KURSK IN WEST RUSSIA has made history. Here, in 1943, the Red Army fought the largest land battle in the world to defeat Hitler. The city also, in a first, elected an Indian-origin lawmaker―Abhay Kumar Singh. Not once but twice, in 2017 and 2022.
A deputat (akin to an MLA in India), Singh is a member of the United Russia party, led by President Vladimir Putin. Singh’s rise is proof that like the American dream, nothing is impossible in Russia, too.
Singh arrived in the Soviet Union from Patna in 1991 to study medicine, and encountered the full force of the Russian winter. The legendary cold that made Napoleon and Hitler retreat almost defeated Singh, too. “I wanted to come back home,” he recalls, adding that language was always a hurdle. “The temperatures in Kursk dip to -25 and even -30. But there was a dean called Elena, who took me under her wing; she was really like my mother. She told me to hang in there for a month. In that one month, she helped me settle in. It felt like home and I never left.”
It was the twilight of the Soviet Union; India had taken its first steps towards liberalisation and Bihar had Lalu Prasad as chief minister. “It was a time of great change in India, too,” recalls Singh. “There was an economic crisis in India.” As the Soviet Union collapsed, times were tough. “There were long queues to buy things,” he remembers. “You needed tickets to buy everything from televisions to food. I saw everything change in front of my eyes―it was after Vladimir Putin came in. There is nothing that you don’t get in Russia that you get in developed countries.”
Singh stands out as the only brown face in a sea of white, especially in the assembly. “People have never seen anyone like me become a politician and get elected,” he says, as a woman comes up to him, looks at his badge that identifies him as a lawmaker, expresses her surprise and takes a picture.
Very much a Putin man, Singh believes that Russia cannot be governed by soft democracy. “If you look at it just geographically, it is so huge―you cannot govern by soft democracy. Like it was during Boris Yeltsin’s time, when Chechnya wanted to break away. Other states wanted to be independent. Russia was staggering after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When it was handed over to Vladimir Putin, the country became so strong that we became a superpower and were at par with America.’’
So what made him venture into politics? “I am from Bihar; politics is in our DNA,” says Singh, laughing. But it cannot be easy. It is governed by a different set of rules. Unlike in Bihar, where being distant spells the end of a political career, politicians in Russia need to be slightly removed from the public. “There is a certain element of formality,” elaborates Singh. But he has found a way to bring the touch-and-feel aspect of Indian politics into Russia―he holds a janta darbar (people’s court) every month. “Tonnes of people come,” he says. “I try and help everyone who comes.”
Like the Raj Kapoor song goes, Mera joota hain japani, yeh patloon englistani, sar pe laal topi russi, phir bhi dil hain hindustani [My shoes are from Japan, pants from England, hat from Russia but my heart is still Indian], Singh’s passport may be Russian, but his heart is Indian. “I eat only Indian,” he says. “When I am out, of course, I eat Russian food. The only thing I don’t eat is beef.”