KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 3 — Prof Victor Pogadaev first learnt about Malaysia from his trips to a “special room” at Lomonosov Moscow State University library as a student nearly half a century ago.
Speaking at the launch of his latest book titled Sejarah Tamadun dan Budaya Rusia at Malaysia’s national library here on Monday, Pogadaev remembers poring through copies of the Malay Mail, the only Malaysian newspaper available in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, as part of his research.
“I was looking for information on the trade union movement in the country and I had to go through this process, getting permission and so on, to access these so-called restricted materials.
“That was the situation at the time, and that is how I learnt about Malaysia before first coming here as a student in 1970,” the 70-year-old said in an exclusive interview.
Pogadaev, who studied Bahasa Indonesia before participating in the 1970 student exchange programme, said the Malay language and its evolution intrigued him.
“It is not the oldest but it is certainly an important language regionally and was at one time the lingua franca of the area with trading activities increasing its prominence as foreigners came into contact with it.”
Pogadaev, an accomplished author and linguistics expert with 31 published works in the Malay language said adapting to Malaysia was an easy task, something he attributed to the accommodating attitudes of people here.
“There were four of us sent here to study at the University of Malaya (UM), which was the major educational institute at the time. No one treated us differently even though this was in the middle of the Cold War and we were ‘communists’ from the Soviet Union.
“It was especially interesting that people were so friendly and that everyone, friends and strangers, smiled. That is something quite different as smiling at strangers in Russia can be taken to mean that you are behaving oddly,” he said, laughing.
For Pogadaev, life as a student in those days came with a generous state allowance, which he would splurge on food. He was fascinated by the variety of choices available in Malaysia and one of his favourites was laksa.
The native of Orenburg in Russia eventually found himself sent to a village in Pahang with several other students to complement his studies in the Malay language.
“We had several tasks and we immersed ourselves with the villagers, learning their customs and habits as a means of studying the Malay language as it was spoken and practised in a typical environment.
“Among our tasks was to take a census of the village and to build and encourage the use of a lavatory, something which they needed time getting adjusted to,” he said.
Pogadaev was also fascinated with the political freedom allowed at UM back then, and recalled one incident which he said would not be viewed as kindly in his homeland during the Cold War years.
“One student asked me to bring him a Soviet propaganda poster which I did, thinking that he wanted it as a souvenir. To my horror, he instead displayed it at one of the buildings at the university, but to my surprise nothing happened, there were no repercussions”
Looking back, he said his first visit to Malaysia was “the happiest time” of his life, adding that he was forever changed by his experience here.
“Malaysia was the first foreign country I visited and it was something that left a positive mark on me. The weather was warm and so were the people.
“Even though there was an active Communist insurgency at the time, no one mistreated us and no one linked us to the conflict in short it was a wonderful experience,” he said.
The oriental studies expert eventually returned after completing his first year, returning to work at the Russian embassy for three years, between 1986 to 1989; he then moved on work as a lecturer in UM between 2001 and 2016 before retiring.
During his stay here, he has become an authority on the Malay-language in his own right, producing, translating and writing stories, poems and Malay-Russian dictionaries besides being a member of the International Council on Malay Language (Kuala Lumpur) and a life member of the Association of Modern Languages (Malaysia).
His latest book will soon be available for sale with his other works including Fenomena Keperibadian Mahathir, Pantun Melayu di Rusia and Penyair Agung Rusia Pushkin dan Dunia Timur already being established titles.