Places To Visit In Kolkata To Discover The City's Soviet Past

Traces of the USSR are fading, but some remain buried in certain nooks and corners of the city. If you want to travel back in time and explore its fragmented remnants, here are the best places to visit in Kolkata
A plaque commemorating Gerasim Lebedev on Ezra Street
A plaque commemorating Gerasim Lebedev on Ezra StreetPhotos: Sandipan Chatterjee

There was a time when middle-class parents in Kolkata would name their kids after Russian writers, thinkers, and political leaders. The city was immersed in the art and culture of Soviet Russia. Young people would sit for hours discussing the philosophies of Trotsky over cups of bharer cha (tea in clay cups) at roadside stalls. Those days are long gone but look hard enough, but there are still places to visit in Kolkata where you will find traces of Soviet Russia.

Under The City

A file picture of the Kolkata Metro
A file picture of the Kolkata Metro

Thousands use the rapid transit system, called the Metro, to commute to work every day. The construction for the Metro started in the 1970s, making Kolkata the first city to get an underground transport system. Soviet specialists (and engineers from East Germany) helped prepare a master plan providing metro lines that connected the city. The Metro continues to expand—the latest is the ground-breaking tunnel under the Hooghly. A Russian company is one of the project partners.

Streets With History

Lenin’s statue in Dharmatala
Lenin’s statue in DharmatalaSandipan Chatterjee

Statues of Russian leaders such as Lenin and streets and plaques dedicated to Soviet Russia’s writers and thinkers such as Maxim Gorky are scattered around the older parts of the city and make for the best places to visit in Kolkata if you want to dig deeper. The founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin, might be gradually fading from public memory in his country, but Kolkata has a place for him—his statue stands in the corner of Curzon Park in Dharmatala, one of the busiest junctions in the city. People sit on the benches around him, chatting, having jhal muri, and organising protests. A couple of months back, a citizen’s protest meeting was held here to stop the cutting down of centuries-old trees.

The entry to Gorky Sadan located at the corner plot of Gorky Terrace
The entry to Gorky Sadan located at the corner plot of Gorky TerraceSandipan Chatterjee

The Kolkata Stage

A grey stone plaque on Ezra Street commemorates Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev, a writer, linguist, and musician who is known for the Bengali adaptation of Richard Jodrell’s play “The Disguise” (opened in November 1795). Many historians believe that this was the first time a Bengali play was performed on a proscenium stage. Lebedev used a mix of European and Bengali elements and male and female Indian actors at a time when only male European actors were seen on stage. The commemorative plaque is located at 37 Ezra Street, the same address as the historic theatre started by him. On Lebedev’s 227th anniversary last year, die-hard theatre enthusiasts gathered around the plaque to celebrate his legacy.

On Your Plate

Chicken a la Kiev, or Chicken Kyiv, is said to have been invented in St Petersburg in the early 1910s. It continues to be a favourite for Kolkatans looking for their fix of “continental” food. For more contemporary Russian food, Milee Droog is the place to go. The bistro café that was initially launched from Gorky Sadan has now shifted to a South Kolkata neighbourhood. People come here to sample piroshkis with glasses of chilled coffee brews.

The secondhand book stalls at Golpark which stock out-of-print books from the former USSR
The secondhand book stalls at Golpark which stock out-of-print books from the former USSRPiyali Sen

Read Between The Lines

You will find traces of a former nation at Manisha Granthalay, a bookstore in North Kolkata. Their stock includes dusty volumes from Soviet-era publishers arranged on small wooden shelves. The publications stopped in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union was disbanded. The shelves here display the last remaining copies. While here, check out the logo of the store, designed by filmmaker Satyajit Ray. It was inaugurated by Satyendra Nath Bose in 1964. For those looking for old books from the USSR, South Kolkata’s Golpark is a veritable haven. You will discover some amazing treasures from Soviet literature journals to books to 19th-century Gothic Tales published by the now defunct Raduga Publishers, Moscow.

Of Clubs And Gorky

Matryoshka dolls at Milee Droog, a restaurant serving Russian food
Matryoshka dolls at Milee Droog, a restaurant serving Russian foodSandipan Chatterjee

Till about five years ago, Gorky Sadan (known as the Russian House) was hosting photo exhibitions from the Soviet era. You would find youngsters grouped around chessboards at the Alekhine Chess Club, formed in 1976. The club is not functioning right now, as repairs are in progress, but Maxim Gorky’s bust still greets you in the foyer and the exhibition hall hosts works by Russian artists. The large auditorium here was a hub for events and Russian films screened under the aegis of the Einstein Cine Club.

Address: 34, Kavi Sabitri PR Chattopadhyaya, Deshapriya Park, Kolkata

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