Zahedul Haque, a graduate student, had picked out a clear glass Russian vodka bottle from a flea market in Panthapath and brought it home one day. It was a discarded bottle, of course, but anything 'Russian' had a special resonance with him and he treasured the bottle so much that he stopped talking with his sister for a while when she accidentally broke it one day.
His sister said, "I guess this incident shows the emotional connection communist Soviet Russia had on him." In fact, she also shared how they were the "second generation" of Soviet-influenced members in the family. "My father was the original communist, of course."
Long gone are the Soviet days and leftist politics in Bangladesh has lost its appeal and support. But like Zahedul, Bangladesh has a sizable population that still sympathises with Russian causes whether from their disillusion with the West or their affection for the Soviets.
Not long ago, the Russian Embassy in Dhaka posted a video on Facebook inviting people to move to Russia because they have "delicious cuisine, beautiful women and an economy that can withstand thousands of sanctions."
Bangladeshi netizens loved the video. They mostly realised that the video was trolling the West for the impending winter amid the gas crisis. But their outpouring of support for Russia in the context of the Ukraine war was all too clear in the comment section.
Baffling, isn't it?
To someone from the West, the Russia-sympathy among a section of Bangladeshis and the mainstream media may appear baffling – especially when one pauses to think of the export dependence of Bangladesh on the United States and Europe.
In 2021, Bangladesh exported $8.1 billion to the US, while the US has also been Bangladesh's top source of FDI with $4.3 billion. In FY2020-21, Bangladesh exported more than $17 billion to Europe.
In comparison, in the previous fiscal year 2018-19, Bangladesh's export to Russia was only $548.26 million and import was $653 million.
The entire bilateral trade between Bangladesh and Russia in 2021 was reported as a little over $1 billion.
Few, if at all, young Bangladeshis want to go to Russia for higher studies. Russia is not high on their list as a migration destination as well.
What, then, explains the pro-Russian stance of a sizable portion of Bangladeshis on social media with the Ukraine-Russia war? And the mainstream media's war coverage, that often favoured the Russian narratives, what to make of it, one wonders.
This emotional connection with Russia – although seemingly fading – has a deep cultural and political history. And understanding this combination of culture and politics requires diving deep into the history encompassing nearly a hundred years.
A hundred years of cultural and political link
"One of my friends' names was Rusho. One of my seniors was called Lenin, another Stalin," said journalist and communications specialist Towheed Feroze while explaining how Soviet support in Bangladesh's Liberation War led to the country's emergence as a socialist democracy popularising Russian names here.
"At that time, there was a craze for socialism, which was also a fallout of the Vietnam war where the Vietnamese were fighting imperialism. So, from the beginning of the 1970s, there was an anti-imperial perspective within the educated circle and in academia," he said, adding, "It was appealing to a large number of urban educated upper-middle-class youths."
Communist Party leader Mujahidul Islam Selim, however, believes the Soviet influence actually began to spread here back in the British period.
"Civilisations influence each other all the time. But in the case of Russian cultural influence in the Indian subcontinent, it had a political dimension, for the communist revolution in Russia created a stir all over the world," Mujahidul said, adding, "Especially those who were under colonial rule, it created a new awakening for them. Many revolutionaries from the Indian subcontinent went to the Soviet Union at that time."
One of the co-founders of the Communist Party of India (established in 1925) was Muzaffar Ahmad from Sandwip in Chittagong district of the Bengal Province in British India.
That political connection naturally spread the scope of cultural influence, popularising Russian literature. Russian writers like Maxim Gorki and Fyodor Dostoevsky became highly-read authors.
"A literary movement was surging centring the anti-fascism movement at the time. Russian literature played a key role in this.
"Russian literature was a must-read for leftists [political activists]. In the war camp in 1971, I used to read Marshal Zhukov's books on war experience to learn about strategy. But what stirred inside of me was also present in the society to some extent," the veteran politician added.
Tracing influence in books and films
Fifty years after the vibrant 1970s when the Soviets seemed to have strongly influenced a big part of a Bangladeshi generation, a debate can ensue about how much of it was for their politics and how much of it was for their vivid books and movies.
"I was just a little kid back then. I saw a fantastic book in one of my friend's home. It was a hardcover English book full of fantastic illustrations, great paper and excellent printing. I still remember the stories were about chickens, frogs etc. It was a Soviet publication," journalist Sharier Khan reminisced about how he came across Soviet literature.
"Another day, I found a book titled 'Rush desher upokotha' [Russian fables] at the same kid's home. In those days, I did not know a single kid who had not read that book. That was my real exposure to Russian culture and folklore. After that I collected many other Soviet books," said Sharier.
During that time, several publishing houses in the Soviet Union were printing translated versions of Soviet literature. Progoti and Raduga were for Bangla translations. They translated and published works of brilliant classic Russian writers like Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol, Chinghiz Aitmatov, Ivan Turgenev etc. Possibly the most prolific Bangla translator in Pragati was Nani Bhowmik.
Many like Sharier Khan, who at the time fell in love with Russian literature, films and music, did not necessarily turn into communists but many indeed became ideologically inclined to socialism.
Russian literature and culture highly influenced Bangladeshi literature and culture at the time as well.
"Characters [in cheap thrillers] were influenced by the story of Robin Hood but with subtle socialist traits," Towheed Feroze said, adding, "The protagonist would be an outlaw who lived outside the societal controls and robbed the corrupt and rich to help the impoverished."
Think of films like "Ghuddi" directed by Syed Salahuddin Zaki, or 1975's "Surja Kanya" directed by Alamgir Kabir. The main character of Surja Kanya is named Lenin, who was an unemployed artist from a lower-middle-class family. Alamgir Kabir is still considered one of the best filmmakers from Bangladesh.
Alamgir Kabir himself was a leftist.
"When Bangladesh was liberated, these [movie makers] were the enlightened, progressive voices of cinema, art and they influenced all the others," Towheed Feroze said. "In theatres and TV dramas, the protagonists were angry, rebellious leftists, who were jobless. This trope was used by others.
"'Sakal-Sandhya' was the first TV serial in the 1980s that was influenced by leftist ideology. Most TV dramas and serials were influenced by socialist outlooks. In 1984 or 1985, there was a BTV drama named 'Ayna'. The protagonist was a journalist played by Raisul Islam Asad. The storyline was built on an egalitarian ideology," he added.
Che's face on the walls
In the 1970s, a large portion of educated Bangladeshi youths were influenced by socialism. Many shunned government jobs and went for journalism instead.
"If you look into it, a lot of the senior journalists like late Zakaria Siraji, AUM Fakhruddin, Jamal Arslan and those still alive and active like NM Harun, Nilratan Halder, Shaheed Rahim, Maksud Ibna Rahman, Mahfuz Anam, Nurul Kabir, and Shahanoor Wahid represented an educated background, entering journalism influenced to a large extent by either socialist ideals or an egalitarian ethos. So it was a fad of the time that educated people would be leftists," Towheed Feroze said.
Secondly, it was a rebellion against the established system. All of them went into journalism because they thought they could change society through active and enlightened journalism, Towheed said.
People including university teachers, journalists, thinkers, writers, and poets used to go to the Soviet Cultural Centre to watch Soviet movies back then.
Che Guevara, the concept of a society transforming revolution, visions of utopia, and an egalitarian society were the trendy ideas of the time. People loved buying the communist manifesto and other red books.
But then things changed from 1985 to 1991. With perestroika and glasnost, the Soviet Union opened up, and with it the many faults in its system spilled out till the Soviet Union eventually broke up in 1991. At the same time, Bangladesh also opened up the economy and created global trade connections paving the way for a fully capitalistic society. Ever since Soviet political and cultural influences have been on the decline in Bangladesh.
Lost to the 'dominant economy'
Sharier Khan believes that the impact of Soviet literature and culture on his generation was a "good side of the cold war."
"The Soviets spread their culture to another country. And they were very good at it. They were good at music, literature and films. Their culture was rich. If they were not that good, it would not have created this appeal," Sharier said, adding, "Since we read their books, we tried to pass them on to our children. They were so wonderful. That is why they had a long-lasting effect."
He said, "By the early 1980s, [however], it started to fade out. By the mid-1980s, and along with [Mikhail] Gorbachev, it faded out entirely."
So how did this many-splendoured world wither away so fast?
"The culture of the dominant economy is the dominant culture," Mujahidul Islam Selim had a simple answer.
"The Roman language was dominant because Rome was rich. Then came English when Britain became the dominant power, followed by the United States," he said.
What he said could be up for debate but none would disagree that the overwhelming power of the dominant US culture in Bangladesh has swept away the Soviet influences, from food, music, architecture, literature and fashion to everything.
"The pre-communism culture that Russia had was one of the richest in the world. In the modern time, on the other hand, Korea and Japan also have popular works besides America," Sharier Khan said.
"BTS for example is not government-sponsored. It runs on the market forces. The Soviets did not want to do it [promotion of business and culture] commercially. You will find plenty of French, European, and Japanese brands. But you would not be able to name a Russian brand except for Kaspersky. Marketing is not a Russian thing," he said, adding, "If the product is not available, who is going to buy or watch it anyway?"
Researcher and journalist Afsan Chowdhury, however, has a different take on the influence of Soviet culture and its decline.
"Che's poster was the highest selling poster on eBay. And nobody likes Che. But he is a romantic figure – a good-looking bearded man who died fighting. All these things are added to his romanticism. It looks good, sounds good," Afsan Chowdhury said, adding, "young people follow fashion. Che was considered sexy."
"The students who went to the Soviet Union for studies did not do well in the job market. The newer generation had to change their goals to get going with their career. Your adoption of other people's culture depends on the benefits you get," he said.
A resurrection of sorts
But the nostalgia infused in some people back in the day still gets them going for more. Many who talked with TBS vividly described their emotional connection and attachments and how they regret that their offspring cannot have the same upbringing in the absence of the materials they grew up with.
Among them is Hasan Tarek of Dyo Publication. This publication republishes the old books Raduga and Pragati used to publish for children and adults.
"We are the last generation who were raised reading Soviet books. We wanted to give these back to our children. This is actually a commercial design of that effort so that those books do not get lost [in time]," said the publisher.
"I do not think we can bring back those days. But those who will read these books can own them on a personal level."