A shared search for history
Russia’s Indologists have historically been committed to our country’s culture and society – an important marker for diplomatic deliberations
Historically, the Russian city of Saint Petersburg and especially the Saint Petersburg State University, known in the past as the Imperial University, has produced a legion of Russian Indophiles over the last two centuries. Founded by Peter the Great, that farseeing Russian emperor and administrator whose vision gradually turned Russia into a proud and modern civilisation, the University has, over the decades, encouraged and nurtured the study of India, her civilisation, culture, languages, philosophy, and society.
In fact, the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (MAE) founded in Saint Petersburg in 1714, inspired by Peter the Great, 'was the first scientific and educational institution in Russia where studies of India started', its study gradually percolated into the Russian consciousness and generated a lasting and genuine awareness of India at various levels. It is said that the MAE's South Asia department is one of the largest in the Museum and most of its thirteen thousand items have been collected from India. India had captured the Russian imagination in a positive spirit from early on.
The University's library is a veritable treasure trove of Indian manuscripts and documents. The Institute of Oriental Manuscripts situated in the city has an astounding collection of manuscripts. During his visit to the India-Russia summit in Petersburg last June, Prime Minister Modi had visited the institute and had minutely examined a number of these documents. The Petersburg State Library has preserved Indian manuscripts collected by the father of Indology in Russia, IP Minaev. In fact, in his address to the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Prime Minister Modi had spoken of how India-Russia ties were not utilitarian by nature, implying that the civilisational and spiritual dimension played a key role in shaping this relation over the decades.
A precise and minute examination of Russian Indophiles and India experts reveal a different approach and dimension. Russians scholars and intellectuals approached India with the mindset of a seeker of knowledge and not with the mentality of colonisers whose sole motive was to control the narrative, dictate the Indians' reading of themselves and, through an imposed narrative, seek to demonise and denigrate the high points and high water marks of India's civilisational march.
In their reading of India, the Russian scholars had a distinctly different approach. Civilisational India, with her rich and multi-hued traditions and cultural expressions, attracted them in utmost positivity; they sought to explore and describe her and not try to coerce her into a certain reductionist framework.
The likes of Gerasim Lebedev, among the earliest pioneers of India-study in Russia who was also from Saint Petersburg, laid a solid and lasting cultural foundation between the two countries and people, which continues to inspire and can be activated to re-state the relationship in different periods and contexts. In fact, it is well known that Lebedev's popularity in Bengali literary and cultural circles in Kolkata, his active promotion of Bengali theatre, his serious and indefatigable study of the Bengali language and literature, earned him the wrath of the British who finally expelled him.
What inspires us in the legacy of these Russian Indologists is their effort to read India, sometimes through great toil. One recalls, for example, the efforts of Mikhail S Andreev (1873-1948) who 'at his own expense bought in India several hundred items for the MAE.' Andreev first arrived in India in 1905 and his interest in the East, especially in India having been further kindled by that encounter, went on to make a significant contribution to the study of Indian ethnography in Russia. One cannot forget the influence of Prince Peter Kropotkin on the early Indian revolutionaries, who devoured his book 'Mutual Aid' and of how Sister Nivedita, who had a close contact with him for a while did much to popularise his works and thoughts among them.
A number of these Russian Indologists need to be rediscovered and brought back into the Indian cultural and intellectual discourse, especially now, when both modern India and modern Russia need to develop a deeper mutual understanding and work to create a new roadmap. The relationship has evolved out of the past and now needs to delineate a future trajectory that will be robust, beneficial and self-renewing. Russian thinkers from the past have laid a solid ground for such an exchange and cooperation – it is a foundation that continues to sustain the relation, it is a lever that is active and not fading. On it has to be now prepared a larger superstructure.
The present minds have to meet and take the relationship forward. Prime Minister Modi's pragmatic approach, his doctrine of pursuing pragmatic partnerships, his refusal to be subject to hesitations of history, his refusal to be subject to exigencies and to pressures of a hollow and opportunistic moral order offers an opportunity to take India-Russia relationship to the next level of greater and more effective dynamism. Both the countries need to look at each other through the strength and possibilities of their own experiences of the past. A deep spiritual dimension has permeated this relationship and the possibilities of a greater convergence remain. The need, therefore, is to widen the scope of India-Russia studies and to inject into these a much-needed dynamism and support.
These are thoughts that were articulated and that came to my mind during the recent International Conference of Indologists held at the Saint Petersburg State University towards the end of April (26-28) this year, as I spoke and listened to others in the historic Petrovsky Hall. A host of Indian scholars – both veteran and young and a group of Russian Indologists had gathered to retrace the steps of history and to deliberate on those minds, those scholars, and thought-leaders who had enabled them to discover each other civilisationally.
The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and the Saint Petersburg State University and the Indian Embassy in Moscow, had joined to sponsor and host this initiative. The discussion challenged the naysayers on both sides and reiterated the need and possibilities of actively shaping a future partnership and in trying to do that it underlined the centrality of exploring the ideational space.
The Petersburg Indology meet has generated a momentum, and until the next Modi-Putin summit, it can serve to push forward a continued exploration and reading of minds.
(Dr. Anirban Ganguly is Director, Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)