From Russia with Love: Main Ney Russia Mee kya Dekha – by Dil Nawaz

When Islamic Republic of Pakistan came into existence in 1947, Russia was known as the “Godless Empire” of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under the “brutal” dictator Joseph Stalin. This inherent difference in ideologies resulted in tensions from the very start, but the refusal of the first prime minister of Pakistan to accept the cordial invitation of the Soviet leadership to visit USSR started the full scale Cold War. The rest, as they say, is history.

Pakistan decided to accept the invitation of United States of America (the head of ‘Free’ Capitalist and “Godly”  world).Pakistan joined anti-communist military pacts and gave its logistic support for Korean War in 1950s.Despite the unwavering loyalty of Pakistani military and landlord elite, USA refused to provide military assistance and spare parts during 1965 Kashmir war with India. The Pakistani dictator of the time was madly in love with USA, titling his ghost written biography, ‘Friends not Masters’.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the time was a Berkeley educated pragmatist with socialist inclinations. He started the ‘Airline Diplomacy’ with Communist China and made goodwill gestures to Soviet Union(Moscow stopover was added to the schedule of Pakistan Airlines flying to London, when not many capitalists were flying to the communist destinations).Soviets fully understood the strategic importance of Pakistan’s location on the cross roads of South Asia, Middle East and Central Asia. Soviet Union gave limited technical support to Pakistan despite strategic partnership with long term ally (and arch rival of Pakistan) India.

United States of America was accused of yet another betrayal when during the 1971 Bengal war- which dealt a fatal blow to the Federation of Pakistan- it failed to come to the rescue of the encircled Pakistani Army. Pakistan surrendered to India and East Pakistan gained independence as Bangladesh. Soviets were loyal friends to the Republic of India during this fiasco.

The ex-foreign minister became the first democratically elected prime minister of remaining Pakistan, immediately saw the fault lines and set about correcting the diplomatic imbalance between the superpower rivals. Pakistan managed to get a Heavy Industrial Steel Mill from Soviets before the next round of hostilities between USA and USSR, in form of a proxy war in Afghanistan, could begin under an Islamist dictator Zia ul Haq.

The elected prime minister was hanged by Zia ul Haq, who was the blue-eyed boy of the American Central Intelligence Agency. Pakistan got billions of dollars and Arab volunteers to fight the infidel Godless Soviets, but that is another story.

Soviet Union needed friends within Pakistan and found them in Pakhtoon Nationalists (loyal to Afghan establishment), communists, socialists and even liberal democrats fighting against the dictatorship and the American and Arab domination. The fundamentalist Jamaat Islami volunteers and their Afghan mercenaries under Gulbaddin Hikmatyar were waging America’s dirty war (stinger missiles and Ojhri blasts) with financial support from a Saudi Billionaire Osama Bin-Laden.

Soviet Union, as a superpower had a formidable industrial and technological base. This enabled free flow of smuggled goods across the porous Pak- Afghan border. The Pushtun tribes started cross-border smuggling (canned food, refrigerators, colour TVs and cars from Russia and guns and narcotics from Afghanistan) to survive in a crumbling economy both sides of the Durand Line. I remember those delicious strawberry and raspberry jams and tinned fish from Russia; other favourites were perfumes and washing powers. As students we loved the English language magazines (5 rupees almost free, propagating the superiority of Soviet countries, of course) for youth.

According to British Pak-Afghan Journalist*

We would be paying a visit to the local black-market. Here, on the Pakistani side of their territory, the tribesmen had made use of their special status to establish a free-trade zone beyond the reach of taxes or the law. It was a Mecca for all that was illicit, immoral or downright deadly. Russian air-conditioners and goods liberated from the homes of high-ranking Soviet officers and smuggled in Bedford trucks across the Afghan border-jostled with Japanese merchandise schlepped up from Karachi. Squelchy black opium tar of local provenance sat coyly beside bottles of Silvikrin shampoo from Europe. Stud chewing-gum (‘delay ejaculation!’) seemed a particular favourite-although I was puzzled as to whether the grizzly grey-eyed tribesmen peering at it from under their turbans had any idea of the lurid claim, in English, on the packet.

I even saw a mug with a cartoon of a pig on it. ‘What is that animal?’ I asked, to tease the shopkeeper. He avoided my eye. ‘It’s a funny kind of elephant,’ he said. In one corner of the market stood a row of hijacked aid-workers’ vehicles, awaiting ransom by their owners. The tribal area is a can-do kind of place. Like Harrods, the market seemed to boast that it could supply you with anything, given enough time and the right money.

*(The Storyteller’s Daughter by Saira Shah-Penguin UK)

The Pashtun and Baluch Nationalists looked for financial support from Soviets to run their political activities, which were restricted due to their unenviable status as outcasts in any test of loyalty to Pakistan. The Urdu/Punjabi speaking communist and socialist activists(banned and underground) saw Soviet Union as their “old age retirement” refuge in case of excessive persecution by the dictator.

Middle class Pakistani intellectuals and academics could now dream of foreign educational scholarships for their sons and daughters. Growing up in 1980s in Pakistan, our dreams were of get a Computer Engineering degree from Moscow State University. Few of our friends were already in Leningrad State University, girls invariably in Medical School and boys in engineering faculties receiving a princely sum of 100 Roubles per month as stipend (note: Pork was religiously avoided in the dormitory’s free kitchen). Soviet Union was indirectly contributing to the Human Resource development of Pakistan.

Some of these boys and girls are Members of Parliament in current Pakistani government (2010).Hopefully they will revive Pak-Soviet Friendship Society to its glorious past when Poet Laureate Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Lenin Peace Prize 1962) and Ambassador Smirnoff (1984) were its proud patrons.  Soviets gave Abdul Sattar Edhi Lenin Peace Prize in 1986 for his philanthropic services in South Asia. Despite being called The Saint Francis of Asia, Edhi is yet to receive an invitation from the Nobel Prize Committee in Norway. A blind Pakistani boy, who was sponsored by Soviet government for free treatment at an elite Moscow hospital told me, “ Russian concept of vegetarian food for Muslims is yogurt and cucumbers.”

Jamaat Islami paid a huge amount to one of the Afghani students named Ahmed Shah to write memoirs of his university days, titled Main Ney Russia Mee kya Dekha(What I Saw in Russia),It  was a bad attempt of Islamist propaganda against Godless Russia but we still used to enjoy its stories of Russian Vodka and Blond Bomb shells. We have spent many ‘White nights’ in mid June (when sun never sets) on the shores of Baltic in St. Petersburg (old Leningrad).

Then the unthinkable happened, Soviet Union disintegrated as a result of economic collapse due to cold war and bureaucratic corruption. Our dreams lay shattered; students (boys and girls) became street vendors selling leather jackets (made in Sialkot Pakistan) or seasonal fruit pickers on tourist visas in Western Europe, in order to support their studies. Some boys tried to get married into rich oligarch and KGB families in order to survive, Ali Asim(changed his name to Ervin Binyamin ) married an Israeli girl and converted to Judaism for emigration to Israel. Shouaib converted to Ahmedi religion and escaped to Germany and Rashid eloped with his Russian girlfriend to Paris. Some got admissions in Greek Cyprus for their Post- Graduate studies.

The rest of the boys and girls had to face the music of University Grants Commission (now HEC) Pakistan, which refused to recognise their degrees, despite being far superior to those awarded by Pakistani universities. All these shenanigans were due to the political interference from an unsympathetic Pakistan Government.

1990s saw the daughter of the hanged Prime Minister ZAB, late Benazir Bhutto come to power in a popular election. She tried to dispel the misgivings with the Russian (the successor to USSR) government but this détente remained lukewarm due to new fears of rise of fundamentalist Islam in Central Asia and Muslim minorities within Russia.

In last 35 years, none of the Pakistani presidents and prime ministers has been able to establish fruitful and long term relations with the Russian state and people. Current government has half heartedly met the Russian statesmen at multilateral summits but nothing substantial has come out of these interactions so far.

Russian universities, Industrial Complexes and energy sector are still among the best in the world. Pakistani students are being denied the unrestricted research opportunities in Science and Technology in American and European universities. Pakistan can procure Russian technology and expertise at a fraction of the cost as compared to Western Europe. Russia needs Pakistan’s help to combat Islamist terrorism, drug and human trafficking originating from restive Afghanistan and the backwaters of Central Asian Republics. Are Pakistan Military and Establishment ready to bury the coffins of American Cold War and start a new chapter with a resurgent Russia?

Dil Nawaz is a blogger, a LUBP reader from ‘Bradistan’ Bradford UK.