The first Russian in India

In 1466, some 30 years before Columbus arrived in America, the Russian merchant Afanasy Nikitin left his hometown of Tver on a commercial trip to India. 

Travelling to distant countries in the middle of the XV century was actually even harder than in the “Covid months” of 2020 and it would take Nikitin a staggering three years to reach his destination. The whole adventure would last a total of six years, and it is commemorated in the book he wrote:  The Journey Beyond Three Seas (Khozhdeniye za tri morya), the first Russian literary work to depict a strictly commercial, non-religious trip. In 1957, during the high time of Indo-Russian amity, an Indo-Soviet movie was co-produced between the state-owned “Mosfilm Studio” and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s, “Naya Sansar International” production house. It was titled Pardesi in Hindi and  Хождение за три моря (Khozhdenie za tri morya) in Russian. The film was in SovColor (the “Soviet Color” equivalent to Technicolor) , though no colour print of the Hindi version is known to survive in India. Only a black and white copy of the Hindi film survives.

This is a poster for Journey Beyond Three Seas. The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the item promoted, the publisher of the item promoted or the graphic artist.

Considering the lenght of his journey, he didn’t get very far before running into serious troubles.

He travelled down the Volga River, and he was attacked and robbed by Tatars near Astrakhan in what at the time was the The Khanate of Astrakhan, also referred to as the Xacitarxan Khanate, was a Tatar state that arose during the break-up of the Golden Horde. He barely escaped with his life and was able to reach Derbent, where he joined Vasili Papin, the envoy of Ivan the Great to the shah of Shirvan (a historical Iranian region in the eastern Caucasus).

Panorama of Volga river in the Tver Region. Already at less than 100 km from the source it is an impressive river. Picture by me.

In Derbent, Nikitin was understandably disheartened and, having been robbed of all he had to sell, he endeavoured to get means of returning to Russia. Luckily, both for him and history in general, he was unsuccessful and resorted to keep on traveling and looking for better fortune. So he went on to Baku and later Persia by crossing the Caspian Sea.

He lived in Persia for one year and then (in the spring of 1469, almost three years after his departure from Russia), Nikitin arrived at the city of Ormus and then, crossing the Arabian Sea, and making several prolonged stays along the way, reached the sultanate of Bahmani, where he would live for three years.

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During that time he studied the population of India, its social system, government, military (he witnessed war-games featuring war elephants), its economy, religion, lifestyles, and natural resources. The abundance and trustworthiness of Nikitin’s factual material provide a valuable source of information about India at that time, and his remarks on the trade of HormuzCambayCalicutDabholCeylonPegu and China; on royal progresses and other functions, both ecclesiastical and civil, at Bahmani, and on the wonders of the great fair at Perwattum—as well as his comparisons of things Russian and Indian—deserve special notice.

After having accumulated such a wealth of knowledge (but not so much of material possessions, in spite of his success as a horse dealer), he finally decided it was time to head home. On his way back, Nikitin visited Muscat, the Arabian sultanate of Somalia and Trabzon, and in 1472 arrived at Feodosiya by crossing the Black Sea.

Unfortunately, he would never fullfill his dream of seeing his native town again: on his way to Tver, Nikitin died not far from Smolensk in the autumn of 1472.

Panorama of a sunset on the Volga river in the city of Tver. It’s not hard to see why Nikitin Afanasi was homesick! Picture by me.

The story, however, doesn’t end here.

Almost 500 years later, another Russian went to India, this time for state matters. The year was 1955 and his name was Nikita Khrushchev. Legend has it that during a meeting, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked Krushchev if the Russians had honored the first Russian to visit India and the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union quickly replied that, of course, that there was a beautiful and imposing statue of Nikitin in Russia. The problem was that there was no such statue, or any statue of Nikitin for that matter.

The bronze Statue of Nikitin Afanasi in the city of Tver (as in the feature image of the post), with the bow of a ship similar to the one he used to navigate the Volga over 500 years ago. Both pictures by me.

So, still according to legend, so as not to be proven a liar, Khrushchev phoned back to Russia demanding that a statue of Nikitin be built immediately, before Nehru’s state visit to Russia and in the same year, the local authorities of Tver (at the time still with the Soviet name of Kalinin) erected a bronze monument to Afanasy Nikitin by the sculptor Sergei Orlov on the bank of the Volga River. The monument was officially inaugurated on May 31st 1955, 65 years ago almost to the day.

Bonus fact

Did you know that at the beginning of the XIX century Russia and Napoleon were allied and they wanted to conquer India together? You can read the full story here.


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