Photo: Christopher Gregory Weeramantry, born 17 November 1926 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2021

When from Russia With Love Was About Bonding, Not Bond

By Shastri Ramachandaran*

NEW DELHI (IDN) — Amidst the raging epidemic and desperate clamour for vaccines, along with oxygen and hospital beds, comes news that Russia’s Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, is expected in India by May end. Russia has also been forthcoming with a lot of other support and assistance as India finds itself desperately short of medicines, oxygen and hospital beds for battling a huge second surge of the coronavirus where the daily infections exceed 300,000 and deaths are at an all-time high.

The current transactions between the two countries bring back memories of a time when From Russia With Love was more than the title of a James Bond film. It was redolent of the bond between India and the Soviet Union (“Russia” to common folks, even before USSR’s break-up).

Fifty years after the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty of 1971, with the USSR gone, India-Russia relations appear to be going downhill. A telling sign of the diplomatic distancing now underway was Prime Minister Narendra Modi not meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his visit to India earlier in April. This was a first for Modi with a Russian Foreign Minister, especially as he loves such diplomatic interactions and photo ops; and, perhaps, a first also for the Russian Foreign Minister in India.

Of course, one missed meeting by itself would not be so significant. Except that this one follows a string of developments over the last two to three years when the two have been noticeably moving apart.

India-Russia ties have been valued for their military, strategic, diplomatic and economic dimensions. Beyond these hard tracks are the soft but memorable facets of the relationship felt by large sections of the Indian public. Besides avenues to pursue professional courses at a low cost there, millions of Indians have enjoyed Russian films and books—thanks to the House of Soviet Culture—and the circus and Bolshoi ballet.

For me, Indo-Soviet ties in its glory days was manifest in the legions of chess enthusiasts who flocked to the Tal chess clubs. The most iconic product of this period is five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, India’s greatest chess player. It is at the Tal Club that he won his spurs and went on to become “King Anand”. As he declared in Moscow in 2012, “We have all benefited from Russian support”.

This was after defeating Israeli challenger Boris Gelfland to win his fifth world title in Moscow. At the closing ceremony, Anand said that he learned to play chess at the Tal Club in Chennai—a resounding tribute to the Soviet school of chess. And, over tea at President Vladimir Putin’s residence, Anand told him that some of his grandmaster norms came from tournaments conducted at Soviet (cultural) centres in India. He was all praise for the Russian system of grooming chess talent and the role of Soviet exchange programmes in popularising chess,

The Tal (chess) Club, run by the House of Soviet Culture in Madras, which I often visited in the late 1970s and 1980s, was a big draw. There was a lot of chess then and Chennai was the hottest scene for the game. In the 1990s (when Anand was world junior champion) there were tournaments with over a thousand schoolkids at games played from morning till late night.

In those days, chess was as much a high-stakes game of the two superpowers as the race for landing on the moon, nuclear weapons and technology. Supremacy in chess was also an ideological battle between the then Soviet Union and the United States.

One of the greatest players of all time (before ‘King Anand’ arrived on the scene) was Bobby Fischer of the US. Fischer’s face-off with Boris Spassky of the USSR for the world title in 1972 remains the most high-profile match of all times. Played in Reykjavik and projected as another theatre of the US-USSR Cold War, it attracted enormous interest worldwide. Fischer won. Yet the feeling that chess is a “Soviet thing”, something Russian at which an American may excel but once, never went away during the Cold War years.

This was borne out by Fischer’s life thereafter. In 1975, Fischer refused to defend his title because he could not accept the World Chess Federation’s conditions for the match. Some 20 years later, the eccentric genius played an unofficial rematch against Spassky and won. By then he had been alienated by the US, to which he never returned. He turned anti-American and anti-Israel and lived his later years as a “stateless” person in other countries, including Hungary, Germany and Iceland. Thus, the US could not even claim the champion as one of its own.

It is Anand who freed the world chess title from this trap of the Cold War mindset. He brought freshness to the game and changed the climate in which it was played. Chess was soft power long before the term “soft power” came into vogue. It could have added a new dimension and value to India’s diplomacy had it been recognised for what it was worth.

Lest we forget, it was Moscow that made possible, in 1971, New Delhi’s assertion of hard power in—flying in the face of US-led big power military hostility—during the war against Pakistan which ended with the liberation of Bangladesh.

Few countries would have let such a beneficial relationship—which blends both hard and soft power and has borne such rich fruit—come apart in its landmark 50th year, especially when a flourishing Bangladesh at fifty is a happy reminder of what Indo-Soviet friendship achieved. [IDN-InDepthNews – 30 April 2021]

* Shastri Ramachandran is a veteran Indian journalist and senior editorial consultant of IDN.

Photo: In ‘good old days’, India and Russia signed agreements for the cooperation and use of GLONASS-K satellite at CeBIT 2011—a global navigation satellite system, providing real time position and velocity determination for military and civilian users. CC BY-SA 2.0

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