31 August 2021

ON 11 SEPTEMBER 1930, Rabindranath Tagore—seen here meeting Soviet artists, who presented him with the death mask of the novelist Leo Tolstoy—arrived in Moscow as part of his travels in Europe and North America. Tagore had first expressed a desire to visit the Soviet Union in a 1924 meeting with Lev Karakhan, the Soviet ambassador to China. The All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, known by the Russian acronym VOKS, sent Tagore several invitations over the next few years, but ill health prevented him from visiting sooner. In July 1930, he was personally invited by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet education minister, whom he met in Berlin.

Over the fortnight he spent in Moscow, Tagore met several writers, artists, academics, students, government officials, workers and peasants, besides attending plays and ballet performances, as well as banquets in his honour. In a meeting with the VOKS chairman FN Petrov, Tagore expressed concerns that the British government—which had, through intermediaries, cautioned him against the trip—would retaliate against him or his university at Shantiniketan. Petrov offered to delay a planned collaboration between VOKS and the university, and expressed his hope that Tagore’s “intensely cultural visit” would not have “any unpleasant consequences.”

Tagore wrote several letters home about his impressions of the Soviet Union. He praised the education system for instilling independent thinking and wrote that workers and peasants had “retrieved their humanity,” and that Soviet politics was not “soiled by the greed of profit.” He was, however, critical of the stifling of individualism and the desire for private property. “It is not impossible that in this sick age, Bolshevism is the only medicine,” he wrote. “But it cannot continue forever.” Colonial authorities in India banned the publication of the letters in the Modern Review, while Josef Stalin prevented Tagore’s criticisms from being published in the Soviet Union.