Don's diary: From Russia, with irony

August 15, 2003

Sheremetyevo airport, Moscow. Although my host and I have never met, and he is not carrying a little placard and I am not wearing a red rose, he heads straight for me. Later I figure out why: the few Indians at our conference are just about the only coloured faces in the whole city. Unlike postcolonial Europe, post-communist Russia remains all white.

At Moscow University we are given a slip of paper we must show to two sets of sullen guards each time we enter the guest-house on the sixth floor. The tall grand building is one of the seven needle-spire showpieces Stalin ordered to be built at different sites in the city - the Seven Sisters, allegedly to match the seven hills in Rome. The older classical university building, where our conference is held, is in the city centre, within hollering distance of the Kremlin.

Everywhere, ironies abound. In Red Square, a trinity of lookalikes - one dressed as Tsar Nicholas II, another as Karl Marx and the third as Lenin - charges 50 roubles (£1) to be photographed with tourists, mostly laughing Russians. Some distance away, a man and a woman dressed as 19th-century aristocrats pose with tourists, as if dancing a mazurka together, for only 30 roubles. Have your pick of period and politics. History repeats itself in Russia as fancy dress.

The inauguration of our conference is elaborately official, with a gowned dean and several ambassadors propagating international goodwill. Then, an affable informality takes over, with sessions running hours behind schedule and one day's programme cheerfully flowing over to the following morning.

The valedictory feast is not a dinner but a lunch, with caviar and countless toasts raised in little vodka glasses.

Not only the Russian professors but also several students speak Hindi and Urdu with an unaccented fluency and ease. But the old "Soviet period" academic exchange agreements between Russia and India have expired and the rouble is too weak to fund trips to India on grants and salaries. A senior professor lets slip that the rouble has gone from being 60 kopecks to the dollar in the "Soviet period" (always that phrase) to more than 30 roubles to the dollar now, and that academic salaries in terms of exchange value are therefore worth only one-50th of what they were.

When I raise this a little later with a young lecturer just starting out, she laughs blithely and asks in Hindi: "But who has told you this secret of ours?" Another little Russian secret is the palatial but bewilderingly under-signposted Metro. Though nobody speaks English, they take you by the arm and simply walk you to the right platform or exit.

Given the new world order in which the Russians probably have been the heaviest losers, will they too now make a big push to learn English, as the Chinese recently have, and will they in the process abandon not only Hindi and Urdu but their own mother-tongue, as many Indians have? My guidebook says: "It is not enough to call Pushkin the Shakespeare of Russia." Will the Russians still be quoting him by the yard in a few decades, as the student guide on our coach trip did at our merest instigation?

Harish Trivedi is Leverhulme visiting professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

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