A resurgent Russia is reviving the interest of Nepalis in education, trade and tourism
Pic: Gopen Rai
Office of Mitra Kunj, the alumni of Russia-returned students in Kamalpokhari
Russia is on rise on the world political stage with the possibility of a return to Soviet-style international cooperation similar to what existed during the Cold War, and this has revived hopes among Nepalis who studied in USSR universities for closer bilateral relations.
Many Soviet-era alumni around the world share nostalgic memories of their student days in Moscow, Kiev, Odessa or Leningrad, and still call it their “second home”, and say that private cultural exchange can help to prepare the ground for future official cooperation.
"When I was in St Petersburg at an international conference for ex-graduates from the USSR in 2002, among them were three presidents from Guinea, Mongolia and Vietnam and at least 20 serving ministers,” recalls Dipak Gyawali, a graduate from the Moscow Power Engineering Institute in 1979 who himself served as Minister of Water Resources in 2005-6.
Soviet-Nepal diplomatic relations got off to a rocky start when Nepal's membership in the United Nations was vetoed by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, but it improved rapidly after the official visit by King Mahendra, one of the first by a monarch to the USSR after the murder of the Czar Nikolai II’s family.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 Nepal and Russia were too preoccupied with internal political instability to keep up with bilateral cooperation, the Russian Embassy in Kathmandu was downsized and the flow of Nepali students on Soviet scholarships stopped. However, some Nepali students-turned-entrepreneurs like Upendra Mahato adapted well to the post-communist economic upheaval to become one of the most well-off overseas Nepalis today.
Between 1960-1990, the Soviet Union became a temporary home for over 6,000 Nepali students who could be seen everywhere from Tashkent to Riga and from Kherson to Vladivostok. Students were attracted by the generous scholarships, the quality of higher education and also the friendliness of the Russian people.
“Political situation is not important, when this feeling of being with family is still there,” recalls Saroj Krishna Shrestha, an orthopedic surgeon who graduated from the Odessa Medical Institute in 1986. “One winter an elderly woman stopped me on the street and told me to put on warm clothes otherwise I would be sick. Till today, whenever I meet a Russian I feel like I have met a brother.”
Anton Maslov at the Russian Embassy’s Cultural Centre in Kamal Pokhari admits that attempts to revive government-to-government cooperation has been slow, although there has been post-earthquake assistance from the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations and the participation of Dachiri Sherpa at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
The Russian Cultural Festival with the Kazan Choir and Orenburg shawl knitters also boosted cultural exchange.
The Soviet Union left a big imprint on Nepal that is still evident. Unlike engineers, doctors and scientists educated elsewhere, those who graduated from Russia mostly returned to Nepal and have risen up the ranks in government departments, or private institutions. Some have supplemented their degrees with additional studies in the West. Gyawali, for instance, was a Fulbright scholar in Berkeley after graduating from Moscow.
The first batch of students that returned in the late 1950s included government officials like Meena Acharya, the daughter of Prime Minister Tanka Prasad Acharya. The quality of education is considered one of the best in the world and the young graduates could start to work immediately on return, building good careers in any field from physics to law.
"My classmates from Odessa Medical Institute which is still counted as one of the best in Europe now work all over the world at top posts,” Shrestha says.
About 30 Nepali students still go to Russia to study each year, but the government scholarships which used to be coordinated by Mitra Kunj, the alumni of Russia-returned students, have dwindled.
“Many students still want to go to Russia, but they can't afford it even if it is partly financed by the host country,” says Nahendra Pradhan (at right in picture) in of Mitra Kunj who graduated from the Lvov Polytechnic Institute in 1986. Mitra Kunj has over 6,000 members with 600 active participants and is celebrating its 50th anniversary in May.
Pic: Gopen Rai
Nahendra Pradhan of Mitra Kunj says many students can't afford to go to Russia even if it is partly financed by the host country.
Mitra Kunj has re-established links with Russian universities and is planning to organise scientific and culture exchange and help to orient students and to assist graduates with job support, and the Russian Cultrual Centre conducts three-month Russian language classes.
Maslov says: “Our language courses are popular not only among students, but also among entrepreneurs and tourism guides for 100 students a year. There is a lot of interest and this number could rise.”
The Russia returns, Sunir Pandey
From Russia with love, Badri Paudyal