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By ESPN Staff

From Baba Yaga to Rasputin: A to Z of Calcutta's Soviet Union connection

Moscow Olympics memorabilia from the author's collection.
Moscow Olympics memorabilia from the author's collection.

For anyone growing up in Calcutta in the 1970s and 80s, the Soviet Union was omnipresent. Communist red was the colour of the day, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin adorned the walls and Gorky, Tolstoy and Pushkin the bookshelves. As he prepares for his trip to Russia, Jayaditya Gupta unlocks a suitcase of memories and associations.

Aeroflot

My first encounter with Cyrillic, thanks to the large sign on Kolkata's Lower Circular Road. Pan Am, TWA, British Airways, KLM had the glam quotient but "Aepopvot" (as I used to pronounce it) had the mystique. Now, 40-odd years later, that mystique is set to be busted.

Baba Yaga

On the one hand there was Grimm, on the other Grimmer. Baba Yaga was the Russian folk character every Bengali child had read/heard of -- and was in mortal fear of. Deformed, ferocious and possibly supernatural. Made a fleeting -- but unforgettable -- appearance in my life.

Comrade/CPI

Every good Bengali or Malayali family had a Comrade, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of India (whether Marxist or not). Usually a bachelor (sometimes a spinster too), married to the party and giving away his/her family wealth for the greater good. Mine earned his stripes living with dock workers and later, as a senior party member, occupying a two-room flat in Delhi, having given his house to the CPI.

Dr Zhivago

Tl;dr. Was forced to watch it as a child, which never stirred in me the will to read it. Maybe it was endless repetition of Lara's Theme on the AIR Calcutta (and, much later, as newspaper headlines whenever Brian Lara was on song).

Ekaterinburg

Where the Czar and family were imprisoned, and later murdered. Morbid fascination for this as a child (not in keeping with my general preference for happier storylines). High on my agenda for the next month, though of course there's now a church where the massacre happened.

Faberge

Never seen an egg but who doesn't know about them? Created by St Petersburg's own Peter Carl Faberge. Also on the to-do list.

Every good Bengali family used to have a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of India (whether Marxist or not).
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is a personal hero of the author.

Gorbachev

Personal hero and, though Garry Kasparov has trashed his contributions, he remains a hero to me. Reading William Taubman's biography helped me understand what he went through.

Hammer and sickle

Every wall, every street corner, everywhere three people gathered and formed a political party. It could have been the plain symbol of the CPI but, more likely in Marxist-dominated Bengal, the version with a star. Delhi's graffito of choice was "Rishtey hi rishtey", an ad for a matrimonial service; in Calcutta it was a party of a different kind.

The Internationale

Written by a Frenchman (aren't the best revolutionary songs!) but adopted by the CPSU. Unforgettable memory: Watching from our rooftop as the funeral procession of one of the top CPM leaders went by. This was 1992, still peak Red Era. Thousands and thousands of cadres marched by, singing The Internationale. Quite spine-tingling.

(Uncle) Joe

Peering down benevolently from every party office and union room, his thick moustache hiding a track record that latter-day despots can only aspire to.

Korchnoi, Karpov, Kasparov

Spassky-Fischer was before my time but Korchnoi v Karpov, defector v national hero, played out on the sports pages of my youth. Later, it was Kasparov who took on the role of dissident, and did what Korchnoi couldn't do -- become world champion.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is a personal hero of the author.
Every good Bengali family used to have a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of India (whether Marxist or not).

Laika

The first animal to orbit the earth. A Moscow street dog, she was sent up on Sputnik 2 and died on board, possibly within hours. For us kids, she was right up there with Gagarin and Glenn.

Moscow

Specifically, the Olympics of 1980. Specifically, again, India's hockey gold, the last we won. Comrade uncle referred to above was present, and I remember him, on his return, talking in near-awe about Mohammad Shahid's dribbling skills.

Nehru Cup

Okay this is only tangentially about Russia/USSR (unless you identify Nehru with all things Soviet) but in the mid-1980s, India hosted some top football teams in the annual Nehru Cup, including Argentina's Jorge Burruchaga, Uruguay's Francescoli and the USSR keeper Rinat Dasayev. In fact USSR (or some variation of the national team) won the title for four straight years, 1985-88.

Olga (Korbut)

First heard of her just before the Montreal Olympics. Bad timing, because she was totally upstaged by Nadia Comaneci. But between 1972 and 1974, she ruled the world of gymnastics and became a synonym for the sport.

Perestroika

Siamese twin of Glasnost, part of Gorbachev's plan to reform the Soviet Union. The country did it for him by self-destructing.

In the 1980s, one came across stories and pictures of Moscow queues -- for food, for white goods, at hospitals. This photo shows customers outside the just-opened first McDonald's in the Soviet Union on January 31, 1990 at Moscow's Pushkin Square.
In the 1980s, one came across stories and pictures of Moscow queues -- for food, for white goods, at hospitals. This photo shows customers outside the just-opened first McDonald's in the Soviet Union on January 31, 1990 at Moscow's Pushkin Square.

Queues

You wouldn't get this from the left-leaning media (see below) but you did see stories and pictures of Moscow queues -- for food, for white goods, at hospitals. We think it's a British monopoly but the Russians seem to have handled it with as much humour. There's even an eponymous book by Vladimir Sorokin that looks at the absurdity of life in a queueing society.

Rasputin

Not the man, of course, the song by Boney M. A Caribbean foursome with a German producer singing a song about a Russian love machine that became a hit in India. Globalisation was alive and kicking in the 1970s. And now Freddie Flintoff has brought him back to life.

Sputnik

At the peak of the Cold War, children were the prime targets of the soft power wielded by both sides. The US had Time, Life and Archie; the USSR hit back with Sputnik. It was the Soviet version of Reader's Digest: affordable, beautifully printed and designed, and a treasure trove of information about life behind the Iron Curtain. Ours was not a Sputnik household but my friends devoured it, and still remember it vividly and fondly.

Tchaikovsky

Even if you are tone-deaf to western classical music, as I am, you can't escape your parents waxing over Swan Lake, Nutcracker and the 1812 Overture. My only personal link to the great composer is in the lyrics of another great composer -- "Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news".

Ukraine

Very much a part of the USSR, it could still assert its individual identity as when Dynamo Kiev supplied almost the entire USSR football team in the 1970s and, in 1975, gave the country its first European footballer of the year in Oleg Blokhin. Later, Ukraine hit our headlines for the wrong reasons when the Chernobyl disaster occurred.

Vasily Alexeev

I know very little about him. Actually, almost nothing apart from the fact that he was a champion weightlifter. But possibly the first sporting image imprinted on my mind, long before West Indian cricketers and Mohun Bagan footballers, was of a pudgy-faced man with an enormous belly, his face impossibly contorted as he lifts one of his 80 world records.

The Scorpions' 'Winds of Change' was about the perestroika taking place in the USSR.
The Scorpions' 'Winds of Change' was about the perestroika taking place in the USSR.

Winds of Change

There were bigger songs in the summer of 1991 -- U2, MJ, even Bryan Adams all had chart-topping songs. But The Scorpions captured the zeitgeist with their song -- lyrics including the Moskva river and Gorky Park -- about the perestroika taking place back in the USSR. By sheer coincidence, there was a coup attempt on Gorbachev's presidency at that very time.

(Lev) Yashin

Arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time, had cult status in India. He was part of the Russian team that toured the country in 1955; the team played 19 matches and won all, conceded three goals (none by Yashin). That was a bit before my time but I can recall the buzz when he came in 1973, to attend the IFA Shield final and give away the trophies.

(Vasily) Zaytsev

AKA the hero of The Battle of Stalingrad. Killed 225 German soldiers in five freezing weeks during the battle in 1942. A recent discovery, thanks to Enemy at the Gates, but the battle itself, and the role of General Winter, is something all schoolkids know.

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