First Love

Soviet Life, March 1976
Left: Soviet Life, March 1976. Photograph by Isaak Tunkel. Right: Illustration from Soviet Life, November 1975. No artist credit.

In 1980, shortly before my eleventh birthday, I wrote my first essay in English. The subject was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—or the Soviet “intervention,” as I termed it, in a “fraternal Communist country threatened by imperialism.” I had followed events in Afghanistan anxiously if somewhat fitfully; we had no television, and the newspapers, arriving in Jhansi, our small Indian town, from Delhi a day late, reported American threats to boycott the Moscow Olympics but said little about what was going on inside Afghanistan. Nevertheless, I boldly predicted that the Soviets would modernize a backward and feudal country, revolutionize its relations of production, and set it on the path of prosperity and peace, inflicting, in the process, another crushing defeat on the forces of reaction and imperialism.

In December 2004, I traveled on the road from Uzbekistan across the Oxus River on which the first Soviet convoys had rolled into Afghanistan twenty-five years before. Fearful of ambushes, the Soviets had mined the surrounding desert right up to the verges; and venturing out of the car for a pee I walked into a minefield—one of the many across Afghanistan that had killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people—and then had to learn, for some long minutes, how hard it is literally to retrace one’s steps.

What goes around comes around, even if the intense fear of losing one’s life, or a limb or two, seems a very severe karmic punishment for some youthful cliché-mongering. Later that evening, drinking alone and hard in my gloomy hotel room in Mazar-i-Sharif, for the first time in many years I remembered my essay, and I couldn’t help but wonder: What the hell had I been thinking? Perhaps I was no more deluded than people in Europe and America who thought that the Soviets wanted to conquer the world and who had made elaborate plans to fight, and survive, a nuclear war. At least I’d had the excuse of being 10 years old. But it was still odd to remember how during my childhood and adolescence I was an admirer and supporter—unpaid and thus very sincere—of the Soviet Union. For much of this time, I wasn’t quite sure what such words as socialism, capitalism, reaction, and imperialism really meant; but I was ready to believe in the superiority of socialism over capitalism simply because this was the official ideology of the Soviet Union. A framed photograph of Lenin stood on my desk, and I possessed, if I did not actually work my way through, the complete works of Plekhanov. And self-consciously I’d prepared myself for adult life in the Soviet Union.

This was by no means a merely natural consequence of my straitened lower-middle-class circumstances. Genteel poverty of the kind we knew had drawn most people in my Brahmin family closer to the Hindu nationalists and to a politics of resentment. My father denounced as hypocrites and frauds the Communists he encountered in his work as a trade unionist in Indian Railways, and he took a skeptical view of my Sovietophilia. But he had grown up in another time. For boys like me, in North Indian railway towns in the ’70s and ’80s, where nothing much happened apart from the arrival and departure of trains from big cities, the Soviet Union alone appeared to promise an escape from our limited, dusty world.

It is hard now, in these days of visual excess, to recall the sensuous poverty of the towns I lived in: the white light falling all day from the sky upon a flat land only slightly relieved by bare rock and the occasional tree, and houses of mud or grimy brick, among which any trace of color—shop signs, painted government posters for family planning, or garish posters for Bollywood films—could provoke a sense of wonder. It explains the eagerness with which I awaited Soviet Life, the first magazine I subscribed to, which was really an illustrated press release boasting of Soviet achievements in science, agriculture, industrial production, sports, and literature.

When a new issue slipped through the mailslot, I would smell its glossy pages and run my fingers across them. Alone in my room, I gazed for a long time at color pictures of young Soviet women raising production levels on the Ukrainian steppe, in the Fergana valley and Siberian oilfields. I lingered longest over the pages with pictures of Young Pioneers, and then cut them out carefully and wrapped them around my school notebooks, obscuring the calendar-art images of the young butter-smeared Lord Krishna. I did not outgrow Soviet Life even after I got my parents to subscribe to Soviet Literature, and cajoled my younger sister, who had won a small school scholarship, into giving me a subscription to the newsmagazine New Times. The magazines cost less than the stamps on the brown envelopes in which they arrived—indeed, my parents declined to support my pen pal-ship with a Young Pioneer girl because airmail letters were too expensive.

The Soviet Union had helped set up and subsidize publishing houses and bookshops across much of what were then known as the developing countries. America seems to have barely participated in this subtle campaign of the cold war that the Soviet Union, with its books, magazines, and films, waged in the remotest Indian towns. The Soviets had made India a major beneficiary of their cultural philanthropy because it had strong Communist parties that ruled states in the south and the west, was constitutionally committed to a form of socialism, and was also a leader of the third world nonaligned movement, which tilted Soviet. Houses of Soviet Culture existed in all the big and some small cities, competing strongly with the cultural outposts of the so-called free world, the British Council, the United States Information Service-run American Center, and the German Max Muellar Bhavan. Mobile bookshops toured the towns offering subscriptions to Soviet magazines and organizing book fairs where you could buy two hardback editions of Russian classics for five rupees (at a time when one dollar equaled eighteen rupees).

The mobile bookshops came to our town without warning, often appearing in a field where gypsies from Rajasthan set up their black tents. Inside the long truck, books stood in open dusty shelves, monitored by thin young men in glasses. There were many Soviet translations of Russian classics in addition to the works of Marx, Lenin, and Plekhanov. I recall seeing nothing by either Stalin or Khrushchev, although the speeches of Brezhnev and Suslov were always available. My earliest purchases were collections of Russian fairy tales, and I now wish I still had, or could recall the titles of, the beautifully illustrated volumes that enlivened much of my childhood.

Though dedicated to advancing the cause of socialism, the Soviet-made books afforded best of all the satisfaction of private ownership. I tended to buy more books than I could read, such as that set of Plekhanov. I moved quickly through Tolstoy’s Childhood, Adolescence, Youth and then stumbled badly in Crime and Punishment, whose Christian themes did not become comprehensible to me until my twenties. But the Soviet books came at the right time, when I was ready to move on from my childhood lingering in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and was reading more and more in English, which, unknown to me, was becoming the language of global capitalism.

Some of the Russian classics carried introductions from such approved critics as Belinsky and Chernyshevsky, whom some years later I was mortified to see ridiculed at length in Nabokov’s novel The Gift. I can see now that cultural commissars dictated the offerings of Raduga and Progress Publishers, the two imprints that published most of the translations I saw in the Soviet-subsidized bookshops. There was no Nabokov—and I am surprised to see among the few books that remain with me a volume of stories by Bunin. Gorky and Mayakovsky were much preferred, and Soviet pride in the Nobel Laureate Sholokhov was expressed through multiple editions of Quiet Flows the Don. Much of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Leskov could be published without much difficulty. But several of Dostoevsky’s novels would have posed problems, and Gogol’s rants and Tolstoy’s Christian writings must not have appeared to the commissars as the best examples of the Soviet Union’s revolutionary literary heritage. Herzen’s novel Who Is to Blame? was present everywhere, but his memoir and letters were nowhere to be seen. As for post-1917 literature, you couldn’t have known, reading the products of Raduga and Progress Publishers, who Bulgakov and Mandelstam were; I read them, along with Akhmatova and Pasternak, only in my early twenties, in British and American editions. A book titled How the Steel Was Tempered was very conspicuous. There were novels by a writer called Aleksey Tolstoy. Was he related to Leo? I couldn’t know. Though sturdily bound and on thick paper, the books provided little biographical information and did not even name the translators.

However, they often included pictures from the lives of the more famous writers. I had read First Love and Spring Torrents, and already fantasized about pursuing romance and intellectual conversation in arbors in overgrown gardens, when one day I saw a photograph of Turgenev walking down a long straight path though tall birch trees. The picture, suggesting days spent in work and reflection, captivated me for a long time and gave urgency to my desire to emigrate to the Soviet Union. On hellishly hot days, I imagined myself walking along snowbound Nevsky Prospekt in an overcoat. On other days, I saw myself studying to become an engineer in St. Petersburg and then settling down with one of the pretty Young Pioneers in Turkmen costume and helping to boost production levels in a little corner of that vast land. As I grew older, this fantasy even seemed possible to realize. Many students wishing to put Indian deprivations behind them chose the Soviet Union and its engineering and medical scholarships over the much harder route—via GRE and GMAT tests—to America.

It’s strange to recall that America animated none of my youthful daydreams. I did not see a Hollywood film until my late teens. The only non-Indian pop stars I knew were European—the Beatles, ABBA, and Cliff Richard—and I have yet to see a copy of Quest, the Encounter-style intellectual magazine that the CIA funded in Bombay. I did long to own old copies of Time and Life that I saw being sold on the pavements of the big cities. But they were too pricey, and so was the magazine Span, the closest that the Americans came to producing their own version of Soviet Life. American books were out of the question. Once, an uncle of mine who had emigrated to the United States in the mid-1960s and had since lived, improbably, in Montana, sent me some comic books, and for a brief season I was intrigued by Archie, Veronica, Betty, Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Dennis the Menace.

In any case, America was not only beyond my means. It was also an imperialist bully, the malicious antagonist of socialist and nonaligned countries—and it wasn’t just New Times that told me so. Anti-Americanism flourished among Indian politicians and journalists, who never tired of mentioning how Nixon and Kissinger had not only supported Pakistan in its war with India over Bangladesh but had also tried to intimidate India by ordering the 7th Fleet into the Indian Ocean; and how the Soviet Union had proved to be India’s most valuable friend by vetoing the anti-Indian resolution moved by the US at the UN Security Council. I had no trouble believing Indira Gandhi when she claimed that the CIA was working hard to undermine our country because of its principled nonaligned stance. At the same time, it was impossible to take Americans seriously. I remember being shocked by a picture of Jimmy Carter in the White House with his feet on his desk. And later I was equally shocked to know that Americans had elected a movie actor as their President. Could such men be trusted?

In contrast, the pictures of Soviet leaders radiated benign power and knowledge. I examined these as closely as a Kremlinologist, but for signs and portents of my own future. Those brows of Brezhnev; the melancholy of Gromyko; the steely seriousness of Suslov—how eloquently they spoke of a selfless dedication to social and economic justice! Of a feeling for those of us in the poor, invisible places of the world! It was easy, if you knew nothing else, to draw a larger sense of belonging, even a personal sense of security, from the pictures of Brezhnev hugging Indira Gandhi, and Soviet leaders exchanging toasts with Honecker and Husák and Castro.

In 1982 I was in Bombay with my parents, who were arranging the marriage of my eldest sister, when I heard of Brezhnev’s death. I went immediately to the House of Soviet Culture, where a condolence book lay open underneath a framed poster of the departed leader. I asked for a copy of the poster at the reception. They didn’t have one. My elder cousin in Bombay, who visited the American Center more frequently than the House of Soviet Culture, and would later work for Coca-Cola, joked that they were waiting to see if the new Soviet leaders would declare Brezhnev a good or a bad guy.

My mood was grim. What would happen to the Soviet Union? And to the developing and underdeveloped countries it had supported? I began looking especially closely at pictures of Andropov and Chernenko, hoping to figure out their worldview. The following year, when New Delhi hosted the summit meeting of the nonaligned movement against a backdrop of growing unrest in Poland, and photos appeared in all the newspapers of handsome Castro bear-hugging Mrs. Gandhi, I felt somewhat relieved. Here was proof that the small, besieged socialist nations of the world could stick together.

But time was running out for both the Soviet Union and my Sovietophilia. I proved to be an indifferent student of science and mathematics at my high school, in no position to travel to Russia as a student of engineering or medicine. At my provincial undergraduate university, I drifted into a Communist student outfit, which held Marx study groups, organized demonstrations, and also stood candidates for elections to the student union. Here I met students from similar backgrounds, who possessed the same translations I had read and could recite Mayakovsky’s poems and certain passages in Gorky’s revolutionary novel, Mother, from memory.

But my heart was not in student activism: I was a reader, therefore a daydreamer. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and the desire led me, in Delhi in the late ’80s, to spend more time at the British Council and American Center than at the House of Soviet Culture. (Daydreams may turn out to be the most practical things of all.) Arduously acquired Pelicans and Penguins started to jostle with the cheap hardbacks of Raduga and Progress Publishers on my bookshelves, and I began to imagine my name on such a glossy spine.

I also remember reading Edmund Wilson’s self-critical introduction to the 1971 edition of To the Finland Station and beginning to think of Lenin in another way. Soon afterward, I lost the framed photograph of Lenin in one of my many moves, and left the collected Plekhanov standing in a room I vacated at university. But I still followed Soviet affairs through New Times. The Communist activists I knew at university claimed that a reformer like Gorbachev was proof of the self-renewing potential of the Soviet system, but I didn’t know what to make of him. He made me uneasy with his frank confessions of Soviet stagnation and decline, and I was bewildered by his frequent public appearances with Reagan. Things, I feared, would end badly. And, by confirming my premonitions, the collapse of the Berlin Wall left me cold.

I had left my university in Delhi and was living in a village in the Himalayas when the Soviet Union imploded. By then its landmarks in India had already faded. Perestroika and glasnost had brought down the shutters on Soviet-subsidized culture in India. And India itself seemed to be turning away from its socialist and nonaligned friends. After years of protectionism and virtuous austerity, it had started to globalize its economy and to embrace unself-consciously the culture of consumption. By the late ’80s television had arrived in Indian small towns and, with its images of the wealthier cultures of the West, begun to diversify our fantasies. A shop selling greeting cards replaced a Communist bookshop I used to visit. One day in a pavement bazaar of Old Delhi, I saw the collected works of Plekhanov being sold as scrap paper. I stopped, briefly tempted to reacquire them. And then I moved on down the street.


Soviet Life ceased publication in 1991. My subscription to New Times had ended by then, and I had not opened the renewal notices. So many years had passed since I wrote my essay endorsing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Moving away from thoughts of escape, I became interested, for the first time, in my own world. India gave me the subjects that, trying to write, I had often despaired of finding. In the meantime, I also learned a bit more, if reluctantly, about the former Soviet Union’s cruelties and absurdities—the knowledge carefully concealed from me by New Times.

As the ’90s wore on, Russia’s quick descent into gangster capitalism and colonialist brutality in Chechnya further muddied and finally dissolved the image that I had cherished for much of my life. In the late 1990s I began to travel in Asia, Europe, and America. But I resisted visiting Russia. There remained enough of the apparatchik-lover inside me to mourn the breakup of the Soviet Union and to conceive a strong dislike for Boris Yeltsin—never did he appear a greater boor and bully to me than during what Western journalists called his finest moment, the failed coup attempt in 1991, when he sat with a megaphone atop a tank in front of the Russian Parliament. Reading Tatyana Tolstoya’s denunciation of him in the New York Review of Books gave me profound satisfaction. It was with something close to glee that I read Stephen F. Cohen’s book about the deluded Western attempt to export free-market democracy to Russia, and I am still not above a certain perverse pleasure when the Economist wonders, confusion breaking through its silkily arrogant tone, what the West ought to do with the increasingly unpredictable Putin.

Occasionally I meet someone with similar memories of underdevelopment. In Lahore, Pakistan, some years ago, I walked into a living room—and into my childhood: the bookshelves showed the same Soviet spines my eyes had rested on for years. In London an old Egyptian cab driver recalled using Soviet Life as wallpaper in his home in Cairo, and reminisced about the days of Nasser and Arab socialism.

More recently, I met the Cuban writer José Manuel Prieto and his Russian wife at a convivial dinner party in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It turned out that Prieto had done what I had only fantasized about: he traveled from Cuba to the Soviet Union as a student, and there, in a small town in Siberia, he fell in love with a beautiful Russian woman and married her, and helped boost, briefly, the Soviet Union’s production levels in literature if not oil and gas. He knew of Raduga and Progress Publishers, for he had worked as a translator of Soviet literature. Not only that, but at the same time that I sought escape from the North Indian plains by reading Turgenev, he and his wife relieved their Siberian solitude through Bollywood films—among the few foreign films allowed into the Soviet Union.

A different kind of internationalism, called globalization, had now brought us to the country that had been the nemesis of socialism, indeed of much of what we once knew and believed in. The English language that the Soviets helped teach me had made possible my life and writing career in a world very different from their own. Our futures were now bound to America, although I couldn’t bear to look too closely or long at pictures of George W. Bush. Were Prieto and I content? Had we finally arrived at happiness? It is always hard to tell, and history may spring yet more of its ironies on us. But when we got drunk, and raised a toast to socialism and nonalignment, I couldn’t suppress a pang of affection for our vanished past, for the austere worlds in which we had to find our small joys, and in which the solidarities that now seem merely rhetorical had given us consolation and hope.

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