Karachi’s Friendship House working to revive Russian culture

Updated November 25, 2019

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A MAN stands in front of a collection of Russian literature and books translated into Urdu at the Russian Cultural centre.—Mohammad Ali / White Star
A MAN stands in front of a collection of Russian literature and books translated into Urdu at the Russian Cultural centre.—Mohammad Ali / White Star

KARACHI: Tucked away in the residential neighbourhood of PECHS is a literary treasure: the Russian Centre of Science and Culture, better known as Friendship House.

The centre’s library has an extensive collection of Russian literature, poetry, biographies and communist texts from Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Puskin to E.T. Brown’s Poultry Keeper’s Textbook and The Basic Principles of the Organisation of Soviet Agriculture. A majority of these books have also been translated into Urdu. The centre also holds regular language and culture classes.

Established in 1966, the Friendship House was relocated to its current home in 1982. It had shut down for a year in the mid-90s but efforts were made to revive the centre with film festivals, plays and grand functions.

“We once even tried to get the Russian ballet here but they had very specific requirements regarding wooden floors which we could not accommodate as per the feasibility report. Now, we just show clips,” said the centre’s administrator Ziauddin Siddiqui.

“We are here to promote Russian culture and Pak-Russian friendship. Beside events, we also help students from all over Pakistan who want to go study in Russia with scholarships. We give language and culture lessons. I think what people don’t realise is that there is a big market in Pakistan for Russian speakers and good job opportunities,” he said while speaking to Dawn.

“We also have a Russian Ladies Club. They organise tea parties and discusses problems faced by children of Russian and Pakistani parents or just come here to relax,” he added.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz used to attend events at the place

According to Pakistan Peoples Party’s Taj Haider, Friendship House was the place to be in the ’70s. “I attended several literary events and film screenings here. It was a great place. People were translating Karl Marx and Lenin here,” he told Dawn.

Mr Haider remembers watching classics such as 1957’s The Cranes are Flying starring Aleksey Batalov and Tatiana Samoilova about World War II and Quiet Flows the Don (1958), a three-part Soviet epic directed by Sergei Gerasimov based on the novel by the same name by Mikhail Sholokhov.

“Everyone used to go there. They had a magazine too. I was interested in watching Soviet films there,” he said.

“All the intellectuals and communists in Karachi used to go there but things changed in 1962 after the rift between Russia and China. Those with a Chinese mind/leaning such as myself stopped going there. We used to call them the revisionists,” he added.

Azhar Durrani, a businessman, has been going to Friendship House for the last 40 years.

“I don’t go much now but I do attend cultural events such as independence and national days. The centre has a great collection in the library. They have adapted several Russian plays for the theatre as well,” he said, adding that he had also seen some old Russian classics such as Anna Karenina, War and Peace and documentaries on war, particularly on the second World War.

“It was a very popular place, particularly during the Cold War. I remember Faiz Ahmed Faiz used to attend events here. Getting an invitation for events at Friendship House was exciting. They were usually very hush hush. They said that if you attended an event here, the intelligence agencies would start following you around,” said a man who was a regular at the cultural centre when it was in Saddar.

Hoori Noorani started going to the cultural centre in the 70s before she went to study in Moscow, then in USSR.

“I remember in the middle it shut down for a while and I stopped going there but then they revived it again. It was an open cultural centre. I think they have one in every country. We used to watch Russian films such as War and Peace dubbed in English, ballet clips and celebrate national days and public holidays here. They had grand functions,” she said.

“The centre also offered language classes which I attended before I went to college. When I came back, I also taught Russian here. There was a time a lot of people wanted to learn the language,” she added.

Raza Haroon of the Pak Sarzameen Party said that he remembered going to Friendship House to watch late night movies.

Zulifqar Shah said he used to go Friendship House when it was located on main Sharae Faisal where the Portway Building is now. “I saw many Russian documentaries and movies here. There was a great library and they had regular newsletters too,” he added.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2019