Few Indians know and understand contemporary Russia the way Ajay Kamalakaran does. He’s been living in and out of Russia since 2003 and has called places like the oil and gas-rich island of Sakhalin, Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, and Moscow home. Over the course of his journalistic career, Ajay has been the editor of The Sakhalin Times, worked as the India and Asia consulting editor of Russia Beyond the Headlines (now Russia Beyond), and has edited a book about Russia titled “A New Era: India-Russia ties in the 21st Century”.
In 2006, he wrote a travel guidebook to Sakhalin called “Sakhalin Unplugged”. His first work of fiction “Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island” was released in 2017 and has received critical acclaim in several countries.
His latest book titled “A Week in the Life of Svitlana” is set in Moscow, a city that is his second home. It documents the life of Svitlana Khristenko, a single mother with dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship, and how she navigates life in Moscow. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with the author for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about his book, his Russian connection, and why the contemporary geopolitical situation between Russia and Ukraine forms such an important theme in this book.
You are a Russophile and have authored three books about Russia. Please tell us about your connection to this part of the world? How long did you live there and in which cities?
I spent my formative years in New York City and grew up believing that the USSR/Russia was evil. It’s only after I moved back to India as a teenager that I developed an interest in Russia and understood how wrong I was about the Russians. I started learning Russian at the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Mumbai in 2000, and have never looked back since.
I moved to the Russian Far Eastern island of Sakhalin in 2003. I was the editor of a (now-defunct) English language weekly called The Sakhalin Times from 2003 to 2007. Since then I have lived in Moscow and Khabarovsk, a city that is close to north-eastern China.
Having spent a lot of time in Sakhalin, why did you choose Moscow as the setting for your story, and not any other Russian city? What were some of your early interpretations of the city and its people?
I have been spending a few months a year in Moscow since 2012. It’s a city that is as dear to me as my hometown Mumbai, a city that I am as familiar with as the Indian megapolis.
My initial ideas about Moscow were tainted by the fears and dislikes of the big city by my friends in Sakhalin. For them, Moscow was this large and mean city with aggressive and distrustful people obsessed with money. When I first started living there 8 years ago, I started noticing a lot of similarities with Mumbai. The fast-paced life, the energy, the economic activity and also similar mindsets among the people…
Over the last 8 years, the city has grown and changed in a very positive way. Old buildings have been tastefully restored, parks are perfectly maintained, the public transport has been upgraded, and people in general look a lot less stressed. Moscow is now one of the safest and cleanest cities in Europe.
The character of Svitlana is one of an independent single mother, who wants to unshackle patriarchy. However, she is also on the lookout for a rich middle-aged man who would provide her financial stability. Wasn’t that very conflicting to write?
Svitlana doesn’t have an easy life and she’s always being pulled in different directions. I have come across many people in Moscow, who face these internal conflicts. Until very recently one could say that Moscow had one foot in Europe and another in the Soviet Union. I see the impact of this on Muscovites and have noticed the dichotomy in the thinking of so many of them.
In the novel, you bring in lots of historical and political details and context, and the narrative is as attuned to pre-Soviet policies and the repercussions of the dissolution of USSR as it is to the modern Russian architecture and the falling Russian currency. How do you think these details set the foundation of the book?
The haphazard manner in the way the Soviet Union was dismantled continues to impact contemporary Russian society. A lot of people who were set in their thinking and comfortable with their lives, suddenly became foreigners in places where they had spent their whole lives. The neo-nationalism that arose in former Soviet states worsened the situation. The Russia-Ukraine geopolitical conflict has made many people think about their own lives and loyalties. Svitlana is one such person with conflicting loyalties.
Why did you portray Svitlana as a Ukrainian, living in a post-Soviet Russia? For readers who don’t know much about it, what is the present geopolitical situation between Russia and Ukraine?
It’s hard to switch on the television or tune into the radio in Russia without hearing the word Ukraina (Ukraine). The same can be said about the situation in Ukraine, where Russia dominates the discourse. I have met people in both countries who are confused and angry about the souring of ties between “Slavic brother nations.” My interactions with these people motivated me to create Svitlana.
As for the geopolitical situation, Russia-Ukraine ties were severely damaged after there was a 2014 coup d’état in Ukraine that was sponsored by the United States and the EU. A democratically elected government was overthrown in Ukraine and replaced by one that was blatantly hostile to Russia. Then the events unfolded in Crimea and elsewhere…. Unfortunately six years later, I don’t see any real scope for reconciliation between the countries, and this is really sad. They are both beautiful countries with warm and hospitable people and they have so much in common with each other. But they don’t understand the ‘divide and rule’ game that is being played by the same kind of people that partitioned India.
As a Ukrainian nationalist who is well settled in Moscow, Svitlana has an identity crisis.
Indeed, Identity forms a very important part of the book’s narrative. People in the book identify as Ukrainian or Russian, Muscovite or Non-Muscovite. Then there are Russian provincial identities- Chechen or Yakutskian. And Central Asian identities (Kyrgyz people and Kazakhs, their nations part of the Russia-led economic bloc Eurasian Economic Union, portrayed differently from say, Tajiks). All these identities intermingle and are in conflict in the Moscow portrayed in the book. Why did you choose to incorporate conflicting identities and influx of migrants as a theme in the narrative?
Although it may not be that obvious to an untrained Indian eye, Moscow is one of the most ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan cities in Europe. The economic boom that the city has witnessed since the early 2000s has led to mass immigration of labourers from former Soviet republics. It’s impossible for a Muscovite to not interact with someone from another part of Russia or the former Soviet Union on a regular basis. The idea behind featuring these people was to give outsiders a glimpse of contemporary Moscow.
What type of research was involved for this book? How was it different from the research and writing involved in “Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island”?
All I needed to do was to live in Moscow and observe as much as I could. As a writer I pay close attention to strangers, their behaviour, mannerisms and other factors. Since I have many close friends in Moscow and socialise a lot in the city, I have been lucky enough to interact with a multitude of people.
Writing about Sakhalin Island of the 2000s involved more or less the same kind of effort, but Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is a city of two lakh inhabitants, where everyone seems to know everyone else, while Moscow is a megapolis.
As the title of the book suggests, you document Svitlana’s life over a week. Why this time frame?
I really wanted the reader to get a glimpse of life in Moscow, from the point of view of a Muscovite. When people visit the city as tourists, there is so much they don’t see and understand. A week gives one a small glimpse of the life of an average resident.
How do you think being Indian affected the themes or the writing of this book set in post-Soviet Russia?
It’s been a personal choice to completely immerse myself in Russian society and live as much like a local as possible. I have never felt like an outsider in Russia. Indians generally tend to view Russia more favourably than an average Westerner would, but I try to recreate the Russian experience from the point of view of a local.
And what readers did you have in mind while writing this book?
There has never been a lack of interest in Russia at any point of time, but most readers still see Russia through the prism of 19th and 20th century literature. I would like to reach out to people who want to know more about contemporary Russia. I’d also like to reach out to sensible travellers who want to know the city that they visit.
For readers wanting to read more on Russia, can you share some of the fiction and non-fiction books on or from Russia that you cherish?
I love the work of Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Nicholas Gogol and Alexander Pushkin. Their work is timeless. When it comes to contemporary writers, not many good books have been translated into English. I enjoy reading Viktor Pelevin and Ludmila Ulitskaya’s work. As for non-fiction, three books come to mind: ‘To Live in St. Petersburg’, a collection of narratives about the city, ‘Moscow: Meeting Points’, a similar initiative like the St. Petersburg book, and ‘Yoburg’ by Alexei Ivanov, a great piece of contemporary non-fiction about the city of Yekaterinburg. I really wish these books would be translated into English, so that people get a Russian point of view to go with what’s written by foreigners.
‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ by Ajay Kamalakaran has been independently published. Read more about the book and buy it here.