After the Bolshevik revolutionaries seized power in 1917, there was an exodus from the Russian Empire. As many a million people, who came to be called White Russians or White émigrés, fled communism. Stories of them turning up in places such as Paris, Berlin and Shanghai are well known. What is not is that a miniscule minority chose to settle down in India.

Given the close familial and diplomatic relationship that existed between the late Romanovs and the British royal family, most Russian émigrés were granted the necessary permissions to live in India. But there was also a degree of distrust. The security establishment was suspicious of foreigners who lived in India during the Raj and made sure to keep them under surveillance.

Russians in India in the early 1940s were seen as potential enemy agents since it could not be ascertained beyond doubt whether they were indeed émigrés waiting for the Soviet regime to collapse or supporters of the USSR that in 1939 had signed a no-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.

Their citizenship status complicated how they could be dealt with. Germans, Romanians and others, who were citizens of the Axis powers, could be repatriated from India or interned, but since many Russians claimed to be stateless there was no easy solution.

Nevertheless, in security circles in India, it was generally accepted that most émigrés wanted Britain to win the war since a defeat of the Nazis at the hands of the Allies could also lead to the fall of the Soviet Union. The geopolitical equation changed in June 1941 when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. Suddenly, the USSR went from being a potential threat to an ally of the British and the loyalty of Russian émigrés in India came into question.

Word of caution

One of the tactics employed by the British police and intelligence establishment in India was to recruit members of the expatriate community to work as informers. The Russian community was no exception. On August 28, 1941, just over two months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, a Russian secret agent from the émigré community sent a letter to the Intelligence Bureau in Delhi, proposing that the colonial authorities give Russians in India British citizenship. The letter, along with all further documentation on the matter, has been meticulously preserved in India’s National Archives.

The letter, written in flawless English by a person who claimed to have been a part of the Russian community for 20 years, argued that the Allied embrace of the USSR could impact the loyalty of the émigrés in India to the British. “There can be no shadow of doubt to every Russian émigré the new alignment (though meaning a blow to Nazism) was most distasteful, and meant a complete collapse of their aspirations,” The agent said. “Whereas it was clear that the Allies were prepared to welcome any nation to their midst who fought Nazism and that British views concerning communism were buried for duration – it became abundantly clear that allied victory now meant a Soviet government installed for good, and the last hope abolished for many an exile of ever seeing his or home again.”

The agent said Russians in India felt less secure and welcome because of the changes in the geopolitical situation and could be exploited by those supporting Nazi Germany in India. He claimed the German agents could use the following arguments to win over Russian émigrés:

“Germany’s sole aim in going to war on Soviet Russia is to destroy Bolshevism. Once this has been done, you will be free to return home, to your home town. Already White Russians are going back to Smolensk, Gomel, Necolaief, etc. England has let you down. You have no status here, and very soon Soviet consulates etc in India will press for your internment as enemies of the Soviet state. Help us now! Get us such and such information, arrange with your Indian friends for such and such sabotage, and you can return to Russia as our friend. If Britain wins this war, where will you be? Communism will spread to India and you will be a refugee again. England is openly helping Soviet Russia- we are only asking you to help yourselves against your real enemy. The French are with us….etc.”  

The Russian agent said he believed that most émigrés would not fall for German propaganda, but a handful could become “fifth columnists”. He was particularly wary of Russian women who came to Calcutta from China, frequented nightclubs and formed a part of the so-called “Shanghai Russian” community which hated both Soviet and Chinese communists. In the end, he called on the government to offer British citizenship to all the émigrés who came to India before the war started.

Upon receiving the letter, the British authorities decided to look into the matter. While forwarding it to the Home Department, the Intelligence Bureau Secretary wrote, “The suggestion that we might purchase the loyalty of these persons by naturalizing them is novel, but its boldness does not necessarily make it foolish. I doubt, however, whether the danger from these persons is great enough to warrant the suggestion even if it would be effective and were not undesirable on general grounds.”

As the letter made its way through the bureaucracy, it was decided to compile a record of all Russians living in British India and the princely states at that time. Letters were even sent to places like Sikkim to submit a report on the presence of any Russians and all available personal details. The search revealed the existence of a community that came from places such as the Baltic states, Siberia and Central Asia and numbered less than 500 but was spread across the length and breadth of the subcontinent.

Bombay dreams

The Bombay Presidency had the largest numbers, with 54 people from the former Russian Empire calling it home. Most of them lived in South Bombay but the list shows that two girls were boarders of the Mount Mary Convent in Bandra. Nineteen-year-old Valentina Rechetniak was born in Panjim, while her 21-year-old sister was born in Iran. Unlike most others on the list, there is no record of when they came to India. Another 19-year old student, a Savely Minz, was enrolled at an engineering college in Poona.

The community was well spread across South Bombay and comprised of engineers, photographers, dress-makers, musicians, carpenters, even a dental surgeon and an ice cream manufacturer.

The police kept an eye on some of these Russians, including one Mikhail Voronzoff, a 32-year-old who was born in Kiev and worked as a manager for a roofing material factory. A resident of Byculla, he came to Bombay as a refugee via Pondicherry and Madras. Voronzoff was on the watchlist because of the unclear circumstances surrounding his arrival, but the notes on the list state that since his arrival, he had “not come to adverse notice”.

Quite a few Russians moved to India with their families, such as the Bombay-based Gorokhoffs. Alexis Gorokhoff, who was born in Jarkent (in modern-day Kazakhstan), came with his wife Anna and daughter Olga and entered India in Gilgit. They were issued travel documents by the British Resident in Srinagar. Several other Russians came via Kashmir.

Bombay seemed to be a popular destination among those who were part of the performing arts. Odessa-born Mstislav Tairoff and his friend Vladimir Yashin, who arrived from Shanghai via Calcutta in 1939, worked as musicians with Anglo-Indian saxophonist Ken Mac and his orchestra.

The Roerich family

The lists from other parts of India were not as comprehensive as those prepared by the Bombay Police. The authorities in Punjab had a sub-section of so-called Asiatic Russians. Fourteen out 15 people on the list were men, with four of them living in Rawalpindi, one in Amritsar and the rest in Lahore. They mostly had names that would not distinguish them from Punjabi Muslims. One exception was 42-year-old Kamil Jan, who was a shoemaker. Six of the Asiatic Russians were knife-sharpeners. There’s no record of when they entered India and under what circumstances.

The authorities kept much closer tabs on the six European Russians who lived in Lahore. Among them was 41-year-old Andre Krikliwy, who worked as the curator of the Lahore Zoo. Lahore was also home to Boris Fedorenko, a 32-year-old cabaret artist who lived there with his Hungarian-born wife Amalia. The police made no specific note about 43-year-old Vladimir Kmitovich, who worked as a manager of the Stiffles Restaurant, or Dmitri Artehoff, a 70-year-old who was listed as a refugee. They did, however, keep track of Solokhdin Tahstdinoff, a 44-year-old circus artist.

The authorities in Karachi also had a separate list of European and Asiatic Russians. As was the case in Bombay, the list had more detailed information about the city’s Russian residents and where they came from.

Nicholas Roerich, Devika Rani and Svetoslav Roerich. Kullu, 1945. [Public Domain]

The list prepared by the Punjab authorities included the names of the mystical Roerich family. Writer, artist and philosopher Nicholas Roerich lived on an estate in Naggar in the Kullu Valley with his wife Helena, also a writer, and their sons George and Svetoslav. The family, which was viewed with great suspicion by the British, had visited India a few times before permanently settling in the country in 1935. They are most famous for going on an expedition from northern India to Altai in Russia, crossing the Himalayas, the Karakorum Pass, East Turkestan, Tibet, China and Mongolia.

In the note prepared for the Home Department, the Punjab authorities wrote the following about Nicholas Roerich: “Aged 66. Came to India in 1935 and has been regarded with suspicion at various times. Is well known to the Govt. of India.” The Roerich family were supporters of Indian independence and were close to the Nehru family and other eminent Indians of the time.

Two Russian maids and the Roerich family doctor were also registered at the Naggar estate.

Strategic value

Reports submitted to the Home Department suggested that places such as Orissa, Coimbatore, the Nilgiris, Cochin, Trivandrum, Bangalore, Calcutta, Delhi, Hyderabad (Sind) and Quetta all had registered Russian residents. Some of the places such as Delhi and Bangalore submitted far more detailed reports to the department.

Quite a few of the residents of these places were army and navy officers who had fought for the White Army against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. The British authorities were aware of the strategic value of having such people in India in the event of a future confrontation with the Soviet Union in places like Afghanistan, but by the 1940s many of these officers were in their late 60s and 70s.

Once they received reports from all parts of India about the Russian community, the authorities in Delhi decided not to act on the proposal to offer British citizenship to the émigrés. Most members of the Russian émigré community stayed in the Indian subcontinent until the end of the war and slowly moved out of the country. The notable exceptions were most members of the Roerich family. Nicholas Roerich passed away in Naggar in 1947, while Helena died in Kalimpong in 1955. Their elder son George went back to Moscow and contributed immensely to Soviet studies of Asia, while Svetoslav, an accomplished painter, married Hindi film actress Devika Rani and became an Indian citizen.

Besides the books of the Roerich family, there is no body of work that documents the ordinary lives of Russian émigrés in India. But given the fact that people of that generation were meticulous diarists and record-keepers, there is always a chance that someone might one day discover Russian accounts of life in India in the 1930s and ’40s.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.