Yesterday I wrote about Kīrtirāja’s Prabhu efforts to penetrate behind the Iron Curtain and place our books into the hands of Russian (Soviet) people. One event that was truly seminal in nature in this regard was Moscow book fair of 1979 and it deserves its own mention.
First Moscow International Book Fair was held in 1977 and Gopāla Kṛṣṇa Gosvāmī went there on behalf of Indian BBT. It was the first time for everyone and so no one had a clear idea how to extract most benefits out of it. I mean even the potential buyers didn’t know how it would all work. In retrospective it could be said that all Gopāla Kṛṣṇa (not Svāmī yet) got was a certificate of participation, which he presented to Śrīla Prabhupāda, but the real benefit was in laying preparation for the next visit. That’s where Kīrtirāja came in.
Second fair was in 1979 and he was representing Indian BBT again so as not to look like spreading American propaganda. He also knew the rules and how to use them to full advantage. One such rule was that publishers couldn’t sell books at the fair but the workaround was that they could take orders so Kīrtirāja had BBT supply him with order forms with prices printed in roubles. During the fair he would collect the money and BBT filled this orders later, totally legally. Hundreds of books were sent into USSR that way.
Another rule was that there had to be an official interpreter but Kīrtirāja protested that our books contain so many technical terms that an ordinary interpreter wouldn’t be able to translate them correctly. He persuaded the organizers that his own interpreter, Ananta Śānti, was already perfect and their official interpreter can take a break. It worked.
Ananta Śānti brought half a dozen devotees to help him and it’s them who did most of the talking. They were preaching there non-stop even if they hadn’t read the books themselves yet.
Another rule was set by Kīrtirāja himself and it was that their booth should always have prasādam to distribute. He told the devotees to prepare “simply wonderfuls” and they rolled them day and night in shifts. Somehow they rolled them into small balls the size of M&Ms, they would wake up before sunrise, roll the sweets, and bring them to the fair with their hands covered in blisters.
Kīrtirāja’s rule was that there was only one ball per person and when they run out of sweets and new trays weren’t in yet he’d collect crumbs on small pieces of paper and people would eat them with a great deal of respect. To fully appreciate the kind of impact it had consider this – by Kīrtirāja’s own calculations they had distributed 26,000 thousand sweetballs. Twenty six thousand, roughly four-five thousand per day. Can you imagine what king of buzz was going on around their booth?
It certainly attracted organizers attention – so many people and instead of one official interpreter there were half a dozen Russian speakers. To smooth things out Kīrtirāja gave the boss a gift of Bhagavad Gītā. At that time they only had English books and this Bhagavad Gītā came from a special pack Kīrtirāja brought with him which will feature in the story a little bit later.
Another rule was that all the books presented at the fair had to be either taken back out of the country of given to some official Soviet charity. None of the devotees knew of any charity that would take a set of English books so it was a kind of a problem – Kīrtirāja didn’t want to go back, well, full-handed. Towards the end of the fair, however, a shy but inquisitive woman showed up, asking about this and that but never stating her purpose. Turned out she was a representative for Lenin’s Library, which was like a Library of Congress for the Soviet Union. They certainly had the means to purchase the books but she wanted to get them for free as charity.
Once Kīrtirāja realized what was going on he thought that it was a perfect charity placement of all – in the biggest library of the entire Soviet Union and they quickly organized the official transfer. There was only a small matter of that pack of Bhagavad Gītās, originally there were twelve there but now there were eleven, and Kīrtirāja was not in the mood to take them back either. They were specifically meant for distribution among the devotees, translation etc.
He and Ananta Śānti came up with a plan.
On the day of leaving they went to the airport together with Bhagavad Gītās packed in a separate bag. Ananta Śānti took a strategic position in a cafeteria right outside customs and Kīrtirāja went to the farthest custom officer and tried to make himself noticeable.
He had custom’s declaration with a set of BBT books and so he had to produce his charity paperwork and explain everything that happened. His customs form also had twelve Gītās on it but there were only eleven left so Kīrtirāja had to plea with customs agent that it was a gift to the fair organizer, there was nothing sinister about it etc etc. It worked.
As soon as Kīrtirāja passed the customs and got his stamp he quickly ran around the row of customs booths towards the end of it that was next to the cafeteria and begged the guard there to let him out because he was so thirsty and his papers were already in order and he loved Russian tea and that worked to.
When he entered the cafeteria he left his book bag at the table and went to get his drink. Ananta Śānti picked it up and hurried outside, just like in spy novels. Kīrtirāja waited until Ananta Śānti was in the taxi and taxi left the airport and returned to the custom agent who checked him in only a few minutes ago. “You again!” he exclaimed, and Kīrtirāja gave him the same excise about tea and the officer couldn’t be bothered to go and check with the guard on the other end whether Kīrtirāja had his bag when he was going out for tea or not. Everything worked perfectly.
That fair marked exponential growth in Soviet community. Before that visiting devotees had programs with less than ten people attending but after the fair, on their next visit, they were already hundreds, but that is a story for another day.