by Sugeeswara Senadhira
As Sri Lanka and Russia enter the seventh decade of diplomatic relations, bilateral ties are expected to get a major boost with President Maithripala Sirisena visiting Moscow next week, the first Sri Lankan leader to pay a state visit to Russia after Prime Minister Sirimavo Badaranaike’s memorable visit over four decades ago.
During the forthcoming visit, the two countries will enter into several new Agreements and Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) to expand bilateral cooperation in several fields such as, energy, trade and commerce, agriculture, education, judiciary and defence.
When Russian Ambassador, Alexander A Karchava called on him recently, President Sirisena emphasized that whatever way the international trend develops, Sri Lanka and Russia should maintain their strong friendship and close bilateral ties. This is a clear indication of the Sri Lankan government’s policy towards Russia.
Sri Lanka and Russia are expected to sign agreements on expansion of trade and commerce and an MoU on the setting up of a Joint Government Commission on International Trade and Commerce, later this year.
Going into the history of bilateral relations, there were close links between leading Sri Lankan nationalists and Russian leaders since the great October Revolution of 1917. The influence of the October Revolution over the nationalist movement in India, Sri Lanka and other colonies was vital in changing strategies and tactics of struggles against western imperialism. Prof Wiswa Warnapala, in his book, ‘Sri Lanka-Soviet relations: A study in retrospect’ quotes the Sri Lankan Communist leader, Peter Keuneman, who said: “The influence of the Great October Revolution on Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) has been as powerful as its influence on other former colonial countries.”
Thus, young socialists like S. A. Wickramasinghe, Philip Gunawardena and Dr N M Perera, who were inspired by Soviet Communism were able to enter the State Council of the colonial government as the first leftists in Ceylon. Later they cooperated in forming the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1935, which was a coalition party of different ideological groups. Subsequently, there was a rift in the LSSP and it resulted in the forming of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka by a pro-Soviet group headed by Wickramasinghe and Keuneman.
They were the people who formed “the friends of the Soviet Union”, which, became the foundation of Sri Lanka-Soviet relations in a formal way. However, the Soviet Union kept close contacts also with other socialists groups.
Although, there were these links between the socialist leaders, the first regime of independent Sri Lanka was apprehensive of any links with the communist world.
It was the S W R D Bandaranaike government that ended the ‘red phobia’ and recognized the Soviet Union and established diplomatic relations in February 1957.
The left-to-the –centre government laid a strong foundation for bilateral cooperation and, the newly appointed Sri Lankan Ambassador to Moscow, Gunapala Malalasekara did a yeomen service in this regard. He was later followed by several eminent Ambassadors like, T B Subasinghe and Neville Kanakaratne.
The Government of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike took the relations with Russia to a new high and it was during the years 1957 to 1965, that the two countries entered into several bilateral agreements in the fields of economic and technical cooperation, education, culture, trade, and tourism.
The Soviet Union gave generous grants to set up the iron and steel factory at Oruwila, the tyre and tube factory at Kelaniya, the flour milling plant and a grain elevator in Trincomalee and the Sugar Cane Plantation at Kantale. For the Sri Lankan people, they became the symbols of friendship with the Soviet Union.
Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, perhaps the only name known to the vast majority of Russians, undertook a visit to the Soviet Union in November 1974 and was warmly welcomed by the Soviet leaders, including, Prime Minister Alexi Kosygin and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. The warmth of the welcome was evident from the beginning of the visit as the Soviet Union had dispatched a special plane for the Prime Minister and her delegation to visit Tashkent, Tbilisi and Moscow.
The strength of Mrs Bandaranaike’s leadership was known the world over and the then Prime Minister’s Secretary Dharmasiri Peiris said in his autobiography that Prime Minister Kosygin, during the bilateral discussions, pointed a finger at Mrs Bandaranaike and said she was a tough woman. Her reply was that she had to be so for the sake of the country. As Prof Warnapala describes, Sri Lanka-Soviet relations were not only a formal economic and trading co-operation, but also a cultural exchange. These relations were extended to research on Buddhism and culture by Soviet experts. Prof Minaev, a world renown Russian expert on Buddhism, included Ceylon in the areas covered in Russian oriental studies.
In the 19th Century, well-known Russian writers, Anton Chekhov and Ivan Bunin visited Ceylon. The latter, having been so impressed by Anuradhapura, compared the ancient capital of Lanka with the fascination and magnificence of the Russian Cultural Center, which is successfully operating in Colombo providing Lankan children with Russian ballet, chess training, art and musical education. One of the first notices about the Tooth Relic in Kandy was given to the Russians by Countess Mescherskaya: having travelled in India she had the chance to tour Ceylon too.
To mark the 125th anniversary of the visit of Anton Chekov to Sri Lanka, a Commemorative Stamp was issued at a commemorative ceremony chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo on November 23, 2015. Trade and commerce cooperation between the two countries were formalized when the Agreement on Economic & Technical Corporation was signed on 25 February 1958. The growth of trade was marked by the gradual addition of new products to import export trade. Sri Lanka’s main export products to Russia include tea in bulk and packed, green tea, apparel, industrial and surgical gloves of rubber, aircraft components, dessiccated coconut, activated carbon, discharge lamps, coir fibre and coir products, pneumatic and retreated rubber tyres and tubes.
The main imports from Russia to Sri Lanka are base metal products, paper and paper products, non-metallic mineral products, chemicals and plastic products, electrical and electronic products, parts, and machinery woven fabrics.
Tourism is another area rapidly expanding as the number of Russian tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka has marked a steady increase. There is a need for reestablishment of direct air links as the Aeroflot flight to Colombo that was commenced on 15 March 1965 was scrapped later.