New Delhi, Moscow

new-delhi-moscowThere are about 5,000 Indians living in Russia, according to the Indian embassy, which makes the Indian community one of the largest English-speaking communities in Russia. Diwali and Holi celebrations in Moscow can easily fill a hall with three thousand people. Being an Indian here means that one is part of a close-knit community with tight cultural and religious norms. But the Indian community does not shout from the roof tops: ‘here we are, look at us!’ In this issue, MeL goes Indian.

Aby Jacob IT professional who works at Infosys in Moscow

Aby Jacob
IT professional who works at Infosys in Moscow

 

Indians are positive about Russia. As Aby Jacob, an IT professional who works at Infosys in Moscow mentioned: “Moscow presents infinite opportunities and challenges at the same time. When compared to the Indian socio-economic situation, the differences are enormous. Moscow epitomizes a free and open society, a booming economy, heritage, vogue and panache; all these factors attract me. On the flipside, the weather, language and the traffic spoils the fun, and of course when it comes to corruption, Moscow makes me feel at home.” A strong strategic partnership with India during the Soviet Union laid the foundation of the close diplomatic, trade and cultural ties which the two countries enjoy today. More significant is the fact that Russia offers Indians the chance to succeed.

So what do Indians do here? Sammy Kotwani, the president of the Indian Business Alliance and owner of Imperial Tailoring said: “The most popular business for Indians here is in importing and trading pharmaceuticals. There is also quite a lot of Indian activity in metals; we have two factories here. Then there are the people involved in textiles, who now import mostly from China rather than India. 40%-50% of the textiles provided to Russian manufacturers is supplied by Indian companies. Many of us are involved in tea and coffee importing which account for 32% of India’s total imports into Russia. Indian business people are able to adapt to the Russian market in terms of product size and pricing, but that does not mean that it is an easy market.”

Sammy-Kotwani

Sammy Kotwani
President of the Indian Business
Alliance and owner of Imperial Tailoring

The question of whether or not Indians keep their religion wherever they go is not relevant. As Sammy Kotwani commented: “Some people [Indians] are very religious; some people are not quite as religious as they are, but everyone believes because he or she is an Indian.” The whole spectrum of Indian religious practices is present in Russia. “Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism are all here, and we also have Christians, even Russian Orthodox Christians. So we are pretty liberal. We all celebrate Eid al-Adha; it is a national holiday back home, we celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak, and we all celebrate Diwali. We really do believe that God is one.”

Indians in Russia demonstrate the advantages of being members of a tolerant, multi-religious society which India is at the present time is an example. Acceptance of another religion is only part of the story. Young Indians living here take it further and are integrating into society more thoroughly than many realise. Aby Jacob, who is typical of his generation: “I am part of a catholic community here in Russia, so on Sundays I meet people from multiple ethnic groups at my Church. I frequently visit the Opus-Dei Centre here in Moscow; we have a truly spiritual community.” At the same time, Aby drinks. “Though I have heard criticisms about Russian drinking habits, I feel this is certainly fine, and I have nothing to condemn. Liquor sales make up to 40% of the government’s revenue in the Indian state where I come from, and our revelries are even louder and more dangerous. Hard to believe? I would prefer to attribute Russian drinking habits more to the cold weather than to anything else.” Aby and young Indian professionals like him go clubbing, and engage in activities that might be looked down upon by Indians of a previous generation. “On weekends I go out with my colleagues and friends to museums, parks or visit places in the city or nearby Moscow. When the adrenaline is high, I go for ‘go carting,’ snowboarding or play some cricket or basketball. We have created an NGO here named ‘Basmanny Forum’ along with my friend Darius who heads the team. Once a week I play basketball with Russians and Lithuanians. Sometimes when I feel like hiding from the huff and puff of Moscow, I travel to my friend’s dacha and have a soothing weekend over Russian music, shashlik and some pivo . I also go to pubs and clubs at the weekends sometimes.” But that does not mean that Aby cuts out participation in Indian community activities. The Indian community in Moscow is changing in line with Indian society back home.

Raj Maxwell Partner in the  IndiMor Catering company

Raj Maxwell
Partner in the
IndiMor Catering company

A very few Indians, such as 45 year old Raj Maxwell, a partner in the wildly successful IndiMor Catering company says that he does not have anything to do with the Indian community, and mixes only with expats from other countries and Russians. “I am not putting down Indian culture, but there are many things I do not like, like the bargaining and the lack of punctuality. Of course, the conservatism is good for most people, but you have to do what you feel is right for you. Only when I got married could I become accepted by the married Indian community, and I did not feel that to be right. I was alone morally and felt a hard shoulder for many years. As it happens, I got married last year, to a Russian lady and now we have a child, but now I do not mix with Indians. I am going all the way here, I love it, I intend to get Russian citizenship and buy property here.”

However the majority of Indians now living in Moscow agree that the Indian business and cultural community is doing pretty well. Arti Soni, who has lived here for 23 years expressed that the community has never been so strong, and one reason for that is the pro-community attitude shown by India’s present Ambassador. “Ambassador Ajai Malhotra is a Russian speaker and is actively engaged in the community, and this makes a big difference. If Indians in Russia have a problem, we can make direct contact with him. This is the first time that we have had such close links with the embassy,” Arti Soni said.

On the friendship front, most westerners have expressed how ‘real’ Russian friendships are. Some Indians like Arti Soni agree: “I have made many lasting friendships here. Most of my friends are the same people whom I made friends with when I was a student here. Russian people are acutely sensitive, so are Indian people. If there are problems, they will always help, that is why I never feel I am alone here.” Aby is not so sure: “friendship means a different thing here. Outwardly it might look the same, but Indian friendship has more to it than Russian bonhomie. It is not just a ship floating on the surface but an iceberg whose intensity is tested and tried, and whose depths are more than what you can just see.”

Arti Soni

Arti Soni

If there is one thing that unites Indians, it has to be food. “During the week, after long working hours, the evenings seem to be pretty much mundane and the only question in mind is: ‘what about dinner?’ I sometimes go to an Indian restaurant, like Darbar, Devi café or Aromas, or I head to my kitchen. Russian food has been quite a challenge, to be honest,” commented Aby Jacob. A visit to Sammy Kotwani’s Imperial Tailoring means being treated to delicious samosas. Tastes change, as Arti Soni commented: “ I cook quite a lot of Indian food at home, but it is rather spicy for me now. So I cook a kind of mixture of Russian and Indian because my husband is from Azerbaijan, so our main dishes are made in the Parsi tradition, and these are quite similar to Indian dishes.”

What do Indians think of marrying locally? The answer is positive; however views differ. Sammy Kotwani, whose own father refused to allow him to marry a Russian “for family and other reasons”, said: “This was very popular amongst people who came here during the Soviet Union. Many of these people are now in their 60’s and beyond. For Russian women, there is only one real gentleman, and that man is an Indian. Indians are loyal, they don’t run away, they don’t marry twice. Indian men respect Russian women, who are truly the best in the world. We foreigners really understand that.”

Sammy Kotwani mentioned that the Indian business community faces many problems, in particular a lack of reliable information. “Lists of suppliers are difficult to come by, even if such lists exist, they may not be updated, and things change frequently. Not everybody here even has a proper business address. Work permit regulations are getting more and more complicated for all foreigners in Russia. It used to take one month to get a visa and work permit, now it takes three. Another problem is letters of credit. Russians have a different understanding of what they are. Tax is another problem in that the law changes quickly, and the same thing goes with customs. Russia is only 25 years old. The laws are there, but there are still a lot of strings attached to them. One small thing that troubles us greatly is work permits. If you have a work permit, you are allowed to bring your wife and children. What about your mother and father? The family is a massive part of Indian culture. In general, things are improving, but one has to keep on top of the ever changing situation.”