Sunday, February 13, 2011

Morjim village in Goa at risk - Culture at a Crossroads

It’s Moscow! No, it’s Morjim!
Thousands of Russians have made Morjim, in northern Goa, their home as they find the place more hospitable than their native land. Reena Martins on India’s little Russia

It’s the eve of the Russian Christmas and Igor — a strapping, vest-clad Russian hotel owner — races around hairpin bends at a bone-rattling speed to reach his beachside shack in Morjim, along Goa’s northern coast. In the back of his open jeep sits a cake, atop a week’s supply of vegetables and beef.

For Igor (he doesn’t use a surname), Goa is home. And he is among thousands of Russians who would rather bask in sunny Goa than live in freezing Russia. The number of Russians in Morjim has risen “from less than a thousand six years ago to 45,000 last year,” says Vikram Varma, the Goa-based counsel for the Russian consulate. About 200 Russians and their spouses are on business visas, while the rest are tourists.

RUSSIA HOUSE: Dima Smirnov (below), owner of the shack Bora Bora, is among the many Russians who have settled in Morjim to enjoy Goa’s sun and sand.
Pic: Reena Martins

Morjim today has at least 10 restaurants run by Russians, says Igor, whose 13-room beachside hotel Casablanca caters mainly to Russian guests. Behind fluttering chiffon curtains in Bora Bora, a shack run by Russian Dima Smirnov, is an open space where several serious looking Russian guests sit glued to their laptops at low tables. There is even a kindergarten run by a Russian that the visitors send their children to.

Russians constitute a small part of tourists in Goa — less than two per cent of the 25 lakh who visit annually — but Morjim is like a mini Moscow. Young Russian women straddling babies are a common sight. “Often, the women stay back with their children, while their husbands return to work in Moscow,” says Smirnov, who spends six months in Moscow working in a restaurant, while his girlfriend, Tanya, stays back in Goa.

Twenty-something Sasha (she doesn’t use a surname) is happy to be in Goa. “Last year there were hardly three children here. This year, there are about 15 and some pregnant women too,” says Sasha, cuddling and swinging her six-month-old baby, Alicia, who was born in Goa. “India is Alicia’s motherland,” she declares.

Women like Sasha and her Russian housemate Anna say they stay back in Goa for the sun, sand, fresh food and air. “In Moscow the vegetables are pesticide laden, there are traffic jams and the air is polluted and cold for nine months a year,” says Sasha.

Life is also cheaper in Goa. Igor points out that he does good business in Goa, which would have been “very difficult to do, legally” in his own motherland. Sasha can afford to spend all day outside her rented Goan villa or simply amble across to Casablanca, where babies frolic in a bright yellow and red inflatable tub.

The global economic downturn hasn’t affected many visiting Russians. “The older Russian would prefer keeping his money on him or with a smaller local co-operative bank, instead of investing it in the stock market or with international banking firms,” says Varma. The rich and old Russian finds Goa a good place for holidaying, and puts up in five-stars. For the young Russian backpacker, there are hundreds of cheaper options.

The Russian presence means business, but the locals are not very happy with them. Many believe that the Russian mafia — which took over the country after the collapse of Communism — has entrenched itself in Goa by buying up property. Varma hastens to add that only about 200 Russians have bought property in Goa.

Ask Igor about the Russian mafia’s presence in Goa and he says, “90 per cent of Russia is filled with the mafia, which includes the police and politicians. But the Russian mafia would rather go to the Gulf countries where they can spend big money. What money can they spend in this garbage collecting place?”

Bosco George, the north Goa superintendent of police, says it would be an exaggeration to talk of a Russian mafia in Goa, though there have been Russians who have hidden facts about themselves from both the Goa government and the home country. Staying without a valid visa is a problem, and last September the police visited Igor’s shack eight times, asking to inspect his passport and visa. “I eventually told them to just leave,” he says.

Goa police figures reveal that Russians have been charged mainly with overstaying, rash driving and rowdy acts. The number of Russians booked in the state rose from six in 2006 to 11 in 2007 and 14 in 2008.

But life is mostly peaceful for the Goan Russians. In the Bora Bora kitchen, Nepali cooks rustle up traditional Russian fare — mostly popular beef stews. The peanut cream for the scones and cottage cheese are made from buffalo milk, in house. The beef is farm raised, as the “cows in the neighbourhood eat paper and plastic,” says Smirnov.

Not everyone is as finicky. Igor has no idea about the origin of the beef that goes into the traditional Russian borscht or beetroot soup with shredded beef and boiled egg, topped with fresh cream, served hot or cold, in his shack. Live like a Russian, but Goan style seems to be his mantra. Da da, say the rest.
Tropical Explorer

After three years of chilling out in Goa, Alexander Sukhochyov turned
his experiences into a book and a movie deal.

By Anna Malpas
Published: April 6, 2007

Seryoga has a job selling toilet bowls in the Moscow satellite town of
Korolyov. That is, until his friend persuades him to buy a ticket to
Goa. Not surprisingly, it turns out that watching sunsets, taking
recreational drugs and eating syrniki at the GlavFish restaurant is a
lot more fun, so he decides to join the Indian state's growing Russian
community of full-time loungers.

In his first novel, "The Goa Syndrome," Alexander Sukhochyov writes
about a world he knows well. Originally from Kursk, he worked as a DJ,
freelance journalist and club promoter in Moscow and St. Petersburg
before having a "change of values" three years ago and heading to Goa
to work as a tour guide.

Since then, Sukhochyov has only returned to Russia twice -- and once
was to promote his novel, which was published by Ad Marginem last
month with a print run of 100,000 copies. Last week, he spoke by
telephone from his rented home in Goa, a two-story house surrounded by
fruit trees. "I don't feel any homesickness," he said. "Here in India,
I feel more comfortable. Here everything works out. Whatever I turn my
hand to, it works out well."

In his book, Sukhochyov describes how Russians have descended on Goa
over the last few years, particularly colonizing the village of
Morjim. "First there were just a few people; they settled in houses
where before people used to film child pornography on mattresses," he

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