Alexander Pushkin's poem 'Ruslan and Ludmila,' which was adapted into an opera, was based on a fairy tale about India. Source: N. Rakhmanov/RIA Novosti
While there are deep-rooted connections between Russia and India that may even stretch back to the Vedic era, certain common words and names that we find in both countries are nothing but coincidences. Some links warrant far greater research, while others are at least worth a laugh. Some regular readers of this column brought a few of these lesser-known links to my attention.
The great writer Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol ironically became well known among younger Indians thanks to ‘The Namesake,’ an American film about an Indian immigrant family in the United States. The main character in the film, which was based on a book by Jhumpa Lahiri, is Gogol Ganguli. Those living in southern Goa know of another Gogol - a suburb of the city of Margao.
The name of the suburb has nothing to do with the Russian writer. Local historians claim that the word has a Konkani origin, dating back at least to the 14th century. Considering Russia’s love affair with Goa, it would still be nice to have a small square in the Margao suburb with a statue of the writer, who has a fan following among India’s intellectuals.
A tributary of the Oka River, the Moksha flows through the Penza, Nizhny-Novgorod and Ryazan regions, as well as the internal republic of Mordovia. Some historians trace the name of the 656-km long river to Indo-European people with origins in the Baltic countries.
There is actually an ethnic group belonging to the Volgaic branch of the Finno-Urgic people called the Mokshas. They speak the Mokshan language, which is from the Uralic family. Most members of the group, believed to number almost 200,000, are now followers of Russian Orthodox Christianity, although some are Pagans.
The name Moksha sounds too close to be a coincidence and some Russian scholars believe that the river is indeed linked to the Sanskrit term for emancipation and release from the cycle of death and rebirth. Of course, such a claim has to be supported with hard evidence.
Over the last few centuries, a large number of Russian cultural icons have proved to be Indophiles, but pianist, composer and conductor Sergey Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was not one of them. However, the origin of his last name may be traced all the way back to India!
According to Robert H. Stacy’s 1985 book titled ‘India in Russian Literature,’ the name Rachmaninoff or Rachmaninov comes from the word Rakhman, which is from the Greek word for Indian or Brahman - Brachman.
“It may be on interest to note here that the word Rakhman entered the Russian onomasticon in the form rakhmanin,” Stacy wrote. In the book, Stacy cited the great Russian-born scholar in Slavic languages Boris Unbegaun as saying: “The surname Rakhmaninov perhaps belongs to the same type of name, deriving from rachmanin ‘Indian’ brahman through a Byzantine intermediary. The term is not uncommon in Old Russian literary works, for example, in the Alexandriad. There is however the adjective rachmannyj ‘tame, lazy gay or jovial,’ which may or may not be of the same origin.”
Stacy’s book also mentions the Indian connection of Alexander Pushkin’s epic fairy tale poem titled ‘Ruslan and Ludmila,’ which was published in 1820. The poem by the great Russian poet is inspired by a much older Persian poem about a Persian prince who rescues an Indian princess from a three-headed monster.
The poem made its way to Russia through the Ottoman Empire and was further modified by the Turks. “With variations this tale becomes a popular fable and the subject of lubki (woodblock prints which served as folk literature and graphic art in Russia until 1917) during the 18th century,” Stacy wrote. Pushkin later used a purely Russian version of the story in ‘Ruslan and Ludmila.’
The poem was the basis of an opera of the same name composed by the great Russian composer Mikhail Glinka in 1837-42.