“Would you happen to be anywhere near South Mumbai this afternoon?” the message on my phone read as I approached the Spanish Steps in Rome in the autumn of 2018.
“Actually, Volodya, I am just 6,200 kilometres away, but what’s on your mind?” I replied.
As soon as Vladimir Viktorovich Dementiev, who I often referred to by the dimunitive Volodya, the director of the Russian cultural centre in Mumbai, knew where I was, he reminded me that the great writer Nicholai Gogol lived in the same area and that his old apartment had been converted into a museum.
“Potresti andare alla casa di Nicholai Vassilevich?” he asked. Would you be able to visit Nicholai Vassilevich’s home?
For the seven years that I had known him at that time, Dementiev would never let me speak in any language with him except Russian. And here he was, writing in perfect Italian. A man of great mystery, I found out later on that Dementiev was also a fluent German speaker.
Flash forward to the April 21, 2021, a time when the Angel of Death is taking away many a soul in India. A message came to me on the same phone from a Russian friend: “Vladimir Dementiev passed away in Kolkata today.” His untimely demise came as a shock to the small Russian expatriate community in India, as well as the closely-knit circle of Russian speakers and Russophiles in the country.
For the Russian language community in Mumbai, we lost one of our pillars.
Dementiev, who was born in Moscow in 1959, had an illustrious career as a bureaucrat in the Russian capital and was an expert in a variety of areas such as foreign trade and metallurgy, but his true passion was the fine arts – and particularly classical music.
In 2009, he was appointed the director of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Mumbai (now the Russian House). The centre, during the heyday of Indo-Soviet bonhomie, was one of the premier cultural venues in Mumbai. But by the time Dementiev took up the position, there were wild rumours that the Russians were considering closing the centre and selling the piece of prime real estate in the posh locality of Pedder Road. Fortunately for the Russophiles of the city, this was not to be.
In 2009, the centre’s library, which has a great collection of Russian classics in several Indian languages, had been closed for years. Its auditorium and other facilities looked and felt worn out, and magazines and newspapers in Mumbai seemed to forget of the centre’s existence.
Russian culture in Mumbai
Over the next ten years, Dementiev made it his mission to restore the centre to the state it had achieved in the ’70s and ’80s. In addition to renovating and reopening the library, he opened a ballet studio, restarted the chess club, launched a Russian film club that screened free films twice a week, revamped the Russian language courses and gave the centre a fresh lease of life. And then it once again became a prime venue for Russian musical and dance events, and even hosted the famous Gzhel ballet.
Dementiev also made it a point to reach out to Russia’s friends in Mumbai, re-establishing connections with the Kapoor family. In 2016, the Russian centre even arranged for Ksenia Ryabinkina, who starred in Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker to visit Mumbai for the legendary actor’s birth anniversary celebrations.
He also put in a great deal of effort to trace Mumbai’s historic links with Russia, talking fondly of the Leningrad Chowk in Prabhadevi, and reminded Mumbaikars about Dr Waldemar Haffkine’s development of the cholera and plague vaccines in India. The Odessa-born doctor was a Jewish subject of the Russian Empire.
Dementiev also managed to locate the grave of Boris, the two-year old son of Vasily Von Klemm, the Russian Empire’s first consul general in India, in Panchgani. Boris passed away in 1905 of a mysterious illness.
The Russian diplomat was thrilled when a bust of Yuri Gagarin was installed in the premises of the Nehru Science Centre in 2011. He wanted Mumbai to have a monument to Russian merchant Afanasy Nikitin, who arrived on the shores of Revdanda in the Raigad district in 1469.
Over Dementiev’s ten-year stint in Mumbai, the events, parties and get-togethers at the Russian centre were great ways for the Russophiles of the city to stay connected with Russia.
In the beginning of 2019, he told us that he was moving to Kolkata to head the Gorky Sadan, as the Russian cultural centre in the city is called. In this relatively brief period in Kolkata, he had made a lot of friends and took the energy and passion he had for Russian culture to the city.
Little did any us, in his circle of Mumbai friends, know at the beginning of 2019 that we’d never see our dear friend again. For a man so full of life, energy, enthusiasm and vision, 62 is way too young to leave this world.
Goodbye, Vladimir! We will terribly miss you.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai.