The Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, a great Russian temple of language learning that existed between 1921 and 1954, produced some of the pioneers in the studies of Indian languages. The passion that Soviet scholars had for the diversity of languages in India led to many of them pursuing doctorates in Tamil, Malayalam and Bengali among other Indian tongues.
One of these great scholars in Russia was Moscow-born Mikhail Andronov, who graduated from the Indian Studies department of the institute in 1954. An academic journey that began with Rabindranath Tagore’s native language in 1949 culminated with a PhD in Dravidian languages in 1971.
Andronov was the Soviet Union’s foremost scholar of South Indian languages, which he began learning during his time as a student at the University of Madras in the late-1950s. By the time he was through with his scholarship of Malayalam, he knew the language in a way that most native speakers could only dream of.
Before setting his eyes on Malayalam, Andronov mastered Tamil. His first book titled 'Conversational Tamil and its Dialects' was published in 1962. A young Tamil language scholar from the city of Voronezh told me that the book was out of print and the minuscule community of Russians who are still learning Dravidian languages photo copy one of the surviving copies. Andronov also published a Russian-Tamil dictionary in 1965.
Foray into Malayalam
In the late 1960s, Andronov teamed up with fellow Tamil scholar Vladimir Makarenko, widely accepted as one of Russia’s greatest linguists, to work on a Russian-Malayalam dictionary. The 38,000-word dictionary (published in 1971), which I had a chance to personally see at the library of the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in Mumbai, is a true labour of love. It contains words that are no longer used even by purists of Malayalam or Russian. A glance at the dictionary, which was meant for the pre-internet age, is a delight for those who are fans of the great literary traditions of Russia and Kerala. One can safely assume that the husband-wife duo of Moscow Gopalakrishnan and Omana would have made full use of it while translating Russian literature to Malayalam. They also probably used the dictionary to achieve a high degree of proficiency in Russian.
Andronov would dedicate three decades to pursue his passion for Malayalam. It was in the 1970s and 80s that Indo-Soviet friendship peaked, leading to many young intellectuals devoting a lot of time and effort to unfold the mysteries of India and its languages. Russians interested in learning Malayalam and other Indian languages would study under Andronov and then come for exchange programmes in India to perfect their diction and conversational skills.
Even after Perestroika, Glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a near stoppage of funding for the study of Indian languages, Andronov laboured on. In 1993, his 203-page book in Russian titled 'Malayalam Language' was published. It gives a Russian linguist great insights into Malayalam and simplifies what looks like a very complicated language for someone with a European background.
At the age of 65, in 1996, Andronov’s first book about the Malayalam language for English-speakers was published. The 242-page 'A Grammar of the Malayalam Language in Historical Treatment' is probably the most comprehensive Malayalam grammar book ever written by a non-Malayali. His last book, 'Dravidian Historical Linguistics' was published in 1999.
Andronov died due to aged-related illness in 2009. He was 78. Unlike some of Russia’s great Indologists such as Eugene Chelyshev, a Padma Bhushan awardee, the Malayalam scholar is largely forgotten in Russia and India. He belonged to an era when the Soviet Union set the gold standard when it came to specialists in every walk of life. It was widely believed that Soviet diplomats and scholars in India knew the country better than most Indians.
Dwindling Russian specialists of Malayalam
Among the younger generation in Russia, it’s easy to count specialists of Indian languages on my fingertips. A couple of my former Russian colleagues, both fluent in Hindi, successfully ran a website called Rus-Bharat Samwad, which was a product of the Russian newspaper of record, 'Rossiyskaya Gazeta'. The site was shut down in the middle of 2017, as its readership numbers from India apparently didn’t justify the investment. The Voice of Russia’s Indian language services have also met a similar fate.
An increase in tourism from Russia to India, particularly to Kerala has led to a phenomenon that would have made Mikhail Andronov proud. A host of informal websites and social media groups are trying to help Russians learn Malayalam! The most interesting of these groups is on the Russian social network VK.com and is called Varkala – Our Home. Kerala, India. The group is administered by two Russian girls, Natalya and Yulia, who seem to well versed with life in contemporary Kerala. One can only hope that greater cultural exchanges lead to an increased interest in Malayalam in Russia.