WORLDLY-WISE GUYS FROM THE USSR
by HG Bharadvaj
Chapter 1 Dedicated to 35 anniversary of Prabhupada’s mission in the USSR
Part 1 Worldly-wise guys from the USSR
…The leather jackets of men who chased us were not a good sign. I followed Suren when we ran on his native Armenian land and didn’t feel this land under our feet. We felt a part of automatic pilot whose master mechanically led us in the simulator and didn’t give us a chance to fear, the master who led us, the guys behind us and the entire Cosmos.
There was a usual working night before us, one of hundreds under close surveillance of one of the world’s mightiest security agencies – the National Security of the USSR, on the Universal mission of Prabhupada in Russia, my spiritual teacher from whom I was given the name of Bharadvahja das in 1980…
… The file of running people was absorbed by quiet dusk of fall cloudless night observed indifferently by the unidentified stars high above. We approached Bangladesh, one of Yerevan’s districts. We scampered from the deserted high-road with the only motor car with headlights turned off. We couldn’t guess why the regular bus from airport to Yerevan was chased by this strange unidentified object without headlights. We could easily detect that mysterious stranger after we got off from the bus deliberately quite far from the secret address in Yerevan, but nobody prevented us from keeping our eyes open when riding the bus and we quietly observed the night guest and ran over in our mind the previous night to understand where we could make a blunder and catch a tail, those vigilant omnipresent guys from KGB.
We got off from the bus in silence in the middle of dark steppe about half a kilometer away from the nearest new-built quarters leaving the driver’s amazed look of without response. There was no time for explanation.
The serene warm night of the “velvet” season near Ararat mount and the tender stars shining peacefully over our heads were forgotten after a few meters of scamper as the security officers were close at our heels. I caught the glimpse of their shining leather jackets when they rushed out of the car some 10 meters away from our bus stop and started off through the steppe. The dashing guys were approaching rapidly and we burned the earth away from the high-road to face our fate known to God only.
I sometimes recall these stories to convince myself that one must believe in God, believe that God exists. As we organized, published and distributed His Sacred books for Him. That’s why nobody else but Him had to protect us then, and He did. But it happens up until now, in 30 years when I have to put down these lines. Definitely God exists, He is our eternal life and real fate.
Multistoreyed buildings approached quickly. And thank God the drives had a through passage. We rushed through several different drives once to the right once to the left and stopped when the sound of shutting doors had calmed down behind us. When we lifted to the top storey of the 9 storey building Suren left me with a soft “I’ll be back”.
I had to stay on the stair platform near the lift and listen to the sound of engine downstairs which would get lower and then higher while the car was moving away from the drive or approach it. In two hours my solitude being brightened up by my writing a letter to my spiritual teacher about Vyasapuja of 1985 was disturbed by Suren’s appearance. A movement of his hand and we are on our way again. Soon in the middle of the night having made circles around the sought address to make sure that there was no tail behind us we entered an ordinary apartment, one of thousands in the multinational USSR cities and republics. But this door was unusual. It reminded Pinocchio’s unrealizable dream of the field of wonders. Behind this door there were thousands of newly printed copies of the most ancient and sacred books in the world, illegal in this country at that time. Moreover there lived souls who worshiped them and gave their lives for their publishing and spreading. Such was the mystery of this Armenian apartment known to quite a few but trusted by all the multinational Krishna followers from all the corners of the USSR.
We were accepted at once regardless of the deep night, and I saw the familiar face of Armenian leader of Hare Krishna – Karen.
Suren, Karen and several guys went to the kitchen to discuss the accident. Need to know is the law of conspiracy. Roughly speaking the slightest inaccuracy would bring everybody to jail, and this prospect didn’t make anyone happy, especially us who hazarded everything – career, youth, freedom and life itself.
But it was an affair of honor for the God’s servants to save the Divine luggage from the left-luggage office where we put it because of the tail. When Suren and Karen returned we continued the discussion how to save two cases of books and we understood that our recent newcomer – the racing driver of international class with his own car – was a chance for us. As the lot of illegally printed books left at the airport – about 60 Bhadavad-Gitas and 100 Sri Isopanishad – could be saved only with the help of a car. The committed to Krishna couldn’t consider the books to be lost until all the variants were tried out.
The Armenian guys as well as their colleagues from all other republics, who were related to publishing, storing, distributing and returning Lakshmi (money) for new publications, all these people were not trying to copy Pavka Korchagin or other patriotic Komsomol members fighting against the fascist occupants. They simply lived with this spiritual patriotism fighting against atheism in Russia.
It was dawning. The day broke with the news. It was two hours that the guys left off to save the luggage. My reflections were interrupted by the telephone call as if Krishna heard my prayer. It was Sergey, my assistant in Dnipropetrovsk. He was ordered to stay where he was – at the railway station. The guys had already reported to him about the rescued luggage and the lost tail. Later they told the whole story how they rushed into the open door of a small cloakroom of the airport at 4 a.m., the half asleep owner understood by their appearance that he’d better not ask any questions. One can’t say that it was only the absence of license plate number and accelerated engine that helped them escape the chase. After all, they served Krishna.
When the car returned with the luggage, it was sent to railway station, where Sergey, future Bhagavata Acharya das, a courier from Ukraine, with tenth former Marik had already waited for it.
It’s a pity that my face had already come into the spotlight and I couldn’t use the airport. But everything around was hazardous and I took another hazard, heading for the airport trying to fly away with the new luggage.
We had obviously made a blunder somewhere, as the ticket agent with a nice loud voice called us up and announced – in front of a shocked crowd of people desperately looking for a spare ticket round-the-clock – that there was a ticket to Moscow reserved especially for me. Everybody understood that it was not a laughing matter. We could see that it was an unfair game. But the life went on and to leave the lot of books at a still secret address was not a better way out. It could be uncovered any minute as we were closely followed by the security agencies which won the Second World War. The Great Country went on trying to establish its rule all over the world, imposing strict control on all its citizens.
Feeling the impending danger we realized its inevitability. Under these circumstances even the fear seemed inappropriate and distracting. We stood in silence and thought about the plans for our future.
When I saw Karen for the first time I was really surprised, I met this first Armenian follower in Moscow at Sadananda’s place near Kursk train station. He wasn’t like all the rest of followers from over the USSR. I was awe-struck by his reassuring manner. The young man would carefully listen to and copy at the audio records every piece of information we had on the Conscious of Krishna. He was quiet, modest, seemingly well-bread and civilized young man wearing suit and a necktie. Karen along with his friends had joined our mission in Moscow after our leader Ananda Shanti gave lectures in Yerevan. And the next year I was surprised once again to meet this Armenian bhakta in Georgia at the Northern Caucasus. He and his brother were astrophysics and all their friends had university diplomas, some graduated from conservatory. But they voluntary deprived themselves of those creature comforts and lived in the wild. We almost envied them, their tastes and surrounding. The servants of Moscow first ashram, we had to start off at the crack of dawn the routine administrative work on the organization of a prohibited mission in big cities with their difficult godless public in a country with its insane leaders and laws.
Sergey (Radha Damodara), karateka Yuriy and I, we came there to keep our mission’s mini archive, as that year mass searches started. It included several English books and copies of Prabhupada’s books as well as different recordings on audio cassettes. Fearing that in Russia and in Moscow everything could be take away by the KGB agents, we hoped to keep the archive here to copy from it. Personally I was totally against such a hiding place, as it was impossible to get there unnoticed. But at the absence of our leader Ananda Shanti, who was in prison at that time, nobody listened to his secretaries.
I did my best to help my brothers save those remains we had, but the hope evaporated as we approached the community in Tsana.
It was half way to the community that we made our first blunder. It was a complete failure when we met the district militia officer a few kilometers away from our destination. He smiled a cunning smile observing our new bulging rucksacks but didn’t say a word.
The militia officer and the natives gladly asked us, the students from Moscow as we introduced ourselves, how and where we lived. Guests were not frequent in that place as the only road close to them lead to nowhere, it was a dead-end in the Svanetia mountains before Elbrus.
Officer’s promise to pay a visit to Karen gave me shivers. He kept the word and in several days came to take away not only our Moscow treasures, but also everything related to the Consciousness of Krishna from every member of Armenian community gathered there. For long had the security officers wondered how to classify the three big dolls, which were the possession of Ananda Shanti (they were on the holding at Vishvamitra’s but he gave them to me to get to Tsana) when at last Jagannathas solved the problem. In the middle of the argument the host’s little daughter, came to Jagannathas and holding them with both arms got one by one to the corner with her toys. The law enforcement officers opened their mouths in astonishment, but the incident was settled. Later there were many lilas with those and other Gods for the good of Russian mission and its followers. God testified his love and his presence among his bhaktas in the USSR.
That’s what our future promised us.
The conditions were also suspicious, as Karen and his brother lived in a blind house smoked inside without floor, the corridor to it was cut in 5-feet high snow. Taking bath was not habitual here for there was no room for it. That’s why I had to take a shower inside that corridor where I could hardly raise my hand. Though it was not appropriate to talk about purity both spiritual and corporeal here among our new followers, I reminded them about it. In the beginning everybody lives in his own world. Having accomplished my mission, I left the next day. I was seen off by the sparse Armenian community with its leader Karen. He taught the Russian language to the Georgian children in the nearby school. I’ll remember for life not only this multilingual combination but also his attire of a village teacher. He was wearing beat-up rumpled soldier’s tunic with a huge greasy stain on the chest. Though there had also left unforgettable positive impressions of my trip to the Tsana village.
Tsana was the last village before Elbrus and consisted of a dozen of houses. The serpentine road coming of it was like on the TV screen with its unusual colors and views of wild nature for kilometers around. Down there as long as the eye could see there were valleys with threads of rivers. Mountains embraced by forests and their ancient smoking summits held the attention of a traveler. The might of nature and of its Creator revealed itself in full here. Even the way to this remote village depended exclusively on the freaks of nature, no modern transport was of use here on the winding and usually blocked road.
Karen with his family and friends from Yerevan hoped to organize a spiritual community there, considering the distant mountain place the best to practice spiritual life. Their hopes were not justified, though. My premonitions about Tsana came true. The next day after we came there the community was searched and dispossessed, though without arrests.
My visit to Tsana had its effect. In a month in Kiev it was my 13th arrest, I wasn’t so lucky as my Armenian brothers who got into hands of KGB in 1982 and avoided the arrest.
When in a year I was released from a mental asylum I paid another visit to my Yerevan brothers discharging my duty of a sole secretary of our Russian mission head-quarters in the USSR. Then I followed the way of Prabhupada – looked for new bhaktas and places to translate and publish his books in the USSR.
After the arrest of the leader of Russian mission and other secretaries I was responsible for running the ashram of the mission. Thus travelling around the USSR I paid a visit to Karen and Suren. In our conversation I made a casual mention of the problem with large-scale edition and added that situation inside the mission hadn’t changed a bit for the year which I had spent in the asylum. Nobody knew what to do after the arrest of our leader. It was a year and a half that nobody wanted to take responsibility for the propagation in the USSR and pushing forward the mission deeper into the country. Moreover nobody cared about the publication and distribution of Prabhupada’s books. All the remaining bhaktas grew quiet in his town and refrained from communication and propagation even in their own towns.
I was the only one trying to follow Prabhupada’s wish and find the place to publish big editions needed in the USSR as the breath of life. I didn’t have the heart to tell them, these newcomers to the mission, about the other side of a coin. Even secretly worshiping of Krishna was unlawful here, but organizing illegal edition and distribution of the prohibited religious literature would cost them their lives.
But they took this risk, sacrificed and stood along with me as outlaws and kamikazes in their own country of military atheism. That consent wasn’t an easy one in the country where tens thousands of priests were shot and thousands of temples were demolished, and dozens of scientific institutes of atheism were running, and hundreds of mental asylums were established for keeping the dissidents.
Who knows, maybe it was my words I said half in jest that made these people change their mind and turn from tiny editions for their own needs to 1000s editions of Prabhupada’s books.
My words were met with silent surprise. In a minute Suren asked who would buy those books and who would need them in that 1983 in the middle of atheistic Soviet nation. I decided to take the risk and named them a dozen of towns and some hundred of Krishna followers supporting the mission but taking a minimal part in books printing. To that I added Prabhupada’s words about “bringing books to every town and village on the planet” and having decided not to try my fortune I left Karen and Suren with their surprise.
In a year when I finished my tour over the country I found out that my attempt was fruitful and our Yerevan brothers executed orders for thousands editions instead of recent dozens.
I was again bewildered by their frivolous attitude to advice and their neglect of subordination. They simply wouldn’t cooperate and solve the problems of mission jointly.
This attitude had its effect in 14 years. In 1998 those two ill-fated Armenian leaders and hundreds of their followers didn’t take seriously the advice of Russian brothers and caused problems which aren’t regularly mentioned within the mission. They took away the temple of Prabhupada in Saint-Petersburg and removed the altar with Prabhupada’s statue. The torture chambers of KGB and the leading posts of practically the whole mission over the USSR given to them by Western leaders after legalization – all this was only the exam of fate which they failed. Neglect of the true knowledge especially by the leaders costs much. But the God’s grace is incomprehensible and He always leaves the chance for forgiveness.
After 12 years of propagation in 1982 only few of its followers understood that the mission had an efficient mechanism of administration to which one should submit to. From 1971 the year of mission foundation till 1982 the unchallenged leader of Prabhupada’s mission in the USSR was Ananda Shanti, the first Russian disciple of Prabhupada.
For four years since adopting sunnyasi till his arrest in 1982 Ananda Shanti and his secretaries had fruitfully worked for the good of the mission. The number of mission’s followers had been raised from dozens to hundreds and the number of centers had increased to dozens all over the country.
The Western brothers also remembered us and sometimes we met with some of them or got their letters from their support team of Sweden but after 1980 all contacts and telephone calls were prohibited and punished severely by the KGB.
There was only moral and spiritual help left. And the principal service not simply administrative was on the shoulders of Prabhupada’s Russian disciple and his secretaries, the author of these lines among them. By the God’s Will out of the executive personnel I was the only one to remain in the ranks by 1982. Left alone I tried to execute the mission’s tasks as it had been for the last 11 years under the direction of Ananda Shanti.
The members of the first Prabhupada’s ashram executed the same functions as you can find among the GBC members of any other ISKCON mission but then for the Russian mission formal positions and posts were of no importance. It would be fatal for us even to inform our Western brothers about our existence. That’s why for those few members of the first Russian ashram the service of Prabhupada was self-sufficient.
Despite great responsibility and even greater risk of work at full stretch for years everything was solved. The functions of illegal GBC of the Russian mission were restored after Ananda Shanti’s arrest as well as the thousands editions of Prabhupada’s books all over the country. All of this was done by his secretary alone, which confirms the idea that no one is irreplaceable and that one man can win the war.
Gradually after 1982 the main ashram had moved from Moscow to Ukraine following its secretary. The evidence of that was in 1984 when our Western brothers from Sweden send a Russian Bhagavad-Gita published in Europe and a book with the whole text of Bhagavatam in English to one of Hare Krishna centers in Kiev which established spontaneously after my illegal propagation. These books were then brought to Dnipropetrovsk by the fearless servant of my Ukrainian mission Atapa Rupa d.d.
The descent of the Holy Scriptures through the Iron Curtain was like the manna from heaven and it wasn’t an only sign of God’s Will following me after I had replaced Ananda Shanti. God displayed himself through His books and confirmed the rightness of my taking new responsibilities and initiatives on restoring the Russian mission and fulfilling its main task of publishing and distributing Prabhupada’s books in the USSR. Though Ghagavatam and Gita only seem to be books but for bhakta they are the literary embodiment of God, they ARE God Himself. This appearance of Bhagavatam and Russian Gita were like the sign from above which pushed me forward to continue my service and even more trust God and Prabhupada, observing their responsiveness and their presence nearby. The English Bhagavatam was the foundation for another task of the Russian mission to form the department of translators which was successfully solved.
Keeping in mind only one group of bhaktas who took seriously my word about edition of thousands of books that summer I ventured to send the only Russian Gita in the USSR to Suren in Armenia. The risk was justified and in December after escape from Ukraine I stitched in Riga the first hundred of Russian Gitas offset printed in Yerevan.
This edition caused agitation in KGB which started to act more violently in December 1984, which made itself felt in 1985 by the number of arrests and confiscations. It was almost a year that we had thousands editions per month but we were not guaranteed to keep the books and our freedom. It was dangerous to talk about Krishna then as the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office would bring an action for that let alone keeping in your flat the unlawful books printed illegally.
The followers of Krishna used to walk on the razor’s edge, especially publishers and distributors and of course the manager. All these warriors of the invisible spiritual front who risked their lives in the fight for spiritual renaissance of the country are still unrecognized but they are the true spiritual Heroes of Russia.
Then people who fulfilled any kind of service in mission staked everything as the omnipresent KGB had its ears and eyes everywhere.
Carrying the new lot of books Suren and I understood the hazard of the situation but to leave the books at secret storages was equally dangerous. The storage could be discovered any time. The ground was too hot for us.
Having driven off evil thoughts I calmly took the tickets from the ticket agent with a frosty look. Automatically I stuck the labels on all packets of my hand luggage with a couple of books in each. When I got on board I had a feeling that the cage was finally shut. I almost physically could smell the trouble and there was no way out. The scenes of past prisons and mental asylums with the slough of neuroleptics leapt to life. Behind the doors of the waiting room there was Suren and I prayed to God lest he should go my way but we both had to meet the people in “white” soon, Suren in several months for long years, and I, the same but in different sequence, almost every month but for these same long years.
Then in the airport we were still free and risked our lives equally: Suren stayed with the storage of books and I brought them to people of the former Russian Empire paying no attention to the difficulties or even our lives.
Our next meeting would be in two years by God’s Will after we were both free from confinement. In three weeks I wouldn’t also meet with the toughest maharajas – Sarvabhavana and Sachisuta, distributors of books of those times – with whom I had to meet on the 4th of November to take out the biggest lot of books from Yerevan to distribute in the biggest cities of the USSR. November 1985 was victorious for KGB. Up to the moment when the door came off its hinges broken by the police officers Sachisuta was executing his duty. In cool blood he was quickly covering with paint the addresses on the row of dozens of mailing boxes with secret houses and my name on them.
Of course, they caught me and the hot guys from sunny Armenia and Sukhumi. I was tracked down in Riga by the secret address on the mailing box. My soul was calm though, as it was God’s Will to let me bring the last lot of books in the last journey which was totally beyond my control. The strange lifeless eyes of the ticket agent are still in my memory. The books were far by that time and flew away like the fall yellow leaves that “velvet” season 1985.
In the Domodedovo airport in Moscow I was able to breathe easier as the cage of the airplane changed to the hall where I had to receive my luggage. But there was no time to relax as having found my two cases (God knew what they had already been stuffed with) I noticed the absence of luggage labels on them. In this case it was necessary to address to the airport service and then to the police department to confirm property ownership. Passions ran high and the game went on, though it was easy my mind and feelings were already strained. Again and again I recollected the loud voice of ticket agent from Yerevan with icy stare and an only ticket for me from the nice comrades from KGB.
I had to do something inside of this tense atmosphere, I had to play safe. I replaced the absent labels by those from my hand-luggage and tried to change my appearance a bit having taken off the white jacket and headed for the exit with the rest. The security officer was examining my labels on the hand-luggage and on my cases and lastly let me out following me with his eyes. To ask the KGB guys what came wrong was too much and I only had time to safely leave the airport.
I understood that the game wasn’t over but the Almighty gave me a chance to play it fairly in spite of all the twists and turns of life.
It was already in the city when with all my luggage I had to jump into the closing door of a starting off transit vehicle of Moscow underground that I recollected with joy my early years of body-building. The small fat guy with the fiddle case following me into the third train wasn’t so lucky. I left underground without him and the chance to listen to the performance of this strange master who glued to me obviously not to accompany me on his fiddle.
I suppressed hysterical laughter trying to rid myself of that mysterious and magical luggage. It was clear to me that it wasn’t I who won but someone invisible by my side, somebody who played us, me and those tough guys from KGB, as puppets in this strange plan. It was the half-finished material that won the game – those simple unstitched offset sheets of Devine books by the God’s delegate Prabhupada. They won and got a start in life for their immortal mission and meeting with readers, confirming the phrase that Holy Scriptures can’t be burnt.
The only thing left for me was the gratitude for being the instrument of this invisible and omnipresent serving to which I was taught by my spiritual teacher and founder of the Russian mission ISKCON Prabhupada.