External Affairs

Remembering Alexander Kadakin, Russian Ambassador to India

Alexander Mikhailovich Kadakin spent over two decades working in India, which he described as both his karma-bhoomi and his prem-bhoomi.

Alexander Kadakin. Credit: Facebook

Alexander Kadakin. Credit: Facebook

New Delhi: Alexander Mikhailovich Kadakin was 22 years old when he landed in Delhi on a hot summer day in August 1971. It was at the peak of India’s relations with the Soviet Union, when New Delhi signed a 20-year treaty of friendship amidst gathering war clouds in the subcontinent.

That was the start of his 45-year diplomatic career, two decades of which were spent at the extensive grounds of the Russian embassy on Delhi’s Shantipath.

Kadakin passed away after suffering a heart failure in a Delhi hospital on Thursday morning. He was 67.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi mourned his death as that of a “great friend of India” who “tirelessly contributed to stronger India-Russia ties”.

The Ministry of External Affairs also describe the loss as that of a “valued friend”.

Describing his life-long association with the subcontinent, Kadakin said in a speech three years ago, “One can only guess what is written in God’s book of destiny, but I do believe my listing is enciphered both in Cyrillic and Devanagari”.

He traced his interest in India to Raj Kapoor films – with their safe socialist narrative – which were immensely popular in the post-war period in the Soviet Union. His childhood books were the Panchantra, Hitopadesha and the Jungle Book, followed by Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India.

The young Kadakin didn’t vacillate in choosing his new profession after school, becoming a “student of India” at the MGMIO university under the Soviet foreign ministry.

From university, he arrived in Delhi as a probationer at the Russian embassy. “You can imagine for a young man of 22 years to come to the country he had been studying so long. It was a dream come true,” he said.

In the 1970s, the Indian capital had a more provincial flavour, but Kadakin often reminisced nostalgically about those days when the embassy grounds backed into wilderness.

His first stint was for seven years, before he returned to the headquarters. With his fluency in Hindi, Kadakin used to accompany the ambassador at meetings with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He would later say that Mrs Gandhi was impressed with his Hindi and predicted that he would be back in India as ambassador.

It was a challenging but enjoyable stint, when the young diplomat used to wander around the city, enjoying samosas from Chandni Chowk, drinking a dozen cups of coffee and indulging in sweets at Bengali market.

After a break at the headquarters, Kadakin was back in Delhi from 1989 to 1993 as the deputy chief of mission. His first ambassadorial position was in Nepal from 1993 to 1997.

He became the Russian ambassador to India in 1999, presenting his credentials to President K.R. Narayanan. After five years during which Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee formally elevated ties to a ‘strategic partnership’ in 2000, he went back to Moscow, only to return as the Russian envoy in October 2009.

He had to helm a new Russian-Indian relationship, which was becoming more transactional, as the memories of the warmth of the Soviet era slowly faded away with a new generation of leadership, both in Moscow and New Delhi.

Kadakin had to manoeuvre Russian foreign policy, as Moscow viewed New Delhi becoming more and more aligned to Washington. In the last few years, Moscow’s outreach to Pakistan was especially challenging, with Kadakin having to deploy all his public diplomacy skills to quell the outrage. Initial reports that Russian military personnel would take part in joint exercises in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which were later denied, kept the embassy in full damage control mode for days.

Known for his flamboyant turns of phrase, Kadakin was a very popular ambassador. His last public appearance was at the embassy’s much-anticipated annual masquerade ball last week.

In the end, Kadakin’s own words are, perhaps, most appropriate to describe his bond with India.

“The other day, in Darjeeling, an idea struck my mind that the discovery of India is like scaling a Himalayan summit. The higher one ascends, the more the horizon broadens, and only at the top the breath-taking panorama unfolds in a short-lived drama of the morning. India has entered my life as a second homeland. It has become my karma-bhumi, because I worked here for so many years, my gnyana-bhumi, because I have learnt a lot here, my tapa-bhumi (especially in the hot season), but most importantly – my prem– and maitri-bhumi, because I have given a half of my heart to India and because me personally and the new Russia, which I have the honour to represent as Ambassador for the second time, have millions of good friends here.” [May 2013]

A condolence book will be opened at the Embassy of the Russian Federation from January 27-30.