Life in the USSR

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Cmde Arun Kumar (Retd)
Cmde Arun Kumar (Retd)
Cmde Arun Kumar is the Author of the book S71 INS Chakra - The Pioneer and her men. He graduated from the National Defence Academy in Dec 1971 and was joined the Navy in 1973. He joined the submarine arm in 1975. He was part of the commissioning crew of India's first nuclear submarine INS Chakra. He served on Chakra as the operations officer and later the executive officer. He has held many important land and sea-based positions of the Indian Navy. He also graduated from Defence Services Staff College and Naval Higher Command Courses with distinction. His last appointment was Principal Director Submarine Acquisition (PDSMAQ) at the NHQ. He was decorated twice by the President of India with Nausena Medal and Ati Vishisht Seva Medal.

As a child, I was subject to a lot of talk about the Soviet Union from my father, a great scholar and an erudite person. He truly believed and not misplaced that the world was rescued from Hitler’s predators by the Red Army led by Joseph Stalin. However one may judge Stalin for his gulags and purges, there is no denying the fact that the war against the Third Reich was won by the Red Army with the battle of Stalingrad’ proving the turning point of World War II or the ‘Great Patriotic War’ as referred to in the Soviet Union. Therefore, at the back of my mind, there was always a curiosity and fascination for the Soviet Union. This got further reinforced with the visit of Uri Gagarin, the first man in space, to New Delhi in 1964 who was toasted in the National Stadium by none other than the Indian Prime Minister Mr Jawharlal Nehru. As a young boy 12 years in age attending that function, I was sort of mesmerized by that visit. One would also hear great things about the socialist system in the Soviet Union and how the people were part of the system and making great progress.  It, therefore, remained a goal for me to visit the country when the opportunity presented itself. After graduating from Modern School, New Delhi, I joined the National Defence Academy (NDA) with the Forty-First Course in Jan 1969. After one passed the preliminary Hindi test in the second term, one could opt for a foreign language. Being a naval cadet and given my interest in USSR, I naturally opted for Russian but was extremely disappointed on being allotted Chinese. I did represent against the decision but to no avail. In the third term at NDA, as part of Military History, I did a project study of Korean War and once again was quite influenced by the significant role USSR played in it. I resolved that come what may, a visit to the Soviet Union was a must. Little did I know that not only would I get to visit the country but get the opportunity to live for a reasonable length of time there?

My first visit to the USSR was in Sep 1980. I was the Navigating Officer onboard INS Vela which had left Bombay in mid-July for Vladivostok (VV), where she was to be based for the next two years to undergo a medium refit. We reached VV on 01 Sepand were berthed in the ‘Dalzavod’ short for Far Eastern Dockyard. Only five officers (CO, XO, EO, LO and a Correspondence officer) and 15 sailors were to stay back for the entire period of the refit and the rest were to return to India after a stay of two weeks to enable proper handing over the boat for the refit. When we had sailed out of Bombay, our visas had not been ready and we were told that the same would be given on arrival at VV. We were secured alongside a depot ship or ‘PKZ’ as called in Russian. Our boarding and lodging were on board PKZ. The first evening was spent on board for reception by the refit and the liaison team. Our Liaison officer was a Senior Lieutenant Vladimir Galitskiyfrom, the Soviet Navy. 

Since our stay was to be short, we were keen to go on shore leave from the next day but were told that we could not since we did not have a visa for which we needed to be photographed first and only then would the visa be processed. It seemed logical and we asked Galitskiy to get on with it. The second evening also was spent on the PKZ drinking away our disappointment at not being able to step ashore. The refit office was next to the PKZ and the staff included a few pretty women. In the day I thought of using the opportunity to interact with them but one was surprised to learn that they spoke only Russian. Fortunately, one among them had an interpreter’s course and that came as a relief. I stuck a conversation and exchanged notes on the city and life there in general. However, the realization got home that knowledge of the Russian language was a must for one to get around. Fortunately, we had a Submarine qualified doctor among us who had done his marine medicine in Leningrad and he acted as our go-between.

Indian navy submarine crew in USSR
Cmde Arun Kumar( in the left) in USSR.

The next day the passage crew waited with bated breath for the Liaison officer and the photographer to arrive. Dame Fortune was not smiling upon us as Galitskiy told us that the photographer could not come on board the PKZ as being a civilian, he did not have the ‘Propusk’ or the security pass to come into the restricted area. It was a typical ‘Catch 22’ situation wherein we could not go out because we did not have a visa and the photographer to take our picture for the visa could not come on board because he did not have a security pass. No amount of persuasion or cajoling Galitskiy would help. It felt really frustrating. “Welcome to the Soviet Union, where the bureaucracy excels in the art of making simple issues complicated”. So, the third evening was also spent on board the PKZ drowning our sorrows in vodka. That evening all of us, the passage crew, decided that enough was enough and marched up to the Captain to implore him to forcefully take up the issue with the fleet headquarters. Next morning when Galitskiy came he was greeted with some cross faces and was also introduced to some profane words from the English & Punjabi language. He vanished soon thereafter and came back in the evening to say that the photographer would come the next day, but from that evening onwards we could go ashore on our passports, a solution we had suggested on the first day itself.  Anyhow, as events turned out we all went out that evening and saw the sites of Vladivostok. Our PKZ was berthed close to the city centre and most places were at a walking distance. The tram stop was also close by and one could get to a far off destination by it. It would stop service by midnight. The next few days till we left VV on our return journey to India, we were able to see the city which was a typical port city but closed one being a garrison city. Apart from us, there were no foreigners and even for Soviet citizens, one needed an entry permit. A typical evening would be to go to a bar cum restaurant where one could also dance. Finding partners was no issue. The number of women far outnumbered men and being Indians we were respected a lot. Instead of asking a lady for a dance, the women would themselves approach and drag you to the dance floor. The restaurants would close by 2300 h. Needless to say that apart from the first three days when we were confined to the PKZ, we had fun. We flew out of VV on the 11th of Sep and were given our Visa only on the penultimate day. We had a break of three days in Moscow as the Air India flight used to operate only twice a week to Delhi and Bombay. The three days in Moscow were spent in sightseeing. I could not see the Mausoleum of Lenin at Red Square where his body embalmed was kept as the queue was too long. Doc Kulkarni told that it was a good omen. It was believed that if one saw Lenin then his chances of coming back to the Soviet Union were dim but if one hadn’t seen him then he was sure to come back. As it turned out, I was destined to return and that happened three years later in Sep 1983.

My next tryst with the Soviet Union started on 30 Sep 1983 when I again landed in Vladivostok as part of the naval detachment which had arrived there to receive training on to operate a ‘nuclear powered’ submarine. There were 60 officers and 142 sailors in the detachment which was headed by Cmde. S. Daniel. There were eight bachelor officers and 52 married officers with families. The Sailors and the bachelors were accommodated in a hostel close to the training centre and the married officers with families were accommodated in a twelve storied building about 20 km from the training centre. Our stay was to be for 30 months which included 18 months of theoretical and 12 months of practical training on a nuclear-powered submarine. In this article, it is not my intention to highlight aspects of the training but to bring out the nuances of life in the Soviet Union. Just a brief mention that our group was very fortunate to have received the finest training any IN group would have received in the Soviet Union.

In the building, we had seven flats on each floor consisting of two x three-roomed (Hall, 2x BR and a Kitchen with a sanitation section), two x two-roomed flats (Hall, 1 x BR, kitchen and a sanitation section) and three x studio flats. The first, sixth and the twelfth floor were occupied by the Soviet specialists from the training centre. Our flat allocation was done in a combination of Soviet and Indian Naval norms. In the Soviet norms, the size of the family decided the type of the flat that would be entitled to a person irrespective of rank, whereas in our case Rank did play a role. So, a midway was chosen. Rank would take priority and within the same rank, the larger family would be allotted a larger flat. This worked very well for our entire stay till April 1986. The Apartments were furnished and centrally heated as per the Soviet Standards. Unlike in Europe where most of the apartments use electrical energy to heat the flats in the winters, in the Soviet Union, the houses were heated by hot water flowing through ‘Batterika’ a heat exchanger fitted in each room. The hot water circulated would come from the central power generation station of the region. The exhaust gases from the power station would heat the water which was transported across the city in large diameter insulated pipes above and under the ground depending on the lay of the land and access. In addition in Vladivostok, since the winds were always strong, the frames of the windows in each flat were sealed with cotton and sticking tapes. Only one half-window in the kitchen would be left untouched to permit the airing of the flat once a week. In summer months the heating would be turned off for maintenance. I must say that during our entire stay the heating was found to be very effective. The indoor temperature was maintained around +23C irrespective of the outside temperature which would, at times, go to 30C below zero. The winter clothing that was issued to us in India was not adequate for those temperatures and the entire detachment was issued with winter clothing customized to each size. For the families, we had to buy from the local market.

Indian Navy submariner life in Soviet Union
Cmde Arun Kumar (Retd) (right) with Mrs Tripta Jerath (in saree, wife of Commodore V Jerath, VrC, Naval Attache, Moscow who christened INS Chakra) and other Indian Navy officers.

Our families had carried a lot of spices and grocery from India as advised by the detachment team enough to last till the time our container from India arrived to set up a Canteen and victualling store. This ensured that Indian dry foodstuff was available to us throughout our stay. The fresh provisions could be bought from the market and a special shop set up for us in our training centre. This would be mainly dairy and confectionery products. Availability of fruits and green vegetables was a rarity, especially in winters. One had to resort to canned and preserved stuff mostly. In summer months these did make an appearance in the market but mainly in the ‘Rinoks’ or bazaars but rarely in the departmental stores. One would always carry a cotton knit bag in one’s pocket as one never knew when he/she would have to stand in a queue to buy bananas, pears, potatoes, tomatoes etc. A minimum buy would be of five kg or more as one was not sure of the next opportunity when these would be available. Quite often one would join a queue not knowing what it was for?

To get around, knowledge of the Russian language was a must. We were formally taught the language as part of our training for the first four months. The ladies had to learn it through interaction with the sales girls, though in our detachment we did organize some classes initially for our ladies. School going children went to the local schools where the medium of instructions was only Russian. However, children pick up the languages very fast and this also helped their mothers.  The toddlers and little grown-ups used to go to Kindergarten or ‘Detski Sad’. They would be looked after there like flowers. These were more like playschools where learning was not structured as in classrooms. After classes, they would be fed lunch and tucked in for an afternoon siesta till their parents came to fetch them in the evening. All the children in our detachment had a great time and still remember, the wonderful time spent in ‘Deski sads’. Children in the Soviet Union were considered as a state treasure and were really well looked after and taken care of. Further, if a parent or a guardian accompanied a child, then there were no queues for him. He was entitled to jump the queue. In buses and trams, seats would be vacated for them. The best way to learn the language was ‘To sleep with the dictionary, tucked in one’s arms’.

The Indian ladies were a hit in Vladivostok. The local folks were fascinated by the Sari and the bindi that our ladies would wear. Their grace and beauty were very well appreciated by the locals. It was not uncommon for local ladies to accost an Indian lady and offer gifts and souvenirs even by a stranger. The locals were very friendly and warm. I remember initially, some of our ladies were even offered warm clothing as the locals felt that what we wore was not adequate. However, dealing with the bureaucracy was a real experience mostly unpleasant. The same person when not acting in his official capacity would deal very warmly and friendly but the moment it came to official matters, he would turn into a cold unknown face. I guess the Soviet System was such. The local people, as a rule, were very friendly and warm hosts. While visiting, they would never come empty-handed but always carried a gift. Greetings were always with a warm hug. They would invariably remove their shoes at the door. This was necessary particularly in winters as the snow sticking to the boots would melt inside the house thus sullying the place. So, they were removed and left at the door. Slippers or ‘Tapachkis’ as they are called would be given by the host for them to wear. Ladies going to a show or a restaurant would carry shoes for indoors in their bags.  

Cultural programmes and shows were a great attraction, in particular the ballets. Going to attend one was a rather formal occasion with folks dressing in their best. The quality of the performances, of the artists, in the ballets and operas, was top class. We used to get Indian movies in Vladivostok dubbed in Russian. No sub-titles but dubbed meant that the actor would appear speaking in Russia and it was very difficult to detect that dubbing had been done whose quality was so good. Only the songs would be left untouched with dubbing. Raj Kapoor and Mithun Chakroborty were the most popular among the Indian actors. The former was an icon. Mithun became hugely popular with his image as a disco dancer. It is said that Raj Kapoor required no visa to enter USSR.

Go to any part of the world. One would invariably come across a Sardar. In my book, they are the most enterprising and hardworking folks. We had a few in our crew and it was no surprise that they were very popular in the city with the local folks and very enterprising. If one was stuck facing a problem, a Singh would always come to the rescue. An anecdote will better illustrate this aspect.

We were in Vladivostok again in 1987 for commissioning of the first ‘nuclear powered’ submarine INS Chakra. From the original proposed date of 25 Oct 1987, it had been postponed to be in early Jan 1988 for reasons beyond our control. This got us thinking of how to observe the New Year’s Eve as originally it was not in our plans. One fine morning, prior to Christmas, Cmde. Ganesh, our Captain designate (He would revert to Captain from the commissioning date) asked me “No 1, how are you planning to celebrate the New Year’s Eve? We would need Champagne in good quantity”. I acknowledged and said that I would arrange for the ‘bubbly’. In the lunch break, I approached Galitskiy, our Liaison Officer (Co-incidentally the same one who was our L.O on Vela three years ago)  and asked him to arrange Champagne for us. He shrugged and said “You know that Gorbachev has made the purchase of alcohol so difficult. There is prohibition virtually everywhere. How will I get you Champagne?” I implored him to try his best and invoked our friendship of so many years. But he just expressed his inability. As luck would have it, Paramjit Singh POME (Our man Jeeves) walked across the corridor in ZBK (Our hostel as this time the crew was without families), where we were standing. I called him and asked in Punjabi “Paramjit Champagne chaidi hai?” “Paramjit we need Champagne”. He immediately asked “Kinni chaidi hai? (How much do you need)” I did a quick mental calculation and said that we needed at least 60 (five cartons of 12 bottles each). His response was typical. He said, “No problem, just ask Galitskiy to give me his jeep (Y’azik) and I will be back with the stuff in an hour”. I conveyed his request to Galitskiy, who readily agreed and added “Please ask him to get two cartons for me too”. Paramjit collected the cash from me and true to his word was back in an hour with 10 cartons of “Russkoe Champanskoe” (Russian Champagne). There are many more such anecdotes but space constraints me. To my mind, Sikhs are the most enterprising and resourceful folks anywhere in the world. Singh is King.

A typical day for us began with an early rise at 0600 h. In each flat in the kitchen, there used to be a radio speaker which would be plugged into the audio socket. The national anthem would play exactly at this hour which would be followed by the weather report for the day. In India, it is of no major consequence but in the Soviet Union, the weather report was very important because it prompted us to dress accordingly. There was another cue to prompt. One had to just look outside the kitchen window and see how the locals were dressed and that indicated as to how one should clad. During the day the speaker would play music and news at regular intervals. This was standard equipment for all apartments.

Our sailors were without families in Vladivostok, but I dare say that very soon almost all had found a local family to spend their free time with. Some made girlfriends whilst others made just friends for company. In Soviet Culture, the physical relationship was an important biological need and they were not prudish about it. Another anecdote best highlights this. Once in our Sonar class, the Instructor, a Captain 1st Rank, asked me if I was married. On getting an affirmative reply, he further queried if my wife was in town. I said that she was. He was quite intrigued and asked me that in such a case why was I wearing a ring on my third finger in the left hand? I replied “In our culture, the right hand is the working hand and therefore a ring would hinder the work. Secondly, the left hand is closer to the heart.” He sounded amused and replied, “In our culture, the wedding ring is worn on the third finger of the right hand. It is transferred to the left hand on the corresponding finger only if one is divorced or the spouse is not in town”. Sounds funny! Well, that is how it was in their society.

Another significant day which is marked with pomp and ceremony is the International Women’s Day falling on 08 March each year. On this day the women are not supposed to cook or work. Their husbands/partners are to cook for them and pamper them with flowers, gifts and affection. The truth is that a day prior, the ladies themselves make delicacies, which are then served by the men on the women’s day. Whilst on the subject of women, let me throw some light on Maternity hospitals. There were five of them in Vladivostok, one for each of the five regions. My son Alyosha (Now deceased) was born there on 10 Dec in the ‘Roddom No. 3’ or the Maternity Hospital No. 3. After the child’s birth, the mothers are kept in isolation dormitories. Even husbands are not allowed to see them. What is done is that the husbands would bring gifts/homecooked food below the window of the ward and the couple could chat from the window. Ropes were used to lift up the gifts/foodstuff. The infants were kept in a separate nursery and not with the mother. They were brought for their feed to the mother at the specified times. All this would be done to prevent any infections. Of course, such procedures are not in vogue these times. At the time of the discharge, the infants would be wrapped up in blankets tied with a red ribbon for a girl and a blue one if a boy.

Weddings were another event, which had some specified procedures. Being a Communist State there were no church weddings. All weddings would be solemnized at the registrar’s office. First-time weddings were solemnized on Saturdays and second-time ones on Sundays. There were no weddings on weekdays. After the registration, the couple would visit the monument to the unknown soldier to pay their respects and seek their blessings. The receptions would usually be held in restaurants. The most significant feature in such receptions was when the couple would be asked to kiss. Al guests would shout “Gorko” which means bitter in Russian. The idea was to urge the couple to keep kissing until it turned sweet. Symbolism!  Weekend weddings also allowed more guests to attend.

Drinking was a phenomenon in USSR and is still so in Russia. Toasts are raised and drunk for various facets, people, wishes etc. on every occasion. The Hindi saying “Peene walon ko bahana chahyiye” (for drinkers just a reason is enough) is par for the course in Russia. The first toast is always to the flag of the country and one’s health. The second is to the beautiful women; wives and mistresses and that the twain shall never meet, third is always “To those at sea” or ‘to those not with us’, the fourth is for “In all years and centuries, fourth is for men” and so on so forth. However, the most important one is ‘To health’. An interesting anecdote sums this up very well. Mates of a Course; Admirals and Field Marshals had assembled for an evening to drink, eat and make merry. As the evening started the first toast proposed was to each one’s health. The second one followed suit. At this the ADC of a Field Marshal approached him and said “Mr Marshal, why is it that you all are toasting only to health when there are so many other propositions such as beauty, love, fortune, luck, prosperity etc.” He was told to shut up and sit down and so he did. As the evening wore on more toasts to health were drunk and when everyone was nice and in high spirits at the end of the evening, they broke up to leave. On the way home in the car, the ADC mustered courage and again asked his earlier question. The Marshal replied “Well you are a young man so you may not understand. You see last night I was with a very beautiful, sexy, voluptuous and a desirable woman. I was extremely fortunate, only my health did not rise to the occasion.”

Mr Mikahil Sergeivich Gorbachev had started a campaign against alcohol as part of his famous twin-pronged policy of ‘Perestroika and glasnost’. It was very amusing to all of us who had spent enough time in the Soviet Union to note that it would not work. In Jul 1985, whilst awaiting our bus to return home at the training centre, our detachment XO Cdr. (Late) MP Bopaiya asked the head of Navigation department of the training centre, who used to live in the same building as us, “Valerie Ivanovich, how do you think this will succeed?” His reply “Never and in no way”. He went on to explain. “Look at this electric pole and the isolating china cup on it. Only this entity in USSR does not drink; not because it does not want to but it cannot because it is upside down”. So much, for the anticipated success of Gorbachev’s perestroika.

The soviet folks were an adventurous lot. They enjoyed going on treks, skiing, mushroom picking in the forest in summers or simply raking up a barbeque. However, the most fascinating past time was fishing in winter through the frozen sea/rivers. They would adequately clad themselves and carry the fishing tackles, a bottle of c, Pivo (Beer) and Ribka (Smoked fish). They would bore through the ice lower their tackle through it and sit down on a foldable stool and start with vodka and beer. The smoked fish would serve as the ‘Zakooska’ or appetizer. Vodka is usually downed with beer or cranberry juice. In Russian there is a saying “Vodka bez Pivo, eto dengi na veter”. It means; Vodka without beer is like throwing one’s money to the wind.

 I would be remiss if I did not mention the very efficient public transportation in the USSR. Each city had a tramway, buses and electric driven ones called ‘Trolley bus, and taxis. Cities which had a population of more than a million were entitled to have a metro. Fares were very cheap. Tickets would cost 3 kopecks for a tram and 5 kopecks for a bus/metro irrespective of the distance to be travelled. One never heard of a tram/bus not keeping the time table. I have had the privilege to travel by trains also and a delayed arrival was never heard of rather it was inconceivable. The Metro system in Moscow is without doubt the most beautiful and the best in the world. It is said that while being made, use of it as a bomb shelter was also catered for. There were hardly any private cars unlike in present times when the number of cars on the roads cause traffic jams daily.

Finally, some nuances on the socialist way of life. Education, medical cover, housing were all free in the Soviet Union. On the surface, everyone was supposed to be equal, but it could be seen that there were some who were more equal than the rest. These were the appartchiks (Party ticket holders), Bureaucratchiks (Bureaucrats) and Skladchiks (Warehouse keepers or managers of the public distribution system). These three classes of people controlled the levers of power and as has always happened in history, the revolution is hijacked by the vested interests; these three had done precisely that. If one did not find food products in the government supermarkets, all one had to do was dial a skladchik if he was your friend and get whatever you wanted. Similarly moving the wheels in power was possible through the first two classes; apparatchiks and bureaucratchiks. Over a period of time, this bred corruption and rent-seeking. Eventually, the system was eaten from inside and the imbalanced spending on defence due to the cold war led to an unsustainable system which ultimately collapsed. Mikhail Gorbachev was mindful of this when he initiated ‘Glasnost and perestroika’, but it came about too late. To my mind, the main dictum of Karl Marx “From each according to his ability and to each according to his needs” goes against the very basics of human nature. It kills enterprise, initiative and offers no incentive to be innovative and productive.

In summary, I must affirm that I enjoyed every bit of my stay in the Soviet Union. Later I had the opportunity to see the transition when we returned the first Chakra in 1991 on completion of the lease. Subsequently, as part of my official duties as Principal Director of Submarine Acquisitions at NHQ from 1999-2004, I made several trips to Russia in its democratic avatar. No doubt one sees poverty in the small towns but in the overall perspective, I can see that the change has been for the better. In a complete shakeup like this, the effects appear only after at least two generations have gone by. However, one can see the entrepreneurial spirit coming forth and if one were to go by the maximum number of BMWs and Mercedes sold which is in Russia, then the country is not doing too badly. The Russian ‘Narod’ or the people are intelligent, very determined and a hardworking people and will surely overcome adversities to (Borrowing Donald Trump’s phrase) make Russia great again.


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