After fifteen years, the Hare Krsna movement
comes up from underground in the USSR.
Frustrated plainclothes KGB agents vainly tried to convince Western television and newspaper reporters to turn their cameras from fifty enthusiastic Soviet Hare Krsna followers surrounded by an even larger audience of totally fascinated Muscovites. For the first time in history Russian devotees were loudly chanting the Hare Krsna mantra in public, filling the air with the sound of drums and hand cymbals, as if to challenge the limits of General Secretary Gorbachev's new glasnost policy.
"Why don't you come across the street? I think you'll find it more interesting," said one of the KGB men, motioning to the cameramen and reporters to direct their attention to the newly opened Festival of India exhibition jointly sponsored by the Soviet and Indian governments. "We'll be the judge of what's interesting," retorted a reporter from a major London daily newspaper.
The chanting group represented devotees from throughout the vast territory of the Soviet Union. After years of quiet chanting in secret meeting places, they were finally taking their most fundamental religious practice into the streets, well aware that many who had previously done so were now confined to prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals. Indeed, they hoped this daring gesture would draw the world's attention and thus help win freedom for those in captivity and enable all Soviet Hare Krsna devotees to openly practice their chosen spiritual path. Miraculously, the chanting has continued for weeks without government interference. The imprisoned devotees are not yet free, however, and the other Russian devotees of Krsna are acutely aware that the climate of government tolerance could change in a moment. * (* Since this article was written, the climate has changed. See news stories on pages 23 and 24.)
How did it happen that thousands of Soviet citizens have become dedicated followers of the Krsna consciousness movement?
The story begins in the early summer of 1971. One day a young Muscovite named Anatoly Pinyayev, a lab technician at Moscow University, and his friend, the son of an Indian diplomat, encountered a strange sight near Red Square a handsome white foreigner with the shaved head and robes of an Indian priest. Stopping to talk with him, they learned that his name was Syamasundara and that he was accompanying his spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who was visiting the Soviet capital at the invitation of Professor C. G. Kotovsky, head of the department of Indian and South Asian studies at Moscow's USSR Academy of Sciences.
At Syamasundara's invitation, Anatoly and his friend eagerly returned with him to the Hotel National to meet Srila Prabhupada. Anatoly was immediately attracted to Srila Prabhupada and the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. He spent much of the next few days with Srila Prabhupada, asking questions and learning everything he could about how to practice Krsna consciousness.
Prabhupada saw in this young man an indication that millions of Russian people would be receptive to Krsna consciousnesses. He saw Anatoly as a spark that could ignite a great fire in the Soviet Union, and hoped that the training he had given him would be enough to allow Anatoly to not only become Krsna conscious himself but spread it to others in the Soviet Union.
Srila Prabhupada's hopes did not go unfulfilled. Anatoly soon became his initiated disciple, receiving the name Ananta-santi dasa. Over the next several years, he traveled throughout the Soviet Union, and by his influence hundreds of Russians including engineers, physicists, artists, and musicians became dedicated practitioners of Krsna consciousness.
In 1977 the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT), the world's foremost publisher of books on Indian philosophy, was invited to the prestigious Moscow International Book Fair, where BBT publications received high acclaim. The BBT returned to the fair in 1979, displaying all of Srila Prabhupada's books, and creating an even greater sensation, attracting hundreds of thousands of book lovers and spiritual seekers to its colorful exhibit.
Although officially no foreign books are allowed to be directly sold at the fair, many volumes nevertheless found their way into the hands of Soviet citizens. One man even photographed all nine hundred pages of Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita As It Is. The rare original volumes obtained at the book fair were circulated underground, and each was read by hundreds of persons, while translations copied by hand or published by underground presses reached thousands more.
Soviet officials later credited the BBT's presence at the 1979 book fair with giving the Hare Krsna movement substantial intellectual influence in the USSR. A Moscow correspondent for The New York Times reported (July 31, 1983): "[The exhibit] drew curious Russians, the books spread, and Hare Krishna was on its way in Russia."
The movement flourished, spreading to all fifteen Soviet republics. Devotees gathered secretly in apartments to chant the Hare Krsna mantra, read Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and other books by Srila Prabhupada, and feast on prasadam, spiritual vegetarian food offered to Krsna. Although the movement was underground, it experienced relatively little persecution.
But this was not to last. The rise to power of Yuri Andropov, the long-time head of the KGB, brought in an era of extreme ideological repression.