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"One Week in Leningrad" - Excerpts from an Urdu Travelogue

Updated: May 20, 2023


Ishrat Ali Siddiqui is a renowned name in Urdu literature. We dived into one of his travelogues which he penned in 1944, before partition. He starts writing from when he off-boarded his ship: “I noticed how different the land and air of Leningrad was from back home in India. It was barely morning, and smoke from factory chimneys flew past us, making faces at us. I could also see dusty buildings and bright yellow domes in the distance.” On what he had heard of Leningrad as an Indian citizen of the British Empire: “Before I had traveled, the things I had heard of Leningrad made it sound like an isolated factory fortress of a city under a brutal dictator, cut off from the world. I imagined there would be no architecture to admire, no parks or restaurants to visit to pass the time, just a city full of workers dressed in rags living in similar rundown housing. And whilst I imagined it to be so, I was never entirely convinced. But one week I spent in Leningrad cleared away all the clouds of misconceptions in my head.” On the Russian Revolution: “It is only after talking to people here that I understood the cruelty and the dark hearts of those who lived in these beautiful gilded well-lit mansions.” On utilities: “In Leningrad, electricity is made from water and is extremely cheap.” On transport: “Motors come by few and far in between, sometimes you see lorries or horse carriages, but trams are the primary mode of transport in the city.” On people: “It is true; I have seen most people dressed in loose, grimy garments. I also see a sense of self-reliance, dignity in their eyes, and happiness on their faces I cannot explain. Even in the absence of luxury, these people look happy, the happiness I am yet to see back home, in England, or in America.” He also mentions the Leningrad market built as a memorial of the 25th of October, the day of the Revolution, in stark contrast to the other markets in the city. On trends: “Needlessly expensive fashion takes a backseat in Russia, and national needs are prioritized. Rubber-soled shoes are in vogue; they make no noise, are cheap, and easy to find.” On Soviet women: “I had always imagined the Soviet woman as a tomboy.” Before breaking the myths and stereotypes, he writes, mentioning the synthetic wooly frocks women wore in Russia, the shawls around their shoulders, and their headscarves. He also observed a modern Russian woman shopping, opting for a beanie instead of a scarf and a coat instead of a shawl. A conversation with a Soviet woman: “Our husbands no longer have to worry about earning more and more and planning for tough times. We know that unless we fail in our duties as citizens, the government shall take good care of us, regardless of how tough times are.” Other experiences worthy of mention: “In the evening, I went to a restaurant by the riverside. Wine and tea both were being served on two sides of the counter. Only a handful of men were on the drinking side, and they, too, showed no signs of intoxication. It is then that I found out that the government has launched a campaign against alcohol consumption.” He writes about how he has some spare time and decides to walk by a factory. The receptionist allows him in. He describes the factory and writes about the school on the premises for factory workers. “In one of the classrooms, I saw a solar eclipse graffitied on a wall. Surprised, I asked one of the children in my broken Russian if he knew anything about it. The child responded instantly, with great confidence, that a solar eclipse occurred on the 19th of June 1939. The teacher, seeing this interaction, also joined us. She signaled another student to bring a book and handed it to me. Whilst I flipped through pages I could not read, marveling at the images, she told me that when the eclipse occurred, 50 lakh copies of this book were printed and distributed free of cost to people so they get informed.” He continues, “My eyes widened as her words shocked me. I had come from a country where forget a book, not even an advertisement had ever been printed on death during childbirth, or protection against the drought, leave alone an eclipse.” The author also mentions a mosque he saw, the center for Admiralty, several museums, and many Czarist-era buildings, describing their outward glory with great care and writing about how they have been refashioned into museums, schools, and factories.

 

This blog has been written by Komal Salman.

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