I grew up during the final decade and a half of the Cold War. My peers were children named Lenin, Tolstoy, Natasha, and Natalia. My teacher’s husband was a man named Lenin. As far as memory serves me, my parents knew at least one Vladimir, Ivan, or Sasha. My uncle was almost named Stalin. But I am not Russian, and I wasn’t raised in Moscow, or anywhere even remotely close to the Soviet Union. I am of Indian origin and spent my early childhood in India.
India at the time, though officially a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, enjoyed a warm relationship with the Soviet Union. The world’s largest democracy was friends with the world’s largest communist dictatorship. It is a paradox that I do not fully understand till today.
Beyond bestowing Russian names on their children, Indians also embraced Russian cultural and culinary exports. One of the foods that immediately springs to mind is Russian Salad. Russian Salad (a salad made with boiled potatoes, carrots, and eggs mixed with pickles and peas in a mayonnaise dressing) was a staple at birthday parties, christenings, communions, confirmations, and weddings. My aunt who taught at a local Parsi school brought home copies of Sputnik (the Soviet Union’s version of Reader’s Digest) as well as copies of Misha — a children’s magazine. Sputnik and Misha promoted a glossy, airbrushed, and sanitized version of life in the Soviet Bloc. It was mesmerizing — pictures of neatly groomed adults walking through clean streets and children playing in lush green gardens. In the absence of Western media, the East Bloc became the West that many Indians looked toward.
Pop-culture also played an important role in conveying fragments of Russian history and culture across the world. Though I was too young to study world history, by the time I was seven, I already knew about Rasputin, his nefarious activities, his affair with the Russian Tsarina, and his untimely demise, thanks to the pop song “Rasputin” by Afro-German pop sensation Boney-M. It was all too easy to let history soak in with lyrics like this.
There lived a certain man in Russia long ago
He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow
Most people looked at him with terror and with fear
But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear
Corny, but it got the message across.
Despite India’s flirtation with Russia, communism never gained a foothold in the country and certainly not in my devout Roman Catholic community. I once asked my mother “what’s a communist” and received a rather terse reply along the lines of “they don’t believe in God”. So, while it may have been acceptable to devour Russian Salad, it was not acceptable to devour communist ideas; while it was acceptable to have a friend named Lenin, Leninism was not welcome.
There were a few trace elements of communist ideas that India tried, such as rationing, five-year plans, and the central planned economy — all of which failed spectacularly and caused the Indian economy to stagnate. Just enough communism to make one hate communism.
When I was around seven, I watched parts of the nuclear apocalypse dystopian film “The Day After” on a Betamax cassette tape that someone had brought to our apartment. As I grew into my teens, I became obsessed with the Cold War and devoured thrillers by the likes of Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsyth, and Jeffrey Archer. On film, James Bond was my absolute favorite.
When I was thirteen, the Berlin Wall crumbled, and Russia was dealt a fatal blow. The Scorpions “Wind of Change’’ became the anthem to this world changing event.
As I watched the events unfold in Russia and Ukraine, I find myself transported to that bygone era of my childhood. I wait anxiously, hopefully, for perhaps yet another blow to what Reagan termed “the evil empire”, while also reminiscing with friends about our quixotic cultural brushes with Russia — friends named after Russian dictators, Euro disco, Misha and Sputnik, and Russian Salad at family gatherings.