In the former Soviet Union, Hare Krishna devotees risked being imprisoned and tortured for distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books.
The following excerpts are from Sarvabhavana Dasa’s book Salted Bread, which focuses on how he and his friend Sacisuta Dasa served Lord Krishna and spread His teachings in the Soviet Union. These excerpts, drawn from most of the chapters in Salted Bread, were selected by BTG Associate Editor Urmila Devi Dasi, who edited the book.
I had a very ordinary childhood in Armenia, growing up just like anyone else. My greatest fortune in childhood was to have one very good, close friend I called Sako. We had been vegetarians since fifteen years of age. My fondest dream was to one day take a bath in the sacred Ganges River, visit all the ancient temples, and climb the Himalayan Mountains to meet the great yogis there.
Entering the Spiritual World
My friend Senik took me to the Hare Krishna Yerevan center after I got out of the army. I found that I was also singing and clapping my hands with the devotees. I was thinking that it would never end. The cymbals and drums were so harmonious that I felt as if I were in heaven! Everyone in the room was swaying back and forth like waves in an ocean of bliss. Some devotees kept bringing trays of food and ringing tiny bells; they were offering the food to Krishna. Soon I noticed that the fruits I brought were also offered at the altar, and I looked around me to see if anyone else noticed that those were the fruits I had brought.
I do not know how it happened, but I started to lead the singing. What finally forced me to stop was when the police, the KGB, were trying break the door down. Some devotees were running from one room to another and hiding the books, typewriters, and other items.
After some time, the devotees decided to open the door. Five angry men practically flew in and started to scream orders. They started to search everywhere and anywhere; I did not understand what they were looking for so eagerly.
They started to register everyone’s names and check their documents. After everything cooled down, the devotees started to serve the sanctified food, prasadam, as if nothing had happened just five minutes ago.
“I’m sorry about last night,” a devotee told me the next morning. “Did the KGB write down your name?”
“Yes, they did.”
“So, that means you are already one of us. You are a Hare Krishna devotee!”
“I don’t mind,” I said. All the devotees, including myself, started to laugh softly.
Right Time for Decision, And On the Way to Krishna
As soon as I entered the doorway of my home after my return journey, I found that the KGB had come and searched our house. Soon, Sako and then I moved into the Yeravan center.
My New Lifestyle
Sako encouraged me to distribute books. So, I tried it. The first time in my life I offered a book to a young university student, he took it happily. But the second man read a little bit and then threw it in my face. He told me the Hare Krishnas are crazy and one of his relatives had taken to Krishna consciousness.
He shouted, “And he is a totally crazy manhe is not eating meat, eggs, and fish, not even alcohol! What kind of madness is that? God created everything for us to enjoy, and this stupid guy is saying that he cannot eat with his friends!”
I felt miffed but did not lose my enthusiasm from the first man, and I continued to distribute more.
The only problem I had now was that I did not want the police to disturb my parents, but it was practically impossible because my name and address were already on the blacklist. Two or three months after I moved into the temple, I heard that police were starting to arrest devotees and put them in jail in Russia.
Everyone became tigersstarting to print and distribute even more flyers and books. One day after distribution, all the devotees looked as if they were celebrating something. We quickly went inside and saw the Russian Bhagavad-gita and Coming Back in Armenian.
I asked our leader, Sannyasa Dasa, if I could look at them, but he told me, “They should be used as originals from which to print more. So it is better if we do not touch them and possibly leave any fingerprints on the pages or pictures.”
In a few weeks, Sannyasa brought us the first printed pages of the Gita. After that he taught us how to fold, and we all sat down to fold all the pages in order to make a book. We applied glue to the side of the set of pages, pressed it into the cover, and placed it under some heavy suitcases next to the heater so that it would dry quickly. After it was dried, Sannyasa marked it with a pencil cutting line. He then started to cut the excess paper with a razor blade and metal ruler.
Soon our first handmade book was ready. One devotee wanted to open and read from it, but another grabbed it from his hand and told him that we have to first offer it to guru and Krishna, then only could we see it ourselves. So after placing it on the altar, we started an ecstatic and unusual kirtana. At that time I didn’t realize the full significance of what was going on in that little room on the ninth floor and what a very special sacrifice I was participating in. After many years, I understood that we were actually founding a powerful mission in the USSR. I did not know at that time that these books would make a revolution and that after only ten to fifteen years there would be hundreds of temples and thousands of Krishna devotees in the Soviet Union just because of these small handmade books.
My First Arrest
Soon, Sannyasa filled a room full of printed pages of Bhagavad-gita, and everybody was busy folding them and turning them into hundreds of bound copies of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings. It was ecstatic to see how our first book came out of that room and was sold right across the street. Sannyasa was telling us that we should all learn each step of the operation perfectly so that if one devodevotee was not there, the others could do his part. He meant that if one devotee got arrested, then the others could carry on. We were trying not to speak too much about this subject, but at the same time, it was impossible to avoid it. Almost every day the police would catch some devotees, beat them up, take all the books, and then free them after hours or days.
No one said it, but everyone was thinking that he or she might be the next one to be arrested.
I was thinking in that way also: “What if they catch me? What am I going to do? What will I tell them?”
When I first started distributing books, I would sometimes be brought to meet people who were retyping the books with carbon paper to make four copies. They would be doing this in a secret room because in Armenia you could not own a typewriter or a photocopier openly unless you had a special permit, which was not easy to obtain. And they were typing very slowly with one or two fingers.
When I asked them what they were doing, they would say, “So many people asked me if they could borrow this book, but I didn’t want to lend it out because who knows when I would get it back. So, I am making four copies.”
I would say, “Why didn’t you just ask for more?”
Their jaw would drop, and they would say, “There’s more?” as if they never thought that there would be more.
We started to send books to Russia by post. For some time it worked out well, until the KGB found out about it. They made a new rule that a package of more than a certain size and weight was subject to inspection.
Then we started to smuggle books out of Armenia in trucks. We contacted people who brought goods to Armenia and took other materials back to Russia. They knew how to hide our boxes in the front of the truck behind other goods.
One morning after breakfast, I accidentally offered a book to a man on the street who happened to be a KGB agent. He started to ask many more questions, which made me feel that something was fishy, but I did not know what to do.
He took out his police identification and said, “Place your hands behind your back and follow me.”
This was the first time that I was made to walk with my hands behind my back. I had only seen this kind of imposition in the movies, and just a year before I would never have believed that one day I would be treated in that way, too.
I started to chant the mahamantra in my mind while walking through the police station. I could hear someone screaming. One of the policemen was very fat and ugly; another one was skinny and smiling at me. That is usually the tactic of the police; later on I became very familiar with it. One is beating you up, and another one is gently asking questions.
In Every Town and Village
This type of short arrest became a common event. Many of the devotees had been arrested several times and went through what they had to. In each arrest the KGB confiscated books, which we were spending so much time and effort to make, plus the cash collected from the books. As for the devotees, many were leaving the temple or not coming to the temple, because they did not want to be arrested.
More and more, many devotees came to Armenia from different parts of the USSR to get Srila Prabhupada’s books and flyers.
One devotee said, “It would be wise if you Armenian devotees did not go out and distribute books at all. Just print and bind good quality books for us, and we will come here, take them from you, and distribute them for you as well. If they arrest you, then where will we get the books?”
Another devotee said, “Devotees are making photocopies of the Bhagavad-gita and binding and distributing them from home. Some of the devotees do not have the original books, so what they produce is a fifth or sixth photocopy, which is hardly readable. Sometimes the pages are mixed up and one cannot find the right page. But people still buy them from devotees because they thirst for those books.”
Preaching is the Essence
Sako, who later received the initiated name Sacisuta Dasa, returned from book distribution. He started to glue some books and pack some of the Russian books in a box to be shipped. The atmosphere was peaceful, with some devotees singing a sweet kirtana. Some were talking about Krishna consciousness, and some others were cooking.
Then, all of a sudden someone started to scream, “The KGB is here!”
After the fourth day, it was clear to all of us that the KGB had already taken our leaders to the jail from the police station. Having our leaders in jail was so depressing that sometimes we would not go out for days, only chanting, eating, and sleeping. The only person who was doing some active work was Sacisutahe was making more and more books ready for distribution and hardly ever talking with us. He was serious, and it was as if he was in a different world. He was often the only one who would clean the floor, do the shopping, wash the pots after cooking, and so on.
My Last Arrest
I had forgotten how many times they had arrested and released me, but at the time of Sannyasa and Kamalamala’s arrest, I thought that because the police were now convinced they had the leaders of our movement in Armenia, they wouldn’t be arresting the rest of us anymore. But I was wrong. The police arrested me and some other devotees many times after that. During this time, we rented another house to store books and important items, and we would go there perhaps once a week.
At about eight o’clock one evening, Sacisuta and I were going to that house, bringing some missing Gita pages to complete the books. At that time I had a strange premonition while riding on the bus. I asked Sacisuta if he had the same feeling. He said that he also felt that there was some danger, but we did not know what to do and which way to go, forward or backward.
Both of us had such strong feelings of danger that we decided to go back without taking any further pages for the books. I do not remember any other incident of Sacisuta’s stepping back from any situation, ever.
Once we were arrested, one fat policeman hurt me the most, even stomping on my toes with his boots, giving me excruciating pain.
“So,” he said while hurting me, “now I think you can tell us where your books are printed and where you are storing them.”
“I do not know, sir,” I said. “I really do not know. I told you that many times already.”
“Okay, after I prepare a nice seat, then you will tell us everything immediately.”
He waved his hand to the policeman next to him and asked him to bring one beer bottle. Then he came close to me and with his whole strength stepped on the tip of my toes with his big boots.
“O God,” I thought, “this is one of the worst things I have ever experienced.”
Then a policeman came in with a glass bottle in his hand and placed it in the middle of the room.
“So now for the last time I am asking you, and that’s it. Either you will tell me or you are going to sit on this bottle.”
I hung my head and started to chant loudly, “Namaste narasiμhaya,” and prayed for help.
Then he came and twisted my hands while another one held my legs, and they pulled me up. The third one came and tried to take off my belt. I had started to jump and shake my whole body so they wouldn’t be able to take my pants off. So then he hit me, probably with his full power, on my belly, and I thought that maybe now I’ll be cut into two pieces. But still I didn’t give up shaking.
I started to kick them and scratch as much as I could. I tore the shirt of the policeman who was holding my hands, which made him even angrier. Somehow, even after so much beating, I got some enormous amount of power and started to move in such a way that they could not take my pants down. I started to scream louder than I had ever screamed in my life, like a tiger, nonstop for a long time. I started to think how loudly Nrsiμhadeva screamed when He appeared to kill the demon HiranyakaΩipu. As soon as they brought me close to the bottle, I moved fast and it fell on its side. After several times of trying, they finally dropped me down and left the room.
They took me downstairs and locked me up in one of many rooms. Some criminals were in the room, too, and they started to ask me many questions. Some of them had already heard about Krishna, and one had even read the Bhagavad-gita a little bit.
I used to take only a piece of bread and one spoonful of sugar in the morning. The bread was of a very substandard quality. It was black and wet, and if you pressed it hard, water would drip out of it. So, I kept the bread on the window for three or four days until it was dried and crunchy, and then ate it. I learned how to make japa beads out of bread.
One morning, a guard used my beads to strike my face and body until he was exhausted. Those japa beads had been my only possession, for which I had saved so many pieces of bread. Soon we realized that even fifty-four beads were too risky to keep, so we started to make twentyseven- bead strings. Being smaller, they were easier to hide from antagonistic persons. The difference was just that we had to chant four times in order to make 108, or one round. Sometimes, I even used a nine-bead set, keeping it almost all the time in my hand.
After a while, everyone in the jail knew about Krishna. Some people from the other cells started to ask me and the other devotees questions. Soon, offering food before eating became a tradition in our cell. Everyone in the jail was taking prasadam from the devotees. Even people who were against Krishna consciousness ate something out of our offerings. Many of the inmates told me that they could actually tell the difference between offered and nonoffered food.
Who Is Crazy?
One day, we moved into a psychiatric hospital. I could not believe that the person in front of me was the same Sannyasa I knew before. He was so skinny! He moved slowly and slurred his speech. His chin had become sharp, and his eyes sunk in. His beautiful face, which had some beard growth, was very white. About one month before my coming, they started to give devotees daily injections by force of a neuropsychological drug. Sometimes while he was talking, Sannyasa’s mouth would become dry and his eyes would roll like a drunk man. Sometimes he would sit and look at one spot for a long time without making a movement or saying anything. After a while, he would stand up and shake as if he were cold. Sannyasa is a very strong personality, and no matter what happened and what condition he was in, he would every day complete chanting his sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra a determination that surprised me and inspired me with more energy to go on. After some time, they took us back to the jail to wait for trial.
In my new jail, the worst guard was a very rough, sweaty man. He shouted, “Today you will tell me exactly where you were printing your books and who was printing them for you. I know you did not tell it to anyone, but you will tell me today, only me. Do you understand that?”
He took his baton and beat me very severely on my forehead and temples. Then he hit me once with most probably his full energy. The blow sent me flying to the other end of the room, and I fell down with heavy bleeding from my nose and mouth. Then he came close to me and started to kick my back and chest so hard that I lost consciousness and do not remember anything whatsoever after that. I opened my eyes after some time and saw him dragging my body on the floor. He was cursing me and stomping on my stomach and face mercilessly. To protect my face, I turned. As soon as I had turned, he kicked my spine and I went unconscious again. Everything became black. My ears were blocked completely, and only some kind of a strange sound was constantly whistling in my ears. Then he threw me into my cell and closed the door with a curse.
The only lasting misfortune was my chronic spinal pain and eye problem. The lack of vision was a huge change in my life, and I had to get used to my new situation. I would have to go through life half-blind and almost disabled.
The devotees had paid three times the usual bribe at that time to send us a parcel full of wonderful prasadam. One prisoner was breaking up the bread when he found letters secretly hidden in it. They encouraged us to be strong, never forget Krishna, and continue to chant and follow the rules as much as possible in our difficult situation. Tears were running down my cheeks while reading their sincere sentiments, and my hands were shaking.
The Court Decision
After our trial, we were sent to Siberia to a labor camp where I spent the rest of my sentence.
After ISKCON’s registration, many conditions changed in the USSR. But that registration was not so easy to get. It was the result of countless demonstrations in front of many buildings and in various streets of Moscow. Generally, during these demonstrations there was some conflict with police and many devotees got arrested.
In 1989, for the first time in history, a group of fifty devotees were allowed by the Russian government to go to India for a pilgrimage. Most of them had been tortured by the KGB some months before. A two-month tour was organized. I was fortunate to be part of that historic pilgrimage. Just a year before, I was suffering in a jail, but now we were chanting and dancing with hundreds of devotees from all over the world.
ISKCON’s Radha-Govinda Temple in Kolkata was the first real temple we had ever seen. There was a reception waiting for us, and thousands of flowers fell from the balcony on all the Soviet devotees. We slowly came up the stairs and entered the temple.
The moonlike faces of Radha and Govinda were smiling at all of us as if to say, “Finally you are home. There is no KGB here, so please chant and dance as much as you like.”