A Walk Down The Memory Lane Of 'Gorbachev Years'

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Sep 1, 2022 06:36 PM +05:30 IST
A Walk Down The Memory Lane Of 'Gorbachev Years'Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev – the name brings three primary memories to my mind.

The First Memory

The first one is watching his visit to India, which was televised very prominently on Doordarshan – India’s government television channel and then the only TV channel available.

This happened in November of 1986. It was the first visit of the Soviet Premier to any Asian nation after he took over the highest office and it was also his first visit to any nation outside the socialist bloc.

He was accompanied by a team of 250 members, which included high ranking army officials and academicians. The famous Delhi Declaration was signed. Gorbachev addressed the Indian Parliament. He also had a meeting with the leaders of both the Communist Parties of India: pro-Soviet CPI and pro-China CPI(M).

There were almost endless cultural programmes aired on Doordarshan. School children presented their drawings on Indo-Soviet relations.

One painting stands out in memory – the ‘port wine stain’ birthmark of Gorbachev was depicted as a map of India. I remember a friend exclaiming in the class about the visit: ‘how furious Reagan will feel when he watches all these!’

The Second Memory

It was a late summer evening of 1990, and I was watching television at a friend’s house. During the news, there came the picture of Gorbachev. The father of my friend, a staunch Soviet sympathiser, got up in silent fury and then, uttering some curses in very low decibels, left the room.

The words 'Glasnost' and 'Perestroika' became almost household words. Jokes where husbands expressed the need for both in their own houses became popular.

Many comrades in our circles who would register our names for subscribing to a variety of Soviet magazines like Science in USSR, Soviet Land Misha, Soviet Literature and very importantly Sputnik, squirmed and avoided Soviet-utopia talks as much as possible. Sputnik was the Soviet answer to Readers’ Digest.

This magazine issues during Glasnost and Perestroika openly revealed the kind of rot that was eating away the vitals of Soviet Union. Religion was no longer a taboo. For the first time, Soviet magazines talked about artists who were forbidden till then.

At the same time, the common Indian mindset always perceived—either because of Soviet propaganda machine or because of the deep anti-India, pro-Pakistan stand of the United States or because of both—the Soviet Union as an important balancing power.

Soviet propaganda, to an extent, also played a spiritual card. They used to speak constantly about peace and disarmament, mutual coexistence and phasing out of weapons of mass destruction.

They organised artists and assorted liberals to do demonstrations and art exhibitions. They quoted Tagore and Nehru. Socialism was projected as essentially spiritual. So, even some Hindutvaites, though against Marxism in principle, were not anti-Soviet.

So many people cutting across the political spectrum expected the Soviet Union to transform from a totalitarian Communist State to a more spiritual socialist State under Gorbachev. But the details that emerged of the spy-State and police-State that the USSR was, shocked many in India.

Of course, a minority but a significant minority of intellectuals in India had repeatedly been telling that the Soviet utopia in progress was a propaganda myth and that it was actually a police state of corruption and immense human tragedy.

But month after month, the magazines that the Soviet propaganda machine in India churned out bamboozled the majority of Indians, especially a majority of the educated Indians.

But now, the very same magazines were telling us that they had been selling lies to us for decades.

The Third Memory

The Soviet Empire was collapsing. In Kanyakumari district, in a remote school, one evening, a meeting was being held where the speaker would discuss what would happen to the USSR.

Some 25 to 30 intellectuals of the district had assembled there and the speaker was KR Malkani. Malkani, who was editor of Manthan, was a keen observer of the Soviet Union.

Those assembled included a good number of Communist and left-oriented intellectuals, even though the event was organised by Ushus – a thinkers’ forum with Sangh connections.

Malkani was physically ill. Over the course of his lecture and subsequent discussions, the meeting turned intense but always remained pleasant and civil.

I remember a Marxist intellectual arguing that the Soviet Union was an experiment of a New Man. A Man who stood apart and away from the clutches of traditions. Traditions that embodied the values of feudalism, priest-craft, bourgeois decadence and nationalism which was nothing but glorified tribalism.

KR Malkani answered him, quoting from memory a speech or statement regarding Glasnost that Gorbachev had made in London. In that, he had said that Glasnost was not only the openness that the society needed urgently but that it was rooted ‘in our ideals, cultural and historical traditions.’

Gorbachev was, for some years, to me, a saint and will always remain a great personality.

Later, came the knowledge of events behind the screens. He was pressurising a reluctant India to buy Soviet nuclear technology, the reluctance of India coming arising out of Chernobyl accident.

He was not very forthcoming in the condemnation of Pakistan as it was beginning its mischief in Kashmir. Then, around 1999, he was speaking of both India and Pakistan in symmetric terms. That was a disappointment.

There is another important takeaway, especially for Hindus, from the Gorbachev-years of the USSR.

Rajneesh Chandramohan was 'Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh' in 1986. Driven away from the United States, living a global nomad life, between 25 and 28 December of 1986, he gave discourses which were later published under the title Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh on Basic Human Rights.

The booklet was dedicated to 'Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Andrei D. Skharov with great love.' But it was a one-sided love affair.

Two years later, the USSR under Gorbachev hit hard at Rajneesh. Science in the USSR came out with a strange article: an article on 'Indian Wisdom' which had this to say on Rajneesh:

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Rajneesh, two men who made mysticism their business are extremely popular in the West. … The latter, who declared himself a deity (Bhagwan) established a ‘spiritual concern’ called Rajneesh Foundation. Looking for more fertile ground for his industry of intellectual and moral corruption, this self-appointed messiah moved from India to the USA. Here he preached sexual permissiveness as the shortest road to the divine Absolute; after being accused of shady financial dealings and immoral conduct he had to leave the capitalist paradise. Even his patrons the US secret services proved unable to help him. He got a cool reception in his native land.
In February 1986 in New Delhi at the ‘World Book Fair’, I saw a pavilion in which Rajneesh exhibited his books and advertised his ideas. Despite his frantic efforts, non-stop video programmes and free booklets his display failed to attract the public. … He runs down scientific socialism and together with it the ideal of a socialist-type society the program goal of the ruling Indian National Congress (I). Despite the fact that capitalism has discredited itself in India he extols this system as a system of creating wealth; by wealth, he explains further, he means capital and not spiritual values.
Aca.Chelyshev, ‘Indian Wisdom: Truth and Conjectures, Science in the USSR, (July-August, 1988)

This long passage was needed to point out an important India-related aspect of the Gorbachev years.

One can see how much academician Chelyshev, writer of this article and vice president of USSR-India Friendship Society, was wrong on every count.

Within two years, the USSR would be no more. 'Scientific Socialism' would collapse. Rajneesh books would go on to become perennial best sellers for decades to come since 1988. Almost the same year the USSR collapsed, India would open up its economy and celebrate 'capitalist wealth creation.'

One should note the strictly Stalinist approach one sees with respect to Indian culture here. Only party lines were repeated and only Marxist framework was used.

In other words, just as how the Aryan Race Theory, despite being discredited in the West, was allowed to create racial politics in India, Glasnost and Perestroika, while dismantling Marxist dogmatism in the USSR, kept it intact for dealing with Hinduism and Indian culture.

One wonders if pop-spiritualists like Osho cultists who love to project them as 'spiritual and not religious', understand this civilisational imperative.

This will explain why there is no interaction between Gorbachev and Hindu spiritual leaders while at least there is one detailed interaction between Buddhist Daisaku Ikeda and Gorbachev with regard to the need for compassion that the world needs from Buddhist ethics as well as from the failures of Communism.

Though USSR had close interactions with India, no such interaction never happened between a Hindu thinker and Gorbachev (that I know of).

Gorbachev gently opened the window for the breeze of Perestroika and light of Glasnost. And the Soviet Empire, like a pack of cards, simply collapsed because it could not stand that breeze and light.

In a way, it liberated humanity while, at the same time, paradoxically, it announced the failure of a great dream.

Also Read: 30 years since collapse of Soviet Union: What was the contemporary Hindutva view of this historic event?

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