The First Padayatra in the USSR and its unbeaten record in Ukraine
by HG Bharadvaj
In 1984 I escaped from Ukraine practically from the mental asylum ambulance sent to me by Dnipropetrovsk KGB and tried to escape prosecution for faith in Krishna and distribution of Prabhupada’s mission in the USSR, having left for Latvia. I somehow managed to escape them at least for half a year. The Perestroika period which started the next year a bit eased the persecution there in Latvia.
Though it was one of the smallest republics of the USSR it appeared to be the most active participant of Perestroika, I was in the centre of revolutionary events with newborn political parties growing up like mushrooms.
Propagation of our mission was one of the seeds thrown 10 years before Perestroika which sprouted up and fructified with the period of Perestroika pushing the society to historical and spiritual truth and clarifying the consciousness of the whole country.
In 1980s the USSR leaders against their will and the laws of the country were put in unfavourable conditions. The first of these conditions which disturbed the society, especially its upper strata, was the distribution of spiritual movement Hare Krishna among the citizens of the atheistic country and then the start of cleaning up Krishnaites. In 1982, the year of proclamation of Prabhupada’s mission to be illegal by the Moscow prosecution, the process really aggravated and again especially in the upper strata. In the same 1982 passed away the leader of the USSR L.I. Brezhnev who gave the go-ahead to this cleaning-up of the country from Hare Krishna. Within another two years death magically took away several other leaders and their as important companions-in-arms.
Within two years after so frequent changes caused by practically simultaneous deaths of the upper strata of the communist society there started a range of changes in the administrative system all over the country. The fight for portfolios not only at the top but also all over the country was serious and it affected the economy of the country. Sugar, butter, tooth past were gone and even vodka was sold by food ration tickets. Still aggravating the overall collapse of authorities and economy in 1986 Chernobyl broke out and then everybody mediated about death not only the leaders of the country.
At the same time the prosperous and abundant USA where during the last 20 of Hare Krishna movement the rate of Indian culture reached its highest point declared 3 year long festival “America – India”. The old USA’s rival for superiority in the world, the USSR couldn’t leg behind in this unpublished race for prestige and in 1987 declared a year an a half long festival of Indian culture in the USSR.
Then something really strange started in the country. The lately forbidden religion with its main peculiarity - Hare Krishna name, the oriental theme and yoga could be seen in every corner of the country on billboards, concert posters, in programs of Indian actors and even in their names.
The Divine Providence did it with the hands of communist, did something which we, Krishna followers couldn’t do within previous 16 years as well as all other religions during last 70 years. The advertising of Krishna’s name was stunning.
Understanding that the time for active spiritual revival of Russia had come I tried my best to go to the masses and give them the most valuable and sacred word passed on by Prabhupada, God’s ambassador on Earth.
Due to the interest to Indian culture stirred up all over the world by the USA and the USSR to the joy of Russian Krishna followers by the end of the “USSR – India” festival in 1988 the Hare Krishna movement was officially registered.
In spite of the registration and discharge of convicted for worshiping Krishna there were no guarantees for us – yesterday criminals – against being closed up again the next day.
In that tense political, cultural and economic atmosphere the citizens of this country again were involved by their leaders into the bright future – PERESTROIKA. The enormous body of one sixth of the land though lived under its own inertia in communistic regime and wouldn’t change. Our festival appeared right in this revolutionary and historically important time.
It was high time to recall about us, Krishna worshippers in Russia. The city hall never expected us with our spiritual festival of Padayatra or Radhayatra in the streets of atheistic Ukrainian cities on the forth year of Perestroika. Of course this festival wasn’t officially permitted or anything.
In the tenth year of my professional underground religious activity I had to admit with bitterness that I was the only one left among the leaders of our mission’s headquarters. Even this shortage of contact and advice from my elder Russian brothers and lack of communication with Western leaders were though compensated by the Grace of the one who founded our mission in the USSR and led it to Eternity.
Prabhupada himself with his words gave me revelations in the right time and led me the blessed way. Thus despite the lack of skilled preachers and contact with our Western brothers our 10 year-long school of survival in communistic Russia provided us with enough experience.
Prabhupada himself had initially supported Russian bhaktas for many years. The servants and followers of His first Ashram founded, propagated the mission and even legitimated it in the USSR.
The incomprehensible Will of Providence provided us with such experience and realization which was much greater than in any other Russian or Western mission. This experience helped us expend the mission in the whole of the USSR and in every republic in particular. Our festival of chariots held in summer 1989 was the first street festival in Ukraine. Though it was unusual and only second in the USSR, the cities were ready to see it. Among hundreds of purely atheistic festivals in the USSR our festival was unofficial and spiritual.
It’s worthwhile mentioning the first festival of Rathayatra in the USSR. It was organized by Prabhavishnu Svami in Arbat street just a couple of days before ours after I had consulted Maharaja in Moscow about the rules of holding Rathayatra in India and how I could do it in the USSR. He was so inspired by our talk that the next day led Moscow bhaktas to Arbat and held the first Rathayatra in Moscow. What’s left for us was only to start Padayatra not from Moscow but from Kiev, the next city in our list.
There was no time to wait for people to understand everything about us and about God. The true servants of Prabhupada had to consolidate achievements in this gap in communistic system during the thaw of Perestroika.
That’s why after 3 months of pilgrimage in India in spring of 1989 where the Russian delegation of 59 members negotiated about the reunion with the Western mission I returned with the agreement with Kirtiraja prabhu appointed to supervise the Russian mission in the USSR. This agreement allowed me to hold a missionary tour in the south of Ukraine.
Having gathered my previous all-Russian crew of bhaktas I organized more than just a lecture tour – it was a festival tour Padayatra prompted by my Indian trip. There was a crew of about 12 people from different cities of the USSR, some came some left but the golden 10 of festival members was stable.
The heroes of the occasion were the deities of the Lord of the Universe, which were kindly brought by Sanatana-dharme prabhu from Lithuania. They were Jaganatha and His elder brother Baladeva and His sister Subhadra on the hand palanquin for four people to carry.
This festival is traditionally called the feast of chariots, Rathayatra in Sanskrit, the highlight of which is the carrying-out of Deities on the chariots from the main temple around the city.
There were no big temples either in Ukraine or in any other USSR republic and there was the only Deity all over the USSR. It was rather the first real Padayatra then Rathayatra, it travelled about the USSR with the chariot with Deities. Thus our festival of 1989 held in Ukraine can be rightfully called the first all-Russian Padayatra.
It wasn’t difficult to make the map of the journey and to arrange it with the presidents as at that time there were only 3 yatras with permanent experienced leaders – in Kiev, Chernigov and in Dnepropetrovsk where I had led the community since 1979.
We started off in Kiev, then we moved to Chernigov, Kharkov, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, then we visited Moldova’s capital Chisinau, and then returned to Ukraine – Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson, Simferopol and Yalta.
Up to now it remains the grandest route of a festival. This record hasn’t been beaten by anyone yet either by Ukrainian or by Western leaders despite the 20 years that passed after that Padayatra, the increased number of followers joined to the mission in Ukraine and the expanded rights and financial position.
In the former USSR the record was repeated only by Angira Muni and Mamu Khakur in Russia in 1982 who travelled with Padayatra in ten main cities along the Trans-Siberian railroad. I was invited to be in charge of the most numerous group of that festival – the group of book distributors.
After the Russian Padayatra of 1992 I with my crew managed to arrange a missionary tour in Mongolia and celebrate Janmashtami in Ulan Bator, the day of appearance of the Lord of the Universe.
Our Padayatra of 1989 differed greatly from the modern ones with their sponsors, registration, VIP signs and security. At that Padayatra you organized it and you were the sponsor, the participant and the security.
Nevertheless the first festival of Padayatra with one tiny Radha carried manually in ten main cities of Ukraine has been the greatest public event of Prabhupada’s mission in the USSR for the whole period from 1971 to 1989. Moreover in the USSR there was only one registered community of Hare Krishna in Moscow.
This festival wasn’t short either according to Ukraine or the USSR measures, it lasted 2 weeks. Here in this book I’m honoured to cover this glorious Vaishnava event in the history of Ukrainian and all-Russian Prabhupada’s mission and glorify it in our book.
During Padayatra there was distributed the record number of books – over 300. After the festival there were founded communities and temples in the cities where the festival was held in Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, Simferolop and Yalta.
We tried to stay in every city not longer than for two days. The program of the festival included Rathayatra in the main street and then feast for the guests. Then we started off for the next city.
As I’ve already mentioned we had neither permission from the authorities nor Maharajas of Brahmans. Everything we had was the comprehension of the spirit of the country and obligation to Prabhupada and His mission of Glorifying the Holy Names we had to bring to every city and town. Both Guru and Gauranga protected our service.
Time and again the amazed police would stop us as it was in Sovetskaya street in Kharkov. In Chisinau we were arrested after Padayatra in the main street when we crossed some side street. After short negotiations though we were released with God’s help. We were to leave the city, the police escorted us to the bus station and sent out to Odessa. Though our mission was fulfilled, Chisinau had seen Rathayatra and those seen by Jagannatha became His bhaktas like Gaurakishor prabhu.
Of course local authorities around the country differed from those in Moscow which could cause administrative, criminal and financial problems. My great experience though helped me to disarm the police with their rightful claims. The strain was serious though, even Bhagavatacharya’s nerves gave out, our Ukrainian Bhima and first singer wanted to give up everything and leave us but in some mystical way I managed to keep him. Every now and then the police would stop us and frighten with punishment but the time worked for us. We kept on singing kirtan, giving out sweet prasada and distributing Prabhupada’s books and giving everyone chance to start a new life with Jagannatha in their heart.
The process developed, Jagannatha and the Holy Word gave darshana to every city and we felt that the time of Prabhupada’s mission had come. Krishna, the Universal God comes forth! Local newspapers wrote about us and it inspired local bhaktas to widen propagation in their cities. In Deribasovskaya street in Odessa it was a triumph – people danced and sang with us, some kissed the ground, others put donations on the palanquin, someone even put the icon of the Mother of God. The culmination though was still more unexpected. Nobody except God Himself could foresee or organize it. A man in his middle forties ran up to me and said: “Where have you been, I’ve been looking for you for 3 years already!” He gave us his private house in Illichevsk for Prabhupada’s mission and we started the foundation of the community in Odessa from the temple in his house.
The first Padayatra of 1989 was rich in such events. I also had to send support groups to consolidate the descent of Jagannatha and His names in the cities of our tour. Our best activists Sergey and Zhenya, future Bhagavat Acharya prabhu and Nitai Chaitania prabhu, from Dnipropetrovsk crew paid regular visits to Donetsk to found a temple there. One of them fulfilled the task and was appointed president by Donetsk bhaktas.
Bhakta Ugraha from Chernigov was entrusted to propagate in Crimea. I had to travel over the area of my propagation and once in Simferopol I met a curious young man and convinced him to accept Prabhupada’s mission, this young man then got the name of Vibhutishakti. Up to now he brings my initiatives, having become the best organizer of Rathayatras and Padayatras in Ukraine. In Odessa my service attracted even Moscow bhaktas Vasudeva Datta and Viduru prabhu and they managed to support the flame of sankirtana yagya roused by us and they founded the temple in Odessa.
In this insane world thus was the Universal Grace of Prabhupada and His ISKCON shed on the USSR through Padayatra held in His honour. Without real spiritual practice it is very difficult to realize that bhakti – bottomless love to God – is inside everyone’s heart and fortunately stays there forever.
Sometimes visiting modern ISKCON festivals in Ukraine, Russia, India or in Europe one can see a great tradition of celebrating our first American brothers, who developed Prabhupada’s mission from the very beginning. The hit of all meetings is the stories about the formation of their mission in the USA. It became so usual that it doesn’t occur to the listeners that there exist other branches of Prabhupada’s mission around the world with their own stories. We mustn’t forget that the stories of foundation of Prabhupada’s mission by its followers in other countries, especially the one of Russian mission in the USSR, are as important and as transcendental. Sometimes these stories surpass the American brothers in efforts and achievements.
Even deprived of Prabhupada’s presence his followers in different countries including the USSR with His words on their lips accomplished the impossible. In ISKCON mission there was only one difficult period which was heroically overcome by Prabhupada with his disciples when they defended the Bombay temple, while in the USSR such strain was everyday atmosphere during all 18 years. We mustn’t forget that the society of Krishna consciousness was illegal in the USSR and was under close surveillance of the secret service, and moreover it developed without physical presence of Prabhupada and his Western leaders. But Prabhupada’s Russian followers without Him on their side, just like His followers in Bombay under Prabhupada’s personal guidance, gained victories day by day for many years, led only by Prabhupada’s word. This unimaginable and inconceivable story of victories of Russian mission of Prabhupada and a dozen of members, can it be compared to any other, can it be neglected?
Those who know the story and the path of the Russian mission and their leaders as they are understand that America’s story is no match to the Russian’s.
Could the victory of Russian bhaktas be deprived of the Grace of Prabhupada’s lotus feet and could this victory in Russia occur without direct spiritual presence of Prabhupada?
For us, the members of ISKCON, it’s time to grow up and take into consideration not only the present of the mission and the first steps of Prabhupada’s mission bhaktas in America, completely forgetting the stories of their own missions and about the world around. First of all everyone must take into account the peculiarities of their own mission’s stories and of the followers behind whom they go, the followers who lead and push them back to Krishna with their transcendental presence and past. The story of every branch of mission and ISKCON temple is eternal as it is transcendental. Without understanding Prabhupada’s mission as it is, without understanding that it is also of divine nature we deprive ourselves of our spiritual roots in our own country. Such unwise branch would bring only extinction and fading of divine nature in our service. Our service would become dry and spiritually useless as weeds, turning from eternal activity (sanatana-dharma) into suppose colourful but temporary religious show.
Let’s grow up, my dear brothers! If our mission is eternal let’s immerse into the Eternity with its variety, not only the story of one country. This would become the mentality of Vaikunthi people. Don’t conceal or try to destroy the eternal glory of pervasive divine nature and heroic service of the others. We can’t hide this forever: “Those who worship only Me are not true devotees. True bhaktas are those who worship my devotees.” (Adi Purana, Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna).
P.S. In this edition of 2008 I would like to add some records about Padayatra in the former USSR. This year almost simultaneously in different cities there started their path two Padayatras led by experienced brahmans. One group from Kiev society led by Bala prabhu, the other – from Dnipropetrovsk led by Sadachara prabhu. They have the experience of Padayatra and Rathayatra both on big truck platform and in group of just about 20 members.
Jagannatha Svami in Ukraine Ki Jai!