Indians in Moscow

Daniel Brooks

The Indian community in Russia is well-established and many Indians are fully at home in this country. One wonders why many Indians seem to adapt so well to Russia and other places.     

I had the opportunity to work for a large Indian company for several years and made several trips to the country. My first visit was to Mumbai. I thought Mumbai was the genuine article, authentic India. Massive, crowded, huge gaps between rich and poor, people selling things everywhere and multi-cultural. Tourist attractions unlike any other. A gigantic outdoor laundry with people stripped to their waists, banging clothing against what looked like rocks. There was a tremendous energy of human life on the street. It was hot. Really hot. After a few hours on the street in Mumbai, I retreated back to my air-conditioned hotel. India is not an easy place to live. Perhaps this is one reason why Indians find it possible to adapt to other countries. Moving to Russia means cooling off permanently.  

After visiting India a few times, I found out that Mumbai is an important part of India but it by no means represents the entire country.  If India were to be defined as any one entity, it would be more geographical than cultural. India is a place little understood by newcomers like me. It has 6 regions. To complicate matters, India also has 29 states and 7 union territories. Clear as mud. To this day, I do not know what these regions are. There are 22 national languages spoken in India and a vast number of dialects. Among the three Indian colleagues I worked with, each came from different parts of the country and spoke different languages. Their English was fluent, with Indian inflections. While they spoke, they’d switch from one language to another and then to English. One of my colleagues spoke no Russian when he arrived in the country. After three years, he had learned the alphabet and could get by. This is, perhaps, the second reason why Indians adapt so well to living outside India. It struck me that it is possible to be an expat within India without moving overseas at all. Perhaps this is not bad preparation for the real thing.  

The Indians I met who were visiting Russia for the first time would begin calculating the value of everything around them in Rupees while driving in the taxi from the airport, even while still heavily jet lagged. The cost of a taxi ride would be compared to taxi costs in India. While the discussion was on-going, the history of the Rouble/Rupee exchange rate would be analysed. All these currencies would need to be converted into Dollars. The same discussion would happen when visiting a grocery store. Everything is calculated, converted to Rupees and given a relative value. When considering the purchase of tea, the cost of each cup is deduced. After that, the cost of tea in all the retail outlets in Russia needs to be factored. If tea is purchased at a high price, versus the market average, the Indian consumer off-sets that purchase by buying tea at a deep discount later on. Wherever he goes, an Indian is calculating value. I believe this kind of thinking is the result of coming from a country with a population of 1.3 billion people, a vast number of whom live in deep poverty and are mostly ambitious plus a long history of deal making. To become prosperous, the Indians need to keep on their toes and add value to whatever they can even if the value added is an insignificant increment. If they don’t, there are plenty of others who are ready to step in and fill the gap. 

Most Indians I know feel perfectly comfortable in Russia. A large number of Russians are Indophiles. Every year, several fairs and events devoted to Indian culture take place in Moscow. They are popular. Some Russians show up wearing Indian style clothes and are happy to put red dots on their foreheads.  For the duration of an Indian fair, many Russians dispense with their own culture for a couple of hours and buy t-shirts with a blue elephant on the front of them, or similar. 

I believe one reason for this widespread acceptance in other cultures is that in public, Indians are polite. Go to India and people are mostly welcoming and gracious. Even if an Indian counterpart in business is preparing to gouge you out of your last nickel, it will usually be done graciously. Often Indians achieve harmony by agreeing with every word you say. An appeal will be made to your emotions. This can make business discussions something like a winding road. Time and time again, I’ve offered a business deal to an Indian counterpart who seems to be fond of an offer, expressed with impeccable graciousness. Very often, that counterpart will come back later with a tough counter-offer, expressed in an equally polite way. 

This initial and public politeness does not mean that Indians are calm and nice all the time. Once a hierarchy has been established, Indians are no different than any other group of people. Bosses are tough on their underlings. A customer is expected to berate service providers and suppliers, holding them to task. However, in public and day to day life, the Indians are by and large polite. Perhaps not a bad way to become accepted in a new culture such as Russia, as opposed to the alternative.   

Normally, when Indians come to a new country, they start up some kind of a business. This is how the first generation settles in. Indian families are tightly knit and their highest priority is education. Indian children are expected by their families to excel in school and often, they do. After moving to a new country, many in the following generations move up the income ladder and become well paid professionals. Perhaps this need to excel has to do with the fact that in India, competition is fierce to get into the best schools. India is a country of a billion people and if anyone decides to lay around the house and not study much, there are a few hundred million students out there, prepared to step up to the plate. This might also explain why many Indians succeed around the world. There is no better path to success than education. 

Many Indians are spiritual. As with culture and language, Indian spirituality is complex. I do not know how many religions are practiced in India. Hinduism is a mystery. I was raised as a Catholic. In Catholicism, it’s straightforward. You’ve got God almighty, Christ and the Holy Ghost. Certain things are sins and if you commit them, you go to confession and say your prayers. After that, chances are you will go to heaven and have eternal bliss. The other option is to go to hell when you kick the bucket, the fate reserved for sinners and non-believers. As far as I know, Indians believe in one God but in addition to the almighty, many Indians have a pantheon of other ones. There are Gods for women as well as men and an array of religious holidays. Some of these religions have strict beliefs about food. While working with the Indians, I took great care to find vegetarian restaurants. Mistakenly eating meat can cause tremendous spiritual harm to someone whose religion bans it. Once an Indian colleague of mine was given borsch in a Moscow restaurant. The waiter claimed with complete authority that the soup was made without any meat. While eating the borsch, my colleague discovered a piece of beef in it. After that, my colleague prayed for several days and was physically ill. I believe God forgave him. I would have.

In many countries around the world, Indian spirituality is popular despite not being especially well understood. These days, yoga is everywhere, like sushi. I’ve been told in India that yoga is often taught incorrectly. This might have taken place because there seems to be no correct yoga. In India, when practicing yoga, it doesn’t matter how well you stretch or stand on your head. Other things matter, such as higher consciousness. That said, when I took yoga classes in India, I was urged to try harder when touching my toes and was given a ‘thumbs up’ when I stood on my head, a skill I learned as a kid. Perhaps that’s the secret to the global popularity of Indian spirituality. It is different, and therefore refreshing to non-Indians. It’s also strict. Then again, it’s not. A lot like Russia, when you come think of it.  

I remember meeting a visitor from India in late 1991. It was clear at the time that change was in the air. I told my Indian friend that the Soviet government was not in the best shape, the country was suffering from acute shortages and the Rouble was becoming weaker by the minute. This could go downhill fast. My Indian friend became very agitated and excited. Where I saw disaster, my new Indian friend saw opportunity. In fact, he saw Russia as the opportunity of a lifetime. And so, it was.  

Perhaps the ability to see opportunity in calamity is an Indian attribute. Or it is one shared by all of us who make Russia our homes, out of necessity. Either way, it is a useful attribute to have and not only in Russia.