What Russian Writers Learnt From India

What Russian Writers Learnt From India

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Sunday, January 10, 2016 11:00 PM IST
What Russian Writers Learnt From India

From Soviet science fiction to poetry, the influence of India is both profound and varied

Rahul Sankrityayan, the Marxist ideologue and philosopher wrote a book, ‘Volga to Ganges’ (1943). Combining both Aryan Invasion theory and the Marxist view of history, he produced a series of fictional essays portraying an India progressing towards Marxism-Leninism propelled by historical forces. His works were marketed throughout India by publishing firms with Soviet connections. He was made a professor of Indology at Leningrad University during the Stalinist purges (1937-8 and 1947-8).

Reality though was different. Without either the means or need for propaganda, India had been a great source of inspiration for the creative spirit of Russia. Poets, philosophers, futurists, artists – they all came to share the vision of what India could provide for Russia—an organic nurturing of spirituality.

Poets and Writers

August 1921: Maxim Gorky, the famous Soviet writer was in a hurry. Returning from Moscow with a personal letter from Lenin, he had just persuaded the Bolshevik dictator to issue a letter exempting a poet from execution. Even as the dictator allowed himself to be persuaded, Lenin would have smiled within sadistically. For, by then, the firing squad of his secret police had executed the poet along with 60 others in the Kovalevsky Forest.  Gorky would find that out only on his return to Petrograd.

Nikolay Gumilyov (1886 – 1921), the poet Gorky tried to save was the co-founder of ‘All-Russia Union of Writers’. Arrested by Bolshevik secret police Chekka in the first week of August, he and sixty others, massacred on Lenin’s orders, would be cleared of conspiracy charges and rehabilitated only in 1992. What could have been the parting thoughts of the poet?

He had considered himself an Indian in his previous birth. He yearned for the ‘reversion to the sources’. Though it was not a complete abandonment of his Christian faith, he wanted to build a bridge between the Soviet Union and India. Regarding India as a “miracle of miracles”, its wisdom was for him ‘a magical gift which made it possible to see things unseen and perceive things unperceived.’

Gumilyov, although had only ‘a few traces of the Indian themes . . . in his creative work.’ Even so he ‘had a much more profound and conscious perception of India’ which would explain why in his poems India is more ‘a sensation echoing the pagan beliefs of his Slavic ancestors’ than an imagery. (1)

Nikolai Alekseevich Klyuev (1884-1937), was another prominent Russian poet of the symbolist movement enamored of Indian wisdom. In a letter to his publisher, Klyuev spoke about ‘a certain density of words and images’ in his own writing as a phenomenon sharing ‘the same secret instructions and laws’ which‘ created Indian temples, which present for the refined taste of the European (which in fact is not derived from the depths of nature), an insane abundance and chaos of sculptures of gods, tigers, women, elephants, many-winged and many-visaged creatures.’


Michael Makin in his study on Klyuev says that ‘the relationship between the ‘secret’ ‘hidden’ culture of the Russian north and the Orient (particularly India) was to be an abiding theme’ in his poetry ‘with an implied parallel between Russian popular religion and the spiritual world of the East’ (2). Arrested in 1933 for blasphemy against Marxism, he was executed in 1937 and rehabilitated in 1957.

Konstantin Bal’mont (1867-1942) narrowly escaped firing squad of Bolsheviks because of a few votes less in secret police meet deciding his execution. Soon he left USSR and lived in exile till death. He had learnt Sanskrit and visited India in 1912. ‘Tat tvamasi‘ was an epigraph to a group of his poems and another epigraph he attributed to ‘Shri-Shankara-Acharija’ – the Advaitic philosopher saint of India. In his poem titled ‘Majja‘ (Maya) he wrote, ‘For the ignorant, life is delusion; for the yogi it is illusion, a soulless ocean of silence!’ His poem ‘Yoni-Lingam‘ is ‘eclectic with allusions to Aphrodite, Adonis, Isis, Ishtar, Pan and Melitta but with a significant ending – a reference to the androgynous Siva- he who united Yoni and Lingam.'(3)

Advaitic Unity

Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov (1885-1922) was a major poet-philosopher of Russian Futurist movement. A minor planet has been named after him too. Influenced by Helena Blavatsky, the founder of theosophical movement, Khlebnikov considered her ‘the only one who traveled to India in search of what it means to be a Russian’ (4). In his lyrical prose work titled ‘Yasir’ which means ‘captive’, he explores Indian themes elaborately.  It is about Istoma, the alter-ego of Khlebnikov, who wanders in search of a principle that shall provide ‘liberty to all oppressed people’ and finds it in the all-embracing universal soul – Brahman and non-dualism (Advaita).

The work introduces ‘a foreign visitor, Krishnamurti, an Indian.’ This visitor brings with him inspiring stories of how Hindus who ‘sacrificed only flowers to heaven’ were resisting the ‘treacherous Aurangazeb’; how ‘Sivaji, the hope and sustenance of the Brahmans, had risen in revolt’ and ‘founded a government of mahants’.

What Russian Writers Learnt From India

The Indian saint also tells Russians of how ‘a gentle doctrine was spread, taught by the gurus Nanak and Kabir’ and ‘about Govind and then Teg Bahadur’, and ‘their persecution by the perfidious Aurangazeb, who did not stop at poison or hired assassins…‘  Khlebnikov brings in ‘Kala-Hamza’, a swan symbolizing time. He mentions the ‘sect of Digambaras that required its adherents to go around naked, to “wear only sunlight”, though his Hindu character Krishnamurti did not belong to this sect, “his creed did require him to do good deeds to all living creatures without exception.”

The play envisions ‘a marriage rite between the two rivers’ pouring ‘the Ganges water into the dark waters of the Volga – the bride of the North!’ The protagonist alter-ego of the author also witnesses a Hindu reciting Gayatri mantra of which Khlebnikov gives both transliteration and translation (5). The work connects spiritual liberation with the liberation of people from colonialism. After Krishnamurti frees a swan, the protagonist says “It doesn’t take much to set a bird free. Try freeing an entire nation!”

The Hindu remained silent. He was thinking of how his distant guru in India had power his mind even here. Turning suddenly he said: “You will see my country soon.” Then he turned and walked away, his dark green robe iridescent in the sunlight. (6)

The work, through the narrative of the Hindu-Sikh struggle against occupation and the philosophy of Advaita, actually aims at a historical stage for the future, envisioning a spiritual movement taking shape into anti-colonial political movement. Krishnamurthi defies the conventional colonial literary depictions of Indian mystics and admits that ‘his people belong to a global community of the enslaved’.

Dr. Anindita Banerjee, a comparative literature scholar, in a detailed analysis of Yasir identifies a work of Blavatsky – ‘From the Caves and Jungles of Hindoostan’ (1892) as an important source text for Yasir. Blavatsky’s return inward and into one’s own past, ‘also constitutes the political act of “freeing the self from its own myths inherited from the colonizers”’ and in Khlebnikov’s work the first insight that the Volga fisherman gains in India is a street mystic’s chant: “Be yourself, by yourself, by means of yourself, penetrate the depths of yourself”.

Dr.Banerjee says that both Blavatsky and Khlebnikov do not give much credence to the stands of colonial mainstream Indological view of India. Thus the common ‘search for the authentic meaning of words takes on an urgent political purpose’. She further says:

The elemental conjoining of wind and water, carried in the caravans of traders such as Nikitin, dissolves the naturalized barriers between European Russia and its Asiatic territories and between Hindu and Islamic India. The elements also define the ultimate destination of the traveling subject: the “blank space” of Kalmyk cosmology, identical with moksha, liberation from earthly existence, in Advaita philosophy. (7)

Khelbnikov’s Yasir – then remains an Advaitic manifesto that has to be realized by the people of Russia and India.  

Formulating a language for Samadhi

A very interesting model of language was created by Khelbnikov and his poet friend Alexei Kruchonykh (1886-1968). Kruchonykh named it as Zaum – which essentially means beyond reason or trans-reason. The famous painter Malevich tried to capture ‘the Zaum perceptions’ in his paintings.  Kruchonykh developed the language based on the Advaitic concept of consciousness promulgated by Swami Vivekananda in his ‘Raja Yoga’ (which was translated to Russian in 1906). The aim of Zaum was to achieve the Samadhi state of consciousness (8). Ultimately the Zaum poetry movement would influence many artistic expressions from surrealism to pop art.

Leo Tolstoy – From a critic to admirer (9)

Any discussion on Russian literature with relation to India cannot leave out Leo Tolstoy and will necessarily have to take into account two things: his ‘letter to the Hindu’ (dated 14-Dec-1908) and his influence on Gandhi.  

In his letter, Tolstoy profusely quoted the Vedas, Upanishads, Krishna and ‘Hindu Kural’. One of his beginning quotes is that of Vivekananda (‘God is one whole; we are the parts’). But in the end he criticizes Vivekananda.  Those who seek ‘the greatest welfare for oneself and for everyone else … do not need explanations and justifications of old religious superstitions such as have been formulated by your Vivekanandas, Baba Bharatis, and others, or in the Christian world by a number of similar interpreters and exponents of things that nobody needs’ (10).

What Russian Writers Learnt From India

Earlier he had expressed his disappointment about Vivekananda to one of his friends on 29 June, 1908. This comes from (the erroneous) understanding on the part of Tolstoy that Vivekananda justified and claimed to have performed miracles.

These erroneous perceptions changed once Tolstoy started reading Vivekananda.Regarding the earlier remarks Tolstoy scholar Gnatyuk-Danil’chuk points out that the ‘casual and out of context’ comments on Vivekananda should not be taken literally and that Tolstoy considered Vivekananda as part of his inner world.’  By February 1909 Tolstoy had received the third volume of Vivekananda’s works. By May 1909 Tolstoy was telling an editor of a prominent Russian publishing house that Vivekananda was ‘the most eminent of modern Indian thinkers’ and he should be published in Russian.

Regarding a well-known collection of early twentieth century Russian philosophical tracts, named Vekhi, Tolstoy observed on June 1909 that ‘it is not worth reading…when one has for reading Ramakrishna, the Buddha, Vivekananda, the Gospel….’ A clear repudiation of his earlier stand on Vivekananda came in Tolstoy’s talk on 28 January 1910, about Annie Besant’s book ‘Theosophy and modern philosophy’. He said: “She rests on what is weak, what is erroneous and Vivekananda on what is true”.  On 29 March, 1910 Tolstoy met the famous Czech thinker and revolutionary Jan Massaryk and told him during the conversation that the greatest philosopher of modern India was Swami Vivekananda.

That Tolstoy himself was moving towards a more specifically Hindu state of understanding religions can be seen in his excited observations on reading a book titled ‘The Fountain-Head of Religion’ by Rama-Deva, publisher of the journal ‘The Vedic magazine’:

This book has given me great joy. I have, for the first time, understood that we have become accustomed to regard as gods, “the god-creator”, “god-Christ”. . .”, who soar in the skies; and (as regards) the god who is the source of everything … only such great minds as the ancient Indian sages can attain this great concept. Were there no Krishna there would have been for us no concept of god. Our Christian notions of spiritual life comes from the ancient Hebrews, and the Hebrew notions from the Assyrian, and the Assyrian from the Indian … the older, the loftier. (11)

Soviet Science Fiction:

Science fiction was a selected realm where the cosmists, intuitivists and scientists came together with their vision for humanity. An important Russian pioneer in the world of Soviet science fiction, who was highly inspired by Indian spirituality, was paleontologist and science fiction writer Ivan Antonovich Yefremov (1907-1972).

His famous science fiction novel ‘Andromeda Nebula’ attained the status of a cult novel in the Soviet Union which was then basking in the glory of Sputnik.  In ‘Andromeda Nebula’, humanity sends its first space expedition and the spaceship is named ‘Tantra’ and the lead female character was named ‘Veda’.  Yefremov always considered as his two major loves ancient Hindu philosophy and pre-Christian pagan Russia. His depictions of Hindu temples were so accurate that his readers found it very hard to accept the fact that he had never visited India even once. (12)


Yefremov was showcased by USSR as a model of Soviet science fiction. However the enthusiasm did not last long. The reasons are not hard to discern. Because as author-journalist Paul Stonehill explains, Yefremov ‘dared to have his own vision of Communism: of a humane society, of a future world based on the ideas of equality of all in reason and in spiritual life regardless of the distinctions between races, tribes, customs and religions.’ His dialectics were non-Marxist and he combined them with ‘ideas derived from Eastern philosophies….’. Even his celebrated fiction, ‘Andromeda –the Space Age Tale’ (1956) ‘challenged the official ideology by exposing the inadequacy and constraints of existing Marxist dialectical materialism and showing the necessity for a new spiritual philosophy’ (13).

The diagnosis of Yefremov that Marxism was spiritually deficient was strikingly similar to the same conclusion arrived at by Dr. Ambedkar, the chief architect of Indian constitution.  He stated:

Carlyle was of course wrong. For man needs material comforts. But the Communist philosophy seems to be equally wrong, for the aim of their philosophy seems to be to fatten the pigs as though men are no better than pigs. Man must grow materially as well as spiritually. (14)

In a striking parallel, Yefremov realized the spiritual deficiency of Marxist philosophy through his understanding of Eastern philosophies. The same way Dr.Ambedkar realized the deficiency of Marxism through the study of Buddha’s Dharma.   

Yefremov’s satirical criticism of both US and the USSR never went well with the party (15). In 1963 he published ‘LezvieBritvy‘ (The Razor’s Edge). If Andromeda dealt with the outer space exploration, The Razor’s Edge dealt with the inner exploration and the uncharted realms and possibilities of the human mind.  Yefremov confided to a friend in 1971:

I had to put many things today you could not talk about or spend 10 years in Siberia in Stalin’s time, in the frame of adventure. These things are yoga, the spiritual power of a human and self-education. (16)

In his next novel he made some bold statements against totalitarianism which resulted in a KGB interrogation. Later he was placed under the surveillance of KGB which continued till his death. His further literary activities were forbidden.  

Another science fiction writer from the USSR who took to the Hindu themes was Alexander Pavlovic Berdnik (popularly known as Berdnyk, 1922-2003). In his work ‘The Heroic Deed of Vaivasvata‘ (1965), a tyrannical state run by powerful magicians, unleashes a war against an island, the fairyland Shvet-Dvip, inhabited by immortals. Prof. Leonid Heller points out that the story draws upon ‘the Theosophical and Hindu sources, and does so more openly than Efremov’s work.’ He employs Sanskrit terms (Vauvasvata, Shakra, ShevtDvip etc.) and inside the work he placed strong Eastern spiritual ideas.  Spending his time in prisons and between arrests having his typrewriters confiscated and fighting authorities with hunger strikes, he envisioned free Ukraine as a member of the “Spiritual Nations” of the future. He maintained contacts with India and Tibet for almost twenty years till his death in 2003.

A befitting memorial to this great savant shall be to make a comparative study of his work with that of Khlebnikov and understand how they both looked towards India as a spiritual fountain for quenching their thirst for a better spiritual future for humanity.

References on next page

1. Alexander Senkevich (Trans. Alexander Mikeyev), “A Pilgrimage to the world of immortal images”, Soviet Literature, (No. 8 (497)),1989

2. Michael Makin, Nikolai Klyuev: Time and Text, Place and Poet, Northwestern University Press, 2010, p.199

3. Robert H. Stacy, India in Russian Literature, MotilalBanarsidas, 1985,pp.67-8

4. Anindita Bannerjee, Liberation Theosophy: Discovering India and Orienting Russia between VelimirKhlebnikov and Helena Blavatsky, PMLA, 126.3, 2011, pp.610-624

5. Collected Works of VelimirKhlebnikov: Prose, plays, and supersagas – Vol.II (trans. Paul Schmidt, ed. Ronald Vroon), Harvard University Press, 1989, pp.105-7 , p.114

6. Ibid., p.107

7. Anindita Bannerjee, 2011

8. Mark C. Taylor, Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion, University of Chicago Press, 1992, p.80

9. This sub-section is based on A.P.Gnatyuk-Danil’chuk, Tolstoy and Vivekananda, in Swami Vivekananda Studies in Soviet Union, (Ed. By E.P.Chelishev; Trans. By Harish C Gupta), Sri Ramakrishna Institute of Culture, 1987, pp. 159-176

10. Leo Tolstoy, A letter to a Hindu, 14-Dec-1908

11. D.P.Makovitsky, Notes from YasnayaPolyana, (Moscow 1981), Vol IV p.196: quoted in A.P.Gnatyuk-Danil’chuk, 1987

12. I.Soerich, ‘The Yeferemov Phenomenon ‘, Science in the USSR, (No.4 July-August,1990)

13. Paul Stonehill, Professor Yefremov’s KGB Files-I,  Pravda, 27-Oct-2009

14. Dr. Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, Vol-3, Education Dept., Govt. of Maharashtra, 1987, p.462

15. Steve Shelokhonov, Biography for Ivan Yefremov, IMDB, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0947234/bio

16. Ivan Yefremov letter to Dmitrievsky dated 25thof May, 1971.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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