"The years of repression" - Article by Gana das.
When the Olympic torch was taken out of Moscow (in 1980) and the restless capital calmed down after the unprecedented presence of foreigners, the leaders of the KGB thought of the followers of the Krishna Consciousness, of whom there were already over one hundred, with thousands of others reading Prabhupada’s books. The missionary activity of the devotees upset several high-level members of the government, whose ideology had no room for a God and his just laws, which are the foundation of a Vedic government. The activities of Prabhupada’s followers in the USSR not only remained unacknowledged, but were misrepresented. A row of KGB officers took bhakti yoga to be an ideological diversion introduced by the USA. Their interest in the matter increased as a result of the opportunity to receive medals and awards for their work. The group “Search” was created, headed up by a certain major Belopotapov. The KGB formed a plan – hold several trials in various regions of the country, declare the activities of the Movement to be anti-Soviet, and get rid of them as a result.
By that time several tightly knit groups of loyal followers of the Movement formed – in Moscow, Riga, Tallinn, and Kaunas. In Leningrad, Krasnoyarsk, and Yekaterinburg groups of Vaishnavas were also forming, but they were not organized yet. Two missionary groups, headed by Ananta Shanti (Anatoly Pinayev), whose secretary was Bharadwaj (Valentin Yaroshuk), and Vrindavan (Vladimir Kustra), whose constant companion was Japa (Yuri Fedchenko), were traveling the country.
Especially large programs were going on in Moscow. Here, devotees were very open and even petitioned the government to be allowed to register themselves. They gave lectures in clubs, movie theaters, Red Corners (1), apartments, and auditoriums. At Spirkin’s Institute and the Institute of Physical Education were official groups of mantra study, simultaneously teaching the basics of the philosophy of Vaishnavism and parapsychology. The eldest instructors – Ananta Shanti, Surya (Sergey Mitrofanov), and Vidura (Vladimir Devatkin) – were able to go through several groups of students. Similarly, lectures were given at the Moscow Aviation Institute, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Moscow State University, and other institutes of higher learning.
One of the programs, which took place in the Red Corner of the dormitory of the Physics department of the Moscow State University, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and immediately after that program was held, the persecution began. From the point of view of the Party’s leadership, there was something to be irritated by – in the nation’s most prominent university, posters saying “The ancient system of yoga – bhakti yoga. Partaking of blessed food – prasadam. Mantras.” were hanging on the walls. Tickets to the program were being sold in the Komsomol (2) committee, and the auditorium, whose maximum occupancy was seventy people, was forced to accommodate twice that amount. Many of those who wanted to attend were unable to. On the morning of the next day, rector Lagunov was asked an assembly of professors, “Do you know that yesterday in a building of the Moscow State University a mass prayer was held? They’ve set up missionary shop here!”
Soon after this, an instructor and Moscow State graduate student, Vladimir Kritskiy (Vishvamitra), who organized the program, was called into the rector’s office, where he was being awaited by an agent of the KGB. Vishvamitra was given a choice – to either give up his new convictions, or to leave his job and give up on his Ph.D. Fate was testing his reliability, and demonstrating loyalty to Prabhupada, he abandoned Moscow State, inside whose walls he had spent nearly ten years. In the beginning of 1982, KGB agents searched his apartment and confiscated Vaishnava literature, store-bought Indian vases, a cassette player, and even a bathrobe, giving the explanation that the robe could be used by a cult. This young man was seen as the organizer of the Movement in the USSR and was the first of the Soviet followers of the Movement to be arrested. In a few months, they also arrested Muscovites artist Sergei Kurkin (Sadananda), who had been monitored in the Caucasus and literally plucked from the mountains. In October of 1982, there was a trial, and both were sentenced to work camps. Kritskiy was given four years, while Kurkin was given two and a half. To convict these controversial thinkers, the judges cited the “deadly” 227th article of the penal code of the RSFSR, which had rarely been used before then. The two were accused of causing physical and mental harm under cover of religious activity and of stirring the citizens of the USSR to refuse to participate in community service.
A year later, five other followers of the movement were tried, and sentences of the same sort were given out in Sverdlovsk, Krasnoyarsk, Stavropol, Vinnitsa, Suhumi, and Yerevan. In order to obtain the evidence necessary for convictions, psychiatrists were forced to give false testimony based on false medical evidence, and witnesses were usually weak-minded people who were either blackmailed, rewarded, or told that they were being patriotic by testifying. This activity on the part of the KGB added fifty people to Soviet prisons. As a result, at the end of the Eighties, all of the crimes attributed to followers of the Movement were re-examined and found to be falsified. The verdicts contained language regarding all of the trials that declared that all of the accused were found innocent of any crime and all of their sentences must be lifted. Not only did they use the courts to stifle belief, but they were not above using psychiatrists to lock people up in asylums. To break the spirit of the Vaishnavas, doctors prescribed them drugs and various mind-altering substances. They picked specific drugs that caused a person to be unable to concentrate on his thoughts. Devotees used their spiritual energy in the repetition of mantras, on concentration on the Vaishnava writings, and now doctors dissolved their concentration and impeded the ability to be nourished by spiritual energy. Nonetheless, the wills of the vast majority of the followers of Prabhupada were not broken, and after rehabilitation the continued their service to god, remembering hospitals and prisons that were like hell.
Blackmail and threats were used in this fight against new ways of thinking, and sacrifices were made. Sachisuta (Sarkis Ogandjanyan) died December 26, 1986 of starvation in ITK (3) No.5, never getting that which any civilized country should provide – vegetarian food. Refusing food containing meat, fish, and eggs, he ate only bread, receiving nothing other than the daily rations due a prisoner. As a result he died, and other devotees, exposed to similar circumstances, lost some of their immunity, which led to serious illness. On July 26, 1986, in the second division of the Sovetashin asylum in Yerevan, Martik Zhamkochan died. This happened on the fifth day after he was placed in the asylum, where doctors started force-feeding him non-vegetarian food and were giving him ejections of haloperidol (4). This is a horrible mind-bending weapon, which is intended for stifling of the will. Another sacrifice of this unprecedented persecution was Gegam Murdzyan, whose mutilated body was found in the mountains of Garni, not far from the university. Before then he had constantly been threatened by members of various committees. Needless to say, the murderers were never found.
A woman and a child were also subjected to persecution. Her name was Premavati (Olga Kisileva), and she was the mother of two infants. She was accused of assembling religious meetings. Also the accusers said in court that the reading of maha-mantra leads to insanity, to which one of the accused, journalist A. Levin, answered that in that case one must consider seven hundred million Indians insane. This phrase made a big impression, and the court went silent. And yet, major Belopotapov did not allow the judges to take note of any valid statements made by the accused. He knew that if the trial was extended, information about it would leak. Because of this he hurried the judges, openly giving them commands. Seeing this lawlessness, Olga Kisileva’s lawyer, an old lady, fainted. The judges stated that since the statement of one of the witnesses had not been heard, the trial should be postponed to the next week. However, Belopotapov said that he would bring the lady back to consciousness. Immediately she was taken out of the court, and after doing something to her, they woke her up. When she was allowed to speak, she immediately asked the judges, “Who is this man in the leather jacket (5)? Why is he running the trial?” Hearing this, the judges did not know what to answer. However, her statement did not affect the trial, and even when she said that throwing the pregnant Olga Kisileva in jail was a violation of her rights and that it was necessary to take into account the fact that she had two infants, and that in the worst case, she should only be subjected to a minor punishment – even then the judges could not act on principle and had to listen to the man in the leather jacket. Premavati was sentenced to four years in a labor camp. She was forced to give birth in the presence of security guards, who thought she might attempt to run away in such circumstances. The birth was rather painful, but nonetheless Premavati had an adequate young girl, who was given the name Marika. In 11 months, Marika died in the House of the mother and child, which was located on the grounds of the labor camp. This name, however, did not reflect the truth – mothers were only given one hour a day to be with their children, and the rest of the time they were cared for by nannies. Premavati bore the death of her daughter with great difficulty, but her belief in Krishna did not go out. The memories of Marika, Sarkis, Martik, and Gegam will eternally protect the Vaishnavas of the world.
Located in prison camps and hospitals, devotees did not stop their spiritual practices – they chanted and sang mantras, they spread their beliefs, and some even managed to read books. Their behavior in the tough circumstances of prison life evoked the respect of all of the prisoners. Always clean, every morning they washed themselves, they washed their hands before and after eating, they taught the prisoners yoga, and they gave wise advice and demonstrated a surprising calmness – a quality of which many dream. In several places devotees managed to preach on a large scale. For instance, in Tsulinkidz, the prison camp at which Ambarisha (Otar Nachkebiya) and Mayuradhvaj (Nuzgar Chargazia) were held, the prisoners chanted Hare Krishna as they marched. In the tea-harvesting season, they were led out into the fields, and on the way they constantly sang Hare Krishna for at least two hours a day. And they understood that this way they were purifying their consciousness. In this camp they came to love prasadam – blessed vegetarian food. The prisoners freed Ambarisha and Mayuradhvaj of the responsibility of work, brought them vegetarian food, and at night the whole regiment sat down to a feast prepared by them, a feast without alcohol, meat, fish, or eggs. Then they listened to stories of Krishna and conversed on philosophical topics. Since the overseers of this camp were not very anti-religious and were interested in good, hard work, they did not impede any of these happenings, seeing that the level of aggression among the prisoners was decreasing. However, agents of the KGB destroyed this harmony – they sent Ambarisha to the north, and they started threatening Mayuradhvaj and hampering his efforts. And although these and other loyal devotees of Krishna were not allowed to preach in areas where their freedom was taken away, their activity in prisons played an enormous role in the lives of many prisoners. Thanks to these preachers many criminals changed their ways of life after being released and continued to meet with Vaishnavas and other religious people.
During the period when the persecution was occurring, the Movement continued to develop. Its followers acted conspiratorially. They were aided by stories they read in school about hero-soldiers and other activists of red underground. They changed passwords in secret hideouts, learned to figure out when they were being followed, and wrote down names and addresses in Sanskrit. Of course, the KGB started using scientists to decode the alphabet, and then several followers of the Movement started working on their memory. A. Olshevskiy (Arjuna) started writing things down in ancient Tibetan, which was known to practically nobody in the USSR. This was the difficulty of the circumstances in which devotees were forced to spread the Vedic sciences. In all of the republics they spread the work of Prabhupada, translated by them into Russian, which were distributed in tens of thousands in Armenia and Lithuania. To transport books around the country and sell them was dangerous, but Vaishnavas took that risk, since their own experience told them that these books, giving higher knowledge and opening the eyes to the world, literally got rid of suffering. The books were often confiscated, but despite financial losses, the Movement continued its missions, since they were interested in the idea of spreading Vedic knowledge, which led man to happiness. The most mobile and bright preacher in the years of repression was Mamu Thakur (birth name Michael Shilov, current name Murali Mohan das), in the past the chairman of a huge Leningrad committee of artists. His wife was daughter of a famous Soviet composer, and his friends were bohemians. He had no problems with money and career, but he did not like the fate of a materially rich but spiritually poor man. Attempting to find the meaning of life through philosophic searches, he ended up in Riga in 1980, taking part in a program led by students of Prabhupada – Harikesha Swami and Kirtiraj Prabhu. It is hard to value their contribution to the growth of the Movement in the Soviet Union. Risking their lives, they came to an atheist country under cover of tourists, taught devotees of the USSR Vedic culture, and passed books, musical instruments, images and objects of worship on to them. At the time of their visit in 1980, agents of the KGB constantly watched them, and they even escorted them on the plane flying from Moscow to Riga. At the time of the spiritual program in the capital of Latvia, Harikesha Swami and Kirtiraj Prabhu were arrested, and after several days they were deported from the USSR and refused the right to enter the country. Mamu Thakur became a witness of everything that happened in Riga, but this did not scare him, rather, this taught him and gave him enthusiasm. Having entered into Prabhupada’s instruction, he saw in him a perfect philosophic model and chose to devote his whole life to enlightening activity. Using his accumulated resources, he started traveling the country, and later, when his money ran out, he sold one of his cars. Thanks to his selfless spiritual efforts in the Ural Mountains, in Central Asia, and in Leningrad, groups of true devotees sprang up. He went to other regions too, invariably remaining untouched by the agents of the KGB. Their dream – to throw Shilov behind bars – never came true. Mamu Thakur possessed a special intuition, and this intuition allowed him to stay free and continue Prabhupada’s mission. At the start of the Nineties he left for the United States, and since then he has been preaching to Russian immigrants and Americans there.
The growth of the Movement directly depended on the translation of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s books into Russian, and the leading role in that respect was played by Vaidyanathan (Vadim Tuneyev, now known as Bhakti Vijnana Goswami Maharaja), once the leader of the Movement in Russia. He started to learn and practice vaishnavism in 1980 as a graduate student at Moscow State University. Even earlier, as a chemistry student at the University, he heard the Hare Krishna mantra when his roommate Japa was chanting it in the shower. Later, Japa introduced Vaidyanathan to the Rigan and Muscovites devotees of Krishna. After finishing graduate school, Vaidyanathan, who was being hunted by the KGB, went to his hometown of Tashkent, where he got a job as a scientist in the academic institute. Here, together with the artist Madhava Ghosh (Timur Fayzirahman) and Jagadyoni (Irina Fayzirahman) he propagated the teachings of Vaishnavism. However, the Uzbek government refused to leave him in peace, and in 1987, he moved to Sweden, where he moved into a traditional Vaishnava monastery. Now he could devote the lion’s share of his time to translation without fear of hindrance. His first task was to edit the translations that already existed, fixing their grammar and style. Doing this was far from simple, since as a rule, several people translated the same book, their styles did not coincide, and not all of them were qualified to do the translation. For several books, it was easier to just translate them all over again. At the start, Vaidyanathan had the help of Vedavyas (Valentin Yurov), who lived in Sweden. Finally, Vaidyanathan sent his first translation, the 350 page “Teachings of Lord Chaitanya”, to the Soviet Union.
The torch was passed to the Caucasian followers of the Movement. Sanatana Dharma, a specialist in underground publishing, and his friend Ananda Chaitanya decided to try and publish the book legally. Dressed in traditional vaishnava clothing and with a traditional clay brahmana mark on his head, Ananda Chaitanya came to the typographer of the communist party of Lithuania “Lituanos” and had a business meeting. However paradoxical this may have looked or sounded, the communists agreed, and so for the first time ever, a book by Srila Prabhupada was published by official means in the USSR. One hundred thousand copies were made, and then the management of the Soviet branch of the publishing company “BBT” started looking for legal ways to publish these books. However, several bureaucrats continued to impede this process. In 1989, the government, having allowed into the country containers with three different Vaishnava books in them, did not want to give it to Prabhupada’s followers. The writings were printed and sent from East Berlin. They arrived at Moscow customs on September 12, 1989. There were one hundred and ninety-one thousand copies. Despite the fact that all the laws regarding the import of literature had been followed and tariffs had been paid, the books were locked up in storage with no hurry to hand them over to their owners. Asking for fairness from the customs officials, the Vaishnavas waited for a decision, but never received an answer, and because of this they began to stage demonstrations in Moscow, demanding that the books addressed to them be given them. Finally, on September 22, the Vaishnavas met with E. Zaykov, the deputy manager of the humanitarian problems department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who demonstrated intelligence and flexibility and admitted that the actions of the customs officials breached the Viennese agreement and promised to get involved in this problem. Nonetheless, on the same day, the peaceful demonstration of the Vaishnavas was attacked by people in state and police uniforms, using martial arts and trampling banners with slogans on them. However, in the end, the books were given to their owners, and soon it became obvious that the demand for Vaishnava literature in the Soviet Union was enormous. Over several months, its citizens bought all one hundred and ninety thousand volumes. The books were read with great enjoyment, and then people started searching the carriers of this knowledge, the followers of the Movement, and now the Movement gained a mass character. Despite the difficult conditions, it did not die; it triumphed, showing the triumph of love over fear, proving that the soul is stronger than and above matter. And those who were familiar with the KGB’s attempt to stop the growth of the Movement in the USSR came to an important conclusion. The greatest intelligence operation in the world, lacking no means to influence people, was morally defeated by a handful of peaceful vegetarians who worshipped Krishna, in whose hands there were no weapons, no mind-altering substances, and no dungeons.
1 – Traditionally, the Red Corner - krasnyi ugol - was a place in a house for religious icons. Soviet leaders, as part of their attempt to eradicate religious superstition, changed the name to Little Red Corner (krasnyi ugolok) and established one in every enterprise, school and institution. From a sacred place for icons, it became a wall space for Soviet propaganda. The content varied from place to place; it might be a little museum with portraits of shock-workers (udarniki) or war veterans or exemplary pupils, but universally it was a place for the propagation of Soviet ideas and local information. The wall would have propaganda, texts, portraits, and wall newspapers (stengazeta). The color red - a sacred color for pre-Soviet Russians as well as for Russian revolutionaries - was always present.
2 – "Communist Union of Youth", the organization served as the youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union The Communist Party of the Soviet Union the youngest members being fourteen years old, the upper limit for an age of rank and file being 28.
3 – Ispravitel'no-trudovaya Koloniya – Corrective Labor Colony.
4 – Haloperidol is indicated in the management of manifestations of acute and chronic psychosis, including schizophrenia and manic states. It may also be of value in the management of aggressive and agitated behavior in patients. Drug of choice used by KGB for suppression of political prisoners.
5 -- Black leather jacket is a KGB uniform.