the end of 1973, when a most fruitful 15-year agreement for economic cooperation and trade development was signed.
The advantages which have accrued to India from Soviet friendship are there for all to see. Why, it may be asked, has the Soviet Union been going out of its way to cultivate the friendship of India? Was it not in pursuance of its policy of turning the world red?
Ideology has undoubtedly entered the picture from time to time. But the strength of the ideological element, and the ideology itself, have varied from time to time. One has only to think of the fundamental changes in the Soviet approach to some major international issues, made at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Amongst those changes were the declaration that war is not inevitable, that there can be different kinds of socialism and different roads to socialism, that violence is not essential for the transformation of society and that in certain circumstances socialism can be attained through parliamentary means. These decisions can almost be said to have removed the ideological hurdles in the way of the development of friendship between the USSR and the ‘third world’.
The ideological element operated in all its vigour in British times. After all, the great objective of the Revolution of 1917 was to establish socialism. Socialism cannot be established without overthrowing capitalism, and imperialism, as Lenin said, is ‘the highest stage of capitalism’. No wonder, therefore, that imperialist Britain and the Soviet Union were at daggers drawn with each other; and India, ‘the brightest jewel in the British crown’, was a principal target of the
Soviet Union. But once Britain shed the empire and India became independent and herself adopted the socialistic pattern of society as her goal, there was a radical change in the whole situation.
Chester Bowles, a former US Ambassador to India, said that the main difference between the Soviet and American policy towards India is that, unlike the US Government, the Soviet Government has understood, from the outset, the geo-political importance of India. Whichever criterion one applies, i.e. location, population, size, resources, past heritage or present policy, India is a country which counts and is bound to count more in the future. This is a fact which the USSR has realised. It has also realised that it is to its own good and in its own interest to enable India to stand on her legs. Hence the attention which the Soviet representatives paid to Indian envoys even before India became independent, when my affair with the USSR began. I am happy that this affair has not been barren. It has yielded rich fruits for my country. And that is all that matters.
(Feature Unit, 1974.)
In and around Moscow
The Lenin Mausoleum
In Moscow my first visit was to the Kremlin to present my credentials to President Shvernik; my second, to the Lenin Mausoleum. It was late autumn. Winter was approaching and had already sent its herald in the form of a premature fall of snow. But, like a conqueror who is a little unsure of himself and of the reception he is likely to get, winter seemed to be hesitating whether to burst in and settle down for the season or whether to withdraw for a while and come back later in full force. The air was damp and the roads were slushy. The dismal weather, however, did not affect the perpetual flow of pilgrims to the shrine of Lenin. Stretching through the Red Square and at right angles to it, there was a long queue of men, women and children, who had been waiting patiently for hours to be ushered into the presence of Lenin for the prescribed two minutes.
At the entrance to the Mausoleum we were received by the Chief of Protocol. Two sentries, who had been standing motionless outside the mausoleum and looked as if they had been carved into the wall, sprang to life and saluted. We were then taken slowly to a subterranean chamber. There lay Lenin in a glass case, brilliantly flood-lit. Involuntarily I held my breath. He seemed to be not dead but asleep; not even asleep, but resting. Resting with a quizzical expression on his face; resting, as he deserved to rest, after letting loose the spirit of revolution on his people and, as he had Imped, on the entire human race.
I laid a wreath, made of chrysanthemums, on Lenin’s tomb. It bore the inscription: ‘To the undying memory of V. I. Lenin from K. P. S. Menon, Ambassador of India to the Soviet Union.’ I gave my full designation, for I was told that the ribbon which bore the inscription would be detached and kept permanently in the Lenin Museum. Thus, in paying homage to the immortal memory of Lenin, I have also immortalized myself!
Prakash Kaul, who lunched at the American Embassy, told me that his hosts were intrigued at the thought that the Ambassador of India should have laid a wreath on Lenin’s tomb. ‘Was India definitely going Red?’ they asked. I saw no reason why I should not lay a wreath on Lenin’s tomb, even as I had laid a wreath on Sun Yat-sen’s tomb at Nanking and as all new Heads of Missions in India lay wreaths, soon after they present credentials, at Mahatma Gandhi’s samadhi Surely, Lenin is as much a father of the Soviet people as Gandhiji is of ours.
Leaving Lenin’s body we proceeded to see the graves of other revolutionaries in the compound. Among them weir Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife; Kalinin, a lathe operator in Leningrad who became the Head of the Soviet State; Zdanov. who created the Cominform after the war and applied the most rigid communist standards to art and literature; Dzerzhinsky, a co-worker of Stalin in his early days and Minister for Internal Security in the first Soviet government; General Frunze, who played an important part in the Civil Wm following the Revolution; and Maxim Gorki, the great writer.
Among them, none is worthier than Krupskaya, a revolutionary in her own right and distinguished educationist The spirit of this woman may be seen from her exhortation to the people after Lenin’s death:
Comrades, men and women workers; men and women peasant, I have a favour to ask from you. Do not pay external respect to Lenin’s personality. Do not build statues in his memory. He cared for none of these things in his life. Remember, there is much ruin and poverty in this country. If you want to honour the name of Lenin, build children’s homes, kindergarten schools, libraries, hospitals, homes for the crippled and for other defectives.
Evidently, Stalin was not in agreement with her, for when I went to the Soviet Union, the land was littered with statues and other memorials, not merely to Lenin, but, in equal profusion, to Stalin himself.
In the last week of November, 1952, we went to Zagorsk. It was a bleak, wintry day. Many people prefer to do the Irip in the spring or early summer; then the journey which took us four hours should not take more than two. The road was cut up by the snow and, in some places, covered with ice, so much so that we felt that we were driving on glass. The cold was intense; it was 50 below zero; and the sun was hardly visible. At midday the sun emitted no more heat and light than in the morning or in the evening. The sky and the earth seemed made of the same substance, only differing in the degree of its thickness and whiteness. There was no such distinction as in India between the brown earth and blue sky; here both were grey and white; the one seemed to merge into the other as inseparably as the faces of Lenin and Stalin in the composite portraits of theirs which are scattered all over Russia.
Despite its discomforts, the journey was memorable. For one thing, we saw General Winter in all his majesty. The entire earth seemed to belong to him; indeed, it did not look like the solid earth but rather like the milky sea of Hindu mythology, suddenly frozen at the General’s command. From this sea of snow stood out, here and there, a handful of trees, ghosts of their former selves, leafless and lifeless. I here also peeped out a few huts, dots on an infinity of snow. Now one understands why Hitler and Napoleon quailed before General Winter and why their armies, decimated, retreated into their homelands. I wish someone would make a statue of General Winter as Mme Mukhina has done of Industry and Agriculture. That statue, in which Industry and Agriculture are represented by a man and a woman, surging forward with vigour and movement and carrying the hammer and the sickle, stands on the outskirts of Moscow.
The last part of the journey was more interesting than the first. I was specially attracted by a town called Pushkin with a beautiful old church dominating it. The very name attracted me. Did it have anything to do with Pushkin, the great Russian poet, I wondered. Last week 1 saw a portrait of him on the mantlepiece of Zallaka, the Ethiopian Minister in Moscow. Was he a special admirer of Pushkin? I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said; ‘moreover, Pushkin was half Ethiopian.’ Then 1 came to know that his grandfather was an Ethiopian slave who had been bought in Constantinople by a Russian noble and presented to Peter the Great. Peter looked after him well and had him educated; and Pushkin was his grandson. Was his oriental ancestry, I asked myself, responsible for the tumult in his blood – a tumult which gave such pathos to his life and such beauty to his poetry?
After we had done about forty miles we had our first glimpse of Zagorsk. It was most impressive. There loomed in the distance a hilltop, covered with towers, turrets and domes. The road suddenly dipped, causing this apparition of architectural beauty to vanish; and then, equally suddenly, it rose again, enabling us to take in the details. In the centre was a tower which rose above, but did not dwarf or dominate, the surrounding buildings. This tower, however, did not belong specially to Russia; it could be seen anywhere in Europe or, for that matter, in Asia. It was a late eighteenth- century addition. The churches, on the contrary, were Russia’s own. They had a cluster of bulbous domes, which Westerners call onion domes’ but which we in the East more respectfully call ‘lotus domes’.
This church was very different from any that I had seen before. It had no seats, or pews reserved for the gentry, no organ and no choir. The worshippers were very different from the faithful who assemble in front of a mosque, or the congregation who, dressed up in their Sunday best, go solemnly to church on Sundays. In fact, it was no congregation at all; it did not have that momentary unity which comes over the worshippers in a Muslim mosque or a Christian church. It was rather like a crowd of worshippers in our Hindu temples, each man having no thought of his neighbour or even of himself but only of the God whom he is worshipping. I can never forget the devout looks on the faces of the men and women, mostly women, in the Uspensky cathedral in Zagorsk or the sweetness of their singing: it seemed to come from the depths of their soul.
Leaving the churches, we visited some of the adjoining museums. One of them contained a collection of Russian handicrafts; another contained objects of interest to students of medieval Russian history. I was interested in two very different objects. One was a book which was kept by Ivan the Terrible and in which he had entered the names of all the men he had killed, beginning with his own son. I was reminded of the banner of Genghiz Khan which I saw when I visited his tomb in Lanchow in 1944 and on which was hung a hair from the head of every one of his innumerable victims. The other object which attracted me was the robe of St Sergei. Looking at this robe 1 tried to form a mental picture of the man. He appears to have been tall, lanky and emaciated; and his robe of mauve colour, with a blue background, was simplicity itself. Very different were the other embroidered robes which were exhibited in the museum. They were studded with pearls and rubies, emeralds and diamonds; and the mitres were made of gold. The Christianity of Sergei was different from the Christianity of the bishops, even as Roman Christianity was different from the Christianity of the Apostles. Seeing the magnificence of the bishops’ and archbishops’ robes displayed in the Zagorsk museum, I recalled a famous description of the Papacy: ‘The ghost of the deceased Roman Empire sitting crowned on the grave thereof. ’
The Bolshoi Theatre
The Bolshoi theatre was our great joy in Moscow. It must be admited that in our first year we had few other joys in the USSR. The advent of the cold war had cast a shadow over the diplomatic corsp also. Travel was severely restricted. Vast areas were declared out of bounds for foreigners. As Churchill put it in his famous speech at Fulton, where he formally ignited the cold war, an ‘ iron curtain ’ had descended on Europe. Even social life was affected. That convivial atmosphere which was prevalent in the Russian anti British Consulates in Sinkiang which I visited during the war was now conspicuously absent. India, it is true, sought to keep aloof from the cold war, but at a time when both sides were inclined to see the world in terms of black and white, India was suspected by both sides to be on the wrong side. Even Indians belonging to one political party viewed other Indians with suspicion. For instance, the only two non-official Indians who were in Moscow in my first year there never visited our Embassy, because in their eyes our Embassy was a bourgeois organization! Before very long such infantile suspicions vanished, and our Embassy became a great meeting-place of the East and the West; and I myself was able to travel all over the USSR, from Murmansk on the Arctic Ocean to Baku on the Caspian Sea and from Lake Sevan in Armenia to Lake Baikal in Siberia. But it took a little time for these changes to come about.
In the meantime the Bolshoi theatre was our great refuge from boredom. This is by no means the only theatre in Moscow. Here, more than 30,000 Moscovites go to the theatre every day, except on Mondays when the theatres are closed. There are three dozen theatres in Moscow of different kinds – the Bolshoi and the Filial, specializing in ballets and operas, the Stanislavsky theatre, the Mayakovsky theatre, the Art theatre, the Satire theatre, the Puppet theatre, the
Gypsy theatre and so on. To us, however, who did not know Russian and were slowly and laboriously beginning to pick it up, the ballet, in which language does not count, was the great attraction. And the Bolshoi is the greatest ballet theatre in the world.
The first ballet which we saw was Romeo and Juliet. Here was an English play, with an Italian setting, transformed into a Russian ballet as if it were native to the soil. Yet it was completely faithful to the original. There were only two material divergences. Paris does not die on the stage, perhaps because the producers thought that he was not even worth the killing. And the balcony scene takes place in an orchard, evidently because a garden lends itself to dancing better than a balcony.
The part of Juliet was taken by Ulanova. I could not believe that she was 42 years old. Not that she looked 14, Juliet’s age; the years were beginning to leave a mark even on Ulanova. But age had not withered, nor custom staled, the infinite variety of her movements. Her face, too, was capable of expressing an infinite variety of emotions. And what emotions! Girlish gaiety, the dawn of love, the presentiment of doom, the growth, ecstasy, abandon and anguish of love and the haunting fear of death which closed in on her temporarily, when she took Friar Laurence’s potion, and released her from its grip for a few moments, only to show her a death even more terrible than her own, the death of her lover. Ulanova not merely danced the acts and scenes in the play; she danced the very lines of Shakespeare. I had heard many an eminent actress, reciting such beautiful lines as:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree;
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.
But no one has squeezed the last ounce of sweetness out of these lines so well as Ulanova did by her mute and mobile eloquence.
Romeo and Juliet was very different from what I had imagined a ballet to be. I used to think that a ballet was all dancing and no acting, but here was an acting dance, a dancing drama. It was the antithesis of the style which was praised by Beretta, the Italian dancer, who said that in a ballet drama was just nonsense and that technique was the only thing worth cultivating. I was told that before the Revolution there used to be two rival schools of dancing, the Leningrad school and the Moscow school. The Leningrad school specialized in style and ignored expression, while the Moscow school paid as much attention to expression as to technique. Ulanova resolved this conflict; in her dancing the dramatic and the choreographic elements were perfectly blended.
The ballet was by no means a one-man or one-woman show. The mass scenes reflected the tumult, the brilliance and the decadence of the dying Middle Ages, into which the Renaissance was breaking. Every character in the ballet suited the part to perfection. Romeo was eclipsed by Juliet even as Dushyanta is eclipsed by Shakuntala in Kalidasa’s immortal drama. In Shakespeare, as in Kalidasa, the female of the species is lovelier (and in Macbeth, deadlier) than the male. I have never seen a more mercurial Mercutio than Koren, who took that part; and the scene of his death, which Shakespeare so heartlessly brought about, was unbearable. True to Shakespeare, he lingered so long over his death that Anujee exclaimed: ‘Why doesn’t he die ?’
Another ballet which we are never tired of seeing is Swan Lake. To a lover of pure ballet Swan Lake is even more satisfying than Romeo and Juliet. The music by Tchaikovsky is sweeter and there is more scope for dancing, especially group dancing, by the Bolshoi’s chief glory, the corps de ballet. For a gifted ballerina, there is scope for expression, too. In this ballet there is Odile, the black swan, as well as Odette, the white swan. The white swan represents love in its pure, and therefore, pathetic form; the black swan represents carnal passion, demanding, rapacious, demonic. Plisetskaya, second only to Ulanova, took the part of both the black swan and the white and did equally well in each. Indeed, when one saw the wicked gleam in her eyes and heard her diabolical laughter at the prince falling bewitched at her feet, one almost thought that she was more effective as the black swan. Ulanova, on the contrary, could never do full justice to the black swan, though she was exquisite as the white swan. Somehow she could not put her heart into that part which she knew did not suit her.
Another interesting ballet we saw was the Fountain of Bakhchiserai. It is based on Pushkin’s romantic poem by that title. The theme is unrequited love, of which Pushkin had had an excruciating experience in the Crimea. There he fell deeply in love with Maria Rayevskaya who, however, was unable to return it. While staying with her people in the Crimea Pushkin visited the fountain of Bakhchiserai which we visited three years later. In this ballet, too, there are two heroines – Maria, the frail, innocent girl, with whom Khan Girei fell deeply in love and of whom Pushkin’s own Maria was the prototype, and Zarema, the queen of the harem who, in a fit of anger and jealousy, kills Maria. It was characteristic of Ulanova that she always danced Maria in this ballet, while Plisetskaya made a superb Zarema.
It was worth going to the Bolshoi theatre not merely to see the actors but to see the audience. Nowhere have I seen such sympathy between the actors and the audience. It was more than sympathy; it might almost be called communion.
The audience responded instinctively to every word, every tune, every gesture on the stage. It was as if the spectators lay suspended on the lips of the singers, on the lovely legs and arms of the ballerinas. For four hours they forgot all their earthly worries and were transported to a different world altogether – a world, mythical or historical, a world of gods and goddesses, or a world of heroic ancestors, vibrant with vitality and full of frolic. Tomorrow they would wake up and read in Pravda of the wicked designs of the ‘Anglo- American war-mongers’ and the horrors of the war they were thirsting to let loose on the Soviet Union and the peaceful Peoples’ Democracies of Asia and Europe. But that would be tomorrow; tonight they can sleep in peace, dreaming of Romeo and Juliet, Odette and Odile, Maria and Zarema, Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty and all those gorgeous men and women who throng the stage and sing and dance.
The Ballet School
The first week of January, 1953, was in many respects the best since we arrived in Moscow. It was cold, crisp and clear. The temperature dropped 15 degrees below zero, but there was not much snow. Such snow as we had was of the fine, powdery kind which could be easily swept off the streets.
The sun was often bright. Bright, but not hot or even warm. Not for one moment could we dispense with our fur coats or fur caps. Anujee accompanied me, bare-headed, to Gogol park yesterday and got a crick in the neck which I offered, but forgot, to massage with medicated oil. The sky, instead of wearing its perpetually monotonous mantle of white, turned pink in the mornings and evenings and remained blue for the rest of the day. A couple of nights ago we could even see the stars. And in the morning when I, as usual, woke up at six, while the rest of Moscow was asleep, and looked out of the window in my office, I saw a lovely moon fading behind the trees in front of our house.
Politically there were no alarums. The General Assembly adjourned for a hard-earned, if not well-earned, rest; and the nations of the world were spared that mutual abuse and recrimination in which representatives had been indulging in New York. There was a lull in the fighting in Korea; and the heat generated by the Indian resolution on Korea in the General Assembly had subsided.
During this week I paid my first formal call on Vyshinksy, the Soviet Foreign Minister. He was friendly, but I could not help remembering that this was the man who, only a few weeks ago, spat fire against our resolution on Korea and thundered: ‘At best you, Indians, are dreamers and idealists; at worst, you are instruments of horrible American policy.’
In a politically uneventful week, we had an interesting experience. We paid a visit to the Ballet School. We had to climb many flights of stairs to reach the Director’s office. On or way, we passed three or four young girls of ten or eleven who smiled, bowed and curtsied to us. There was something charmingly old-worldish about the way they curtsied. It was very different from the curtsy which the buxom wife of a high Indian official once attempted at a Viceregal banquet in New Delhi. On such occasions Indian women generally used to fold their hands in the normal Indian way instead of curtsying in the Western fashion. One fashionable Indian lady, however, attempted to bend her knees in curtsy with the result that she crashed to the floor; and the Viceroy’s ADCs had to spend many agonizing seconds in trying to hoist her up to a vertical position.
The Director of the Ballet School explained to us the origin and purposes of the school. It was founded in 1773. It was thus 179 years old, three years older than the Bolshoi theatre, of which this school had come to be the principal feeder. Its object was to train boys and girls between the ages of ten and nineteen into ballet dancers. At present there were 200 students. Anyone who was found wanting during the nine years’ course was discharged. This did not involve much hardship, as the school gave a general education, in addition to specialized training in dancing; and anyone who was discharged at any stage could continue his general education in some other school.
We were first taken to a class of beginners. In this class the boys and girls were taught simple leg movements. They had to repeat these exercises over and over again so that their limbs might gain the necessary strength and suppleness. The teacher asked one of the girls to come forward and we were astonished at the way in which she manipulated her legs forwards and backwards, to the right and to the left, and round and round, without causing the slightest discomfort to their owner.
We were then taken to a middle class. There we saw girls of about 14 and 15 dancing. They were in an interesting stage; they were half way through their course. They had done some four years’ training; and another four or five lay before them. They had overcome the diffidence of the students of the class which we had just visited, but had not yet gained the superb self-assurance of the pupils of the class which we were to visit a few minutes later. I said that they looked like little butterflies which had learned to fly but could not yet soar into the heavens. The teacher was pleased with my remark.
Next we went to the highest class. By that time we had learned how intense was their training, how rigorous their time-table, how strict their diet and how intimate the attention paid to every detail of their lives. In particular, the school had a band of devoted teachers, mostly former ballet dancers who were now too old to dance. We then saw the finished products of this training. They entertained us to a half-hour display of dancing. It was as if we were witnessing some minor, but highly delightful, interlude in the Bolshoi theatre itself. The dancers were radiantly happy and supremely self-confident. They were in the same mood as an Oxford man who gets that rare distinction, a First, and to whom all avenues in life are open. Before them lay a path, strewn with ‘ roses, roses all the way ’ and with no political thorns. Happily, politics has not yet invaded the world of the ballet.
After showing us round the classes, the Director topped his kindness by treating us to a concert. It consisted of three or four items, of which the most charming was a scene from Nutcracker. There is no politics in Nutcracker. It is sheer fantasy. Masha, a little girl, is taken to a Christmas party and gets a nutcracker as a present. But she has a quarrel with her little brother and forgets to take it home. In the night she dreams that she is a grown-up girl and goes to the drawing-room to fetch the nutcracker. A fierce fight is in progress between the nutcracker and his toy soldiers and the King of the Mice and his valiant followers. The Nutcracker is on the point of losing the battle when Masha hurls her slippers at the Mouse King. The spell is broken, the mice disappear and the Nutcracker turns into a beautiful prince; and Masha and the prince sail away in an open boat on a silver sea. The play ends with Masha waking up and seeing the nutcracker and her doting nurse by her side.
Yasnaya Polyana is a pleasant spot for a picnic from Moscow. To us it was more than a picnic; it was a pilgrimage. Tolstoy’s name is held in reverence throughout India, not merely because of his writings, but because he was one of the great formative influences, next only to the Gita and the Sermon on the Mount, on Mahatma Gandhi. I was glad to have been able to go to Yasnaya Polyana in the company of Gandhiji’s favourite disciple, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur.
Tolstoy’s house is situated in a lovely undulating park some 40 hectares in extent. It is a simple unpretentious building, fully in keeping with his philosophy of life. It was small by Tsarist standards, for Tolstoy came from aristocratic stock, his father having been a Count and his mother a Princess. His house is preserved exactly as it used to be in his lifetime. In his bedroom we saw pictures of his family, which consisted of thirteen children, five of whom died in infancy, his old cot, the crutch which he had to use after he had injured his leg, and the slop-basin which he himself insisted on emptying and cleaning. Tolstoy, like Gandhiji, believed in the dignity of manual labour and expected the members of his family, often to their annoyance, to use their hands more and their servants less. His small bedroom was a striking contrast to his wife’s. Hers was larger, more ornate and full of icons and pictures.
A balcony in front of Tolstoy’s study overlooked a garden, which he himself used to tend, and a forest where he used to play as a child, hunt as a nobleman and meditate as a thinker. From that balcony he could also see the village, where he used to spend many hours, helping and chatting and cracking jokes with the villagers. On the ground floor he had set apart a room to receive the peasants; his wife could not bear to have them on the first floor. In fact, his solicitude for, and his intimacy with, the peasants was one cause of the friction which developed between him and his family in later years.
We were happy to be in Tolstoy’s study where he wrote some of his famous novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina and corresponded with kindred spirits, including Mahatma Gandhi. There we saw the hard-bottomed sofa on which he was born, a phonograph which was presented to him by Edison, a picture of Dickens which he had brought from England and the woodwork presented to him by the peasants whom he loved. There was also his writing desk, on which was his scrap book, made up from odd bits of paper which others would have thrown into the wastepaper basket. Rajkumariji said that Gandhiji, too, could not bear to throw away any bit of paper which could be used and, like Tolstoy, kept a scrap book. The most touching sight of all was the candle on the writing desk which he blew out for the last time on the night of 10 November 1910 when he decided to renounce his home and family and go out and live a simple life. That night he wrote a letter to his wife, explaining his decision, thanking her for the life they had lived together, and apologizing to her for any lack of consideration on his part. One soul, his wife’s, remained strange to this man who had plumbed the depths of the human heart in his imperishable novels.
Around Tolstoy’s house is an extensive garden where he planted apple and cherry trees and grew all kinds of flowers.
He loved gardening and insisted that the members of his family should share this pleasure which, to many of them, was mere labour. In one corner of the house, Bulgakov, who had been his secretary in the last years of his life, showed us a pond where Tolstoy’s wife, on learning of his flight from home, attempted to drown herself and Bulgakov had to plunge in and save her. In another part of the compound we saw his stable and a small dispensary which his favourite daughter, Tatyana, had built for the peasants after her father’s death. Tatyana was the only child who fully shared her father’s ideals. In 1930, when Gandhiji passed through Rome on his way back to India after the Round Table Conference in London, Tatyana was gracious enough to go and see him.
The garden around Tolstoy’s home merges almost imperceptibly into the forest. There are some lovely oak trees here; and it is said that under a clump of these trees Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia Alexandryevna, and her small son once sought shelter during a thunderstorm — an incident described in War and Peace. In the heart of the forest is Tolstoy’s grave. It is simplicity itself. The simplest tomb I had visited so far was that of the Emperor Aurangzeb near Ellora. That puritan Emperor had given instructions that nothing more should be spent on his tomb than the price which could be fetched from the sale of the cloth caps which he himself had sewn during his lifetime. Unlike the magnificent tombs of his ancestors, Akbar and Shahjahan, Aurangzeb’s tomb is marked by a single slab of marble. Tolstoy’s grave is even simpler. It is just a mound of earth, covered with flowers, under a canopy of white birch trees. Tolstoy himself had marked this spot for his grave. It is said that it was here that he and his brother, Nikolai, used to play as children and hunt for a magical green stick, the possessor of which would have the capacity of making all beings happy. And now this has become a magic spot, giving comfort and inspiration to war- weary humanity through that doctrine of non-violence which the man who lies here preached and which was adopted by one as great as himself and used for the liberation of one-fifth of mankind.
Standing in front of Tolstoy’s grave, I thought of the strange last journey of this man. On 10 November 1910 Tolstoy, at the age of 82, suddenly decided to renounce his home and go out into the world. Accompanied by his daughter Alexandra and his doctor, he left his house in the middle of the night. The next day he reached the monastery of Optina and spent the night there, writing an article, ‘The Pains of Death’. On the 12th he reached the Convent of Charmodino where his sister, Marie, had been staying as a nun. He told his sister that he would like to live in that Convent, performing the most menial tasks, provided that no pressure would be used on him to enter the church. His visit, however, could not be kept secret; and his sister warned him two days later that the authorities, civil as well as ecclesiastical, were on his track. He therefore left the Convent and went to Astopovo, a small railway station. There he caught pneumonia. The news spread like wild-fire; and doctors came from Moscow. Priests came, too; and Father Karsonoft, the Abbot of Optina, demanded admission to the dying man’s presence, saying that he had been instructed by the Holy Synod to take Tolstoy back into the Church. The Synod, which had excommunicated Tolstoy a few years earlier for his uncompromising opposition to institutional religion, now wanted to capture his soul for the Church. His daughter, however, mounted guard over him and prevented any priests from approaching him. There, in the house of the humble station-master of Astopovo, Tolstoy passed away at 6 a.m. on 20 November 1910.
A few yards from his grave lies his favourite horse, which survived him by two years.
My last visit to Moscow was in September 1966, five years after 1 retired from service. To say that I found Moscow changed would be an understatement. A foreign journalist who had been in Moscow in the early thirties and came to Moscow during my stay there told me that the only things he could recognize as belonging to old Moscow were the Kremlin and the Moscow river. An even greater change has occurred during the last decade.
I flew from Delhi on a fine autumn morning in a Soviet plane, TU-114. It is named after its famous designer, Andrei Tupolev. Among other planes designed by him, are TU-104, TU-124 and TU-154; We met Tupolev at a lovely sanatorium in the Crimea, Nidznia Orianda, where he spent a holiday in 1960 at the same time as ourselves. Though in his sixties, he was always on his feet, but even when he was on his feet, his head seemed to be in the air, weaving designs for new and ever-newer aeroplanes.
I entered the plane preening myself that I was a veteran traveller to Moscow. Who else, among the 186 passengers on the plane, could have been to Moscow nine times, six times when I was Ambassador and thrice since? But I was promptly put in my place by Hardev Sandhu, a prominent businessman of Delhi, who told me that he had been to Moscow twenty-five times and lost count thereafter.
There also traveled on our plane, Kalelkar, a member of Parliament, and his wife, a doctor; Narayanan, the editor of Patriot, and forty Indian students going to study in Moscow. The presence, on a single flight, of students, doctors, journalists, members of Parliament, and a former diplomat showed the multi-dimensional character of Indo-Soviet relations.
The students in the plane were proceeding to the Lumumba University, established specially for students from under-developed countries. I recall an incident connected with this university. Originally the intention was to call it simply the Friendship University, but when the wanton murder of Lumumba took place it was called after his name. At that time some students were against it; they thought that Lumumba was too controversial a figure to be associated with an academy of learning. Most students, however, agreed with the authorities that Lumumba was at once a symbol and a portent of our times — a symbol of revolution and a portent of the extent to which counter-revolutionaries were prepared to go to thwart the revolutionary process.
My latest journey to Moscow was very different from our earlier journeys in the Soviet Union. Then there were no safety belts and no air hostesses, and one had to carry one’s food and drink. Now the amenities provided by Aeroflot were comparable to those in our own splendid air service, Air India. The food was excellent: we had a typical Russian breakfast consisting of cabbage, cheese, black rye bread, a dish of meat and that dry Georgian wine, as delicious as its name, Tsinandali, or if you preferred, champagne, cognac or vodka. The hostesses were efficient, well-dressed and business-like. They did not fancy themselves as houris at the service of flying Maharajas nor did they wear that prefabricated smile which the hostesses of some airlines are taught to affect. Indeed, they looked almost grim, but when something amused them, they broke into a beautiful smile.
I have noticed again and again how a normally impassive Russian countenance becomes transfused and takes on an unusual glow when it reacts spontaneously to some sound, sight or word. It is like sunlight bursting through the clouds.
My first impression of Moscow, while driving from She- remetive airport to the city, was how much it had grown since we were here last, in 1964, and how much it had been transformed since my first visit, in 1952. But unlike cities in some other parts of the world, it has not grown pell-mell. Earlier in this century, H. G. Wells, the centenary of whose birthday was celebrated during my stay in Moscow, wrote of the increasing ‘suburbanization of the whole of South- East England where old townships were torn to fragments and new and ugly townships sprang up‘ And amidst it all,’ he deplored, ‘no plan appears, no intention, no comprehensive desire. That is the very key to it all.’ On the contrary, the very key to the growth of Moscow and its environment is that there is a plan, an intention and a comprehensive desire. Doubtless, the plan and the intention have changed from time to time. For instance, the buildings favoured at present lack the grandiose splendour which characterized the skyscrapers put up in Stalin’s time. But, as Khrushchev put it, ‘the architect wants lines, but the workman wants space’. So innumerable apartments are being put up which lack outward grandeur but possess interior comforts.
We stayed at the Sovietskaya hotel, which has grown out of the old Yar restaurant, to which there are frequent references in the novels of Tolstoy and others. Many new hotels have sprung up, such as the Minsk, Ukraina, and Leningradskaya. And a 22-story hotel, called Rossiya, was being built overlooking the Moscow river, near the historic Kremlin and St Basil’s, with 3200 suites, 90 lifts, two cinemas, a concert hall and a garage for 500 cars.
One thing had not changed in Moscow, namely our own Embassy. Of my forty years’ service, nearly one-fourth was spent there, and nowhere had we been happier or felt more that our exertions were rewarding. Now we felt as if we had not left that house at all; everything seemed just the same. The same carpets, the same curtains, and much the same arrangement of chairs and tables. When we went into the bathroom, Anujee noticed that it had the same window curtain as the one which she had made out of an old saree of hers 8 years ago. Even the three hooks in the dining room, on which had hung Anujee’s splendid portrait by Nalbandian, were still there. Lapin, Deputy Foreign Minister in charge of India and South Asia, told me that that picture was well known in the USSR and that he had seen some reproductions of it. I remember with what energy Nalbandian used to paint that portrait. He would paint for a quarter of an hour, then gulp down a glass of Armenian cognac and give a cup of strong, black coffee to Anujee, and then resume his work like a man possessed. His portrait of Anujee is magnificent, almost life-size; but ‘Why’, asked Mrs Sohlman, wife of the doyen of our diplomatic corps, ‘have you made Mrs Menon look so serious?’ ‘Because’, said Nalbandian, ‘ I wanted her to be a specimen of progressive Indian womanhood.’
On the morning after our arrival I looked out of the balcony of our house. It has always commanded a most extensive view but the view had somewhat changed. On all sides, multistoried buildings were being put up. My only regret is that they obscured the view of two or three churches on the horizon. Formerly we could pick out seven churches against the sky, with the onion domes characteristic of Slav architecture. Now only four were visible. Man is making rapid progress in the USSR and God is retiring gracefully into the background.
In the evening we visited the University area. We went m our new Zil car, even more imposing than a Cadillac. Andrei, our chauffeur, said that the Chinese Embassy also had a Zil, but they did not use it much. In fact, nowadays, the Chinese were not to be seen much in Moscow. ‘In the past,’ said Andrei, raising his hands above his head, ‘the Chinese used to be up there, but now,’ he added, pointing to the ground, ‘the Chinese are down there. They just write, write and write. We gave them every help to put up their plants and factories; and look at the way they are treating us now.’
When I first came to Moscow, the University was being built, and there was nothing beyond but fields and forests. Now, apartment houses had come up by the hundred almost all the way to the airport, 35 kilometres away.
In front of the University we stood on Sparrow Hill, now called Lenin Hill, where Napoleon stood on his entry into Moscow and, seeing the great city stretched out at his feet, exclaimed: ‘All this is mine.’ Below the hill the river Moscow takes a turn to the right and flows past Novodevichi, a monastery-cum-nunnery during the Middle Ages, from which the inmates leapt in the thirteenth century to fight the advancing Tartars. On the bank of the river has sprung up Lenin Stadium with accommodation for 100,000 persons. All over the city, old buildings are being demolished, factories are being removed to the suburbs, and new shops, restaurants and dwelling houses are rising.
I noticed many more cars in Moscow than during my previous visits. Yet there was no traffic jam as there is in other capitals of the world, notably London. This again is due to long-term planning, for the roads built in the fifties were planned not for the sixties, but for the nineties of the century. It is also due to the policy of discouraging the indiscriminate purchase of private cars. When we were in Moscow, the problem of traffic congestion in the world was being discussed at a conference in London, attended by 85 delegations consisting of 3000 delegates from different parts of the world. Mrs Barbara Castle, the Minister of Transport, called the motor-vehicle ‘ a mixed blessing, not only because of the toll of accidents but because of its effect on the quality of urban life ’. ‘Let there be no mistake,’ she said, ‘the motor-vehicle, unchecked, can destroy good environment, nearly as effectively as it can benefit communities . . . We must not let it damage irretrievably the quality of our living.’ How it has affected the quality of living is shown in the USA where the entire way of life, with drive-in restaurants, drive- in cinemas, etc., is hitched on to the automobile, so much so that a scientist prophesied that a day may come when men will have no legs, or will have but diminutive legs, as a result of their disuse. In the Soviet Union, at any rate, there is no such danger, because the authorities realize the evils of unrestricted motor-traffic.
The authorities also realize the evils of the exodus from the countryside into the cities and particularly into the capital. They have, therefore, declared that no one shall live permanently in Moscow without permission, and the permission is withheld unless the man has some business there. One cannot help wishing for some such regulation in Delhi and New Delhi, which have been growing too fast for the civic amenities to be maintained at a proper level. Doubtless, this would mean interference with individual liberty, but the path of wisdom lies in reconciling the liberty of the individual with the interests of the community.
The Englishman and the Russian
The two species of humanity, other than my own, who are best known to me are the Englishman and the Russian. Englishmen I have known ever since I was a child. I have known them as teachers, traders, professors, missionaries and administrators. I have mixed and worked and played with them as students, civil servants and diplomatists. I have lost touch with most of them, except a handful with whom I keep in touch through the English custom of exchanging Christmas cards and occasionally, as over Bangladesh and Vietnam, by indulging in amicably angry correspondence.
I came to know the Russians much later in life. The first Russian I set eyes on was in 1943 in Chungking, the war-time capital of China. In 1952, I was appointed Ambassador in Moscow, and there I remained for nearly nine years. Then I came to know the Russians more intimately; and my frequent visits to the Soviet Union as President of the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society have enabled me to revive old friendships and to form new ones.
‘Within the four seas’, said Confucius 2500 years ago, ‘all men are brothers’. Yet between brother Englishman and brother Russian there is a wide gulf. I am not thinking of political and ideological differences, which are there for all to see and which have been stressed ad nauseam, but rather differences in habits, customs, manners and deportment. It is on these that I shall dwell in this article. After all it is not merely, or primarily, politics which makes the man. New College, one of the oldest colleges of Oxford, founded in the 13th century, has a motto: ‘Manners Makyth Man’.
Let us begin with food and drinks. This seems justified, because man spends more years of his life in eating and drinking than in any other activity. Once, Talleyrand, the famous French Foreign Minister, kept a guest waiting for an unconscionably long time when he was having lunch. When his Secretary reminded him that his visitor was a V.I.P., Talleyrand said: ‘Let him wait. What other pleasure is there which man can enjoy three times a day and each time lasts an hour?’
In respect of their dietary habits the Englishman and the Russian have one thing in common. Both are tea-drinkers. Mankind can be divided into two classes, tea-drinkers and coffee-drinkers. The Englishman and the Russian belong to the former category. But there the resemblance stops. Even their methods of drinking tea are different. The Englishman drinks it with milk and sugar; the Russian, never with milk and often with a slice of lemon. I myself compromise between both: I drink tea in the English way in the morning and in the afternoon at tea-time, but in between I find the Russian way most refreshing. Neither the Englishman nor the Russian drinks scented tea, mixed with lotus, roses or chrysanthemum as the once dainty Chinese used to do.
One thing the Englishman and the Indian, who is addicted to English habits, have in common is bed tea. Many of us find it impossible to get out of bed in the morning without a cup, or many cups, of tea. In Russia this habit is unknown: one cannot get bed tea for love or money, for the restaurants do not open before 8.
Any irritation at not having had bed tea disappears at the sight of breakfast. The Russian breakfast is a truly gorgeous affair, as compared with English breakfast, which Anglicized Indians also copy, and consists monotonously of cornflakes, eggs and toast. In Kuntsevo Hospital on the outskirts of Moscow, where I underwent an operation, breakfast consisted of tvorak, i.e. powdered milk with sugar and sour cream, freshly cooked porridge instead of pre-fabricated cornflakes, eggs or a meat dish, cheese, sometimes caviare, salad, and bread, brown and white.
Compared to the Englishman, the Russian is a big eater. There was a time when the Englishman too used to have hearty meals, as described in the diaries of Evelyn and Pepys, resulting in gout from which almost all British statesmen used to suffer in the 18th and 19th centuries. When I was a student in England, too, more than half a century ago, the Englishman used to eat fairly well. At my college at Oxford, Christ Church, we used to have a variety of dishes for breakfast: smoked kippers, haddock, kidney, on toast, fish kedgeree, etc. That was more than half a century ago. Now, I am told, these are seldom served. Somehow the Englishman seems to have lost the relish for eating. For this, the austerity practised during and after the two world wars, and fashion, which shows itself in a craze for slimming, are responsible.
The Russian must eat more than the Englishman, for he needs more food to keep himself warm in the winter which is much longer and more rigorous. ‘The Russian climate’, said Voltaire sarcastically though not very accurately, ‘consists of nine months of winter and three months of foul weather’. I myself found the Russian summer glorious. Russians, even the women, do not suffer from the passion for slimming. Once a French visitor, in the course of his talk with Khrushchev, commented on the dimensions of middle-aged Russian women. ‘They are so sweet in their teens, but by the time they are thirty they are so corpulent. Why do you allow them to get so fat?’, said the Frenchman. ‘Because’, said Khrushchev, ‘we want our women to be women and not hollyhocks’.
Until recently, in the absence of an adequate amount of meat and milk, the Russian had to stuff himself with large quantities of bread. The present generation of Russians, however, is taking more nourishing food than at any previous time in Russian history. He, and especially she, have become more figure-conscious too.
It is not food alone which keeps the Russian warm, but drinks. His national drink is vodka, which he affectionately calls ‘the sunlight in the stomach’. However, the idea that Russians are all addicted to vodka or that they are a nation of drunkards is incorrect. Every now and then there is a ‘campaign’ against drunkenness, and measures are taken to discourage drinking in excess.
The Russian is a hard drinker, but not indiscriminate. He shows his prowess on festive occasions and especially in the presence of foreigners when toast after toast is drunk to ‘the eternal and indestructible friendship between our two countries’. Unlike the English custom, where the toast is reserved to the end of the dinner, Russian dinner is punctuated with toasts from the beginning to the end; and with each toast goes down a glass of vodka, cognac, wine or champagne. It has been said that in these days of cocktail parties it does not matter if a diplomat is not strong in the head, but he must be strong on the feet. In Moscow, he must be strong in the liver too.
Temperamentally, the Englishman and the Russian are very different. The Englishman is, by nature, reserved; the Russian, gregarious. It is the Englishman’s reserve which sets him apart from his fellow-men. In 1945 when I was at San Francisco to attend the UN Conference, I stayed in a suite in the 8th floor of Hotel Gotham. Once the lift — or, as the Americans call it the elevator — failed; and I complained to the Manager of the Hotel. He expressed his regrets and added that the previous occupant of my room, an Englishman, would not have minded, because he never used the lift and always climbed on foot the eight flights of stairs to his room. When asked why he did not use the lift, the Englishman replied: ‘Because I want to avoid the sinister possibility of being spoken to by a stranger on the lift!’
An Englishman would not speak to a stranger unless he is properly introduced to him. Two Englishmen might get into a train or tram or plane and sit side by side for hours without exchanging a word. If one, more inquisitive than the other, were to ask where he is going and what for, he would feel inclined to say, ‘mind your business’. Being a gentleman, however, he would pretend to be deaf or feign a headache or profess to be immersed in thought or in a book, even though he might be holding the book upside down.
Very different would be the behavior of two Russians. They would start talking at once; and before the journey is over each would know a great deal about the other’s family, business, hobbies and ailments. Only, one subject they are unlikely to discuss, politics. The Russian is content to leave high politics to the higher-ups. The Russian takes no pleasure in holding forth on political problems or analysing the per-sonality of their politicians or spreading any scandals associated with their names. On the contrary, politics and politicians form the staple diet of conversation in the West, and especially in the USA, and increasingly in India too.
Americans, and Indians too, have no compunction in washing their dirty linen in public. Not so the Englishman. Dirty linen, however, has to be washed, but in England it is done decorously and never in the presence of foreigners. Towards ‘the lesser breeds without the Law’, the Englishman’s reserve takes imperial overtones. The average British administrator assumed that the only way of winning the respect of the ‘natives’ was to keep a stiff upper lip. This was certainly not the attitude of all Britishers, and there were many honourable exceptions from A.O. Hume, the founder of the Indian National Congress, to Charles Andrews, intimate friend of Tagore and Gandhi. In any case, the Englishman’s cold reserve was infinitely preferable to the bitter bigotry of the Portugese and the promiscuous familiarity of the French, both of whom left their peoples in the colonies in a far worse plight than the English.
The Englishman’s reserve is not confined to foreigners but applies to his own people. ‘The Englishman’s home’, runs a characteristic English proverb, ‘is his castle’. It is guarded by an iron curtain of etiquette against the prying eyes of outsiders. The notice, ‘Not at home’, does not mean that the Englishman is not physically at home, but that he is so happily at home that he does not want to be disturbed.
To the Englishman, ‘home’ has a much more restricted connotation than to the Russian or the Indian. A home consists of the husband, the wife and the children and no other relations. As soon as a son gets married he moves away from his parents and sets up a home of his own, to which the in-laws are not particularly welcome. They may come very occasionally, after previous intimation, for a specific number of days, not to be exceeded on any account, but to come without notice and stay indefinitely is to commit a monstrous breach of etiquette.
The Russian home is very different. Invariably it includes a dedushka or babushka, that is, a grandfather or grandmother. Never is a dedushka or babushka regarded as a nuisance or in the way of even a honeymoon couple. Often they are regarded as venerable antiques to be treated with a mixture of love and reverence, and also amusement if they are given to the primitive habit of praying, making the sign of the Cross or going to church. They are even welcome to take their grandchildren to the church, for the parents are confident that any religious germs, which might enter the spirits of the children, would soon be exorcised at school by a regular course of ‘scientific- atheistic education’.
The company of children and especially of grandchildren is a far greater solace to the old people of Russia than the cold comforts of Homes for the Aged in other countries. Moreover, the old folk have a feeling that they are making themselves useful. In Russia both men and women are employed, and when they go out to work it is the babushka who looks after the children, tells them stories and takes them out for an airing.
In other countries, the position of the in-laws, and particularly of the mother-in-law, is very different. Among the common people in India the son’s respect for his mother amounts almost to awe, and the young wife often becomes a victim of the mother-in-law’s tyranny. In Western countries, on the contrary, the meddling mother-inlaw is an object of ridicule and repulsion. When we visited Disneyland in Los Angeles we were taken on an imaginary voyage, in the course of which we encountered wild animals, cannibals and head-hunters, and when we were about to land after a number of hair-breadth escapes, the navigator said, to the huge merriment of the passengers, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen! We have landed; and if your mother-in-law is still on board, you have lost your last chance!’
The Englishman’s reserve extends not merely to the outer circle of his family but to its very core and even to his wife. Here, one is on sacred ground on which no foreigner has the right or the opportunity to tread. So let an Englishman speak.
I have recently been reading a fascinating book called The Blood of the Britishman by Anthony Glyn. There he gives a vivid description of the Englishman’s behaviour in bed. The Englishman and his wife are always soberly dressed in bed, never undressed as amongst the Pathans. I remember trying a case in the North West Frontier Province in which a husband killed his wife for her refusal to remove her clothes when getting into bed; and the Jirga, or the Council of Elders, held him not guilty.
The Englishman dispenses with all preliminaries and approaches his wife with a single word, ‘Tired?’, and proceeds to perform the act with British efficiency. This he does invariably at a fixed time on a fixed day of the week, usually Saturday night. ‘The sensitive traveller’, says Anthony Glyn, ‘standing on a quiet London Street at midnight on Saturday can almost feel the week’s suppressed sexual build-up bursting all round him, he can almost hear the creaking of several million beds.’
Anthony Glyn observes that to the Englishman, sport-loving to the tips of his fingers, sexual intercourse, too, is a form of sport, ‘my best indoor sport’, as he would say. And sport must be played according to rules. So the Englishman sticks to the same coital position and avoids all fanciful postures like those described in the Kamasastra.
The full-blooded Russian’s handling of his wife must be very different. Pushkin, the greatest Russian poet, was a tempestuous lover, though his poetry is marked by a classical simplicity. Though Pushkin had Abyssinian blood in his veins, there must be something of Pushkin, the lover, in all Russians, as there is in most mortals.
It is in their attitude towards children that the Englishman and the Russian are poles apart. Here, again, let Anthony Glyn be our witness. In an English family discipline is the order of the day. A favourite English proverb is ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’. This saying was almost elevated into a gospel by Dr. Arnold, who built up the public school system on the basis of corporal punishment, side by side with Latin, football and the Bible. The child begins subconsciously to resent the harshness of the parents and this results in a lack of communication in the family circle, so much so that the family becomes, to use the title of one chapter in Glyn’s book, the ‘antifamily’.
The Englishman, however, extends to animals the affection which he denies to children. His love of animals, says Glyn, is ‘an outlet for suppressed affection, something to fill the emotional hollow in the British heart’. When Englishmen came to know that the Russians had sent a dog into space in a sputnik knowing that the dog would not return, there was an upsurge of sorrow and anger and indignation among the British public; and even the sober Times broke out into an ‘Ode to a Russian Dog’.
In the Blood of the Britishman there is a chapter called ‘Animals as Gods’. If the author were to write a book on the Blood of the Russian, he might be tempted to write a chapter called ‘Children as Gods’. In Russia children are treated as gods, not to be tucked away in some inner recess or sanctum sanctorum, but to be brought out and exhibited for the inspection and admiration of friends and visitors.
During the last six decades, the Russians have gone through terrible ordeals, revolution, counter-revolution, war, civil war and famine. There were periods when they had to deny themselves some of the elementary necessities of life. Yet, even at the worst moments care was taken to see that the children were not deprived of their amenities and even comforts, because they were the custodians of the future. Children’s creches, kindergartens, pioneer palaces, toy-shops and sanatoria are amongst the best in the world.
To an Englishman the love lavished on Russian children and the way in which they are petted and fondled by their parents and grandparents may seem cloying and unwholesome to the children themselves. Russian children, however, grow up without any inhibitions whatsoever. They do not suffer from a sense of alienation; they do not become misfits in society; and there is hardly any problem of juvenile delinquency. Ralph Sohlman, the Swedish Ambassador to the Soviet Union, who was the doyen of the diplomatic corps in the 50’s and 60’s, used to say that nothing in the USSR impressed him more than the manner in which children were brought up and their demeanour towards foreigners, a charming blend of respect, wonder, familiarity and curiosity.
Yet even Russia cannot remain altogether unaffected by the winds that blow in this restless century. Here and there one comes across young men and women who ape foreign fashions, crave for foreign exchange and question established values and standards. The Russian authorities have a name for them. They are called nibonichos, that is people who believe in neither God nor the devil, ‘ni bog ni chort’. Articles and letters, condemning their conduct, appear in the papers, and the force of public opinion is brought to bear on them.
Public opinion in the USSR! the cynic, nurtured on American books and magazines, may exclaim. Yes, there is such a thing as public opinion in the USSR, though its scope and manner of expression are different. Freedom of expression is not allowed to extend to the criticism of the basic political system in the USSR or the fundamental political philosophy behind it. The conduct of the administration, however, can be, and often is, a target of criticism. Nowadays one cannot open some newspapers in Russia without reading letters complaining of redtape, or official apathy, highhandedness or effrontery. These letters receive careful attention at the hands of the authorities, unlike the letters which appear in a daily column in the Statesman called ‘We have a grievance, Sir’. The official is called upon for an explanation, an investigation is ordered and the results are published.
This is sometimes called ‘grass-roots democracy’. Grass-roots democracy has come to stay in Russia, but it is wildly wishful thinking to hope that it will ever take the form of Parliamentary democracy, which is a little shaky, even in Britain which was its pioneer, or of Presidential democracy, as it is operated in the USA. But there! I am entering the region of politics which I have tried to avoid.