5 Russian imports that have enriched India

Russia initially assisted India's space programme. Source: Roscosmos

Russia initially assisted India's space programme. Source: Roscosmos

Russia's contribution to India goes well beyond defence ties and political and diplomatic support during times of need.

When some of my Russian friends and colleagues read this article, they insisted that I return the compliments to their country and come out with a list of five Russian origin products or systems that have enriched life in India. Here are five areas where the Russian hand has made a significant contribution to India.

Space Technology

Last month, India celebrated the success of Mangalyaan, its Mars Orbiter Mission. The country’s first inter-planetary mission represents the coming of age of India as a space power. Russia played a very important role in bringing India into the space age.

Aryabhatta, India’s first space satellite was launched from Kapustin Yar in 1975, by the Russians, who used the Kosmos-3M vehicle. India’s first cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma travelled to the Salyut-7 space station from Baikonour.

The Indian Space Research Organisation received a lot of technical assistance and support from the Soviet Union in its early days, and there is still a great deal of cooperation with the Russians.

Russian Literature

Perhaps the greatest source of Russian soft power for India comes from its great works of literature. Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Pushkin have been household names in India for generations. Their books can be found in translated versions in most official Indian languages. I have even seen a Mizo version of Crime and Punishment.

Russia’s literary giants were the inspiration for many Indian writers, including Malayalam writer O.V. Vijayan, Bengali writer Nabarun Bhattacharya and polyglot playwright and Hindi writer Bhisham Sahni.  Rabindranath Tagore also had special feelings for Russia, although it was the country as he saw it in the early 1930s more than the literature per se.

Russian classics remain ever so popular in contemporary India, right from the intellectual urban elite to college students in poorer regions.

Vaccines for cholera and the plague

Dr Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine was a Russian scientist who saved many people in different parts of India from cholera, and helped rid Bombay of the bubonic plague in the 1890s.

In 1892, Dr Haffkine developed a vaccine for cholera and tested it on himself.  He fought what was described as a “lone battle” against cholera in Calcutta, where thousands were inoculated against the disease. He treated poor and discouraged labourers in Assam and the Gangetic plain.

The Russian doctor then went to Bombay, where the bubonic plague had claimed 3148 lives between October 1896 and January 1897.  Dr Haffkine felt the British attempts at disinfection were “hopelessly inadequate to the epidemiological realities of plague, and therefore, ultimately futile.” He was also upset by the misery and upheaval that the segregation camps caused the residents of Bombay, who were “far more terrified of camps and hospitals than they were of plague.”

Within three months, he developed a vaccine, which again, he tested on himself.  Dr Haffkine subjected himself to “fourfold auto-inoculation and experienced a painful week of febrile reaction,” before announcing his findings to the authorities. The end result was that Bombay was cured of the plague.  Read more about the legacy of Dr Haffkine here.

Steel plants in Bhilai and Bokaro

India’s massive steel plants in Bhillai and Bokaro were set up with Soviet assistance.

The Bhilai plant was set up in 1959 in what is now Chhattisgarh. As this article illustrates, this was a project that was close to the hearts of the Russians and set the tone for greater integration between Indians and Russians from the 1960s to 80s. Russian engineers are still involved in the maintenance of the plant.

Bokaro’s steel plant was set up in 1965 in what is now Jharkhand. The plant, though built with Russian assistance, was called the first Swadeshi plant in India.  Soviet engineers worked with their Indian counterparts using Indian equipment and material. Could there be a better example of the ‘Make in India’ model than this?

At the moment, the Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL) is using Russian engineers even in plants that were not set up by the Soviets.  Altogether SAIL plants account for about 40 percent of India’s crude steel production.

Russian Salad

Although Russian and Indian cuisines are as different as night and day, there is a dish that the countries share.

From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, restaurants in even smaller Indian towns serve Russian Salad. For a Russian who spots this for the first time on an Indian menu, there is a bit of suspense, since Russia has many delicious varieties of salads. What we end up getting served in India is Oliviye, a Russian winter salad that is usually a part of the New Year dinner spread.

The Indian variant, depending on where it is made, has an exotic fruit or two in it. Pineapple seems to be a popular choice. Many families have patented their own version of Russian Salad and adjusted it for their palates. No buffet worth its mention in India would be complete without this dish. 

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