It's Moscow! No, it's Morjim!

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By 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
  • Published 25.01.09

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.

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.