Nehru’s Soviet sojourn

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Central Asia this week, here’s looking at Jawaharlal Nehru’s accounts of his own visit to Russia 60 years ago.

July 11, 2015 04:20 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 11:07 am IST

Jawaharlal Nehru waves to the crowd of onlookers as he walks from the Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square after laying a wreath at the tomb.

Jawaharlal Nehru waves to the crowd of onlookers as he walks from the Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square after laying a wreath at the tomb.

Driving through the streets of Yalta (part of the former U.S.S.R.) in June 1955, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would often have to catch bouquets of roses that came hurtling through his window from the crowds lined on the streets, according to author O.P. Ralhan. “In trying to catch these, Pt. Nehru got his fingers hurt by rose thorns,” Ralhan records in his diary, Jawaharlal Nehru Abroad: A Chronological Study (SSP Publishers, 1960). Nehru reportedly remarked, “Look I have shed my blood for Russia.”

PM Nehru’s Soviet trip (June 7-23, 1955) wasn’t just famous for the depth of goodwill that his comment indicated, it was also famous for its length (16 days) and its breadth, as he travelled through many of the Soviet republics from Ukraine to Turkmenistan. Since then — and until now when PM Modi completes his visit to Russia and the five former Soviet Republics of Central Asia this week — no Indian PM has taken as exhaustive a trip through the region. The 1955 visit has also been studied for its impact on both India and the world.

“Nehru’s visit became an important geopolitical turning point,” explains Srinath Raghavan, author and military scholar. “He came there after Stalin died in 1953 and, on the back of the Sino-Indian agreement on Tibet of 1954. Also, while India was mostly dependent on the U.S. for aid at the time, it was becoming increasingly clear that the U.S. was now putting its chips in with Pakistan for a military relationship.” The effect of Nehru’s visit is also extremely clear. India grew closer to the Soviet Union and, during the 1962 war, the U.S.S.R. didn’t back its old comrade China against India. “The visit also laid the foundation of India’s industrialisation; while the U.S. focused on agriculture and food aid, Soviet aid came in for power and infrastructure,” says Raghavan. For Nehru — and Indira Gandhi who accompanied him — it also marked a new closeness to the Soviet leadership, who had ignored India in Stalin’s era.

It would be hard to tell whether PM Nehru was only overcome with emotion when he made that remark about “bleeding for Russia”, or whether he was making a sarcastic repartee for those who accused him of being a communist sympathiser ahead of his visit to the Soviet Union that year. The tag followed him in all dealings with the Soviet Union and China, possibly ever since his first visit to Moscow on the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1927 with his father, wife and sister. In his writings too, he didn’t hide his admiration for the socialist, non-religious, development-focused society he saw U.S.S.R. as. However, as he took off from Bombay for Cairo for the first leg of his visit to Moscow on June 3, 1955, Nehru wrote to India’s Chief Ministers about his misgivings about civil liberties in the Soviet Union post-revolution, calling the lack of ‘peaceful actions and standards of behaviour’ something that engendered ‘further doubts and distaste’. However, in the same letter, he explains that his purpose on the visit, was to study U.S.S.R.’s ‘economic experiment’, as capitalism had only ‘produced wars’. “Could (the communist) new economic approach, shorn of violence and coercion and suppression of individual liberty, be helpful in solving our problems or the world’s problems?” he asks in the letter.

“Nehru’s letters to Chief Ministers were not directives, as many people think they are,” says scholar Madhav Khosla, who edited Letters for a Nation: From Jawaharlal Nehru to His Chief Ministers 1947-1963 (Penguin 2014) “They are more a blow-by-blow account of all he saw and met during his travels, and what the country could learn. Therefore his extensive account of the Soviet trip, which was 16 days long, was actually in the form of an enclosure to his letter to the CMs.” Khosla refers to Nehru’s second letter, written a month later (July 20, 1955) on all that he saw during the visit, calling it the account of a “kid in a candy store, amazed by all he saw”.

In one part, Nehru, refers to the Alma Ata (Almaty, Kazakhstan) region as home to ‘every conceivable mineral’, or a machine-making factory at Sverdlosk (now Yekaterinburg, Russia) where Indian steel plants would be made (Bhilai and Bokaro were an outcome of the visit), and even of factories where Chinese ‘trained by the thousands’ due to the Sino-Soviet friendship. In another, the PM waxes on the stadiums and athletic training, libraries, and even the traffic. He seems much taken by a ‘children’s railway’ that was a smaller version of a railway line, operated entirely by children, and even a hydel project they ran, as evidence of the hard work put in by all sections of Soviet society. (The ILO minimum age convention on child labour wasn’t adopted till 1973.)

Photographs from The Hindu archives and those available at the Teen Murti memorial show the extent of Nehru’s welcome at the time, where everyone from Soviet Premier Marshal Nikolai Bulganin to then First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev took car-rides with the Indian PM and accompanied him to various factories and museum-visits. Interestingly, Ralhan records a visit by Nehru, ever the anglophile, to ‘a garden visit at the British Embassy’ in Moscow in honour of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday!

There were also several speeches, including one in Ashkabad, where he ‘spoke in Urdu’ dwelling on the common cultures of the Indians, Turkmenia and Uzbek republics. Another famous speech at Moscow University was attended by Mikhail Gorbachev who recorded, in his memoirs, the deep impact Nehru’s words on democracy had on him.

Rounding his visit up in his letter to the CMs, Nehru answers his critics again — especially the ones who called the massive crowds, including the ones who packed Moscow’s Dynamo stadium — stage-managed by the communist regime. “It is quite absurd for anyone to say the welcome we got was organised,” writes Nehru, “It certainly was encouraged, but it was definitely a spontaneous warm-hearted welcome wherever we went from Russia to the Asian republics. Even the leaders of the Soviet Union were friendly. There was no mistaking this friendliness and it was not put on.” Exactly 60 years later, as PM Modi undertakes a similar journey, the friendliness endures.

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