"Srila Prabhupada in Moscow" - speech given by Shyamasundara dasa at the 25th anniversary of ISKCON in Russia (Moscow, July 14, 1996)
It is likely that you are too young to remember how the world was twenty-five to thirty years ago. At that time, the two greatest and most powerful nations in the world – the Soviet Union and America – were involved in a war that was lengthy and could not be turned to peace. This was the longest, most expensive, and most dangerous war in the history of mankind – the Cold War. The Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam… the world was in a constant state of unrest. At any moment, the world could have perished in the flames of the nuclear war these two superpowers could have started. And now imagine Srila Prabhupada – a man seventy years of age, with neither friends nor money, who arrives alone in the West and carries with him the perfect recipe for peace. “Chant Hare Krishna and be happy.” Very quickly, this recipe of Srila Prabhupada’s – “the formula for peace” – spread through all of the western countries. But what about the world’s other great nation – the Soviet Union? How was he to spread this Movement here, in the Soviet Union?
In the latter part of the Sixties, Srila Prabhupada constantly pondered as to how to start and accomplish this task. How could he penetrate the iron curtain? How could he begin to speak to the people of the Soviet Union about accepting Krishna? To his first disciples, he repeated again and again: “One way or another, I must depart for Russia; please, help me with this.”
Somehow, Srila Prabhupada obtained the name and address of professor Kotovsky. Doctor Kotovsky was a famous scientist / Indologist working in the Soviet Academy of Sciences. And at the end of the Sixties, Srila Prabhupada began a correspondence with professor Kotovsky which lasted several years. Invariably, the same answer arrived from Moscow: “If you can visit here, I would gladly meet you.” Prabhupada took this to be an official invitation. He asked his students to obtain a visa for him and do everything possible for him to come here, to Russia. Krishna das attempted this – he failed. Hamsadutta attempted this several times as well. In the middle of 1971, all of the many attempts to get a visa to visit Russia for Srila Prabhupada crashed and burned. In early June of 1971 Srila Prabhupada was in Bombay. At that time I was the president of the Bombay temple. Hamsadutta arrived from Germany, and we agreed to meet with him in Srila Prabhupada’s chamber. Srila Prabhupada immediately asked Hamsadutta, “Have you arranged for me to journey to Russia?” Hamsadutta answered, “No, Srila Prabhupada, obtaining a visa there is extremely difficult.” Then Srila Prabhupada glanced at me and said, “Shyamasundara, can you get me a visa to Russia here in Bombay?” I said that I would attempt to. That same day, I went to the Soviet embassy in Bombay. I discovered that obtaining a visa to Russia wasn’t difficult at all if Srila Prabhupada and two of his helpers departed for there as tourists on a five-day tourist’s visa. In reality, at that time everything was included in that visa: a stay in a hotel, tours in which they would have to take part, etc. I informed Srila Prabhupada of this and he said, “Obtain the visa. Since Hamsadutta is incapable of doing so, you must accompany me.” He asked me, “Will you be able to type on a typewriter?” I answered, “Yes, I can type.” One way or another, it was extremely hard for two Americans to come to Russia at that time.
I obtained our visas. We had a letter of invitation from Mister Kotovsky. But I cannot remember why we were forced to leave immediately. We did not have enough time to inform Mister Kotovsky of the fact that we were arriving and receive his answer. I remember how we feverishly packed, and I didn’t really know what to pack because I didn’t know what Srila Prabhupada needed. And at the very last moment I thought that we need to get a camera somewhere. I ran around Bombay and at last I found some cheap, simple camera and a roll of film with twelve shots on it. That was all that one could find in Bombay at the time. And so, when we were flying here, we had absolutely no idea what was to be expected of Russia. I was raised on the horror stories and tales of the doings of the KGB and of various concentration camps which were in Russia, so while we were flying, I was experiencing a bit of nervous tension. But, as we were traveling with our fearless teacher and master, I felt myself to be completely safe. The only thing that I was afraid of was whether or not I would be able to properly serve him their in the role of a secretary and whether or not I would accidentally allow some horrible mistake to occur.
We had no meeting scheduled with Mister Kotovsky. We didn’t even know if he was in Moscow, if he had left on vacation, or maybe for some other reason he would be unable to meet with us. We thought, “What are we going to do in this country and this city over the course of five days?” We flew literally blindfolded, seeing nothing, flying on yet another magic airplane which Srila Prabhupada was building.
Do you know the story of Mister Lal, the pilot who was flying this plane to Moscow? How he invited Srila Prabhupada to remain in the cockpit with him during the flight? And when Srila Prabhupada returned from the cockpit to his place on the plane, he said, “This is just some sort of car – just a little bit bigger.” In other words, the plane didn’t impress him much. When we arrived in Moscow, we had to go through various formalities in customs, which took a great deal of time and was rather difficult. Srila Prabhupada was being accompanied by two Americans, so the customs officials thoroughly inspected all of our belongings. All the books on religion were strictly forbidden, and it was illegal to bring them into the country. When they opened the Bhagavad-Gita, a number of photographs and images of Krishna and Srila Prabhupada fell out of it. The customs official inspected these photographs for a long time, and I thought to myself, “He’s going to confiscate all of this.” But after some time, he just put everything back into the book, closed it, and let us through. In reality, this was a stroke of luck, because it was from this very copy of the Bhagavad-Gita that I brought with me that the Movement recognizing Krishna sprang up in Russia.
When we were driven to the hotel in a huge limousine, Srila Prabhupada began to insist that we cook our own food. And after a long discussion with the hotel’s management we were allowed to use the staff kitchen, which was near Srila Prabhupada’s room. Fortunately, Srila Prabhupada brought three-tier stackable pots with him. Our rooms were very small. My room was located one floor lower than that of Srila Prabhupada, while Arvada slept in the same room as Srila Prabhupada, but on the floor. Immediately after our arrival I went to buy some groceries, and I immediately understood that this would be a great problem for us. To tell you the truth, I spent most of my time in Moscow searching for food. On the first day, I called Mister Kotovsky and arranged a meeting with him. Luckily for us, he agreed to meet with us, and on the next day we left for the Academy of Sciences. I think that you have all read the recording of Srila Prabhupada’s conversation with professor Kotovsky, so I won’t go into detail about it. I secretly recorded it. The microphone was located under my dhoti. (At the time, I was attempting to imitate the KGB). Near the end, Srila Prabhupada provided evidence against all of his arguments and spoke of accepting Krishna in a very attractive and charming manner. From the start, however, it was obvious, that Kotovsky was a Marxist, and this ideology would get in the way of his understanding of the true meaning of the Vedic scriptures. Namely, who is God? What is a soul? What is the meaning of life? And how can one establish world peace? The professor saw meaningless history and archeology in everything. He did not see in all of this a living, life-asserting, spiritual culture. For this reason, it was obvious that Mister Kotovsky would not help Srila Prabhupada speak of accepting Krishna in some other place in Russia. When we returned to the hotel, Srila Prabhupada was very disappointed and experienced a great deal of restlessness. He constantly asked me, “What am I to do now, what am I to do?” Once, early in the morning (this was at the end of June, 1971) we took a walk down the streets of Moscow. We were walking, and Srila Prabhupada made various remarks. He liked walking in a large city where there were very few cars and the streets were washed clean. He saw hundreds of people who formed a huge line in front of Lenin’s mausoleum at six in the morning. This, of course, brought him to the analogy that Marx and Lenin took the place of God in the consciousness of the people. He saw a large number of churches which were being guarded by soldiers and which were closed at the time. For this reason, he said that Russians were naturally inclined towards spirituality, and yet they had lost their spirituality, replacing it with demon worship. At one moment he managed to see a number of tanks and missiles, which were driving along the streets. This evoked the following remark from him: “This government won’t last long, as it is impossible to keep people in such a state through force and terror.” He said that these people were very patient and pious, and for that reason they bore all of this for such a long period of time. And yet, this won’t last long. He said that somewhere, in maybe 20 years, communism would meet its end. This demonstrated how deeply Srila Prabhupada understood the course of history. When we returned to the hotel, Srila Prabhupada again became restless. For this reason, we went on an official tour of Moscow by bus. And while we drove along the streets, he saw that the police stood near several churches, and that the churches were all rundown. By that time, when we drove up to the Moscow University, Srila Prabhupada was deeply affected by the fact that everywhere you could only see concrete structures, which had no spiritual meaning to them. He was already tired of talking about this so-called social progress. (He said, “What’s the use of all this social progress? Now is the best time to grow food, but we can’t find food in this country!”) For this reason we returned to the hotel by taxi. And I remember that the taxi driver reacted to Srila Prabhupada with great respect because he felt that there was a holy man with him. And, when I asked him how much we owed, he said, “Give me what you can, if you want.” After that I went off again in search of groceries. I discovered that everywhere yogurt, buttermilk, and milk were being sold, but there were almost no vegetables and absolutely no fruits. In the end, I was able to buy 2 kilograms of relatively decent North Korean rice. Then Srila Prabhupada said, “Let’s prepare a great amount of sweet rice. At least we won’t die of hunger.” We made so much sweet rice that we had nowhere to store it. For this reason, Prabhupada told Aravinda, “Bring me my lota.” Aravinda protested, “Srila Prabhupada, you use this lota in the bathroom and restroom…” But Srila Prabhupada said, “For Krishna, one can use anything that has meaning.”
Once, when I was returning from my journey for groceries, I saw something extremely funny. I was waling by the hall of the hotel National, and suddenly I saw Aravinda running with extreme discomfort from the kitchen, and some sort of pots and plates flew after him. Then a large maid ran out after him with a broom in her hand and tried to hit him with it. Apparently, he had user her sugar to make the sweet rice, and she wasn’t too pleased. Two days passed thus. We had three days left and no idea what to do. Srila Prabhupada constantly said, “This is a hopeless place, let’s leave here.” But we could not leave, since we had taken upon ourselves a duty to “Intourist.” For this reason I always thought of how and with what I could occupy Srila Prabhupada for the next three days. Krishna answered my prayers.
When I left for groceries the next day, I was stopped in the street by two youths, one Indian and one Russian. They introduced themselves. The Indian was Narayana, whose father was the second-in-command at the Indian embassy. The other, whom we know under the name Ananta Shanti das, was a student of Indian philology. The first question they asked me was whether or not I had any dollars that I could exchange for rubles? I said, “No.” The next question was, do I have any American jeans? Again, I answered, “No.” But I said, “I want you to come with and meet my spiritual teacher.” I got very lucky because one of them was Indian and knew what Swamiji was, so he convinced his friend to come with me. When I brought them to the room of Srila Prabhupada, he was happy, and he shined like an electric bulb. At last, he had somebody to preach to. Over my many years of socializing with Srila Prabhupada I had never seen him so radiant, so powerful in his preaching, and at the same time, so attractive. He immediately began to feed the youths sweet rice. At the same time, he began to speak to them. At the start, he just started a meaningless conversation. But soon he approached the very meaning of accepting Krishna. He could see that the Russian youth was unusually intelligent. For that reason, Srila Prabhupada literally poured the whole point of accepting Krishna onto him in a short amount of time – in several sentences. He explained to him the meaning of life in acceptance of Krishna with all the detailed instructions on what must be done and how it must be done. He even game him lessons on how to prepare and eat prasadam. And all of this in the space of three short days! I gave my Bhagavad-Gita to Ananta Shanti. He asked me to find him a foreign wife. We decided that this would help him preach. We came to an agreement with the Indian Adumbhar that he would receive books by diplomatic mail and pass them on to Ananta Shanti.
Thus began that which eventually became one of the most successful stories of the Movement for the acceptance of Krishna. For us, the people of the West, it is very hard to imagine all this. Ananta Shanti was imprisoned for six years. And many others loyal to the cause, his friends, spent from two to four years in prison. And to recognize even further the extent sufferings, one must take into account the fact that if the had betrayed others loyal to their cause, they would have been released. Several did this: they betrayed their friends and were released. However, most preferred to suffer in asylums and prisons rather than betray their cause. The greatest Russian supporters of the cause, as I see it, are the best and brightest proof of the power of the teachings of Srila Prabhupada – teachings which he brought to Russia. From these many Russian supporters only one personally met Srila Prabhupada and spoke with him for only three days! And that one loyal supporter did not just understand Srila Prabhupada, but he accepted him and became loyal to him. These supporters accepted Srila Prabhupada wholeheartedly and swore loyalty to him without any outside help available in spreading the word of Prabhupada. They were willing to sacrifice their lives for him. And more importantly, they were willing to suffer for endless years in prison for all of this. Now, when I have returned to Moscow twenty-five years later, I have been able to see with my own eyes that the recipe of peace that Srila Prabhupada brought here – the formula of peace – truly works! In my country, peace prevails, and in yours peace also prevails. And now, when I see all of you – perfect, clean, polite angels, giving off the radiance of the children of Srila Prabhupada – I cannot fight the transcendental feelings within me. I am so grateful to you all!
If in my pointless and ignorant life there was nothing else than this, I could still say that I have seen the great wonder, built by the hands of Srila Prabhupada, that is the Russian yatra.