8-14 March 2013 #646

The Russia returns

Nepali alumni of Russian universities are high-achievers in their chosen professions
Sunir Pandey

BACK IN THE DAY: Nepali students along with their international classmates pose for photos at the Red Square in Moscow in 1988.
It was the Cold War and Nepal was trying to steer an equidistance path between the superpowers. So when the Soviet Union offered free technical education for Nepali students, King Mahendra saw it as a cheap and effective opportunity to develop the country’s human resources.

The Soviet Union was competing with the West for influence and reach in the Third World and even if Mahendra harboured misgivings about Nepalis returning from Russia brainwashed into communism, it doesn’t seem to have deterred him. Hundreds of Nepali students who studied engineering, medicine or journalism in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev or Odessa did not come back as communist zealots. In fact, the opposite happened: many went on to become successful businessmen and cut their teeth trading in jeans and chewing gum between Finland and the Soviet Union.

But more importantly, most Soviet-educated students came home to work in Nepal. “The USSR did not have a policy of bringing in highly-skilled migrants and rightly so because their economy could not support it,” recalls Hemant Dabadi, Director General of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce, who studied in Russia in the 1970s. “A lot of us saw through the ideology and there was no charm for Nepali students to stay back and live there.”

Back home, despite graduates from the West getting preferential treatment, the Russia returns worked hard and rose to prominence in many fields. Among the more notable ones are ex-ministers Ganesh Shah and Dipak Gyawali, cardiologist Awanibhusan Upadhyaya, psychiatrist Bishwa Bandhu Sharma, journalism trainer Manju Mishra, solar-energy pioneer Jagannath Shrestha, and engineer Bijaya Man Shrechan.

“Most Nepali graduates from Russia have returned to work in their country, I have been  impressed with their passion and patriotism, they are extremely motivated and are at the top of their professions today,” says Russian ambassador, Sergey Vasilievich Velichkin  (see Interview). Russian-trained doctors were generally more willing to work with the rural poor, civil engineers went to remote areas to build highways, and geologists explored the country for minerals.

“There was a time when you could go to any of the 75 districts in Nepal and probably find at least a doctor or an engineer who studied in the USSR,” says Dipak Gyawali, former Minister for Water Resources. “None of us knew much about communism when we went there as 18-year olds. It was just another strange land with its own rules. But living together with our Russian batch mates, studying obligatory Marxism while participating in the ubiquitous black market, we did see two sides of the coin. We developed a critical eye towards capitalist consumerism, but also saw the corruption of that ideology which was no different from our Panchayat classes in Nepal.”

There is a popular Russian joke about education in Russia. Two Third World leaders met in the lobby of the UN. One complained that it was getting impossible to govern his country with the communists calling strikes and bandas all the time. The other said he had the same problem but he solved it. How? He sent all the ring leaders off to Moscow to study and they came back total free marketers, that is black marketers.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, many universities were privatised and the scholarships for Nepali students were dropped. Nepalis still go to study in Russia, but most pay their own way now. The numbers are not as many as before, says Dil Ratna Shakya of the Russian Cultural Centre, but strong technical education and news of Nepali billionaires in Russia still lure Nepalis to Russia.

The most successful,and best-known, Nepali who studied in the former Soviet Union is Upendra Mahato who made his fortune because as a Nepali he adapted better and faster to capitalism and the free market when communism collapsed. Today, Mahato commands a multinational business empire that straddles Belarus, Russia, and Nepal. Among the Nepalis who studied in Russia and didn’t come back to Nepal, many like Mahato, invested in their homeland in hydropower, banking, media, and tourism.

Russia returns have their own organisation called Mitra Kunj to keep track of the more than 5,000 alumni of Russian universities even hosting a meeting of graduates last year in Moscow. But as the Soviet-era graduates now reach retirement age, it is becoming less and less likely that today’s Nepalis who go abroad to study will want to come back.

See also:

Nepal’s ‘Russian mafia’

From Russia with love

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