For several days I’ve been writing about waves of Kṛṣṇa consciousness taking over the world. It sounds bigger than it means. “Waves” means that a surge in one place is balanced out by a decline in another, so it’s not all good. Eighties was a tough time for North America but good for Europe. Nineties was even better for the former USSR, and then it was India’s turn to grow big. So far I got to legalizing Hare Kṛṣṇa’s in Soviet Union and a great generation of devotees who appeared there. It wasn’t all that happened, however.
In 1989 these devotees were finally allowed to visit India and ISKCON’s preaching has been allowed by the government there. Only two years later Russian devotees rose to the top of worldwide book distribution and when these saṅkīrtana heroes came to Māyāpura it turned out that they were the second generation of Russians already. Not the battle hardened vaiṣṇavas who went through jails and beatings but young boys barely into their twenties who never known any troubles in their lives. It was amazing.
Of course we’ve seen young devotees succeeding in ISKCON before, it’s how our entire movement has started, and in Russia/USSR it was like reliving those moments again. And they weren’t hippies either, they seemed to have plucked them from math and physics departments of top Russian universities. In fact, this is true even for their first generation devotees.
Current Russian GBC, Bhakti Vijñāna Svāmī, joined in the 70s and he was a legitimate university biologist, not just a student. The current chairman of Russian ISKCON, Rādhā Dāmodara Prabhu, also from the 70s, was a professor at an aviation college where they designed stuff for the Soviet space program. From what I heard, the entire Russian underground was drawn from those circles – intellectuals and technocrats, not from the bottom of the society like it was in the West.
So in a short time, in just two years, the entire USSR was covered in Hare Kṛṣṇa temples and when they got their own Russian books saṅkīrtana there just exploded. It was a real tsunami – I called it mini only because in retrospect everything looks smaller.
Remember Harināmananda, a Swiss devotee who distributed over a hundred big books a day for years on? His records were soundly beaten and now it was he who traveled to Russia to learn the craft, not the other way around, though Russian devotees never even thought of considering him inferior in any way. How did they do it? Through innovation.
Harināmananda and devotees of his generations carried their books in their hands and then returned to their cars to top-up the stack. There’s a limit on how much you can distribute this way, and it’s not in how many people you meet but in how many books you can physically carry. Russians didn’t explicitly mean to beat his records but somehow or other they found another way – by setting makeshift stalls at busy subway stations and having a team of devotees to constantly supply books to the distributors.
Now the limit was on how many books you can hand over in a day, there was no walking involved, no heavy loads to carry, just take books from the pile and hand them over. I don’t know why it didn’t work in the West, probably because there are restrictions on commercial activities in subways, but Soviets somehow allowed it.
Millions of people use Moscow subway everyday, meaning each stall had tens of thousands if not a hundred thousand people passing by, many of them stopping to check the books out. The devotees would preach and talk about books and nearly a dozen people would hear it simultaneously, all potential customers. Some simply paid, took the books, and left, others wanted a personal attention, and yet others started big debates and asked “difficult” questions. Devotees quickly learned the skill of sorting the atheists out and reaching to the innocent instead, they couldn’t afford to waste time. No debates with Christians either – it wasn’t the time to talk but the time to tell people about Kṛṣṇa and give them books.
By 1993 Russia and Ukraine listed a hundred temples and sold three times more books than second placed India. In total CIS, as it was known then, had more temples than both Americas, Africa, and Australasia together, and they sold more books, too. Just to illustrate my earlier point about second wave – Europe also had more temples then both Americas and they distributed almost as many books as CIS. The top Russian devotee sold twice as many books as Harināmananda in that year, which is, again, humanly impossible.
To achieve that they had to change their method again, come out of the subways and go to Siberia and other far out places. By that time they sold books by “sets” – everything that Russian BBT published, all the big and small books together. This required an industrial setup, the whole supply chain with storehouses in strategic locations around the country. Sets needed to be packaged as sets and delivered as sets. Devotees would arrange for a big meeting with all company employees, preach, sign everyone who wanted the books up, and deliver them afterwards to a designated place. Money was collected through company’s payroll system.
At the time it seemed like a great idea but, in retrospect, it was also a slippery slope. Selling books from a stall in a subway, from one person to another, wasn’t bad in any sense but it planted the idea of “improvements”. The next improvement worked like magic but it put a distance between devotees and those they preached to. There’s nothing wrong with preaching to the crowd but a personal touch gets lost. The payment system also required cooperation from company’s bosses and so devotees had to first win over the management, it was always they first office they went into. Basically, if you arranged everything with the bosses, the rest was easy.
The next improvement gave us what I call an “Indian model”, but don’t quote me on that. In that model ALL the preaching is done to sponsors and books are handed out without asking for payment to anyone who wants a freebie. That I don’t understand anymore even though it still counts as saṅkīrtana. Hmm, saṅkīrtana sites are full of stories from all over the world but I don’t recall anyone from India having anything to share. I guess a story how they persuaded some big shot to donate a lakh of rupees wouldn’t really fit there.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing this method, I’m just too old to understand it. If it works it must be supported by Lord Caitanya, who am I to criticize the efforts of His devotees?
The other problem in Russia was that this industrialized book distribution was unsustainable. However big Russia is, they eventually ran out of space. Earlier I said they were over a hundred temples listed in CIS and traveling saṅkīrtana parties meant they had to step on each others toes. Smaller temples complained of their towns being sucked dry by big teams from Moscow or Kiev. Just like traveling saṅkīrtana in the US twenty years earlier created internal problems so did traveling saṅkīrtana in former USSR. The exact problems were different but the tension was there again. It didn’t come to a boil, as far as I’m aware, but this explosive growth had to stop and pretty soon things were back to “normal”, if anyone actually likes these “normal” times.
If one gets to be born in the material world then it’s far better to be born when saṅkīrtana is booming, which isn’t normal, than to be born afterwards when people’s material considerations take over and pull everything down. “This is my land, you can’t distribute love of Godhead here without my cooperation”, or “These are my devotees, you can’t take them out of my temple without my permission” – who wants to live in times when this attitude becomes prevalent? Not me.