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From Russia, with love to Cambodia: a unique friendship

Library manager Phan Borei at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture.  SCOTT HAWES
Library manager Phan Borei at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture. SCOTT HAWES

From Russia, with love to Cambodia: a unique friendship

'Zdrastvooy-tye’, says 32-year-old Phan Borei, as I enter the library of the Russian Centre of Science and Culture, a small reading room inside the large white New Khmer- style building on Norodom Boulevard. He continues speaking politely in Russian before it becomes obvious I don’t speak a word, then switches to English.

Russian language magazines and dailies are spread about on the tables between shelves of novels, thickly bound tomes with gold lettering and children’s books. While I wait to make an appointment with Sergey Kolesov, the director of the Centre, our eyes flicker to the television in the corner, where an old colour cartoon plays a timeless battle of wits between two farmyard chickens, at low volume.

Composer Him Sophy in front of the Moscow Kremlin in the 1980s.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Composer Him Sophy in front of the Moscow Kremlin in the 1980s. PHOTO SUPPLIED

When he was growing up, shows from a Russian television station were broadcast in Cambodia, the softly spoken library manager tells me. For ten years of his childhood however, he watched the real thing with his parents in Moscow, where his father worked for the Khmer-language radio service that broadcast Cambodia-related news and current affairs to the hundreds of Khmers working or studying in the Soviet Union at the time.

Much like Voice of America, today, he says.

Around 7000 Cambodians have studied in the former Soviet Union, mostly on scholarships awarded by the Russian government. At the height of the program, around 350 were offered every year in a diversity of fields – including music, medicine, engineering, science, humanities, the military.

In the late 1980s, hundred packed into a concert hall to celebrate Khmer New Year in Moscow in the Russian Spring, with a rollicking party, pop music, Khmer dancing and food. The Cambodian expats extended the invitation to their Laotian and Vietnamese fellow students, whose own shindigs were no match, says contemporary composer Him Sophy, who completed his education at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Conservatory and lived in the capital for almost 14 years.

The Soviet-inspired Institut de Technologie du Cambodge, on Russian Boulevard, which was created with Soviet-style architecture in mind. PHOTO SUPPLIED
The Soviet-inspired Institut de Technologie du Cambodge, on Russian Boulevard, which was created with Soviet-style architecture in mind. PHOTO SUPPLIED

When he returned to Phnom Penh in 1998, Sophy found the only venue to play or see classical music was at the wood paneled theatre on the ground floor of the Russian cultural centre.

“It was very good – the first hall maybe in Cambodia for music and multipurpose use. It was small, but they were the first.”

Now he feels that the hall, like the centre, which seems curiously large from the imposing glass-display cased lobby – filled with photographs of past events and the famous, as well as enameled folkware and babushka dolls - has faded from its former glory.

“It was nice, but they don’t develop. I feel sad, a lot of people use it but they don’t take care. I feel disappointed,” he says.

Babushkas and samovars decorate local Russian restaurant Irina’s.  SCOTT HAWES
Babushkas and samovars decorate local Russian restaurant Irina’s. SCOTT HAWES

Around 25 visitors a day, a mixture of Cambodians and Russian nationals, use the library, Borei says. Most of the Russian-speaking Cambodians he meets are older and studied in Russia after liberation. Their years in the republic were formative, and many want to keep up the language and maintain a connection with the culture, he says.

In the mid 1980s Keo Chamtheavy, 50, was studying the violoncello at Phnom Penh’s School of Fine Arts (later to become Royal University of Fine Arts) when his Vietnamese music teacher suggested he apply for one of the scholarships offered by the Russian government.

“After liberation, [there were] only Vietnamese teachers. I didn’t know any [Russians], only Vietnamese. [But] after high school, I got a good examination result, so the Ministry of Culture and Information sent me to study in Leningrad.”

In 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, occupying Vietnam was aided in its early rescue efforts by Communist allies Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. As well as material aid, Soviet and East German teachers arrived at the university and specialists worked to connect the port of Kampong Som to the south coast’s railroad, to supply much needed materials to the country. One year later, the Centre of Science and Culture opened in not one but two locations, on Norodom Boulevard.

Promoting Russian language and culture, the centre was a hub for people hungry to learn the language, geography, and art of the immense and – and freezing - country they would depart to for years of study. By the late 1980s ‘about a thousand’ students were studying in Moscow alone, writes Evan Gottesman in Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge.

The early aid effort in the traumatized post-Khmer Rouge landscape was of course not the first relationship between Russia and Cambodia, reminds Sergey Kolosov, who I meet in a sitting room upstairs of the centre. In the 1850s Russia’s last Czar,
Nicholas II, travelled to Southeast Asia and sent an official to Phnom Penh on behalf of him. Diplomatic relations in the 1950s saw the development of the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital and by the 1960s a standard Khmer-Russian grammar book and dictionary by the linguist Y.A. Gorgoniev was in print. But the man who did most to connect the two countries, as far as language is concerned, was the late Cambodian scholar Long Siem, Kolosov says.

Kolosov learned Khmer from the legendary professor, who migrated to Moscow in 1965 and had a Russian wife. Siem taught at the National University in Moscow and was a well known figure from home, for the Cambodians, eventually being made a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Kolesov wrote his dissertation on Cambodia and has lived in Phnom Penh on and off since 1981 with his wife Marina, a warm and knowledgeable woman, who is also his secretary.

Ask Kolesov about the ‘science’ part of the centre and you might get into a confusing discussion on semantics – most of which could well come down to translation. Originally scientific equipment and some laboratory work was carried out at the centre, but the work of the institute has changed over the years.

Recently staff have taken on other more unusual tasks – including family detective work.

“We have a true story,” Borei says on this matter, somewhat excitedly. “A father who used to study in Russia and married a Russian woman, after he finished his studies had to come back to Cambodia but he couldn’t bring his wife here. At that time Cambodia didn’t allow foreigners … But after 20 years, he finally found his daughter.”

The man’s Cambodian-Russian daughter, who was living in Finland, contacted the centre and asked if they could help her track down her father, who was working for a government ministry. Staff at the Centre, which includes 10 Cambodian staff, managed to find the man and facilitated a happy reunion.

The story is not uncommon, Chamtheavy and Borei agree.

After marrying and fathering a daughter in Leningrad, Chamtheavy was forced to return home at the end of his scholarship - but his circumstances prevented him from taking his young family.

“ I lost my parents in the Pol Pot regime, so I hadn’t anything. I didn’t have land, or a house. When I came back to Cambodia, I only had a diploma. Musicians in Cambodia …it was very difficult to find work,” he says.

In 2011 he and Borei attended a conference in Moscow and managed to track down his now-eighteen year-old daughter, who had since gone to live with her mother and stepfather in the remote northwestern city of Syktyvkar, in the Komi Republic. By pure luck, Chamtheavy’s daughter was studying Law in Moscow and the two have since reunited and speak every week.

Him Sophy recalls seeing a similar scene between a new father and his Russian partner at an international airport in Russia, and says the return to Cambodia, for newly graduated architects, engineers, musicians and scientists, despite their qualifications, was not always with a great deal of hope.

“Everybody who’d lived under the genocidal regime [felt] that we’d stayed in prison: the whole country was a prison and we waited to die, because we didn’t know when the Khmer Rouge soldier would come and kill us. But when we had freedom, we were so happy we tried with all out heart. If we could learn, we had to learn well, because we had expectations - strong feelings - that we’d lost time.”

Studying in the Soviet Union - which included other Bloc republics as well as East Germany - introduced Khmer students to nationalities from all over the communist Third World.

As well as preparatory language classes, students were versed in Marxism-Leninism and the ideology of the socialist republics – lessons that seemed merely obligatory by the late 1980s, Sophy says looking back.

“At the time, the Soviet Union had many cultures, many nationalities inside it, so they had a lot of respect for each other,” he explains. “When I came to Moscow for the first time, Russians accepted students from around the world. Africa, South Africa,
Arabian countries. When we stayed at the Lomonosov [university], we saw thousands of foreign students had come to study in Russia.”

As a driven 23-year-old with a gift for music, Sophy mastered Russian well enough to write his 500-page dissertation on the theory of traditional Cambodian music, and developed close relationships with his professors, eventually gaining entry to the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

By the time he was undergoing intensive Russian language training at the Lomonsov in 1985 , the effects of Perestroika – the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc – were beginning to be felt. Fewer international students from the developing world were admitted he says, and a growing fascist element on Moscow’s streets made the city feel less safe.

“I tried to wear clothes as a Russian and then I wore the shapka (fur hat). Nobody thought I was a foreigner and the Russian Nazis, didn’t attack me. But Russian police always checked me, and tried to disturb me. My professor was very upset. When he tried to speak before my defense of my dissertation he said that it was very bad that I had lived under the pressure of the Khmer Rouge, and when I came to Russia I lived under the pressure of the police on the street and of the Russian authorities.”

After seven years on a scholarship, the money ran out and he spent the next six years finishing his Phd living on the floor of friends’ apartments and the Cambodian and French embassies, selling his newly-acquired books and trying to make a chicken leg last “three meals”. When he returned to Cambodia, whatever demand there had been for Russian language-speakers had been replaced by English and Chinese. Though pre-Khmer Rouge institutions and roads retained their names, schools like the Institute of Technology lost their Soviet namesake.

For Him Sophy there is some irony that while some sought passage to the West and struggled terribly to get there, his and others’ journey to the East was made under such different circumstances.

“The Eastern Bloc ,” he muses “So, so different!”

With rising numbers of Russian tourists arriving to the Kingdom every year, 300 Russian families registered as residing in Sihanoukville alone, Russian language school and radio, the opportunities to speak the language and absorb the rich culture are easier than ever.

About 30 scholarships are still offered to students every year, but the times have a-changed – for good.


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