Vanity thought #1784. Pioneering problems

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.


Vanity thought #1783. Pioneering success

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.

Vanity thought #1782. Pioneering days

I once watched a long video of Kīrtirāja Prabhu telling stories of the time when they tried to open up the Soviet Union. I’ve never heard these stories before, nor did I have any idea of the extent to which he was involved. I’m not going to retell them all, the video was several hours long, but a short recap is in order anyway.

In 1973 Śrīla Prabhupāda visited Moscow and met with a young man who later got initiated and who became the first Russian devotee. It’s so easy for to say “Russia” nowadays and it’s hard to remember that modern day Russia had something like half the population of Soviet Union and that many Hare Kṛṣṇa communities sprang up in places like Armenia or Latvia. To reduce them all to Russia now would be unfair to history.

There was no stable channel of communication between western devotees and that Ananta Śānti but devotees from Europe would often fly to India via Moscow and meet him at the airport. Better idea was to arrange a marriage with a female devotee who would then be able to live in or at least and visit USSR freely. One of the French devotees accepted the service, got the blessings of Śrīla Prabhupāda, but the marriage didn’t work out and only a couple years later she wanted out.

Meantime, Śrīla Prabhupāda initiated a Hungarian devotee in Germany in 1974 and that devotee learned Russian at school like any Hungarian of his generation would. He translated Easy Journey to Other Planets into Russian, and also into Polish, I think, and then BBT published it in the US. That’s where Kīrtirāja started his service in promoting Hare Kṛṣṇas in Soviet Union. I think his family has Russian roots or something but he had a natural interest and affinity for all things Russian. He couldn’t speak the language well but didn’t need an interpreter for simple tourist talk either. So he went to LA where BBT offices were.

LA has a huge port, of course, and plenty of Russian cargo ships docked there. At first Kīrtirāja tried to approach Russian, sorry Soviet, sailors while they were on leave but Soviets were prepared – they let them out in groups of three with one older guy chaperoning two younger ones. There was no way those older dudes would be duped into looking at American books, it was not going to happen.

Kīrtirāja then found another way in – he would approach the ship and ask for a tour, feigning a genuine interest in Soviet shipbuilding. After a short consultation with authorities he would be usually let in and taken around by a guide. Kīrtirāja had his coat pockets stuffed with that Easy Journey and he would leave copies in hidden places, behind TVs or radar screens, or he would take a book from a bookshelf, flip over few pages, try to read something aloud, and then would put it back in with an Easy Journey tacked behind it. Someone would eventually find our books, he thought, maybe a week or maybe a month later, but the books will find their readers. And then he got caught and kicked out of the ship.

If he found cargo crates getting loaded on Soviet ships he’s sneak in and stuff the books under plastic wraps, but that wasn’t very effective, obviously.

He became a member of some US-Soviet friendship society and that gave him access to visiting Russian dignitaries who went to the States on official trips. That way he could even give them prasādam but talking about straight Kṛṣṇa consciousness was still off limits.

Then he moved to London and eventually Sweden. From Europe it was easier to visit Russia as a tourist and he could even go on camping trips there but that was done by other devotees. He still continued his “book distribution” program, though. In Sweden he’d hunt Soviet cargo trucks, overtake them on highways, turn emergency lights on and wave them down to stop. Drivers were very scared that they did something wrong and stopped. Kīrtirāja then would approach them and start in his broken Russian: “Have you watched a documentary about Indian yogis?” Drivers could not believe what was happening but by the time they figured out there was no danger they were happy to receive a small gift of a book.

Meanwhile, other books got smuggled in and properly translated into Russian and then BBT published a compact Bhagavad Gītā As It Is. They were printing them in Germany, I think, and Kīrtirāja arranged for an extra run of “primer” or what it was called, but the result was that he had thousands printed copies of Introduction where Prabhupāda presented the essence of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. From the days in the US Kīrtirāja got a list of Soviet organization from some Soviet dissident and he thought it would be a good idea to mass mail this Introduction in ordinary envelopes.

It was a big operation with devotees in several countries buying different colors and sizes of envelopes, putting the Intro in, and then sending them to Soviet addresses from different post offices in different cities. The idea was that even if KGB found some of these subversive letters they wouldn’t be able to find all of them, coming from different countries and all different from one another. It’s hard to say how effective this campaign was but they did get some replies asking for more. KGB couldn’t stop it all.

How they smuggled copies of Gītā and other books for translation is another story but I don’t think Kīrtirāja was a part of it. Devotees went on a camping trip through Russia and put dozens and dozens of books all around the van in plain sight – in glove compartments, under the seats, in the back, everywhere they could think of. Custom’s agent was curious about that but it wasn’t illegal to bring books for personal reading. When in Moscow devotees swapped these books for those bought in Russia and exited from a different location altogether. Their customs declaration only had “63 religious books” with no list of titles so to the officer on the exit it looked all legitimate. Otherwise their car was practically taken apart and they even dismantled the fuel tank. I can’t even imagine how devotees felt through this ordeal.

Hmm, this is getting longer than expected and so I should leave the rest for tomorrow.