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The Indian Diaspora In Russia
11.23.2004 11:26

indian_diaspora_russia Indolink

by Francis C. Assisi

However, it is not generally known that there is a significant Indian and South Asian diasporic presence in Russia. A recent study sponsored by the Russian Academy of Sciences claims that Russia may indeed be witnessing the re-emergence of that once extensive Indian Diaspora that stretched from Sindh through Central Asia and into Russia.

The study’s author, Dr. Igor Y. Kotin of St. Petersburg State University, concludes that the problems facing the 40,000 people of Indian origin in Russia is approximately the same as those faced by Indians elsewhere: racism and cultural alienation from the host society, religious intolerance against Hinduism’s vibrant presence, illegal immigration and transit movement of immigrants to other destinations, and problems relating to education, business and settlement.

Consider the following demographics: the 2002 census of the Russian population counted 2,000 persons of Indian origin in Russia. However, the Report of the High Level Committee on Indian diaspora gives a figure of 16,000 Non-Resident Indians in the country. And the figure given by the President of the Association of Indians in Russia, is 40,000.

Prof. Kotin believes that the estimate of 40,000 is reasonable.

Kotin figures that there are an estimated 10,000 Indian students studying in Moscow alone. Another 10,000 may reflect the number of illegal migrants from South Asia who live in the Moscow area. Besides students, there are numbers of businessmen in St Petersburg, Novgorod, Kazan and Kursk. Half of the total figure may be residing in St Petersburg.

In comparison with 2 million Indo-Americans, 1 million Indo-Canadians, 1.5 million Indians in the United Kingdom, and 1.5 million Indian citizens currently resident in Saudi Arabia, 40,000 Indians in the Russian Federation is a small figure. Yet, for continental Europe this figure is not miniscule. It is comparable with the number of Indians in Germany (25,000 of Indian citizens and 10,000 of persons of Indian origin) and in Spain (16,000 of persons of Indian origin and 13,000 Indian citizens).

According to Kotin, the number of Indians in the Russian Federation is larger than that in all of Eastern Europe.

The significance of the Indian presence in Russia is, according to Kotin, not in their numbers. The Russian Federation is a country rich in oil, gas, electric power and other resources. Even though it has the potential for significant economic growth, it is not generally considered to be the safest place for investment or even for living the good life -- a reality that tends to frighten western businessmen, but gives a competing edge to those from Asia.

Also, because of the warm relations between the erstwhile Soviet Russia and India for more than 55 years, Indians have always found a welcoming atmosphere among Russians. Russian society was in love with Indian movies and music for a long time, thus, it is more likely to accept Indians as a part of its emerging multi-cultural mosaic replacing Soviet uniformity.

Finally, the relatively porous border with Central Asia and with new member states of the European Community make Russia the ideal stepping-stone for Indian transit migrants moving westwards. Thus, the Russian Federation is emerging as an important transit territory as well as the final destination of Indian immigrants.


Archival records reveal that the Indian presence in Russia dates back to the 17th century when Astrakhan, a trading-port in the delta of the Volga river by the Caspian Sea was incorporated into Moscow state. By then, Indian traders had reached as far as Isfahan in Persia, Kizlyar in the North Caucasus and Astrakhan in Russia.

The Archives in Astrakhan, Moscow and St. Petersburg contain significant information on the activity of Indian merchants and artisans. We learn that the first Indians from Sindh and Multan arrived in Russian Astrakhan in 1615-1616. In 1624 a special trading post for Indian merchants was erected in Astrakhan along with separate posts for Armenian and Persian merchants.

Historical records show that at one point more than one hundred Indian merchants and their servants lived in the region. They were dealers in Astrakhan textiles, jewelry and medicines. In 1645 an Indian merchant dared to go as far as Kazan and Moscow, trading his goods with great success. As a result, 25 more Indian traders came to Astrakhan via Persia. In 1650 Indian merchants sold their goods in Yaroslavl, not far from Moscow. Thereafter the Russian Tsar, Alexei Mikhaylovich, invited Indian artisans to Moscow to introduce a textile industry there.

An English traveler named Forster has described Indians who traveled from India to Astrakhan to propagate their religion – Buddhism, Hinduism and Zorastrianism. An Armenian merchant refers to Indians there as cow-worshippers, suggesting that they were mostly Hindus and not Muslims. The Russian archives too contain information on certain Indians who had their living quarters and a temple, along with a trading center, in Astrakhan. There are records of Indians marrying Soviet Tartar women.

Although Moscow allowed Indian traders to follow their religious rites, including that of cremation of dead bodies, and a Hindu temple existed in the city, the number of professing Hindus diminished and some of them were converted to Islam. Others, however, retained their Hindu faith. They even poured water from the Ganges into the Volga, and considered the Volga as their local Ganges since that ceremony. They freely prayed to their gods and conducted religious rituals despite hostility from Muslims and Christians who considered them as pagans. Moscow had given the local administrative head instruction to allow Hindus to follow their rites of passage.

By the early 18th century Indian merchants lived not only in Astrakhan, but also in Moscow. Russian chroniclers reported the presence of Hindu traders in Moscow in the18th century.

Along with the expansion of their trade to central Russia and to the capital city of St. Petersburg many Hindu traders converted to Orthodox Christianity. It was common for them to acquire Russian Christian names and surnames. In 1740s we have several records of ‘Russian Indians’ with surnames Ivanov, Feodorov etc. Later on they were assimilated into the Russian population. It may be surmised that some Russians from Astrakhan with typical Russian surnames but somewhat South Asian features may have Indian ancestors. Yet, in the 19th century few of the locals there could claim Indian heritage.

Indian diamond trade was known then in Moscow and St. Petersburg. While it is impossible to speak of a continued Indian presence, Astrakhan Indians are known to have dispersed to Kazan, Moscow, and St. Petersburg and their descendents became assimilated, although, it may be assumed that some families of ‘Russian Indians’ still keep memories of their South Asian ancestors.

The Soviet era also witnessed the emergence of an Indian Communist community in Moscow and Leningrad in 1920s-1930s. From the mid-1950s onwards significant numbers of Indian students began attending educational institutions in Moscow, Leningrad, Sverdlovsk, Kursk etc. A few managed to remain in Russia after completing their education. They did not form a diaspora, and the temporary presence of Indians in major Russian cities was not questioned because of strict immigration and residence rules.

The situation however changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although economic hardships made post-Soviet Russia unattractive for foreign students who depended on stipends, the wealthy and the adventurous found Russian conditions suitable, especially since Russian immigration and residence rules were lax. As a result the new wave of Indians who came were mostly students. But only the medical students made education their primary aim; the others found an opportunity to combine their study abroad with a small business, often in retailing, which they would continue after graduation.

That was how an increase in Indians -- some of them successful and rich, others petty traders -- came about in the Russian Federation. Rich Indian businessmen were involved in tea and garments trade, construction industry, and most recently have invested in St. Petersburg and Moscow breweries. New projects involve Indian investment in Russian oil fields, particularly in Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East and in steel production.


Indians in Russia are a visible minority; their small number make them remain in the shadow of such minorities as the Azeris (Transcaucasian Shia Muslims) and the Chechens. They are often mentioned in the media, particularly with reference to three issues. The first has to do with transit migration. Nearly one thousand Indians were apprehended last year at the Russian-Ukrainian border. The Indians who enter Ukraine from Russia are interested in moving further into Europe. They also enter via the Byelorussia border or Estonia and Latvia. It is estimated that at least half of those who enter, manage to cross the border safely. Ukrainian border authorities estimate the total number of such transit migrants at nearly 10,000 annually.

According to Russian FSB (Federal Bureau of Investigation), about 40 Indians enter Russia every week in the hope of sneaking to the West. However, after a decade of negligence, Russia is taking steps to curb the multimillion business of human trafficking from India. The Russian FSB has started screening for potential illegal migrants from India.

Of recent concern for Indian nationals is the rising level of crime. Illegal immigrants of Indian origin often fall victims of abuse and violence, they are forced into drug trafficking and even selling their organs for transplantation by members of international gangs, among whom are Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Chechens, Russians. In May 2004, a Moscow court sentenced Pakistani traffickers to long-term prison terms for kidnapping nine Indians.

Another important concern is the rise of racism in Russia. Although it is Azeris and Chechens who are the main victims of racists, the media has identified several instances where Indians were the victims – one was reportedly killed in St Petersberg. Most recently there was the murder of 23-year-old medical student Atish Kumar Ramgoolam, an Indian from Mauritius. Among victims of racist attacks students of South Asian origin from Surinam, Guyana are also mentioned.

The third area of concern is that relating to the establishment of Indian religious and cultural institutions, particularly the proposed construction of a Hindu temple on Hodinskoye Pole in Moscow which has led to heated discussion in Russian society.

In conclusion, the current dynamics of the Indian diaspora in Russia suggests that though their numbers are on the rise the themes that reflect their presence are not unique. Indeed they mirror the problems of Indians in other countries of the Indian diaspora. These, according to the Kotin study, are the problems of racism and cultural alienation from the host society, the problem of illegal immigration, transit movement of population, education, business and settlement, religion and culture.

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