Last time I wrote about success of Moscow Second International Book Fair in 1979 and the impact it had on the number of devotees there. Before the fair western devotees held private programs with less than a dozen people attending, the visit after the fair, I think in 1980 or 1981 was completely different.
In Moscow there must have been a hundred people crammed into apartments and at one point devotees even spilled out in the street – in dhotis and with tilakas on their foreheads. They had foot washing ceremonies and āratis like a fully fledged ISKCON temple. Never mind that to put a tilaka on they first spit in their palms and blew conch shells from the wrong end – the transformation of Moscow yatra was astonishing.
On the second leg, in Latvian capital Riga, devotees were even less apprehensive about state authorities and they organized a public program in a local auditorium. KGB couldn’t tolerate this brassiness anymore and swooped in, aided by dozens of uniform police. Kīrtirāja and Harikeśa Svāmī were not arrested, luckily, but were deported. Ananta Śānti, however, was the one who suffered the most as they kept him in prisons or psychiatric hospitals ever since.
The story goes that Soviet leader at the time, Brezhnev, had a personal traditional healer who knew the devotees and put a word on their behalf while the KGB boss wanted to arrest and try the western preachers. A short while later Brezhnev died and by 1983 this KGB boss became the supreme leader himself. That’s when the repression of Hare Kṛṣṇas started in earnest. Communities were broken, devotees were put on trials or sent to psychiatric hospitals and the age of horror began.
During this time neither Kīrtirāja nor anyone else could obtain a visa into Soviet Union and everything seemed to be lost but then Gorbachev came onto the scene and Soviet Union suddenly became open to public pressure and that’s when Kīrtirāja organized a committee to help Soviet Hare Kṛṣṇas. Devotees all over the world helped in any way they could, here’s a video recorded by Australians with Śrī Prahlāda singing a song addressed personally to Gorbachev:
There was a whole record of songs like this and Śrī Prahlāda, a child at the time, personally delivered a letter to the Soviet Embassy in Australia.
The whole protest movement was organized by Kīrtirāja, however. He was the one collecting all the information and publishing booklets and articles in the media with details of devotee persecution. Horrible things happened to Soviet devotees at the time. Some were kept in prisons, which aren’t exactly the best places for sādhana. Others were deemed mentally ill and treated with drugs meant to completely suppress one’s consciousness and the will to live, like a chemotherapy for the mind. One woman had a child while in jail who was taken away from her by the state and died in infancy from the lack of care. Entire books have been written about this, I can’t do justice to history in this one post.
Then came the famous Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavik in 1986. Kīrtirāja got himself a journalist accreditation to attend and set up a protest camp right outside Gorbachev’s hotel. Every morning Gorbachev had to pass by it and read the placards and signs held by devotees there.
On the last day of the summit Kīrtirāja went to Gorbachev’s press conference hoping to give him a copy of Bhagavad Gītā but the security didn’t let him anywhere near the Soviet leader. Then he spotted Gorbachev’s personal interpreted sitting in the audience, the man was in all TV broadcasts and Kīrtirāja immediately recognized him and decided to approach him instead.
“I have a very nice book here,” he said, “would you like to pass it to your boss as a gift?” The man had one short look at it and said “He already has a copy.” Puzzled, Kīrtirāja offered the book to the man himself. “I already have a copy, too,” he replied. “How’s that possible?”
Turned out that on the way to Iceland Gorbachev and his posse stopped in Denmark and saw a stack of our books in the Soviet Embassy there, so they all helped themselves. The program of placing books in every possible Soviet outposts bore its fruits. For years Kīrtirāja gave free books to embassies, consulates, trade or culture missions, and what do you know – one day Gorbachev himself got a book there.
That was not the end of the campaign, however. There were still over two years before Soviets changed their policy and once the political will was there everything happened very fast. Some devotees were in prisons and only two weeks later they were on a plane to India for the first ever pilgrimage there.
There was a scuffle over how many devotees would be allowed to go and who exactly should be on the list, with list A and list B prepared in case someone couldn’t make it. In the end, however, everyone on either list was allowed to leave.
Kīrtirāja, who couldn’t set a foot in USSR himself, was waiting for them in Calcutta. He took the devotees to Purī, hen to Māyāpura, then to Vṛndāvana. There were 89 people in the party, iirc, and Kīrtirāja was their main interlocutor, arranging their traveling, lodging, prasādam, taking them to temples, parikramās and tours, helping with shopping and negotiations and what not.
The whole pilgrimage lasted two months and Kīrtirāja was physically exhausted. Devotees were leaving from New Delhi and their luggage weighed four and a half tons of Kṛṣṇa conscious stuff – deities, paraphernalia, clothes, incense – everything they needed for starting dozens and dozens new temples back home.
When Kīrtirāja finally bid the final good bye, gave final hugs, and saw the plane take off, he was passing by airport’s Baskin Robbins, went inside, and simply collapsed on the chair there. He had not energy left and that was the moment when he not just thought to himself but had a realization that his service was done, finished, over.
He stayed as a GBC for a while and went to Russia many times since but it just wasn’t the same. Someone else had to take over and it was a completely different stage of Hare Kṛṣṇa revolution.
The pioneering days were truly over.