Yesterday I talked about blossoming book distribution in Europe when the rest of ISKCON was going through a very difficult time. Somehow those devotees weren’t affected in the least. At the same time another revolution was under way in, perhaps, the most demoniac country in the world – USSR.
Starting Kṛṣṇa consciousness in the democratic countries was fairly easy – just go there, sit in a public place, chant, when enough people gather preach a little and ask for donations. It was a trusted formula that worked everywhere in the world, actually a copy of what Śrīla Prabhupāda did in New York. In the communist countries, however, this was simply illegal.
Śrīla Prabhupāda visited Moscow once but nothing much came out of it. He talked to one professor and made one devotee, who they later married off to a French woman so that we could smuggle Kṛṣṇa related stuff as family belongings. Later on the Soviet government allowed BBT to participate in a book fair and it was a big success but most devotees were still in hiding and it remained so for another fifteen years or so.
In the eighties, however, Kṛṣṇa consciousness was booming in Russia, but by underground standards. They had hundreds of devotees, had regular meetings, even printed their own books. Then the government decided to squash the movement and put lots of people in jails. Officially ISKCON was recognized only in 1989 and that’s when the first group of Soviet devotees came to India for the first time in their lives. It was incredible experiences not only for them but for everybody who me them there, too. They were heroes, they sacrificed everything they had for Kṛṣṇa, some even paid with their lives.
On the right side of the world, devotees put a lot of public pressure both on Soviet and their own governments to demand release of the Hare Kṛṣṇas, they demonstrated outside of embassies, handed letters, did everything democracy allows citizens to do and eventually it worked, Nancy Reagan herself brought the subject up in a meeting with Gorbachev and the rest is history, as they say.
Actually, the history is what happened to Soviet devotees BEFORE that, what happened after was rather standard – open temples, distribute books, hold festivals, success. It’s the life before this success that was truly unique, not only in the history of ISKCON but the history of the universe as its recorded in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. I’m not kidding here, some of these people fully deserve a mention in future editions by Vyāsadeva. There’s a book about this period, Salted Bread, but it’s not freely available online so I can’t give you a link. Excerpts can be easily googled out, however.
These days terms like “Soviet” and “Russian” are interchangeable but actually there were people of many different nationalities who now happen to live in different countries, so I deliberately call them Soviet. Devotees described in that book are Armenian, not Russian. Armenia is a small landlocked country that is better known for Armenian genocide by Turks. It is mostly mountains there and maybe that’s why Armenia produced so many devotees and had so much influence on the rest of the USSR – mountains means mode of goodness. It’s only a speculation, however, there were many mountainous regions in USSR but it’s only Caucasus mountains that worked, and mostly in Armenia, not so much in the neighboring Georgia. Fun fact – Caucasus has the highest mountain in Europe – Elbrus. Another fun fact – yesterday I talked about devotees from another mountainous nation – Switzerland, and Alps has the second highest peak in Europe, Mont Blanc, though it’s straddles the border between Italy and France, not Switzerland itself. Mount Elbrus is not in Armenia either, for that matter.
Anyway, the book doesn’t tell much about the beginning of Kṛṣṇa consciousness in Armenia, it starts when the community was already there and books were already being printed. This printing business was remarkable because it was all done underground, even the neighbors didn’t know the printing press was hidden there. To move the press into the house they had to break down the wall and lay the bricks again overnight so that no one had any idea what happened. To access it there was hidden door, too, and to print books devotees had to blast music so that no one could hear the press working.
Books were then bound manually, pages were cut to size manually, too. Then they were smuggled into Russia proper and distributed in total secret. Devotees had to bribe truck drivers and hide the books under normal goods so that they were invisible under routine inspections. Once at the destination secrecy continued and Moscow devotees, for example, kept the books taped to the underneath of their sofas.
The devotee who started this printing was/is a remarkable soul himself. Initially, devotees distributed photocopies of Iśopaniṣad and one truck driver had it lying around his cabin. Once he delivered supplies to a remote village and one local guy took interest in this book. The driver let him have it and that was it. Several months later devotees traveled through that village and were astonished to find that half the population was chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa! Turns out that the local guy was a son of a village headman and not only he became a devotee himself but he also told all the villagers to take up Kṛṣṇa consciousness, too. His authority was so great that they obliged and so up there in the mountains of Armenia was hidden a unique Kṛṣṇa conscious village no one in the rest of the world knew about at all.
Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of that village, nor do I remember the source of this story. There’s one more side to it that I might have mentioned earlier, and I don’t remember the source of it either, but when that devotee, now known as Brahmānanda Purī, first saw Iśopaniṣad with that famous image of Lord Keśava on the cover he was converted on the spot, and when he turned the book over and saw the picture of Śrīla Prabhupāda his knees gave out and he dropped on the ground. He didn’t even have to open and read it, he already knew he was “home”. These are not ordinary souls, no matter where they are now and whether they are formally with ISKCON or not, and that’s why I’m sure Śrīla Vyāsadeva will find a spot for them in his future books about Lord’s pastimes.
I should also mention that the desire to print and distribute books came to these devotees on their own, completely naturally, which is another symptom of their inexplicable maturity. They must have been doing this lifetime after lifetime, following Lord Caitanya and Śrīla Prabhupāda universe after universe.
Hmm, I didn’t even get to the jail time today, but there’s always tomorrow.