Periyar E. V.Ramasamy (17 September 1879 – 24 December 1973) populary known as Thanthai Periyar was a great non-violent revolutionary in the history of South India. He was born in a rich family at Erode, an industrial town in the southern part of India. His parents were strictly orthodox and spent a lot of money on religious ceremonies and rituals. Young Ramasamy grew against this dogmatism and gradually resisted these conventions and religious practices.
He studied up to Third standard and in academic parlance, a school drop-out. But innate thinking, reading habit and tremendous experience in public life and social activity made him a veteran speaker and prolific writer. As a doughty champion of poor and illiterate, he boldly cut across the orthodoxy and religion. He steadfastly thought by himself without any bias or prejudice and never hesitated to stand by his conviction even against heavy odds.
In the beginning, he joined the Indian National Congress and stood in the forefront of nationalistic struggle against the British rule in India. Finding that casteism played a dominant role in society he came out of the congress party and started a rationalistic movement on the basis of self-respect. He astutely worked in public life with a belief that relieving the people from social inequality and economic imbalance are more essential than providing them a political freedom.
It is with this aim his rationalistic self-respect movement subsequently named Dravidar Kazhagam came in to being. His rationalism was not simply a philosophy but a staunch movement against die-hard caste prejudices and religious dogmatism. He singularly swam against the cross currents of orthodoxy and braved heavy odds in his public life until his last breath.
Such a person of tremendous potentialities made a study tour of Far East and Russia in the middle of his life. He has carefully recorded his impression of Russia in a Tamil periodical, ‘K’udi Arasu’ as soon as he returned from his foreign tour. This pamphlet aims to give a brief note on Periyar EVR’s Russian tour.
Periyar EVR’s Russian Visit
Periyar commenced his foreign trip on the 23rd of November 1931. He was accompanied by two of his friends. Though it was generally known as a foreign tour, Periyar’s deep interest was to visit Russia. He had for a long time cherished a desire to see by himself how that great nation began to develop and grow by stages after the eradication of czarist monarchy.
Periyar was for a long time an admirer of the famous Russian Revolution. He was evincing a special interest how the October Revolution of Russia effectively transformed the society and met the basic needs of individuals.
Itinerary of Periyar’s Travel abroad
Periyar commenced his voyage with his friends at Chennai harbour on 13.12.1931. He embarked on a French liner Ambosa. It sailed towards Pondicherry and then reached Colombo after three days. A week afterwards they touched an African harbour Djibouti and after a lapse of about eight days further, the party arrived at Cairo.
Eleven days at Cairo to see all around the vast historical city and then they reached Athens on the 19th of January 1932. A brief stay there and afterwards they reached Odessa and from there to Moscow by train. On the 14th of February 1932 Periyar and his friends reached Moscow.
In Moscow, Periyar and his couple of friends stayed in Nava Moscow, a big hotel in the city. Next day they went and saw the Director of the Soviet Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign countries : 61, Malayanket Skya-6, Moscow. The Director sent along with them a guide-cum-translator. He enabled them to see Anti-religious Museum where they got themselves registered as members. The same day they applied for a stay of one-month to see in and around the capital city.
Following are the travel notes of Periyar E.V.Ramasamy in his Tamil Periodical Kudi Arasu (After his return from Russia)
The body of Lenin was so life like in the museum named after him. The translator was kind enough to take us to the museum, even though it was holiday for him. All the events in the life of Lenin right from his childhood were shown there. Lenin’s statues devised by various sculptors were on display there.
Agriculture museum and that of an armour were the other places they visited. In a textile mill, Periyar casually asked a woman labourer how much monthly salary she was paid. Before the October revolution, she said that she worked for 11 hours and got a monthly salary of 20 roubles. After the dawn of communism, her working time became 7 hours and her salary was raised to 120 roubles. Every month on an average, a woman gets a salary of 75 roubles to 200 and men get a minimum of 220 roubles. A rouble was then equal to two and half rupees of Indian money.
Common Boarding Houses
Periyar was already advocating general boarding houses for an area or at least a street. This would enable women to spare their precious time for doing some purposeful and useful work. Far better and more economical it is, than to prepare food individually in their own kitchen, Periyar had said this on many occasions. What he saw in his Russia – visit was the justification of what he had thought and said earlier. On the 20th February 1932, Periyar was taken to a General kitchen in Moscow. It was meant for the workers of a factory. Nearly 28,000 persons were the boarders and for about 12,000 persons food was dispatched from there. From morning till evening, boarders take food according to the time allotted to them.
Entire kitchen along with a bakery was mechanically operated and variety of dishes were prepared there. Normally a cup of soup, pudding, a cake, meat and a bun form part of a meal at a cost just above half a rouble.
In 1929, this common boarding house was started. Similar other eight boarding centers were said to have been located in various places. The fee for food is deducted from their salary. The intake of the kitchen such as fruits, vegetables and other solid stuff were all subjected to the supervision of medical and hygienic personnel. A spacious hall was also attached with boarding houses for the occasional pastime and variety entertainments.
Periyar attended one-day a Red cross Meeting. The main speaker castigated the capitalists and pleaded for the co-operation of the public in success fully implementing the five year plans. Periyar felt happy and mentioned in his article that this situation of capitalists standing in the way of systematic progress is analogous to the domination of god men and priestly class in India. Periyar has also happily remarked about huge plans of house-construction in
Moscow then a city of (thirty lakhs) 3 million population. On his return to India, both in innumerable public meetings and also in his articles in ‘Kudi Arasu’, his Tamil weekly, he not only appreciated the solid public welfare measures and planned growth of the Russian economy, but also championed its cause and pleaded for the same in India. He began addressing the audience with a salutation comrades’ (Thozharkal) in public meetings. His hatred towards god and theism found in Russia, an ideal and identical thought content and principle.
A tradition normally followed in Tamil Nadu state of India is to ask the social and political leaders to greet and name the new born babe in arms on the occasion of their public meetings. Periyar, in more than sixty years of his public life, addressed thousands of meetings both the rural and urban areas. Periyar traveled through thë length and breadth of the whole of Tamil Nadu. After his return to India, when people ‘approached him for this purpose, he named the babes after Lenin, Stalin, and Moscow. A Casual visitor, in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu even now can find that names such as these are not uncommon. Such was the deep inspiration and respect Periyar had for the Russian socialistic pattern of society in proletarian perspectives.
From 13 December 1931 to 7 November 1932, Periyar E. V.Ramasami visited several countries. He left Madras (now Chennai) on 13th December to Pondichery (now Puduchery). From here he went to Colombo. Sailing from Colombo, he reached Djibouti on 24 December 1931 in the morning. Djibouti is the seaport in and the capital of Djibouti, a republic in East Africa on the Gulf of Aden. (Djibouti was formerly knwon as French Somaliland). Sailing from there in the same evening Periyar E. V.R., S. Ramanathan and R.Ramu travelled through Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Soviet Russia, Germany, England, France, Spain, Portugal and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), before reaching his home town Erode on 11 November 1932.
During his travels, Periyar and his colleagues visited many places in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) between 14 February 1932 and 17 May 1932. They identified themselves as Self-respecters, Atheists and Free Thinkers. Periyar maintained a diary of his visits and participation in various functions. Of these records, those from 19 April 1932 to 6 July 1932 have been published. From this publication we come to know that the entries from 19th April 1932 to 17th May 1932 cover his stay in the USSR from the 66th day of his visit to that country till he left it for Germany
This period covers the last one month of his three months stay in the USSR. We give a brief and free translation of what Periyar has recorded about his experiences in that country, mainly in Moscow, during the month. On 66th day of their travels in the USSR, Periyar E.V.R., S.Ramanathan (SR) and R.Ramu (R.R.) of Erode left Sosacittal to Moscow in the evening of 19th April 1932. They reached Rastotov next day 10.00 a.m. and the Karko station in the midnight, where Comrade Kauton gave E.V.R’s enlarged photo to him. During their rail journey on 20th April they saw all along the way huts resembling those in India. Loaded carts were pulled by horses. When it was frozen snow, the people in Russia used sledges for transportation. Agriculture was mechanised.
They reached Moscow on 20th April in the evening. The Secretary of Atheist Society Feldman received and took them to Hotel Nava Moscowa. From there they went to Sritinkaya Hotel situated at number 23, Sritinkaya Street. The office of the Atheist association, Sambishbosnik was situated in the same street in the building bearing the number 10. The letter addressed to Periyar E. V.R. from the International Freethinkers Association of Germany had come to that office.
The three guests from Tamil Nadu conversed with those present there with the help of interpreters Zeena Kali Kina and Halava. Others who met the guests were Prof. Beelioff, another interpreter and the typist in the Bishbosnik office.
In front of Grand Hotel another one was being built with 3000 rooms. The three visitors went to the House of Old Bolshviks on 22nd April. The Vice-president of the association, Stopanic told that members of the association had taken part in the revolutionary activities for not less than 18 years. 60 per cent of them were labourers and peasants. The minimum age of a member was 40 years and the maximum 80. Among them 380 had taken part in 1905 revolution (uprising).
The President of the association was Yarosloviski. The address of the association was No.6, Fokin St., Moscowa. The three witnessed an Executive Committee meeting of the House of Old Bolshviks. We were introduced to an anti- religious propagandist, Logenov. He rendered 75,000 priests jobless in the USSR
It was not necessary for à member of the Communist Party to be an atheist; but efforts were on (by persuasion) to make him/her an atheist. Lenin had said: “Communism and Atheism are interrelated. Promotion of atheism forms part of communism.”
There was a children’s celebration arranged by the association on 23rd April. All the three guests were requested to speak on the occasion. The children were aged between 10 and 14. Half of them were girls. The children had their own organisation and administrative committee.
The guests were introduced to many old members of the association, including women. They were treated with kindness and respect. Then there was a party and events of entertainment. All the events dealt with war and revolution. It seemed that those were their aim in life and ‘religion’.
On 26th April they visited an electric crematorium. It was clean and beautiful. They saw a dead body lowered into a ‘cave’ and burnt. A woman was weeping. Periyar EVR and his two fellow-travellers visited the Red Army Club on the same day. It housed a museum. It contained several scenes of 1905 and 1917 revolutions.
The four storeyed building of the Red Army Club was 400 feet long. It contained, among others, drama and cinema halls, an hospital and a dining hall. The guests saw a short play. It showed how an illiterate soldier became a literate one. After joining the army, he was taught by women teachers…
The guests wrote a letter to International Freethinkers Association on 27th April. Then they witnessed the proceedings of a district level People’s court. The consultation office of Trade Union was situated in the first hall: The workers would come for free consultation to this office. There were many lawyers, including women, to give them advice and legal opinion.
They had given advice to 10,000 people in three months. The judges were elected by the public in the defined area. Two Jurors were elected to assist a Judge. They were taught law for a few months after being elected. There were women judges, jurors and lawyers. Judges and Jurors had equal authority. The decision was by majority. Even if one among the three gave a different opinion, the decision could be challenged in a higher court.
A man was sentenced upto ten years for rape and for sex with a minor girl. One could not be accused in the Court of law and sentenced for having sex with some else’s wife. Sentences ranged from one day to 10 years. A murderer was not sentenced to death; he would be sent to jail upto 10 years. Death sentence was reserved for those who committed crimes against the State.
All the members of a family had equal rights of inheritance in the property. The visitors from Tamil Nadu were taken for a visit to Leaforthov Prison on 28th April. It was being decorated for the celebration of 1st May 1932. They saw the inmates of the jail doing the work of knitting, weaving and stitching garments of various kinds.
The rooms in jail had cots, water taps, basin, book-self, radio etc. Two or three persons occupied a room measuring 8′ x 16′. The jail housed schools where the inmates were trained in various kinds of skills. There was also a room for science (laboratory?). There were drama and cinema halls. They saw a boy of 17 years sentenced for 3-1/2 years for committing several thefts. He was learning weaving. There were 1000 persons undergoing imprisonments in that jail. They had 8 hours work and were paid for it. They could write and receive letters, They had two meals a day, by 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. There was liberal supply of free tea. There were 6 jails in Moscow and 1000 prisoners.
The director of Leaforthov prison was a blacksmith before 1917 revolution. He had been in the Communist Party for 29 years, now a member of old Bolshviks Association.
The Prime Minister of Turkey, Ismat, came to Moscow on 29 April 1932. On his arrival, he was given a grand welcome. Periyar and two others could not go out on that day as it was raining. The interpreters came to the place where they were staying and they discussed about different topics. The next day, on 30th evening, they went to the old Bolshvik Club where the May Day celebrations had begun in the previous night itself. There was singing and dancing. They sang in languages of the different nationalities of the USSR.
On May 1st millions of people took part in May Day Celebrations about which Periyar E.V.R. gives an elaborate description in his diary. On 6th May the Soviet Government gave a reception to the foreign delegates who participated in the May Day Celebrations. It was held in the Kremlin Palace. Prime Minister Kalinin participated in the reception. He greeted Periyar E.V.R. while they were having dinner. Yarosilavsky, the Secretary of the Communist party also greeted EVR and his colleagues. Periyar EVR met and conversed with the daughter of the former Prime Minister of Great Britain Lansbury, at the reception.
On 16 May, EVR saw the photos of himself and his colleagues published in Prisbosnik International Magazine. They read the news that someone had shot the Prime Minister of Germany.
The Tamil Nadu guests got their passport and visa on 17th May and left for Berlin on the same day from Moscow.
NOTE: The Passport that Periyar obtained before going on his foreign tour had the number 9116. It read: Given at Fort St. George on 9th day of April 1931. Signed by Secretary to the Government of Madras, Law Department. Periyar E.V.R’s Visit to Russia
- Periyar writings and Speeches translated by A S VENU. This book about Periyar Visit to Russia in 1932