As the four-thousand-strong crowd began to disperse, Yasomatinandana Dasa and other Russian ISKCON leaders sighed happily and thanked Lord Krishna for the festival’s success. It was the 17th anniversary of Moscow’s Sri Sri Dayal-Nitai Sacisuta deities, and over the weekend of June 6th and 7th, they had held a huge Ratha Yatra procession with a special self-propelled vehicle—the only one in the world to have a registered state number.
It wasn’t the only 'first' at the festival. Stas Namin, one of the earliest USSR musicians to become interested in Indian spirituality, had delivered to an enraptured audience his first ever performance of The Light of Mantra, a song he had written three years after Prabhupada’s 1971 visit to Moscow. After being banned for decades due to the USSR’s laws against religious preaching, the song had finally seen the light of day.
Not content with two firsts, devotees and guests at the festival had set a Russian Guiness Record for “Biggest group of percussion instrument performers.” Following a rhythm set by renowned soul musician Alexey Pavlov, percussionists had played more than 1008 drums and tambourines bearing the image of Jagannath, Lord of the Universe.
And there was more to look forward to. Popular radio-station City FM and TV station Russia Today had told Yasomatinandana that they would be reporting on the event, as would newspapers MK and Metro, which both claimed millions of readers.
To outsiders, the festival might have seemed like an easy victory. But those who had followed ISKCON Russia’s history knew that such successes came about only because of the indigenous devotees’ extraordinary resilience and dedication to Srila Prabhupada’s mission.
The Early Years
It was Prabhupada himself who set the first example for this dedication, when he was repeatedly denied entrance into the USSR as an official representative of India. Instead of giving up, he continued to persist, and was finally given a tourist visa that granted him a short stay.
Those five days in 1971 changed the country’s history. During them, Prabhupada spoke with Professor G. G. Kotovsky, then head of the Indian and South Asian Studies Department of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. The conversation left a distinct impression on the professor, who had it published in an important Russian periodical. But it was Prabhupada’s meeting with a young Russian seeker—Anatoly Pinyayev—that was the true catalyst for Krishna consciousness in the Soviet Union. Soon renamed Ananta-shanti Dasa, the young man took Prabhupada’s message to heart, and began to enthusiastically share what he had learned.
Eventually his work led to the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust receiving an invitation to the prestigious Moscow International Book Fair in 1977, acquainting Moscovites with Prabhupada’s books for the first time.
It was, as the July 31, 1983 edition of the The New York Times noted, a significant event: “[The exhibit] drew curious Russians, the books spread, and Hare Krishna was on its way in Russia.”
Persecution and Terror
But things took a dark turn. In June 1977 Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev became head of state, and by 1980, several devotees had been imprisoned simply because of their faith.
Brezhnev’s successor Yuri Andropov was determined to wipe out all things religious, and he increased the campaign against ISKCON as soon as he came to power in 1982. Semyon Tsvigun, his deputy chief of the KGB, announced that the three foremost threats to the Soviet Union were “pop music, Western culture, and Hare Krishna.”
Intense persecution of Hare Krishna devotees ensued. Many were thrown into prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals. Yet despite being tortured in various ways and seeing their friends die around them, they clung to their devotion, refusing to give up Krishna consciousness.
One of these was Armenian devotee Sarvabhavana Dasa, who spent 730 days in a Siberian labour camp for distributing Prabhupada’s books. There he lost many teeth, had his vision impaired and was thrown into a madhouse. Temperatures would plummet to below 50 degrees Celsius, and as a vegetarian he was given only three slices of coarse bread to eat per day. To make it go down, he had to sprinkle it with salt to produce saliva. Fortunately he received asylum from the UN and moved to Calcutta in 1991, where he worked on Salted Bread, his recently published book on his experiences.
His closest friend, Sacisuta Dasa, was not so lucky. Suffering from tuberculosis and refused vegetarian food by the hospital staff, he died in prison 28 days before they were to be set free. “One day he requested his head to be shaved and took a bath,” Sarvabhavana told the Kolkotta Telegraph in September 2007. “With toothpaste he put tilak on his forehead, wore the bedsheet as a dhoti, made japa beads from bread and a garland with newspaper. Then he sat in lotus position (padmasana). He died like that.”
Even as they went through hell, Russian devotees continued reaching out to others. Food for Life volunteers gave out over one million bowls of hot porridge, freshly baked bread, and tea. Risking their lives, they went on humanitarian missions to war zones like Chechnya and Abkhazia to feed people. Devotees helped hundreds of thousands of Russian, Chechen, Georgian, and Armenian victims of war. Often arrested and sometimes even killed for their service, they continued to distribute sacred food to the needy.
“Free the Soviet Krishnas”
The greater ISKCON community could not stand by and watch the plight of their Russian brothers and sisters. Kirtiraja Dasa, ISKCON’s then regional secretary for the Soviet Union, founded the Committee to Free Soviet Hare Krishnas, pressuring Soviet authorities to stop the persecution and release the imprisoned devotees. International newspapers soon lent their supportive voices, as did the United Nations at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik.
Finally Sri Prahlada Dasa, then a pre-teen devotee from an ISKCON school in Australia, joined the effort. He and “The Krishna Kids” recorded an album on the international EMI label, one of the world’s largest record companies. The single, “Free the Soviet Krishnas,” was addressed to President Gorbachev and included the heartfelt plea, “Please, please let our friends go.” Prahlada appeared on a number of television and radio spots to promote the album and share his concern for the devotees in Russia.
Soon after, Gorbachev introduced glasnost, reducing censorship and increasing transperancy in government. In 1989, persecution of devotees came to an end, and the Hare Krishna movement come out from underground in the Soviet Union.
By 1991, more than one million copies of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is had been sold in the former Soviet Union.
When Salted Bread author Sarvabhavana Dasa joined ISKCON in the early 1980s, there were barely 100 members across the USSR. “Today,” he said in 2007, “We have a hundred temples.”
The Fight for Freedom Continues
Yet mistreatment of ISKCON devotees in Russia is not over. In April 2009, renowned “anti-cultists” and controversial scholars of Islam were appointed to a Russian government body allocated sweeping powers to investigate religious organizations. Known as the Expert Council for Conducting State Religious-Studies Analysis, the body may prove the heaviest blow to religious freedom in a decade.
If the Council is given free reign, it is likely to recommend harsh measures against certain religious organizations. And not surprisingly, ISKCON is one of those—one appointee to the Council is the author of a propaganda leaflet against devotees that was recently declared extremist by a court in the Russian Far East.
Beneath the politician-talk of Council’s chair Aleksandr Dvorkin—Russia’s most prominent “anti-cult” activist—lies a sinister undertone. “Many organisations got the status of religious organisations in the reckless nineties, but in fact are either not religious or are not doing the activity stipulated in their statutes,” he said.
Although they have raised an outcry from many of Russia’s religious representatives and freedom-defenders, Dvorkin’s statements have provoked other anti-cultists around the country to take action. In Tomsk, Western Siberia, an Orthodox anti-cultist missionary has convinced local people to sign an appeal demanding authorities repossess the piece of land on which ISKCON devotees have built their homes.
And while Moscow’s Ratha Yatra festival was celebrated with vibrant splendor, the annual Ratha-Yatra in another Russian City, Vladimir, has been cancelled after a 14-year unbroken run. “The difficulties in our relationship with the government have been most probably caused by the activities of anti-cultists,” said Russian ISKCON Communications secretary Bhaktin Olessia. “Last year, they tried to persuade the city authorities to prohibit Ratha-Yatra, saying it was a ‘deception’ because we call it Indian culture although it is actually a religious ceremony.”
To a less resilient group of people, such intimidation might seem daunting. But time and time again, through every kind of persecution and harassment possible, the devotees of ISKCON Russia have shown that they will not give up their devotion. And as before, the future looks positive—in both Tomsk and Vladimir, devotees expect their talks with local authorities to culminate in a compromise.
As we follow their activities, ISKCON’s worldwide community pray to Lord Krishna; and we ask that ISKCON Russia’s freedom fighters will continue turning adversity into miracles.