The Debris of Utopia
BEFORE WE ARRIVED IN KYIV at the end of March 1995, where I was to serve as India’s ambassador for the next two years, the Soviet Union had been a land of curiosity. Though nurtured largely on Western anti-Soviet, anti-Communist literature, I had also known Indians, diplomats and others, not Communists, who looked upon the Soviet Union with a mixture of admiration and fondness. When I did go to serve as the Indian ambassador to the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, the Soviet Union had been dead and gone for four years. I had heard of the difficult living conditions in Kyiv. Many had warned me of the dangers of exposure to the residual radiation from the molten down nuclear reactor of Chernobyl about 120 kilometres North of Kyiv some nine years earlier. All I knew about the Ukraine was that Khrushchev had made his political career there before moving on to Moscow—knowledge I had acquired and retained from a book called ‘Power in the Kremlin’ written by Michel Tatu who for years had been the Moscow correspondent of Le Monde in the 1950’s, which I had read many years ago. I had thought Ukraine was a fully integrated part of the Soviet Union. I vaguely became aware of Ukrainian nationalists from a work of fiction: Frederick Forsyth’s ‘The Devil’s Alternative’. Sevastopol and Odessa were familiar names from other readings and Yalta was a name known from readings about the Second World War and its aftermath, just as Lviv was the name of a town transferred from Poland to the Soviet Union in 1939 under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Spring, at that end of March, seemed far away. The greenery still invisible, the city looked uninteresting. Neither the grand scale of the buildings on the Chreschatik Avenue nor the equally grand scale of government offices or former offices of the Communist Party nor the nineteenth century stucco faced baroque houses—some restored, many still in a state of neglect, lent the city much character or charm. Odessa or Lviv, we discovered later, had more of both. Spring and summer brought fresh greenery and flowers and fruit to the very large number of horse chestnut trees in central Kyiv but did little to reduce the drabness. The city landscape on the East Bank of the Dnieper was dominated by apartment blocks from three different epochs—the older ones from the days of Khrushchev, those built in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and then those that had not been completed, tall, motionless, derricks standing next to them, reminders of the economic collapse that preceded the political collapse of the Soviet Union—while the city on the West Bank had pretensions to historical glory and high culture. Historical monuments and buildings such as the Golden Gate originally built around the foundation of the Kyivan Rus state in the eleventh century, St. Sophie’s Cathedral and monastery built a little later, the nearby equestrian statue of the 16 th century Cossack warrior, Bogdan Khmelintsky—now adopted by the post-Soviet Ukrainian state as one of the country’s national heroes—or the not too far removed opera house were reminders as much of the history of the region as of the efforts of the Soviet state to restore and revive that history. There were no doubt purely Soviet monuments too, notably the colossal metal statue of a very muscular Mother Ukraine, oddly looking eastward, sword and shield in hand, standing on the slope descending towards the Dnieper, the Second World War memorial under that statue and the metal arch known as the Friendship Arch symbolizing the friendship between Ukrainians and Russians. There was also the Babi Yar monument not far from where I had found a ‘temporary’ place for my office where in one of the most gruesome episodes of the Second World, some 150,000 Jews had been put to death by the Nazis over a period of just a few days—the inscription at the monument prudishly spoke only of Soviet citizens massacred there and not of their race.
In this drab city we lived in an attractive and spacious 19 th century house atop one of the hills on which parts of Kyiv are built, separated from the park surrounding the Golden Gate by a house which had been home to a group of Karaim Jews. We were happy with the house but surrounding it were houses and structures bearing all too evident signs of neglect and disrepair. Even our back garden, which was really an orchard gone wild with a cherry and plum tree and two or three apple trees grown to heights of twenty or twenty five feet, a very large plane tree, a prolific walnut and a mulberry bush which gave tiny fruits of which we consumed liberally in spite of all the warnings against consuming berries as those likely to have been the most contaminated by nuclear radiation. The only flower bushes were two lilacs.
Behind that orchard was an installation for tunnelling for an extension line of the Kyiv underground railway. Next to the orchard was a house, within the same compound as ours, in a state of great disrepair about which the only interesting thing was the thought that it would at one time have been attractive. Leaving aside a few houses which had been taken on lease by embassies like ours and renovated, all others looked similarly tumble-down. Like a good Hindu I closed my mind to the surrounding external reality.
Living conditions were comfortable. The Ukrainians on my personal staff were friendly, helpful and generous and at the end of a few initial months we concluded that residual radiation from the molten down reactor at Chernobyl, as a health hazard all over Ukraine including Kyiv, was a bogey diplomats including us had created. In reality in the days immediately after the Chernobyl melt down in 1986 the wind had been blowing northwards carrying more particles of radio-active iodine, strontium and cesium North to Belarus and Scandinavia than South to Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine—most of the long term health hazards from radiation were created by these radio active particles settling on the beds of water bodies or seeping into the sub-soil. Having decided early enough not to let Chernobyl haunt us, I soon settled down to the routine of an ambassador’s life, with the exception that with my accreditation to Georgia and Armenia too we were frequently on the move throughout our stay in Kyiv.
PAKISTAN WAS ONE COUNTRY I thought I would not have to worry about in Kyiv. Through a curious metathesis between two different categories—the former Soviet Union and the Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union—one of the agencies of the Indian government had conjured up a series of ‘Kashmir fronts’ put up by Pakistan, all over the former Soviet Union using local Muslim populations. While this might have some plausibility, possibly also some basis in fact, in the Muslim republics of Central Asia and Azerbaijan, in the Christian world of Ukraine on which Islam did not impinge except in the form of the vexatious question of Crimean Tatars, it looked a fantasy. I dismissed that vision as I concluded that that Pakistani ‘menace’ did not exist in Ukraine. When I wrote saying all that talk about a ‘Kashmir Front’ in Ukraine was the product of misreporting by the concerned agency, I drew a peevish response, but talk about such a ‘Front’ in Ukraine ceased altogether. Pakistan had no embassy in Kyiv and therefore countering what such an embassy might put out on India or on Jammu and Kashmir was not going to be one of my preoccupations.
But Pakistan did become a concern. In late June or early July 1995, I heard that a visit by the Ukrainian Prime Minister Yevgen Marchuk to Pakistan and Iran was not working out because of the inability of the three governments to find two consecutive sets of dates for the Pakistan and Iran visits—Marchuk wanted to make both the visits on the same trip. None of this had yet come out in public. I thought Marchuk’s visit to Pakistan could have only one objective, which was arms sales—I had no idea then about the kind of arms. On my own initiative I spoke to one of the Deputy Ministers in the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs telling him that though I was not aware of any Ukrainian proposal for selling arms to Pakistan, I wished to inform the Ukrainian government that we knew from past experience that any substantial accretion to Pakistan’s armed strength caused problems for India’s security. I added that I wanted the government of a friendly country like Ukraine to be aware of our concerns and that I hoped nothing would be done that would affect our security interests. Since this conversation was based on hypotheses on my part, the Ukrainian did not have to respond. I reported my conversation to Delhi.
Thereafter nothing happened for the next few weeks until, at the time of the Ukrainian National Day celebrations on 24 th August—to mark the date of the 1991 vote for independence in Ukrainian parliament—I noted that Valeriy Shmarov, the Defense Minister was absent. A search through newspapers produced the information that he was in fact in Pakistan around that time negotiating the sale of T-84 Ukrainian tanks to Pakistan. I spoke once again to people in the Ukrainian government, talking about our concerns. Later I spoke to Shmarov too who regretted the slow pace of the development of defense and military cooperation with India. It became clear that even as I talked and reported my conversations to Delhi, the Pakistan-Ukraine negotiations about the tanks moved apace. As time elapsed, some of my Ukrainian interlocutors told me that the Pakistan tank deal was vital for the survival of the Maleshev tank factory at Kharkov. I was left with no doubt in my mind that the contract would be finalized as soon as financial and commercial questions were taken care of. I advocated a political level visit from India, saying that while a number of high political level visits took place during the presidency of Leonid Kravchuk, there had been none ever since Leonid Kuchma became President—even our Ambassador had left Ukraine on the day of Kuchma’s inauguration, with no replacement until I arrived nine months later. If the symbolism of an ambassador’s presence in any capital had meaning, Government of India had delivered an affront to Kuchma, howsoever unintended.
Through the rest of 1995, Delhi seemed unconcerned about the tanks. While in Delhi in December 1995 for the state visit to India of the President of Armenia, I met the secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs dealing with Ukraine. He told me ‘we have stopped the Pakistani tank deal’. On my asking how, he said ‘we’ had used Russian influence with Ukraine. I not only told him we would not be able to stop the contract as long as the financial and commercial arrangements worked, but followed up with a letter on my return to Kyiv reiterating what I had said orally. One of my younger colleagues found out for me, and for the benefit of Delhi, the outlines of some of the financial arrangements. I also suspected there would have been private money to be made out of the deal by Pakistanis and Ukrainians alike.
During much of the next year, people in Delhi and Moscow thought they could use India’s influence with Russia to have the delivery of those tanks to Pakistan stopped. This belief persisted in spite of a conversation in Jakarta in 1996 between I.K.Gujral, the Indian Minister of External Affairs and Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian Foreign Minister, in which the Russian told the Indian Minister that Russia could do nothing to stop the contract. Some people, who probably also believed that the Soviet Union would some day soon be re-created and in their minds attributed much greater power and authority to the institutions of the Commonwealth of Independent States than they actually had, thought that India could persuade Rossvorouzhenie, the Russian arms export agency of which India was an important client, to deny the supply of essential components to the Ukrainian manufacturers of these tanks. I argued again that in that contract worth some 650 million American dollars there was some money for the cash starved Russian makers of components too and secondly that directors of large factories in Russia or Ukraine were powerful enough to bend decisions of their governments to suit the interests of their factories. For these reasons I thought the Pakistani tank contract would be completed. In mid-1996, the first lot of these tanks was delivered. The concerned secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs whom I met around this time told me that the Ukrainian tanks were of inferior quality and therefore Government of India was not excessively concerned about them.
In February 1997, Minister of External Affairs I.K. Gujral was in Moscow for a meeting of the Indo-Russian Joint Commission. I was asked to go and meet him there. I had an interest in moving on from Kyiv after completing my expected two years and was glad at this opportunity to meet the Minister and make my request. The Minister told me I was being sent as ambassador to Thailand, adding, unconvincingly for me, how important Thailand was for India. I argued in vain with the Minister for a visit to Ukraine by a Government of India Minister, probably he himself, saying that while I could not say that a dialogue with the Ukrainians at that level would stop the Pakistani tank deal, the absence of such a dialogue would guarantee its successful conclusion. In Kyiv in March 1997 someone brought to my attention a news story in an ethnic Pakistani publication in England, which said, citing a report in the Pakistani newspaper, the Jang, that the Ukrainian tank contract was being fulfilled in spite of Indian opposition and as a result the head of the Indian ambassador in Kyiv was going to roll. The Pakistanis seemed to know already of the proposal about my move out of Ukraine and guessed it was because of the Ukrainian tanks to Pakistan.
When in the beginning of July 1997, I met Ukrainian President Kuchma to take his leave, he talked at his own initiative about the tanks and explained how it was important for the survival of that factory that it should receive some orders. I reiterated my own argument about security and he talked about the importance he attached to Indo-Ukrainian relations. Kuchma later met I.K.Gujral, by then Prime Minister of India, in New York at the UN General Assembly in 1997 and expressed his desire to visit India, reiterating his explanation for the Pakistani tank contract. Soon after this New York meeting, the foreign secretary of the day asked me in Delhi, where I was on leave, what would happen about those tanks if Kuchma came on a visit to India. I said: ‘Nothing’ but also added that likewise nothing would happen if we did not respond to his expressed desire to come.
In December 1999, around Christmas time, I.K.Gujral, as the former Prime Minister of India, was in Bangkok, where I was ambassador, at the invitation of an Indian group. We had some time together one evening before going to an event organized by the hosts. As we talked, the former Prime Minister mentioned the Ukrainian tanks for Pakistan. I said he knew well my views. He said: ‘We thought we could stop them through Russia. We could not. Such things happen.’ Some two years later I heard how a former colleague, who had been ambassador in Moscow, had been telling people about the ineffectiveness of the Indian embassy in Kyiv—when I was ambassador there—which could not prevent the tank contract with Pakistan, a country which at that time had no embassy there. I was by then beyond being affected by opinions about my achievements or failures. It is possible others in Delhi had held similar views and judged my performance as ambassador in Kyiv as incompetent. The Pakistani newspaper, the Jang, might after all have been right about my head rolling.
WHEN THE SOVIET UNION WAS FORMALLY DISSOLVED in December 1991, Government of India moved quickly to establish resident embassies in Minsk, Kyiv, Tashkent and Almaty. Indo-Soviet economic exchanges had become considerable over a period of three decades. From the Soviet Union India obtained matériel for its armed services and equipment, design, technical assistance and machinery for a number of Soviet-aided Indian industrial and infrastructural projects and, in some years of shortage, crude oil and refined petroleum products. India in its turn supplied tobacco, tea, coffee and a whole range of consumer necessities. These exchanges were profitable to both the countries as they were to a number of individuals, at least on the Indian side. The expectation on the Indian side as well as on the side of the now independent constituent units of the Soviet Union was that exchanges between India and them would continue at a level proportionate to the share of the republics in the economy of the Soviet Union. These were false hopes, for the reality was that Indo-Soviet trade had for decades been underpinned by a system of barter. That system ended with the Soviet Union, never to be revived again. The Russian Federation, as successor to the Soviet Union took over all foreign obligations and credits of the Soviet Union. Thus it inherited a large Indian rupee debt of India to the Soviet Union, later written down in negotiations between India and Russia. India would liquidate the balance through Indian exports to Russia over a number of years during which there was money with Russia with which to do nothing but pay for imports from India. India from then on paid for its imports from Russia in convertible Western currency.
Trade between India and post-Soviet Ukraine, Armenia or Georgia, having to be financed in convertible currency, had to surmount the twin difficulties of finding money for their imports and competing with Russia in price, established Indian habits and delivery schedules on exports of weapon systems and heavier defense equipment—their position at the center of the network of Soviet military-industrial complex gave Russian industry an edge in price and capacity. In the first two years after the establishment in mid-1992 of Ukrainian and Indian embassies in the two capitals, expectations were high that Ukraine might become an important supplier of defense equipment to India. Not only did Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian President go on a state visit to India and the Indian President make a return visit but also the Indian Defense Minister visited Kyiv. An Indian group was quick to set up shop in Kyiv seemingly to act as a facilitator of defense contracts. By the time I arrived in Kyiv there was a feeling that expectations had been too high. I could hear Ukrainian complaints about relations with India developing too slowly—the Ukrainian Defense Minister, Valeriy Shmarov told me that Indo-Ukrainian defense cooperation, which should have been flying, was still moving on a bicycle. Not all hopes were lost yet—there was some hope that I might do something—and people in all the three republics received me warmly.
About the most direct demonstration of expectations that I might do something substantial to promote relations came in Georgia. On arrival in Tblisi to present my credentials there in mid-July 1995, I was received with nearly the same honours as a government minister on an official visit. After I had presented my credentials, the Georgian authorities on their initiative took us on our third day in the country on a two hundred-kilometre long road journey to Kutaisi in Western Georgia. Three officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a pilot car escorted us, with soldiers standing guard by the road all the way to Kutaisi.
My wish to see Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, on the way, was quickly granted and arrangements made. In Gori, there was preserved not only a replica of the house where Stalin was born and a railway coach, which he had used on his travels, but there was also a Stalin museum next to the house of his birth. In the straitened circumstances of post-Soviet Georgia, the museum was unlit but it unmistakably glorified Stalin—I was surprised when told that Khrushchev had built it. In the central square of Gori there was a two and a half life size statue of Stalin on a roughly twenty feet high pedestal. Clearly Khrushchev had not destalinised Gori. Probably, Stalin was judged less harshly in Georgia than elsewhere. On another visit to Georgia, after a visit to the port of Batumi, the director of the port joined us at a luncheon given by the provincial authorities. As soon as he settled down, he announced he was the President of the Stalin Society of Batumi and then treated the rest of that company to a monologue in praise of Stalin. During that first visit to Georgia, we were taken to a ‘sanatorium’ built round a spa near Kutaisi which had been a favourite of Stalin. Also near Kutaisi we visited a factory at the entrance of which there was a life size statue of Stalin painted in gold.
That was a machine factory, which for survival was making miscellaneous plastic goods. Its director showed us a brief case designed by him and made at the plant. On one side there was space for papers and on the other were two compartments for holding two bottles. He said that in the days of the Soviet Union, whenever he went for discussions at the Planning office in Moscow he would carry one bottle each of vodka and brandy—in these places they insisted on calling any brandy cognac—as gifts for his interlocutor. The alcohol, he said, only half in jest I thought, helped decision-making.
I have digressed. Arriving in Kutaisi, we were taken over by Teimuraz Cachilashvili, the provincial governor. He accompanied us to practically every place. There was a fete of sorts in the town where we were presented to the general public. In the evening we were taken to a steel plant, which specialized in making ferro-manganese. India had been one of their clients, we were told. At this factory which otherwise was dark and unlit because of power shortage, they fired one blast furnace for our benefit and actually ran some molten metal. There was a dinner at the plant in the evening, typically washed down by numerous toasts. One day later we were taken to a museum at nearby Vani where we met a number of people including some intellectuals. I particularly remember meeting one who had worked on ancient Greek settlements on the Black Sea littoral. He said there were five hundred such sites. Someone else talked of Jason, saying that that was the area Jason and the Argonauts would have come to, looking for the Golden Fleece.
In an earlier conversation, the governor had talked to me not only of his hopes and wishes for his province but also his interest in building a twin-city relationship between Kutaisi and an Indian city or between the province of Megrelia and an Indian state of my choice. After the museum visit we took a flight back to Kyiv from Kutaisi. The governor accompanied us to the aircraft. As the governor—reputed to be close to Eduard Shevardnadze—and the others, thus feted us, I thought of my situation with fear. I knew that my chances of fulfilling even partially the expectations these people had from me were next to nothing. I had done nothing to encourage their hopes. I knew there would be disappointments. I wondered how their disappointment would affect their conduct. In the event neither these disappointments nor others that would surely follow in Georgia or elsewhere seemed to affect my standing. I fondly thought that that was because I represented a large country and an ancient civilization—two diplomatic assets, not always much use in hard negotiations, that could not be taken away. I could think of no other explanation for the fact that in so many other places in the world, I had, as an Indian representative found an entrée even when I had nothing to offer in return for what I was asking for.
On another visit to Georgia, the Finance Minister asked to see me. He said he had been asked by the President to talk to me. The Georgian Air Force had a few nearly new Mig-21’s and some other defense equipment, which, he knew, would be of use to the Indian armed forces. The Georgian government was offering these for sale to us. He said they would be happy to show me the equipment. I promised to send our Air Force Attaché in Kyiv to inspect the matériel. The Attaché did have a look and sent a report. He thought some of the matériel could be of use to the Indian Air Force. Nothing came of this offer. Elsewhere, in Armenia, I was taken to the establishments of a company called Razdanmash headed by the brother of the President of Armenia of the time. The company specialized in defense electronics. I was shown communications, air defense and air surveillance equipment and told about their capacity. They said that in the entire Soviet Union, this was the foremost establishment making and supplying such equipment not only to the Soviet armed forces but also to the armed forces of all other members of the Warsaw Pact. They were interested in selling the equipment to the Indian Armed Forces. I wrote my report about this approach as all ambassadors do. Nothing came of that offer either. Delhi was not even interested in sending an exploratory team. Nothing in my experience or in my outlook had equipped me to think of using extra-official means for the negotiation and conclusion of contracts for such matériel.
Interest in building relations on the foundations of Indo-Soviet economic cooperation was not confined to defense supplies. On the slopes of Mount Aragats in Armenia was the Byurakan Observatory. Petrossian, its director told us that much of the work at the Observatory, where the main telescope had a 2.6 metre mirror, had been done around the cosmological theories of its founder, Victor Ambartsumian who had been a member of the Soviet and Armenian academies of sciences and a member of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Petrossian explained the theories of Ambartsumian, which were at variance with established orthodoxies about the Big Bang and an expanding universe. He gave me a copy of Ambartsumian’s biography titled ‘Envoy to the Stars’—he evidently venerated his late mentor. He asked me if I had ever looked through an astronomical telescope and when I said no he promised to show me the heavens through his telescope on a moonless night, preferably a new moon, and in a cloudless sky, whenever I was in Armenia next. These were almost impossible conditions to meet. When we did make it to the Observatory about one year later on a partly cloudy night just before the moon rose at about ten at night to have a few glimpses of the skies—neither long nor deep enough to directly feel the humility which Petrossian had said an astronomer feels when he grasps the vastness of the universe.
By then the French government had not only helped in rehabilitating the main telescope but had also established an exchange programme between the Byurakan Observatory and counterpart institutions in France. The director was happy at this upward turn in the Observatory’s fortunes. During my first meeting with him he had expressed interest in cooperation with Indian institutions of astronomy and astrophysics saying he knew of India’s strength in these fields. It took me about one and half years to organize visits to India by people from Byurakan. Petrossian had in the mean time become the Armenian Minister of University Education. Nothing seemed to come out of these visits by way of any worthwhile exchange or cooperation.
In Tblisi, one man who established early contact with me and remained in touch during most of my two years as ambassador to Georgia, had been the tea purchase officer in the late 1970’s and again in mid 1980’s in the Soviet Consulate General in Kolkata—I knew from my contacts with the American Tea Association while in New York that the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation were such major buyers of Indian tea that in any year the international price of tea was determined by the size of the Indian production and the volume of Russian purchase of Indian tea. An ethnic Georgian living in Tblisi as a refugee from Abkhazia ever since the beginning of hostilities over Abkhazian secession from Georgia, this man was driven as much by the desire to improve his own situation as by the wish for promoting Indo-Georgian co-operation in tea making. I had known about Georgian tea from the late 1960’s when I was trying to promote the sale of Indian green tea to Morocco. Under the impulse of this man, we were taken to some plantations near Kutaisi. They were clearly in need of rehabilitation. He was interested in encouraging Indian tea industry to come with capital, know-how and machinery and run the Georgian tea plantations as joint ventures. He wanted my help. Neither my reports or letters nor this man’s direct correspondence with companies he would have known from his days in Kolkata had produced any result by the time I finished as ambassador to Georgia.
At Lviv in Ukraine, visiting a design bureau for electrical installations we met some engineers who had worked on a Soviet aided thermal power station at Korba in Central India. Before a lunch for us given by the director of the bureau, one of those engineers, who every once in a while broke into snatches of a song from a Hindi movie, prompted me to say that Government of India was interested in continuing collaboration with the design bureau—something I could not bring myself to saying without any basis in any real interest having been evinced by anyone in India.
In Ukraine when I went to see Port Illychevsk, the major Ukrainian cargo port on the Black Sea, next to the town of Odessa, the director took us on a tour of Odessa Bay on his personal launch. Lunch was on board and included an enormous quantity of beluga caviar served in substantial dollops with butter and thinly sliced and toasted bread, washed down with numerous toasts in vodka. Nothing else was served until we were sated with the caviar. Pointing at the Lenin statue in front of his office he had said he was not only an admirer of the man but was also a convinced communist. He lamented the state of things after the break up of the Soviet Union. He talked of his own political ambitions. He said that more than 90% of Indo-Soviet trade used to pass through Illychevsk, so much so that two jetties had been especially constructed for ships going to or coming from India. There was never a time when one or two Indian ships were not berthed at Illychevsk. With the Soviet Union gone, the fortunes of Illychevsk had changed. Shipping traffic between Illychevsk and India was now very low. An Indian ship called once in five or six weeks.
Indian shipping companies for their part had been complaining of long waits on the roads before docking when they came to Illychevsk. When I pointed this out to him he said he would be happy to keep one berth permanently reserved for Indian ships. He added that in spite of the break up of the Soviet Union, if India’s trade with Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and some of the Central Asian republics still passed through Illychevsk, there would be enough volume to justify special arrangements for Indian shipping. If we could achieve this, it would benefit India as much as the port and the countries of the former Soviet Union. The transport infrastructure in the hinterland of Illychevsk was intact. The distance between India and Odessa was shorter than India and the Russian ports on the Baltic or the Arctic or the port of Rotterdam through which some of the trade between India and the former Soviet Union had started passing. Besides, as opposed to Archangel, Murmansk or St.Petersburg, Illychevsk was open all year. I knew that the port director’s scheme, no matter how rational, was unimplimentable. I thanked him for his generous hospitality. There was neither an occasion nor any desire in me to return to Illychevsk. Indian ships continued to call there occasionally, waiting on the roads when they had to, because there was no one to pay for a reserved berth.
Academician Boris Paton, head of the Paton Institute of Electric Welding in Kyiv, the doyen of Ukrainian scientists and an influential figure in the field of science and technology, personally showed me around most of his institute and explained the work that had been done there. His colleagues and he were proud of many of their achievements not only in electric welding—one of their proudest achievements was a welding machine that functioned in outer space—but also in anti-corrosive treatment of metal. After the visit we sat down and talked in his office. He said nature had been kind to India in that the southern stretches of the east coast of the Indian peninsula, being close to the equator, were ideal for launching spacecraft. He said that Ukraine had considerable capabilities in building rockets and satellites and did not want to lose them. Co-operation between our two countries in the exploration of outer space would be of great mutual advantage. By the time I managed to bring the concerned people in India round to seriously looking at Paton’s suggestion, he and the Ukrainian government had lost all interest, in part because at a time when the Ukrainians and Americans were cultivating each other, they wanted to be extra cautious about respecting the Missile Technology Control Régime. The Ukrainians turned their energies towards developing a sea based launching platform.
There were two sad leftovers from the best days of Indo-Soviet relations. One was a Ukrainian academic of sorts who had acquired a more or less adequate knowledge of Hindi during a stay in India, working on one of the Soviet aided projects. He used to work as a liaison man and interpreter for the people employed on that project. Back in post-Soviet Ukraine he ran courses in Hindi at the Kyiv State University. As in the case of the rest of the University, in the case of his Hindi centre too, money was scarce. There was very little I or the Government of India could do to help him with his Hindi venture other than gifting some books. We once made an effort to arrange for his travel to the Caribbean to take part in a World Hindi Conference. But he returned home from Moscow, the first stop on his journey to the Caribbean, saying his wife feared the unpredictability of such a long journey. He had also set himself up as a kind of ‘scholar’ in an outdated branch of knowledge which is Indo-European philology and indulged in establishing a number of spurious etymological links between Ukrainian and Hindi words, his favourite being the claim that the word Cossack and Keshava, a name of the Hindu god Krishna were cognate. I found it difficult to take this side of his personality seriously.
In Tbilisi likewise there was a Georgian gentleman with a knowledge of Hindi which he had used during a stay in India on another Soviet aided project. He met me during all my visits there, describing himself, a little hyperbolically, as an Indologist. He looked up to me to create for him a formal or informal position to promote Indo-Georgian cultural and academic relations—something that was almost impossible for me to do. Besides I found his claims of scholarship dubious. I did succeed in arranging for his participation in the World Hindi Conference in the Caribbean. Over time he developed a plan for opening a Georgian restaurant in Delhi, which would also act as a centre for Indo-Georgian cultural interaction. He often talked about how difficult the situation in Georgia was and obviously longed to escape.
AMBASSADORS IN OUR TIMES work hard at organizing visits by Heads of State, Heads of Government or government ministers between their country and the country they are accredited to. The next things they work at are intergovernmental agreements. The Ukrainian decision to sell tanks to Pakistan more or less ensured that it was going to be very difficult for the Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to visit India any time soon. One half-hearted proposal for dates from the Ukrainians for a Kuchma visit soon fell by the way side. Government of India, intent on showing disapproval of the Ukrainian tank contract with Pakistan was not willing to consider a visit by any of its ministers to Ukraine. In the case of Georgia, I pressed for a formal invitation to Eduard Shevardnadze, particularly after he was elected President. There was strong resistance in Delhi. One person in a key position told me that as Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze had shown no interest in India or in Indo-Soviet relations. In the end I succeeded in getting a formal invitation for him, which I failed to hand over personally. It was handed over to his Foreign Minister. After that, during my tour of duty there was no interest shown by him in making that visit to India, almost proving people in Delhi right.
There had been on the table an invitation to Levon Ter Petrossian, the President of Armenia to visit India but a disagreement over whether India and Armenia should sign a ‘Treaty’ or an ‘Agreement’ on friendship and cooperation came in the way. The Russians like the Soviet Union before them had a ‘Treaty’. To my mind the document to be signed with Armenia would in no foreseeable future become more valuable than so many sheets of heavy paper, whatever name it was given. If calling it a Treaty, to be signed by the Armenian President and the Prime Minister of India, made the Armenians happy, we should concede the point. No sooner did Delhi come round to that view than the Armenian resistance was gone. The Armenians wanted an air services agreement, which did not seem problematic—absence of traffic and aircraft would make this a document for the future.
The Armenian Foreign Minister of the time was keen on a tripartite Indo-Iranian-Armenian agreement on trade and transit. He told me he had talked about it to the Iranian Foreign Minister Velayati, who was agreeable. The Armenians wanted Indian endorsement of the idea. For landlocked Armenia, still subjected to Turkish and Azerbaijani embargo, Iran was the most important outlet to the world. The two countries had been politically and emotionally close to each other. The tripartite agreement the Armenians wanted was in the nature of a psychological buttress. For some reason, the Armenians felt India had shown a friendly understanding of the Armenian position in their conflict with Azerbaijan over Karabakh—it has always been difficult for Government of India to support the secession of a territory anywhere from an established state.
Unknown to the Armenians, there were some reservations in Delhi about a visit by the Armenian President before at least some preparatory steps had been taken towards a similar visit by the Azerbaijani President—as Muslim Azerbaijan was a member of the OIC, India, out of its anxieties about Pakistani manipulation of the OIC, wanted to be careful not to be on the wrong side of Azerbaijan. Delhi was persuaded finally to abandon its attempt to so fine tune the balance in its relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan as to try to organize near simultaneous visits to India by the two Presidents. The Armenian President visited India in December 1995. A planned longer visit had to be cut down to just about three days. The Armenians were very clear that the President would visit Kolkata in addition to Delhi. He agreed reluctantly to take in Agra on the way to Kolkata—I told him no one could conceivably visit India for three days and not see the Taj Mahal.
All official and ceremonial business of the visit was in Delhi, including a luncheon by the Prime Minister, a banquet by the President of India—there was a similar banquet, albeit on a smaller scale, by the Governor of West Bengal in Kolkata. Looking at these elaborate meals—no gastronomical wonders—I have over time come to ask why people must go through with them. At these events in India conversation between the visiting guests and their Indian hosts soon dies down. With a few very honourable exceptions, Indian politicians and other similar people of stature seem to be singularly incapable of pleasant non-political, non-local small talk and equally incapable of enlightened drawing room conversation—not peroration—on literature, history, the arts, the sciences, philosophy or even femmes fatales. After some time Indians tend to break into conversation among themselves about something or somebody, usually political, known to them, across the table, up and down the table, often quite loudly. The guest and his wife are left to eat their meal in silence before and after the ceremonial toasts. There are similar situations in other places in the Third World or, maybe, in the First World too. Modern diplomacy has thus reduced a pleasant social institution such as a meal around a table, which grew in upper middle class Europe, to a dead ritual in many places—good conversation and general bonhomie, which are the life of such occasions, are too frequently emptied out of them. I thought such thoughts eating my food and watching Ter Petrossian and his Indian hosts eating their meals together.
Kolkata was emotionally very important for the Armenians, not so much because of its old but rapidly depleting Armenian community—the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, and his colleagues talked about two Surita brothers, Armenians of Kolkata, a retired civil servant and a radio newsreader who was also a well known commentator on cricket matches, and were not interested in hearing anything more from the Armenians about this community or about Armenia—but because of its historical attachment to the idea of an Armenian state. Some people in this Kolkata community wrote out a constitution for such a state in late eighteenth century and sent the text and a piece of tapestry to Armenia—the two are on display at Echmiadzin, the seat of the Catholicos of the Armenian Church. The Armenians talked about the free movement of people in older times between Yerevan, Ispahan (Armenians of India come under the Armenian bishopric of Ispahan) and Kolkata. The President, his entourage and the Armenians of Kolkata and those who had come from Bangkok, Hong Kong and Dhaka found this reunion at Kolkata very moving—at the Armenian school, at the Armenian Church or at the Churchyard where some wept at the graves of long forgotten heroes. Clearly, Ter Petrossian was not merely the President of the ex-Soviet Republic of Armenia but the President of all Armenians so to speak.
MEMORIES OF PERSECUTION by different peoples and of wars with much mightier nations almost define their nationalism for many Armenians. In this, in their dispersal across the world, in their attachment to their religion, Christianity, (they proudly proclaim having received Christianity as their national religion as early as 301 A.D.) and in their passionate feeling of belonging to their land, they are like Jews—though many were quick to tell me even in the first encounter, in an effort perhaps to establish that Indians and Armenians were kindred peoples, that their language was a member of the Indo-European family of languages, just as, visiting the ancient archaeological site of Garni, I was told—whether rightly, I never learnt—that that was a temple to the Vedic and pre-Vedic god Mitra.
Mount Ararat, which to Armenians is almost like Jerusalem to Jews, is visible from the road from the city to the airport. An even better view is from the aircraft as it takes off from Yerevan airport. But among the fullest views from anywhere in Armenia of the massive snow covered twin mountains—the Greater and the Lesser Ararat—is from the monastery of Khor Virap which is so close to the Turkish border that cars driving on the Turkish side can be seen from the monastery with the naked eye. Between the eminence on which the monastery is located and Mount Ararat there is nothing, not even a rise in the ground to obstruct the view. The priest—a Soviet Air Force pilot before joining the priesthood—who showed us around at the monastery, told us the tale of a Christian saint who had been thrown into a pit there. He also showed us the pit. He talked of the architecture of the monastery and the church attached to it.
But when he turned towards Ararat his face became live with emotion. He talked of the injustices done to the Armenian people by the Turks. For him the greatest injustice was that Mount Ararat should be in Turkey and not in Armenia. He said he felt a wrench in his heart each time he saw the mountain—a visitor to Armenia is often told that Noah’s Ark rested on its peak as the Flood receded and that the Armenians were the first to re-populate the earth after the Flood. For many Armenians, their country would not be complete without Karabakh and Mount Ararat. At a level not lower than the loss of Ararat is the memory of the 1914 ‘genocide’ of the Armenians of Anatolia organized by the Young Turks. The Armenian desire to keep alive the memory of the ‘genocide’ and the Turkish resentment at being accused of it have been one of the causes of present day unpleasantness between the two peoples.
On a pleasant summer afternoon, in a house in the village of Byurakan, not far from the Observatory, sitting on a veranda opening on an orchard of apricot—Armenia was claimed to be the original home of the apricot—peach and apple, we had a very satisfying lunch. As the eating came to a close, all the Armenians—my wife and I were the only non-Armenians—broke into singing. The songs were about past battles Armenians had fought. All but two of them at that lunch were people who had come in from outside. I was to learn later that these ‘outsiders’ for whom every mountain, every river or lake and every church in the country had an aura, were apt to be more nationalistic than those who had never left Soviet Armenia. The ‘insiders’ were engaged in more practical battles of survival in the post-Soviet economic collapse of the country.
The dispute with Azerbaijan over Karabakh had brought about an emotional unity among all Armenians whether in the country or outside. Armenian émigré communities the world over had contributed to this national war effort. Financial contributions from them had continued long after fighting in Karabakh had ceased, bringing much needed help. Some diplomats cynically commented that the contributions from the émigrés acted as a disincentive to solving the Karabakh dispute. During the two years I was ambassador to Armenia, there were weightier, practical considerations impelling Armenia to work for a thaw with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Azerbaijan’s embargo deprived Armenia of cheap petrol across the border. Besides, in the competition between various alignments of a petrol pipeline between the Caspian shores of Azerbaijan and the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, Armenia could not even be in the reckoning even though a pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey across Armenia would be the shortest and the cheapest.
The Turkish embargo brought other problems. Levon Ter Petrossian and his government had been talking to the Turks and were prepared to take steps to mollify Turkish sentiments about the ‘genocide’. But Turkey could not move very far forward without a resolution of the Armenian-Azeri dispute. Armenian nationalist sentiment made it impossible for the Armenian government to jettison either Karabakh or even the Lachin corridor, a strip of Azeri territory connecting Karabakh to Armenia, which had been seized by the Armenian army and which was used by them to provision Karabakh. There was no movement forward despite continuous efforts at mediation by the Minsk Group set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The appointment in 1997 of the former President of Karabakh as the Prime Minister of Armenia raised hopes of increased flexibility in Armenian positions. But Ter Petrossian was soon overthrown and replaced by his Prime Minister from Karabakh.
LIKE ARMENIA, GEORGIA had existed as a state in some form or the other for a long time until at the end of the eighteenth century their king merged his kingdom with Russia. Orthodox Christianity had come to Georgia only a few years after Armenia. Georgian Orthodox Church had existed as an independent entity, with its own Catholicos, for centuries. In their memory of their past they celebrated a twelfth century queen whom they insisted on calling King Tamar and Chota Rustaveli, a poet who was Tamar’s contemporary. Many Georgians told me that the protagonist of Rustaveli’s epic, ‘The Knight in Panther Skin’ (I translate the title of the French version of the poem I have) was a prince from India.
Memories of past battles between Christian Georgia and various Turkic peoples have been kept alive in popular consciousness in numerous ways. In Kutaisi we were taken to a small chapel located on the edge of a gorge. It was called the chapel of two martyrs—two pious Chrisistians who had been killed resisting the invading Turk. Part of the legend was that for days the waters of the river flowing through that gorge had been red with the blood of the martyrs. Skulls of the two martyrs were preserved as holy relics in the chapel. In that same chapel was a reminder of another, more recent, persecution. We went to meet the priest, a spry eighty year old with silver hair and flowing silver beard, who offered us coffee, fruits and cheese and played a few airs on the piano. He had spent years in Soviet camps or prisons and had been released in the closing years of the Soviet Union.
Georgia, split into several ethnic and religious groups living in different valleys seemed to have been made to prove the dictum that mountains unite and valleys divide. Beyond the Georgian heartland of Megrelia, Caxetia—well known for its wines—and Tblisi, where people speak Georgian, a language not linked to any other in the neighbourhood, there is South Ossetia in the Northeast and the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria in the Southwest. Abkhazia in the Northwest declared independence soon after the break up of the Soviet Union—a secession and civil war which showed no sign of ending in spite of all the efforts of the OSCE. The Georgians suspected Russia of helping and encouraging the Abkhaz separatists but would openly say no more than that some groups in Russia with personal property and business interests in Abkhazia encouraged and helped the Abkhaz.
Ajaria lying next to the Turkish border was Georgian speaking but almost all Muslim. We spent an evening with Aslan Abbasidze, the President of Ajaria during a visit to Batumi. Before dinner and at the dinner table he talked mostly of his regard for and closeness to Eduard Shevardnadze who had already organized elections to the Georgian parliament and for the Georgian presidency. For Aslan Abbasidze, democratic freedoms had to have clear and narrowly defined limits. He described with some glee how he had brought to heel two of his political opponents and ensured their silence through blackmail or direct threats. He favoured order, stability and progress, he said. He interrupted his political discourse when he learnt that my wife was off meat and fish to ask if she took eggs. When she said she did he said he had a special recipe for cooking fried eggs and disappeared into the kitchen. My wife had fried eggs personally cooked and served by the President of the Ajarian Republic. He engaged in a great deal of banter about his wife. His children came in and went out at different points at that dinner. Other than his general scorn for the niceties of democracy, the conversation was about family matters when toasts were not being proposed and the atmosphere was one of levity, as we had no serious business to discuss.
Georgia, thus fragmented, was also riven by political rivalries and contending mafias in the immediate post-Soviet era. Order was restored after the return of and under the firm guidance of Eduard Shevardnadze, long time head of the KGB and of the Communist Party of the Soviet Republic of Georgia and the last foreign minister of the USSR. Till his victory at the Presidential election in the autumn of 1995 under the new Georgian constitution, he styled himself Head of State. That is the capacity in which he received my credential letters. In the usual conversation after the formal presentation of the letter, I asked him how he saw the situation in the region. He said that Trans-Caucasia lay on a major East-West and North-South transport corridor. There would be no peace in the region until it became clear who controlled it. Though he did not in so many words say so, I understood him to talk about rivalry for influence in the region between Russia and the West.
In actual fact the transportation of hydrocarbon resources to the West from Azerbaijan and further afield in Kazakhstan and of other goods across Trans-Caucasia had become an important concern of a number of Western agencies including the European Commission. Feasibility studies for rail and truck ferries between the Georgian ports of Poti and Batumi and Odessa-Illychevsk in Ukraine and Varna in Bulgaria were being promoted. Different consortia of oil companies were talking about and exploring the possibilities of building pipelines connecting Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to Western markets either through Russian territory or bypassing Russia. Russia and Russian oil companies favoured pipelines from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan connecting with the main pipelines from Russia to West Europe or going to the Russian Black Sea port of Novo Rossisk. Many US companies favoured pipelines connecting Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. For this pipeline Armenia ruled itself out because of its dispute with Azerbaijan. The Georgians were keenly interested in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline passing through their territory in part because of the revenue the pipeline would bring to them but in part also because they calculated that a pipeline built and owned by Western companies passing through their territory would create a Western stake in peace and stability in the country. They would have to wait another five years before work on this pipeline started.
Shevardnadze’s government was to a certain extent already engaged in balancing Russian power and influence against Western interests. While there were Russian troops stationed in two garrisons in Georgia, there was a large joint exercise with the US air force, navy and marines organized in 1996. Georgia needed Russian help not only in dealing with the Abkhazian secession but also in numerous other ways including trade in goods and services. But they cultivated good relations with Turkey, the European Union and the USA in pursuit of economic assistance, badly needed investment and guarantees of their independence from Russia. They were actively opposed to any effort by Russia to re-build its influence and power in the former Soviet republics. The Georgian ambassador in Kyiv must have told me half a dozen times that the Georgians were keenly interested in the consolidation of Ukrainian independence as that was one of the surest guarantees that the Soviet Union would never be reconstituted in whatever form.
Assertion of nationalism rooted in history and tradition—howsoever refashioned and reinvented—was a necessary prop in the reinforcement of the independence and sovereignty of these newly emerged states. Turning to an older sense of nationhood was the least problematic for Armenia. Levon Ter Petrossian, its first President, a scholar of history, had not only not been a communist but also had not belonged to the Soviet power structure. Armenians dispersed around the world and the unbroken tradition of Armenian Christianity had kept that old sense of nationhood alive. The uprising by the Armenians of Karabakh in 1987 when Soviet power still looked unshakable was to a large extent a reassertion of that sense.
Georgia had to reinvent its nationhood. In that process the Georgian leadership turned to Christianity.Some time before the Presidential election of 1995, Eduard Shevardnadze was baptized in the Georgian Orthodox Church. After his election he was inaugurated as the President of Georgia in daylong ceremonies. On a freezing December morning, icy wind penetrating the bones through layers of wool, we stood in open air in the main square of Tbilisi. Eduard Shevardnadze standing slightly higher than street level on the steps of the massive Soviet style parliament building, head uncovered, wispy white hair blown by the wind, took his oath as President of Georgia. The Catholicos of the Georgian Orthodox Church dressed in full regalia of his office, standing next to him, read a passage from the Bible and pronounced his blessings.
In the afternoon, the scene shifted to M’tskheta, the seat of old kings of Georgia, some thirty kilometres north of Tblisi. In the ancient cathedral at M’tskheta where many members of the old Georgian royal family had been buried, the Catholicos performed a religious service to mark Shevardnadze’s inauguration. The newly elected President and his wife sat in high backed chairs on one side next to the altar. Illiterate both in the liturgy of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and in the Georgian language, I could not grasp the meaning of the religious service, but the function at the cathedral recalled for me imagined scenes of coronation of kings in Western Christendom in the middle ages. I wished I could enter the mind of the President to understand how he, who for thirty years or so, before moving to Moscow to become the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, had been by turns the head of the Georgian KGB and the head of the Georgian Communist Party, felt about this new attachment to Christianity. His conversion could well have been out of conviction. He could equally have been putting up an appearance for the sake of political advantage. If the former, the conversion could not have been more opportune.
It seemed that Shevardnadze and his people were completely absorbed in the politics of order, stability and the construction of a new state, to the exclusion of serious interest in the economy. Industrial production had almost collapsed due to the disruptions brought about by the break up of the Soviet Union. During my first visit to Tblisi in mid-1995 I heard people talk about terrible winters one or two years earlier. By 1995, the situation had improved a little but even in the capital, households without electricity during most of the daylight hours were the norm. Outside the reasonably good Austrian managed hotel where we stayed, even on a short walk into town it was impossible not to notice visible signs of poverty in the appearance of houses, in the emaciated grey faces of people in shops or walking on streets. In the ensuing two years, I did not see any improvement.
In comparison, changes for the better in Yerevan in the same period were striking. On our first visit in June 1995, the flight of the Armenian Airlines, which was to leave Kyiv at two in the afternoon, left around midnight. Such delays were frequent and were caused as much by mechanical problems in the aging Illyushins as by the need each time to negotiate with airport authorities part payment of dues for fuel and other services. The streets even in the centre of the city where Hotel Armenia, our usual place of stay, was located were unlit at night. In the ensuing two years the Armenians recommissioned a nuclear power plant which had been shut down as a precautionary measure after an earthquake in 1988. There was visibly more electricity in Yerevan by 1996. Some new banks with smart offices and shops and restaurants had opened. And the Armenian Airlines having acquired some Boeing 737’s and Airbuses had become perfectly reliable at least on the Kyiv-Yerevan sector. I had occasion once to see the difference between Georgia and Armenia on a road journey from Tblisi to Yerevan. The Armenians were doing better.
UNLIKE GEORGIA AND ARMENIA, Ukraine had never been home to a distinct people who could define themselves by reference to their language, religion or history. With the exception of three or four years after the fall of the Tsarist régime of Russia there never had been a Ukrainian state. The territory of the modern Ukrainian state had been the stamping ground of Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Turks and even Scythians in antiquity as their empires waxed and waned through the numerous armed conflicts of Europe. Practically all of central, eastern and southern Ukraine had been fully integrated into the Russian empire under Catherine the Great and her successors. Much of western Ukraine had changed hands between a variety of rulers until, as a result of the Soviet-German treaty of 1939, it became part of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. As the Russian Ambassador in Kyiv in 1996 told me, an entire tract of Ukrainian territory in Trans-Carpathia, previously Hungarian, Czechoslovak or Rumanian, was simply annexed to Ukraine by the Red Army in its westward advance at the end of the Second World War without so much as a by your leave to anyone. There was no basis for this being part of Ukrainian territory other than that it had been in unchallenged Ukrainian possession since 1945. Crimea was simply detached from the RSFSR and ‘gifted’ by Khrushchev to Ukraine in 1954—after all he was doing no more than redraw the boundary between two regions of the same state.
People who took over control of the independent Ukrainian state in December 1991 and those who succeeded them were full and important members of the Soviet power structure. Leonid Kravchuk, the President of the country in 1991-94 had been head of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Leonid Kuchma, one of Kravchuk’s Prime Ministers and later his successor as President had been the director of the most important missile making factory of the SovietUnion, Pivdenmash in DnieproPetrovsk.Yevgen Marchuk, one of Leonid Kuchma’s Prime Ministers had been head of the KGB in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. They and others like them had shed communist ideology and loyalty to the Soviet state to become Ukrainian nationalists and democrats with the same ease with which people change clothes. They had taken up the enterprise of inventing and crafting a new Ukrainian nationalism and a new Ukrainian state. In this they made no use of religion. Unlike the cases of Armenia and Georgia, in Ukraine, no religious ceremonies were performed at state functions.
That nationalism came to be defined by the territory of Ukraine within the boundaries that had been drawn by the Soviet state and by the Ukrainian language. Maintaining the boundaries of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine was so basic that Crimea became the cause of frequent tensions with Russia. Many important Russian politicians, among them the Mayor of Moscow, pointed out that the overwhelming majority of people there were Russian. Besides, Russia was determined to keep control of Sevastopol Bay, the home of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian navy. In 1997 this dispute was resolved by Russia recognizing Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea and Ukraine ceding control over the Bay to the Russian navy on a long-term lease, rent for the Bay being initially offset by Ukrainian energy debts to Russia.
The importance of language meant not only building up but also refashioning of the personaqlities of three poets: Taras Shevchenko, Ivano Franko and Lesia Ukraina who were all placed on the same level as the 17 th century Cossack chieftain and warrior, Bogdan Khmelintsky the supposed hero of Ukrainian independence. After the adoption of the new constitution in 1996 which recognized Ukrainian as the only official language of the country, there was systematic ukrainisation of personal and place names. Thus Kiev became Kyiv, Kharkov Kharkiv, Lvov Lviv, Krivoy Rog Kriviy Rih, Nikola Mykola and so on. The substitution of the Ukrainian language for Russian was more serious than merely the change in personal or place names. The enthusiasm of Ukrainian nationalists for their language was not dampened by discontent in Eastern Ukraine that Russian had not been given the same status as Ukrainian.
There were two occasions when I witnessed the passion of Ukrainian language loyalists. One was when I had gone to see Oleksandr Moroz, leader of the Ukrainian Socialist Party and Speaker of Parliament. I had taken a Russian-speaking member of my staff to act as interpreter, there being no one to do Ukrainian-English interpretation. After my preliminary remarks had been translated into Russian, the interpreter simply did not understand all that Moroz said in Ukrainian in response. Moroz then turned to this person to tell her how disappointed he was that she, a Ukrainian, could not understand the language. A visibly upset Moroz then resumed his conversation with me in Russian, which he clearly spoke fluently but would have preferred not to in a conversation with an ambassador. It is not what he said that I remember but his anger and irritation.
The second occasion was at my house. Victor Batiuk who had been the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada and who earlier as a Soviet and a Ukrainian diplomat had visited Kolkata, came and met me one day saying he had translated much of Rabindranath Tagore’s work into Ukrainian. He wanted my help in publishing his translation. I tried and failed to interest the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. The commercial officer of my embassy talked an Indian business group operating in Ukraine into financing the publication of one volume. A very happy Victor Batiuk told me he would straightaway start arranging the material to go into the first volume.
Before he could finish this work, he died in a road accident in the Carpathian Mountains. The day after his death his tearful daughter whom I had never met telephoned me to announce it and then said her mother was anxious about the Tagore book. After the funeral, at which my wife and I joined the mother and daughter, one of my colleagues who knew Russian but hardly any Ukrainian went through Batiuk’s papers and with the help of the family put together what was ready as finished manuscript for one volume. The family had persuaded Ivan Kuras, the Ukrainian Minister of Culture at that time to write the foreword in which Kuras gave some credit to me. After the publication, I organized a small reception at our house. I had asked Udovenko, the Foreign Minister, if he would come. He had said he would but in the end sent a Russian speaking Director General of his Ministry. I had invited some writers, poets and university people in addition to the Batiuk family. Mrs. Batiuk and I spoke briefly on the occasion. When the Foreign Ministry Director General spoke in Russian, there was commotion in the room as some of the people there insisted that the man spoke in Ukrainian. He did not know the language. This soon grew into a regular brawl. People had to be separated. I could not tell how genuine that passion for the Ukrainian language was. No considerations for the memory of Batiuk or the feelings of his widow could douse those passions. Or, possibly alcohol had stoked the fires of nationalism!
HAVING BEEN IN THE USA at the dissolution of the Soviet Union and having then and earlier been conditioned by Western, mainly English language, news media to which English knowing Indians living outside India are routinely exposed, I had imagined Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who indirectly or directly brought about the dissolution and the ‘liberation’ of the people, would be objects of popular veneration in Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia. It did not take long to understand that most people had derision for them and their ‘achievements’. Gorbachev was most frequently dismissed as the man who destroyed his country. Others derided some of his policies. Showing us around vineyards in Crimea, an official told us that many of them were new plantations as Gorbachev, driven by his anti-alcohol zeal, had ordered the destruction of the older, established vineyards. Talking about vineyards around Odessa someone there made almost the same remark. Apparently Gorbachev spared Armenian and Georgian wines. Destruction of Georgian vineyards would have been a disaster for the country, because wine is potentially one product an almost de-industrialized Georgia can make and export in large quantities.
We visited a factory in Nikolaev on the Black Sea, which made gas turbines. Our naval attaché had taken care of the arrangements. The Indian Navy, a major buyer of the turbines under the Soviet Union, continued to be an important customer. We were very well looked after. Having put us up at the factory guesthouse, the director spent a great deal of time with us during the one day and two nights we spent there. Over one meal the conversation turned to Gorbachev and the last few months of his rule. The director said in the most matter-of-fact manner that many important people had grown very rich in the Soviet Union. As the system weakened under Gorbachev, they rushed to launder and park their money outside. For this they manipulated Gorbachev during the last two years or so that he was in power. After their purpose had been served, they dropped him, leaving him to take care of himself as well as he could until in August 1991 he sank. The director did not answer me when I asked who such people were but said there were between thirty and forty in the entire Soviet Union.
There were other stories about people having used different means of self-enrichment. The Danish ambassador in Kyiv lived in a village 34 kilometres south of the city. One frozen winter Sunday afternoon, he took us on a walk through the village after we had lunched in the comfortable warmth of his house. He knew Russian and Ukrainian and evidently knew all his neighbours, for they would all exchange words with him as we passed them on the frozen streets. As we came upon the largest and the smartest house, our host told us that the owner was also the wealthiest. During the 1980’s he had been a trucker. His regular run was to Austria or Germany. He used to bring in consumer necessities such as cigarettes, alcohol, and perfumes on his return journeys.
An Indian businessman told me he had exported large quantitities of steel from Ukraine, which he said he had bought not from steelmakers but from the country’s strategic reserve. Replacement of old stocks with new or their replenishment were opportunities for people in power to add to their personal wealth. And then, discussing the prospects of different candidates at the June 1996 Presidential election in Russia, a Deputy Minister in the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me there was no question but that Boris Yeltsin would win because with Victor Chernomyrdin, the richest man in Russia then, supporting him Yeltsin could never be short of funds.
By the mid-1990’s both Russia and Ukraine had dozens of billionaires,—many of whom were said to be fast replacing Arab sheikhs in the casinos of Monte Carlo—con men and mafiosi. After Yeltsin finished as the President, there were newspaper reports about dishonest money transactions by members of his family. Pavel Lazarenko, Leonid Kuchma’s Prime Minster during most of my time in Kyiv later became a fugitive from Ukraine, accused of money laundering, fighting hard to keep out of jail. There were other people close to those in power constantly on the make. It was said that a close adviser of Leonid Kuchma, a businessman had arranged the official visit of the Vice President of Taiwan, going against the one China policy but in which there seemed to be private gain for important people.
Yeltsin did not seem to have done much better than Gorbachev in the eyes of people in the former Soviet Union. An opposition Ukrainian daily, discussing the conditions of living in contemporary Ukraine said contemptuously in one of its articles that in early December 1991, three drunken men meeting in Belovezhskaya had signed the death sentence of the Soviet Union. The reference was to the signature on December 8, 1991 by the Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus of the agreement establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States. When, in 1996, I asked a Deputy Minister in the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the future of the Commonwealth of Independent States, he dismissed it, saying if the centre were weak, the periphery would go away. The ‘centre’ at that time was Yeltsin’s Russia. Georgia was already showing in numerous ways its impatience with the continued presence of Russian troops on its territory. It was one country on the periphery rearing to go away.
There were not as many signs of visible poverty in Ukrainian towns as in Tblisi. In spite of the large debts Ukraine had incurred to Russia for its oil and natural gas purchases Kyiv city functioned normally. Electricity, water supply and public transport was ‘normal’ as were other public services. But signs of economic decline were all round. About the most vivid impression of economic decline I have, comes from a visit to a collective farm in Transcarpathia. The farm manager talked about present activities and plans for the future but also talked of the maintenance problems of the very large number of unused, idling and rusting tractors, harvesters, combines and other agricultural equipment, some of which looked no better than a mass of corroded metal. The farm buildings were untended and un-looked after.
Nearly all factories worked at half capacity or less. Some factory directors said during visits that they would be happy to let Indian companies use large unused shop floors in their factories if they wanted to set up their plants. Some had succeeded in attracting investors to establish plant and machinery to produce goods unrelated to the production line of the main factory, like the machine tool factory we visited near Uzhgorod in Transcarpathia where in one section a German investor had set up a plant for making cables for the electrical systems of different makes of German cars or the shipyard in Sevastopol on one of whose shop floors the machines were being used to make household cooking utensils.
It was a common sight to find people standing by the roadside offering to passing motorists sackfuls of sugar or piles of motorcar tubes and tires or other products. These were factory workers who had been paid their wages in kind. For some time in Kyiv we employed a cleaning woman who was an engineering graduate. Our consul general in Odessa had a caretaker in his house who doubled up as a gardener who had been a neuro-surgeon. Some Indian students in Ukrainian universities confidently bribed their way through final examinations to get them engineering, medical or other degrees. During a visit to Lviv the entire senior faculty of the medical college met us at their initiative. They wanted my help in getting fee-paying students from India.
People in Ukrainian government talked about privatization. In point of actual fact no more than small commercial establishments such as food shops, called ‘gastronom’ which sold different varieties of sausages, salami or ham and different varieties of pickled vegetables, and coffee shops or shops selling cloth had been privatized. As foreigners living in Kyiv we were not unhappy because many of these establishments had been replaced by modern, western style, more or less well stocked groceries, ready made garment shops, wine shops and perfumeries. Real big time privatization of industrial establishments was still some distance away. All the talk about privatization was aimed perhaps at the World Bank and the IMF. The economy trundled on at an ever-diminishing speed.
AFTER THE DISSOLUTION OF THE SOVIET UNION, the USA and the Russian Federation were anxious to see that parts of the Soviet nuclear arsenal located outside Russia were dismantled and the fissile material transferred to Russia. Under the Nunn-Lugar plan the USA was to give financial assistance for this purpose. Ukraine with a large number of nuclear-armed ICBM’s on was an object of special US attention. By the time we arrived in Kyiv this programme of dismantlement of nuclear missiles on Ukrainian territory had been completed. The last Ukrainian ICBM silo was blasted out of existence a few months after our arrival, in the presence of the US Defence Secreatary and the Ukrainian Defense Minister.
The Director of the Ukrainian Institute of Strategic Studies explained to me that cooperation in the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukraine had been a necessity, as the presence of those missiles on their territory the control over which was in Russian hands would still make them targets of a nuclear attack. The Ukrainians had made a virtue out of that necessity, he suggested—they relished US and western praise for having voluntarily given up their nuclear weapons. When in 1996, India refused to sign the now defunct Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, many Ukrainians from the Foreign Minister downwards delivered to me homilies. They all said that having voluntarily given up their nuclear weapons they could not countenance the possession of such weapons by others. That is why they were for the signature of the Treaty by all countries. To my counter-question whether in that case they would support universal nuclear disarmament, there was never an answer.
Negotiations over the elimination of nuclear weapons and their systems of delivery from Ukrainian territory were the backdrop to the creation of understandings between the new Ukrainian state and the USA. It was quite clear to anyone observing the scene in the former Soviet Union that the USA meant to establish itself as firmly as possible in all the republics without excessively upsetting Russia. Bill Clinton’s overnight visit to Kyiv in May 1995 on his way back from Russia was seen by the Ukrainians as a public affirmation of a US guarantee of Ukrainian independence at a time when the Ukrainians had begun to resent heavy handed Russian pressures. Ukrainian purchases of oil and natural gas from Russia on credit was one instrument of pressure. Clinton’s speech at the Kyiv State University was fashioned to reassure the Ukrainians that the USA had come a long distance from the 1990 speech of George Bush senior from the same platform when he had affirmed US support for the unity and integrity of the Soviet Union—for nationalist minded Ukrainians abroad and in Ukraine the Kyiv chicken speech. The Ukrainians were very happy with the Clinton visit, after which Kyiv became a favourite stopping place for US and Western statesmen.
In Kyiv one of the most frequently heard refrains was that Ukraine wanted to ‘return to Europe’. Ukrainians proclaimed,self-contentedly, that Ukraine was the third largest recipient of US economic assistance. When the eastward expansion of NATO became a certainty, some Ukrainians talked of becoming a part of NATO. In this they were encouraged by Western spokesmen, as for example by the British Defense Secretary who either on the eve of a visit to Kyiv or during a stop there said that NATO would expand to the borders of Russia. Yeltsin’s Russia, having in stages been obliged to give up its opposition to NATO expansion was seeking to gain a say in NATO policy. At around the time a NATO-Russian partnership agreement was on offer, the Ukrainians pursued a parallel Ukraine-NATO partnership agreement, broadly similar to the one with Russia. In the final stages of negotiations it became very important for the Ukrainians that their NATO agreement should precede Russia’s and they were jubilant when that happened. Likewise they were happy when Ukraine was admitted to the Council of Europe before Russia. Balancing the West and Russia in its foreign relations was fast becoming a set habit.
Over the years it would become clear that there were limits to this policy. The Ukrainian need and expectation of foreign capital for rehabilitating the country’s industry and agriculture was of such magnitude that it was going to be impossible for West Europe and the United States to meet it more than fractionally. Progress towards deregulation and privatization had been slow and halting. The country had a constitution but its working was characterized by frequent systemic blockages of which the most salient were perennial disputes between the parliament and the President. Since the promulgation of the constitution, the country was already on to its third prime minister—confirming me in my long held view that the French constitutional model with its two-headed executive branch was flawed.
I felt that sooner rather than later there would be mutual disappointment between the West and Ukraine. Besides, Russia’s shadow would always be over the country and that not only as a major creditor and a supplier of oil and gas. Progress of liberal democracy and market economy in Ukraine—another Western objective—did not seem certain. At a public function where the President was speaking in Ukrainian without any translation into a foreign language, I turned to my neighbour, a West European ambassador, who like me did not understand Ukrainian, and said I could not understand why the president and his men did not occasionally try political give and take with parliament. My neighbour said that Kuchma had been a factory director who only knew giving orders and having others carry them out. Kuchma has since then become even more impatient with parliament and his prime ministers. Another West European ambassador said to me on another occasion that he was not very optimistic about the future of Ukraine as an independent state. When I countered saying states once established developed their own life and did not easily disappear, he said they might continue to have a national flag, a national anthem, a president and a prime minister but not real political and economic independence.
MY WEST EUROPEAN FRIEND should have added church to his list of symbols of a state. Samuel Huntington of the Clash of Civilizations fame, describing the relationship between religion and state in different ‘civilizations’ says in one of his writings that in the world of Orthodox Christianity, God is Caesar’s junior partner. Even though there was no liturgical difference between the Orthodox Church in Ukraine and that in Russia, independent Ukraine soon established a Ukrainian Church with its own patriarch, perhaps to prove the point that the Ukrainian Caesar had to have his own junior partner. There were disputes within this church as became public knowledge when the Patriarch Velodymir of the Ukrainian Church—the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate—was severely beaten up in 1995. There were allegations and counter allegations about the assault having been organized by the Patriarch’s deputy, about who in this Church was a true nationalist and who a former collaborator of the KGB, about the involvement of Ukrainian government agencies in intra-Church intrigues and so forth. The Patriarch’s Ukrainianness was reaffirmed for posterity when after his death a few months later he was buried under the dome of the entrance gate of Kyiv’s St.Sophie’s Cathedral. His deputy succeeded him.
The position of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine was more complicated than that. The Moscow Patriarch did not recognize the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with the result that another Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, which continued its parallel existence after Ukrainian independence, commanded larger following, especially in the more populous east. An older, Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, founded at the time of the short-lived post tsarist independent Ukrainian state also survived. Its greatly reduced following was confined to Western Ukraine. The Autocephalous Church had probably many more followers among the Ukrainian émigré communities in the USA and Canada, most of whom were originally from Western Ukraine. It barely touched people’s awareness in the new Ukraine.
Lviv, built in stone, distinctly Western looking, is Catholic territory. When there, I met the Patriarch of the Greek Catholic Church. He had spent years in Soviet jails under Stalin and his successors. He talked of the domination over Ukraine by the Big Brother in the east and the Little Brother in the west. I asked him which between the two was worse. He said both were equally bad and went on to explain. As a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church—being over eighty he was no longer a voting member of the College of Cardinals—he owed obedience to the Pope in Rome but accepted neither the authority of the Roman Catholic hierarchy which in that region was all Polish—the Little Brother—nor their interference. He then talked of his relations with the Malabar Church in India just as the Catholicos of the Armenians had talked about them—I was to understand the full import of these remarks about relations with the Malabar Church later when I learnt that the Malabar Church founded by St. Thomas in the middle of the first century after Christ had a history of its own conflicts with the Roman Catholic hierarchy ever since the arrival of the Portuguese in India. The Patriarch had never been to India, but his Dean, like the Catholicos of the Armenians had and maintained contacts with the Malabar Church. As we left the Patriarch’s Residence, the Dean who saw us out showed us the Church in front and then pointed at a house from which Radio Liberty broadcast its programmes. Across the town, in the centre of Lviv, at the Roman Catholic Cathedral I met the Roman Catholic Bishop—the Archbishop was away. We sat round a table and had tea and cakes as we talked. He was Polish and the majority of priests in the archdiocese were Polish, he told us. I told him I had met the Patriarch of the Greek Catholics. He did not react.
Christian Ukraine’s relations with Jews and later with the State of Israel had been ambivalent. I mentioned Babi Yar to the ambassador of Israel. He said it was no accident that Babi Yar happened there on the outskirts of Kyiv. It was obviously important for Israel to ensure that anti-Semitism in Ukraine was kept in check. An important Israeli visitor to Ukraine was Nathan Scharansky, Minister in the Israeli government then and now. As a dissident who had been a prisoner in the Soviet Union he was treated like a star during his Ukrainian visit. Kuchma made an equally successful visit to Israeli. The Jewish Mayor of Odessa was very popular. Another Ukrainian Jewish politician who featured in every discussion of Ukraine’s relations with Israel was a former government minister who had been accused of embezzlement and who had been given asylum in Israel. At Uman, about half way on the road from Kyiv to Odessa, we were shown the Sophisky Park—a part formal garden and part jardin anglais built by a Polish count, who had owned practically all land in the area, as a gift to his wife—but no one said anything about jews. It was from Elie Wiesel’s book Sages and Dreamers which I read a little later that I learnt about the importance of Uman in the tradition of Hasidic Jews. From that book I also read about the Cossack warrior Bogdan Khmelintsky’s role in the decimation of Jews in Ukraine in the seventeenth century. A few months before we left Ukraine there were news reports about Uman readying itself to receive the large number of Hasidic Jews who were gathering there for an important celebration. I regretted not being able to go to Uman to see those festivities. I do not know if underneath the surface anti-semitism still runs deep.
BECAUSE OF THE RENOWN OF CRIMEA, we visited the peninsula twice. On the first occasion we spent most of our time in Sevastopol. About the first thing we were told about the city was that during the Second World War the whole city had been destroyed leaving only three buildings and one tree standing. There was on the edge of the plateau overlooking the Balaclava valley a memorial to the Second World War. But in Sevastopol, the locale of the Crimean War, a must for all visitors, including us was the Panorama. Here were depicted scenes from the Crimean War in skillfully arranged tableaux using many trompe l’oeille devices. A Frenchman in the service of the Tsars had created it towards the beginning of the twentieth century. After the Second World War the place had been extensively restored and renovated.
Not far from Sevastopol were the ruins of the ancient Greek settlement of Khersones, one of the five hundred on the Black Sea littoral that the researcher at Vani in Georgia had talked about. We were told that before us Indira Gandhi had been the last notable Indian visitor to the site and the museum. Juxtaposed to the Greek ruins there was a medieval church and the statue of St. Vladimir looking landwards, back towards the sea, preaching the Gospel. There were no memorials to any of the Tsars nor to Lenin. We took in, in one day, slices of the two-and-a-half- thousand-year history of Sevastopol.
Compared to the steppes of central and eastern Ukraine, the hilly Crimean landscape, with its distinct meridional air, is pretty. If I had a reason I would like to go back there. That reason presented itself when I received an invitation from the leader of Crimean Tatars to attend the opening session of a grand assembly they were organizing. As is evidenced by the town of Bakchisarai and the rococo palace of their Khan there, Crimea until the eighteenth century had belonged to the Tatars. The low point in their fortunes came when Stalin deported their entire population to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan towards the end of the Second World War.
The Ukrainian state was resettling them in Crimea. By 1996, some 200,000 of them had come back, mainly from Uzbekistan. An official in Sevastopol had explained to me that their resettlement posed problems of finding occupations for them. They had been an agrarian community before deportation. But now on return after so many decades their youth had neither the skills nor the appetite for agriculture and in the urban economy opportunities were limited. There was a political problem too. The Tatars were not content to have guaranties of their rights and their place in the political life of the autonomous Republic of Crimea. They wanted additional autonomy in running their affairs, a demand, which was not acceptable to Crimean authorities in Simferopol or Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv. As Indian ambassador to Ukraine I had no personal or official position on such questions. At Simferopol at the assembly of the Tatars we were warmly received. I was asked to go up to the stage and be acknowledged and give a message. I wished them happiness and prosperity in a united, democratic Ukraine and received loud applause, probably not for saying what I did but for being there. I did not pause to ask myself if my importance in their eyes lay in my being an ambassador or an Indian.
Yalta, our next stop, was beautifully located. Parts of the town bore a joyous, festive look. Neither Ukraine’s separation from Russia, nor the occasional tension between the two states stopped large numbers of Russian tourists going there. Lack of money and infrastructure prevented the expansion of tourism from elsewhere. At the entrance of Livadia Palace where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill discussed the post-Second World War dispensation and signed the Yalta Agreement, time seemed to have come to a stop in 1945. There was a large map showing the locations of major battles between the Red Army and Hitler’s forces as well as the westward advance of the Red Army. For the guide, who showed us around, there was only one view of the Soviet Union’s war against Hitler’s Germany. It was the Great Patiotic War—for her, the dissolution of the Soviet Union might well not have happened. The guide’s narration of the story of the last Tsars depicted in two first floor rooms was dead pan as was her description of Stalin’s great solicitude about the comfort and ease of his two western guests, particularly Roosevelt. Because of his physical disability Roosevelt and his close advisers were lodged at Livadia Palace, she made it a point to tell us, care being taken to ensure that Roosevelt’s bedroom was on the ground floor and that the meetings all took place not far from his suite and at the same level.
Churchill and his delegation stayed at Vorontsov Castle built in a style reminiscent of Anglo-Norman architecture by an anglophile Count Vorontsov in the middle of the nineteenth century. Stalin, our guide told us, wanted to lodge the British delegation in congenial surroundings. This recalled for me the two casks we were shown at the ‘Kognac Factory’ in Yerevan, which contained samples of the finest Armenian Brandy of which, we were told, Stalin used to send a consignment to Churchill every year.
The director of the Sevastopol Shipyard (literally the Sevastopol Sea Factory) showed us around at Sevastopol where we went from Yalta. He had taken us to the picturesque Balaclava Bay. On the return journey to Sevastopol he pointed at a non-descript, squat kind of obelisk, at some distance from the road, in the middle of fields. He said that at Yalta, Stalin had asked Churchill if there was anything in particular he would like to see. Churchill had said that a grand uncle of his had fought and died in the Crimean War. If a memorial had been built for him, Churchill would like to visit it. Stalin ordered that obelisk built almost overnight, with suitable words in the memory of Churchill’s granduncle inscribed on it. Churchill’ thus saw how his grand uncle had been honoured.
The Director took us to his shipyard where he showed us some ‘Kilo’ class submarines under repair and refitting and talked about the capacity of the shipyard to undertake similar jobs for Indian submarines of the same category—these submarines at that time were the staple of the submarine fleet of the Indian navy. He pointed at a large unfinished aircraft carrier the construction of which had started in the last years of the Soviet Union. There were no buyers for the carrier, not even the Russian navy. Government of India to which the carrier had been proposed was uninterested. He took us on a tour of Sevastopol Bay on his launch saying that was the longest and deepest inland stretch of sea anywhere in the world. On one shore of the Bay was the Russian Black Sea Fleet—scores of battleships berthed astern. On land he showed us a park, a school and a memorial arch his factory had constructed at the request of the city mayor during the bi-centennial celebrations of Sevastopol—a demonstration of the power and importance of directors of large Soviet industrial enterprises. The director of a factory employing say 30,000 people would have direct and indirect control over the lives of 200,000 people or more. One factory director in Kremenchuk in central Ukraine had described how different politicians sought his support at elections in post-Soviet Ukraine.
ODESSA , BUILT BY A FRENCHMAN, Duc de Richelieu, in the days of Catherine the Great, is a very attractive town. The Frenchman thought he would build it in the image of Paris but its architecture was more reminiscent of St.Petersburg. There was an Indian consul general there, which gave us reason enough to go there a number of times. For most people the most memorable site there is what are popularly known as Potemkin steps, wide steps descending from the bronze statue of Duc de Richelieu in the middle of a square almost to water level at Odessa port. In Eisenstein’s film, Battleship Potemkin, there is the celebrated scene in which an angry crowd in sympathy with the sailors on the battleship, descending those steps, is fired upon by Tsarist troops. I do not know why I felt disappointed when told during our first Odessa visit that that scene had been spun out of his imagination by the filmmaker.
I thought, as we came close to the end of our stay in Kyiv, that like Eisenstein’s scene on the steps of Odessa, the classless Utopia that the founders of the Soviet Union had set out to create was an illusion. It was a hopeless enterprise. Yet the achievements of the Soviet State were not altogether derisory: it guaranteed employment, health care and education to all its citizens, nurtured high quality science and technology, and its army destroyed Hitler’s forces. The welfare benefits were considerable enough for a large section of its citizens to have regretted that state’s disappearance for many years after it happened. Successor governments have, one decade and a half later, barely begun to deal with the poverty and misery that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. My acquaintance with three former Soviet Republics persuaded me that the image of a totalitarian Soviet state collapsing in the face of rising tides of people demanding freedom was also an illusion. The state vanished because the centre collapsed under the weight of economic and political mismanagement, corruption and venality, and because, like some of its leaders, it became afflicted with arterio-scelerosis.