On a January morning in 1698, a ship carrying goods from Bandar Abbas in Safavid Persia arrived at the bustling port of Surat. Among the passengers were Indians, Persians and a small group of men who became the first Russians to reach the shores of western India since Afanasy Nikitin arrived in Chaul in the 15th century. The Russians were led by a young merchant and traveller, Semyon Malenkiy (also spelt as Malenkov), who was determined to spend a few years in India and take back home a wealth of products.

Malenkiy had set sail in June 1695 from Astrakhan, a city where the Volga makes its final 100-kilometre journey to the Caspian Sea. Before embarking on the journey to Surat, most of Malenkiy’s knowledge of India – a land ruled by the Great Mughals (as they were called in Russia) – came from Multani and Sindhi traders, who were treated as privileged residents in Astrakhan, as well as Persians who had visited the subcontinent.

Malenkiy’s mission was the second attempt by Russian tsars to reach out to Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Before this, they had tried to reach out to Shah Jahan. To Russians in the 17th century, India was the land of rubies, diamonds and fine fabrics. Among their main sources of information about India were the writings of Nikitin and Marco Polo. “The allusions to rubies and diamonds in Marco Polo as well as the many accounts, real and imaginary, of the fabulous wealth of India and its exotic inhabitants that we encounter from early Greco-Roman times down to the present day are part of the ‘India the Rich’ tradition which becomes a commonplace in the later literatures of Europe, including Russia,” American scholar Robert H Stacy wrote in his 1985 book India in Russian Literature.

From the early 1600s, the tsars had been looking at ways to establish a direct relationship with the Mughal empire. Indirect trade was already common by then. Indian cotton, dyes and garments were filtering into Russia through Central Asia and Astrakhan, which hosted an Indian community. The royalty also had some prized Indian possessions by way of gifts from Central Asian rulers of places like Khiva and Buhkara.

“During this period we can also observe the initial attempts by the Romanov administration to collect and systematise information about India, notably about the political system, the Mughal rulers, and, most importantly, about the possible routes by which Russians might travel there,” Central Asia scholar and expert Ulfat Abdulrasulov wrote in paper titled ‘A Passage to India: Rhetoric and Diplomacy between Muscovy and Central Asia in the Seventeenth Century’. Russian envoys in various courts were tasked with getting as much information about the Mughals as possible, according to Abdulrasov.

Several attempts were made in the 1640s by Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich to send Russian missions to India via Central Asia. Three attempts were made to send representatives to Shah Jahan alone. Two of these travelled through Central Asia via the land route and one through Isfahan. But none of these attempts materialised as territorial disputes between the Safavids and Mughals as well as conflicts in the Central Asia became a hindrance to the safe passage of Russian envoys.

Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

First outreach

In 1675, Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich once again tried to establish trade relations with India. By this time, Aurangzeb was the Mughal emperor. Much of what is known about this outreach is public knowledge largely thanks to the tireless efforts of Koka Antonova, one of the greatest Indologists Russia has produced. The 1958 book Russo-Indian Relations in the 17th Century, which was edited by Antonova, mentions the 1675 mission in fine detail.

A two-part mission was launched, with a tsarist delegation trying to reach India via Bukhara. The mission was led by Muhammad Yusuf (Mahmet Isup) Kasimov, a Tatar who lived in Astrakhan, and Vasily Daudov, a Persian-origin man who left Isfahan for the tsar’s court and embraced Russian Orthodox Christianity. Kasimov and Daudov were joined by a few translators.

The group was asked to go to Khiva and Bukhara to free some Russian prisoners who were held by the local Khan. Kasimov would then proceed through Balkh to Kabul and onwards to the court of Aurangzeb. The group sailed down the Volga from Astrakhan to the Caspian Sea and then touched land in what is now Turkmenistan. From there, they travelled by camel for months to reach Khiva and Bukhara.

Kasimov and four others proceeded from Bukhara to Balkh, while Daudov, who had to explore trade options in Central Asia, stayed on before returning to Moscow. The tsar had told Kasimov to get an audience with Aurangzeb and present him with personal gifts along with a letter in Latin, Tatar and Russian. He was also asked to propose the establishment of direct trade and diplomatic ties between the Mughal Empire and the Tsardom of Russia. Aside from this, records indicate, the tsar wanted India’s famous stone craftsmen to migrate to Russia.

By the autumn of 1676, Kasimov and his delegation reached Kabul, where they met Governor Mukarram Khan Mir Ishaq. The Russians expected an enthusiastic response to their diplomatic outreach but that was not to be. When Aurangzeb, who was in Shahjahanabad, received a missive from the Kabul governor about the Russian delegation, he refused to meet it.

“And you, a governor of Kabul, have written to me, to the Great Indian Sovereign, that an ambassador had come next to you from the Russian state, and now he wants to go before us,” Aurangzeb wrote in a letter to Mukarram Khan. “Upon this report, my order to you, the Khan of Kabul, is the following: never before have the Russian state’s envoys arrived to our Indian state. So it is now: you must send him back to the Russian state, providing him with our royal warrant and proper gifts, so that he can intact go back to the Russian state.” The Mughal emperor also asked the Kabul governor to give Kasimov a princely sum of 2000 rupees from the treasury.

Kasimov and his delegation had no choice but to return to Russia. Some Russian historians say the delegation was offered the opportunity to join the services of Aurangzeb but refused. The gifts intended for the Mughal emperor were sold and the proceeds used to free Russian prisoners in Central Asia. Kasimov returned to Russia via Balkh, Khiva and Chardzhou (now Turkmenabat). He arrived in Astrakhan a dejected man in the spring of 1677.

Semyon Malenkiy’s voyage

Russian interest in India did not diminish over the next few decades. By the 1690s, the country’s greatest monarch Peter the Great was already approaching his first decade of a 43-year old reign that transformed Russia. The tsar, who initially co-ruled Russia with his half-brother Ivan V, took a deep interest in India and was favourably disposed to the Indian merchants in Astrakhan. Peter the Great told Semyon Malenkiy to go to India with a similar mandate as Kasimov. Since Central Asia remained volatile, Malenkiy decided to try to get to India through the sea route.

Peter the Great. Credit: Jean-Marc Nattier/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The journey began from Moscow in May 1695, with the group sailing on small ships down the Moskva River until they reached the Oka River, the largest tributary of the Volga. From Nizhny-Novogorod, they loaded their cargo into larger ships and sailed down the Volga to Astrakhan, leaving the city for the Caspian Sea in June 1695.

After reaching the coast of Persia, the group travelled on horses and camels to the city of Shamakhi (in modern-day Azerbaijan). From there, the Russians travelled to Isfahan to meet the Safavid Shah. They were allowed to trade in the Safavid Empire by paying a duty of 15%. They lived in Persia till January 1698 and then set sail from Bandar Abbas for Surat, a journey that took 20 days.

Approaching Aurangzeb

By 1698, Surat was used to visiting foreign traders, so the Russians did not arouse suspicion. But Malenkiy was cautious. Aware of the story of Kasimov not being allowed to travel beyond Kabul, Malenkiy and his group decided not to reveal that they were sent by the tsar of Russia. They stayed in an inn in Surat for three months before setting off for Burhanpur, where Aurangzeb had set up a military camp.

They had better luck with the Mughal emperor than Kasimov. Malenkiy met Aurangzeb’s treasurer to whom he presented his credentials. The Russian merchant was then invited to meet Aurangzeb in his tent.

The emperor’s attitude had changed from a few decades earlier, and he decided to issue a royal firman (edict) that allowed the Russian merchant to trade (without duties) anywhere within the Mughal Empire.

Malenkiy and his fellow travellers lived for three months in Burhanpur, where they sold their wares, such as red yuft, a type of Russian leather. They were paid in silver coins.

Andrei Semyenov, who was part of Malenkiy’s delegation, wrote about his experiences in India, describing Aurangzeb as a “grey-bearded old man, dressed in all white, with a white turban on his head”. He recalled the emperor’s Friday processions, when he went to the main mosque for prayers. At the head of the procession marched war elephants bestridden by musicians blowing trumpets and beating tambourines while bannermen waved colourful flags. Thoroughbred horses followed the elephants and behind them Aurangzeb was carried in a glazed palanquin by eight porters. The emperor was followed by his sons, courtiers and noblemen. The procession was accompanied by foot guards and cavalry, according to Semyenov.

Life in India

After spending a few months in Burhanpur, the Russian merchants travelled to Agra, a city Semyenov really liked. About the Agra Fort, he wrote: “The city is built up in three walls, and there is no housing (for commoners) within those walls – only a palace, offices, and a mosque. A large ditch was dug around those walls, into which water was let in, and large fish and turtles live in that water.” The Russians were amazed that the buildings were made of sandstone.

Semyonov also wrote about the time the Russian merchants spent in Shahjahanabad. They seemed to like India and its people. “They are quiet and affectionate people,” Semyonov wrote about Indians, adding that they “were courteous and friendly”.

During their stay in India, Malenkiy and his team bought a lot of Indian goods such as muslin and calico and dry paints. They eventually went back to Surat and waited for a few months to arrange passage with their goods for Bandar Abbas in 1701. They lost some of their newly acquired goods when one of the ships carrying them was attacked by pirates near Oman.

From Bandar Abbas, they went to Isfahan and the group split up there. For some reason, Semyonov stayed back in the Persian city. When he reached Shamakhi, he found out that Malenkiy and his fellow merchants had died of the plague.

The Malenkiy-led delegation had lost contact with the tsarist government as soon as they left Astrakhan. Their goods were sent by the Persian Shah’s government to Russia. It was assumed that all members of the delegation had died in 1702 of the plague. It was only in 1716 when the Russian Senate announced that Peter the Great was looking for people who “know Indian life” and would reward them handsomely that Semyonov turned up in the new Russian capital of St Petersburg and shared the full story of experiences of Malenkiy’s delegation.

The exploits of Malenkiy and his delegation deepened interest in India in the Russian Empire, setting the way for other Russians to visit and understand the country and its culture.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.