The Soviet Ambassador who stood up to Stalin on India

The Soviet delegation at the fourth general meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in 1960. (Left to right) Professor Vasily Emelyancv, Kirill Novikov and former Soviet prime minister Vyacheslav Molotov.

The Soviet delegation at the fourth general meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in 1960. (Left to right) Professor Vasily Emelyancv, Kirill Novikov and former Soviet prime minister Vyacheslav Molotov.

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Kirill Novikov, in his role as the first Soviet envoy to India, took a bold position on the newly-independent country and its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Although the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations with India even before the departure of the British in 1947, Joseph Stalin and his supporters never quite understood the country. According to prominent and well-informed Indologist Grigory Kotovsky, Stalin, who called India’s independence a “political farce,” considered Jawaharlal Nehru an agent of American imperialism, while Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov considered the first prime minister of India to be a British intelligence agent.

But even in those difficult years, objective assessments of the political situation in the Indian subcontinent were made by visionary Soviet diplomats who broke through the wall of dogmatism. A striking example of this is a "report" by the first ambassador of the Soviet Union to India, Kirill Vasilyevich Novikov, presented on July 5, 1949 to the Foreign Policy Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Central Committee. The document is marked "secret" and is currently kept at the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History where most of the archives of the CPSU Central Committee were transferred.

While reviewing the political situation in India, Novikov emphasised on a number of fundamental factors that not only differed from Stalin, but which also directly contradicted the Soviet Supremo. "Before leaving for India I was instructed by Comrade Stalin to remember that the Indian Government came to power on August 15, 1947, as the result of a deal made between the Indian national bourgeois-feudal landlords and British imperialism," stated the speaker in the preamble to his report. In the end, however, he came to the conclusion that after India's declaration of independence, despite power falling into the hands of the national bourgeoisie, India was not being run by the erstwhile British rulers.

Novikov believed that the formation of Jawaharlal Nehru's government, the act of transfer of power by the British to India, the partition of country, the Indian government's positive steps towards the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and the development of a mutually beneficial Soviet-Indian partnership could hardly be termed as "political farce."

"Did the situation in India after August 15, 1947, change in substance or in form?" asked Novikov, "In Kabul I met a certain Portyannikov, who, though appointed the second secretary at the embassy, was travelling in order to publish the TASS bulletin. I discussed this issue with him on several occasions and asked how this issue was being treated in the circles of the Soviet Information Bureau. "You see," he said, "the situation in India has not essentially changed. Just as England reigned in the past, so it will continue to rule, and it is only that this dominion has taken another form." While Novikov agreed that power went to the new elite in India, he refused to accept that they were being controlled by the British. 

Novikov considered Nehru as the leader of the liberation movement, a subtle politician, smart parliamentarian and a true Congressman, who skilfully took into account the mood of the masses and enjoyed great authority in his country. Novikov, who also considered Nehru fiercely independent, felt the Indian Prime Minister was unwittingly ahead of his time and expressed theoretical positions regarding the diversity of ways for transitioning to socialism while taking into account the specific conditions of the country.

According to Novikov, Nehru “sometimes opposed Gandhi, called himself a socialist, and in some cases commented favourably on the Soviet system and on communism, and he also stated that India faces the same problems that Russia faced.” The Soviet ambassador believed that despite the fact that the Indian national bourgeoisie and the Congress deliberately promoted the view in the government that Nehru was a progressive activist; the Indian Prime Minister did have socialist leanings. “Nehru’s repeated statements that he is a supporter of socialism, but in India the ways and methods for transitioning to socialism must be different than they were in the Soviet Union, support this claim," Novikov said in the report.

The Soviet Ambassador paid tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, the recognised leader of the Indian freedom struggle, the day after the Mahatma was assassinated. Novikov expressed condolences to Nehru both on his own behalf and on behalf of the Soviet government, and a few days later a note was sent from the Foreign Ministry of the USSR expressing the condolences of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Soviet Government.

Later, Novikov decided to criticize Stalin's position, in which he did not react publicly to the announcement of the tragic death of Gandhi. "Comrade Molotov asked me whether Comrade Stalin acted correctly by not sending condolences on the death of Gandhi? I answered that given the consensus this would be damaging, since Truman, Churchill and other heads of state sent their condolences, but Comrade Stalin did not. Given the consensus this would be damaging."

There is no doubt that the objectivity, insight, integrity and personal courage demonstrated by Kirill Novikov impressed the members of the Foreign Policy Commission. In 1953, he was recalled to Moscow and worked in the Foreign Ministry. From 1964 until his retirement in 1973 he headed the Department of International Organizations and was a member of the Collegium of the Ministry. Novikov died in 1983 at the age of 78.

The article was first published in 2012.

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