A generation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it may sound far-fetched to say that Nepal owes much of its development to the land of Lenin. But it is true. And we don't mean the fans of Vladimir Illich in our leftist political firmament; we mean the forgotten pioneering role played by hundreds of Soviet-trained technocrats, doctors and artists holding key positions in Nepali society today.
The biggest service they provided is that, unlike many Nepalis who went to Western Europe and the US to study, most of them came back. The 5,000 or so "Russia returned" have fond memories of their college days in Moscow and Kiev, of summers in the Black Sea coast and the dark and dreary Russian winters when the condensation on the dorm windows would freeze over. Decades later, with the Soviet Union shattered into 14 pieces, and communism itself in a coma, they still keep in touch with each other, and with things "back in the USSR".
It was during the deep freeze of the Cold War in the late 1950s that King Mahendra saw Nepal's future in developing the human resource. And what better, and cheaper, way to give young Nepalis a higher education than to get a ready and willing Soviet Union to pay for their education in engineering, medicine and other fields. Of course, Soviet rulers at the time had their own reasons for handing out scholarships to thousands from Africa, Latin America, the Arab world and Asian countries like Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and in the early years even from China (former Chinese prime minister Li Peng was Soviet-educated). They were planting the seeds of Soviet-style communism in the future leaders of the Third World. But most of those who returned from the Soviet Union also had an opportunity to tour Western Europe during vacations and, having seen the disparities between the two sides of the Iron Curtain, were vaccinated against Soviet-ism.
Bijaya Man Sherchan recalls the words of an American Jesuit priest from his high school in Kathmandu who failed to convince him not to go to the USSR: "From now on I'm going to pray for you every day." Fears about living, studying and working in a country "at an advanced stage of socialism" were exaggerated: the students got a good education and they did not return with minds cloned by communism.
Thus, with the blessings of the Panchayat government, those who excelled in their college exams headed for the USSR. In those days, merit was the main criteria. "Source force" played its part, but not as much as it does these days. Some notable Russia returns in Nepal today are: Dr Hariman Shrestha, whose thesis on hydroelectricity first expounded on the vast energy potential of Nepal's rivers, Dr Awanibhushan Upadhaya, eminent cardiologist, Dr Bishwabandhu Sharma, one of the few psychiatrists in Nepal, artists like Ram Prasad Bhaukaji, the pioneer of Safa tempos, Bijaya Man Sherchan, and the only Nepali with a doctorate in criminology, Dr Lokendra Sharma.
A Nepali Students' Union was formed during the 60s. Political economist Dipak Gyawali, who became president in the mid-70s, says: "Politics hadn't entered the union then. We used to get together and just have fun." Their favourite pastime was regular stuff-getting together and cooking dal, bhat, tarkari and washing it all down with swigs of pure Moskovskaya vodka.
Russia returns founded their own organisation called Mitra Kunj in 1967, which helps returnees keep track of friends and colleagues home and abroad. The association hosted the First Asia Meet of Graduates from the former Soviet Union in March this year with a well-attended gathering of ex-students from across the region. "We have started networking through the Internet. The prime objective is to generate an exchange of ideas, skills and experience we gathered in Russia," says Sherchan.
For TP Gauchan, a flight engineer, the time he spent in the USSR were the best days of his life. "A marvellous six years. All of us kept in touch with each other, we enjoyed going to the Black Sea for a vacation-the sea gave us a totally new vision of nature since we grew up without seeing one."
For Kalyani Shah, a lawyer and director at Himalaya Times, studying in the Soviet Union gave her confidence as a woman and a professional. "I was treated as an equal, and the Nepali Students' Union helped me a lot in identifying and raising a voice for different causes."
In the early days there were as many Nepalis earning their Masters in the Soviet Union as there were in India. At any given time more then 500 Nepalis would be scattered across some 20 different cities of the USSR with not more than 15 per city, and most of them ranking among the best in the class. Since they were the cream of their country, Nepalis routinely excelled in their studies, topping their classes and giving students from the Himalaya a good reputation throughout Russia, and the only competition they faced were from the East Germans. "Russian professors were so impressed with us that as soon as we finished our first year of language studies they would come searching for us," recalls economist Dipak Gyawali. "Nepalis were very popular among Russian teachers and students alike."
The Soviet government provided each student with 90 rubles a month, which in those days was a lot of money and much more than enough to live decently. But even if they saved the money, there was little to buy in the shops. Most Nepalis began making annual trips to Nepal to bring electronic goods and consumer items and selling it to the Russians, and making enough money for their roundtrip ticket home. Others travelled to Finland and Germany on organised shopping expeditions, bringing back everything from chewing gum to jeans, and sold them for astounding profits. It was in a communist country that Nepalis learnt the ways of a true capitalist free market.
After years of waking up to the reality of a Russian winter, sweating for a graduate degree, the respect these engineers, architects, doctors, geologists and artists got on their return home was immense. If there is one ideology that most Russia-returns agree they didn't come back with, it was communism. But they did return with something more potent: a sense of commitment and a resolve to do something for Nepal.
Unfortunately, most Nepalis with Russian degrees soon found themselves in the civil service, doing mundane bureaucratic jobs. It was bad for morale, but for many the idealism and Soviet education proved its worth. Without hesitation, doctors willingly worked with the rural poor, civil engineers went to remote areas to work on highway construction, and geologists criss-crossed the country on prospecting expeditions, mapping every inch of Nepal. "It cannot be the final truth that all those who returned from Russia played a big role in the nation's development, but it cannot be denied either," says Gauchan. Adds Gyawali: "I 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."
Another problem the graduates faced on return was language. If they were doctors, all the terminology they knew was in Russian. Says Rasmi Singh: "We underestimated how much of a handicap the lack of English would be for our professional career after coming back to Nepal." Gauchan remembers how he didn't even know the English word for screwdriver. A disappointment for the recently returned medical graduates is the reluctance of the Nepal Medical Council to recognise their degrees.
With the end of the Brezhnev era, the first products of Nepal's own New Education Plan started getting scholarships. That is when the decline began. Meritocracy began giving way to under-qualified students getting scholarships because of their affiliation to political parties. It was particularly in the field of medicine that Russian graduates lost credibility. After 1985 the trend of students paying their own way began to increase, and the general standard of graduates began a decline. Everyone blamed falling standards in the Soviet Union, but few looked at the decline in quality of the students going there. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the restoration of democracy to Nepal, the number of students going to Russia declined drastically. Corruption on both sides took its toll: you could study in Russia as long as you could pay tuition fees in dollars.
The 1,000 or so Nepali students studying in Russia today don't have the sense of security as their predecessors. Education is no longer free, costing anything up to $3,000 a year in tuition fees and more for dorm facilities and food. Then there is the mafia and crime, which used to be unheard of in the old days. The technical faculty is still as popular among the Nepali students, and every year about 200 Nepali students still go to Russia and the other former Soviet states to study, but about 30 percent of them never come back. That is perhaps the most significant difference.