Checkmate: ISKCON's Victory in Russia
By Satyaraja Dasa
Hare Krishna devotees in Moscow are working to build a stunning Vedic temple and cultural center. A look back at how they got to this point.
It was early evening on July 11, 1972. Chess enthusiasts filled a sports arena in Reykjavik, Iceland, while millions watched on TV and listened on the radio. In what was dubbed “the match of the century,” Bobby Fischer challenged Boris Spassky, the Russian world chess champion, for the title, knowing full well that emerging victorious would have implications in the Cold War world.
Just one year earlier, Srila Prabhupada had been strategizing to bring God into a godless Soviet Russia. If we think of Prabhupada's quest as a sort of chess match, it would have seemed that he had few pieces on the board, while the Soviets had the most powerful pieces and key squares blocked. But even one pawn or knight backed by the most powerful king and queen may sometimes checkmate castle fortresses and brilliant strategists. Thus, the story of Prabhupada's victory eclipses that of the World Chess Championship of 1972.
Srila Prabhupada had initially tried to come to the USSR as an official representative of India, writing a letter proclaiming his intent to the Ministry of Culture. But he was denied entrance without explanation. Finally, after several attempts, he was given a tourist visa that granted him a short stay, even if he was not allowed to lecture at Moscow University. The lecture had been one of his reasons for wanting to visit.
Still, Prabhupada's five days on Russian soil provided him ample opportunity to position himself well for the eventual checkmate his movement would play in Soviet Russia. His initial strategy emerged when, through his disciple and secretary Syamasundara Dasa, he met a young Russian seeker—Anatoly Pinyayev—who would soon become Ananta-shanti Dasa, his courageous, lone student in the Soviet Union. Another forward move was Prabhupada's talk with Professor G. G. Kotovsky, then head of the Indian and South Asian Studies Department of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. Prabhupada left a distinct impression on Professor Kotovsky, who got their conversation published in an important Russian periodical (“Vaishnavism” in Otkrytyi Forum 1, 1997, pp. 109–114). But it was Ananta-shanti who took Prabhupada's message to heart, single-handedly, vigorously, sharing what he had learned with hundreds of Soviet people, many who became devotees. After meeting the enthusiastic Russian, Prabhupada had remarked, “Just as you can judge whether rice is properly cooked by picking out one small grain, so you can know an entire nation by observing one of its handpicked youths.”
Next, in 1977 and 1979, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust received an invitation to the prestigious Moscow International Book Fair, acquainting Moscovites with Prabhupada’s books for the first time. The New York Times (July 31, 1983) noted the significance: “[The exhibit] drew curious Russians, the books spread, and Hare Krishna was on its way in Russia.”
But by 1980, under Brezhnev’s rule, several devotees were thrown into prison, initiating a tense and often traumatic relationship between ISKCON and the Soviet Union.
By the mid-1980s Yuri Andropov was in power, and he intensified the campaign already underway against the Hare Krishna movement. He saw devotees as representing all things religious and was determined to wipe them out. Because of Ananta-shanti’s contagious enthusiasm and the staggering results of the book fairs, Semyon Tsvigun, the deputy chief of the KGB under Andropov, said that three main threats to the Soviet Union were "pop music, Western culture, and Hare Krishna.”
Such pronouncements, and the sentiments that fueled them, led to intense persecution of Hare Krishna devotees.
ISKCON Knights in Russia
And so, with ISKCON declared one of the great threats to the Soviet nation, an ongoing battle ensued. But this was no Fischer versus Spassky—two equal adversaries pitted against each other. This was a war conducted by a totalitarian state against a relatively small number of Krishna devotees. Consequently, dozens of ISKCON’s new Soviet faithful were thrown into prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals, suffering vicious mistreatment at the hands of police and political yes-men. Several devotees died in prison, clinging tightly to their faith while being tortured in various ways.
Harikesha Swami, then ISKCON's governing body commissioner for the Soviet Union, would not stand for such horrors. A driving force for reform, he made the tragedy a worldwide concern. Kirtiraja Dasa had been ISKCON's regional secretary for the Soviet Union since 1979. He began an international campaign of news releases and demonstrations to pressure Soviet authorities to release the imprisoned devotees and stop the persecution of the Hare Krishna movement. To carry out this work, he founded the Committee to Free Soviet Hare Krishnas. Supportive voices were heard at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, at the United Nations, and in international newspapers. At the November 1986 meeting in Vienna of the Commission of Security and Cooperation in Europe, the international organization that monitors compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki accords, Hare Krishna members again called attention to the plight of imprisoned Soviet devotees.
The situation culminated later that year when Sri Prahlada Dasa, then a pre-teen devotee from an ISKCON school in Australia, joined in Kirtiraja’s efforts. He and “The Krishna Kids” recorded an album on the international EMI label, one of the world’s largest record companies. The album included the song “Free the Soviet Krishnas,” a plea to Gorbachev that was also released as a single. Prahlada appeared frequently on television and radio to promote the album and share his concern for the devotees in Russia. Eventually the devotees were freed, marking a new beginning for religion in the former Soviet Union.
Pawns, Fake-Outs, and Half Victories
On a beautiful spring day in 1988, the Council for Religious Affairs officially registered the Moscow Society for Krishna Consciousness, concluding, or so it seemed, a longstanding feud between the devotees and the State. (It was the first religious society registered in the Soviet Union since World War II.) Now devotees could chant in public and practice their religion freely. That same year, over 1,600 new religious communities, most of them Russian Orthodox, were registered.
Something was clearly brewing, and many experts attributed the change, in large measure, to the devotees. Only two years later, responding to ISKCON's requests, Moscow authorities allotted a dilapidated two-story building to be used as a temple. After the devotees renovated the property, they opened the first ISKCON temple in the history of Russia and the U.S.S.R., a temple frequented by large numbers of Hindus as well.
Moreover, in 1991, ISKCON applied for a plot of land to build an authentic Vedic temple and cultural center in Moscow, a huge project. Surprisingly, the application was approved, and devotees began looking for a suitable location. It seemed the government was willing to give the Russian devotees whatever they wanted.
But it didn’t last. Water seeks its own level, and Russian authorities soon succumbed to the same religious prejudices they had known in the past. The Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church made an official statement calling the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita the product of a “false religion.” And they called all other religions a threat to the unity of national consciousness and cultural identity.
In 1997 a bill passed by the Russian parliament (Duma) recognized the Russian Orthodox Church as the sole, preeminent religion of the Russian Federation, with an addendum acknowledging only three other “traditional” Russian faiths: Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. Other religions would not have the same legal status or any support for their missionary work.
But the devotees, again, would not be intimidated. The ISKCON temple had become the only place of worship for over ten thousand Indians. Throughout the ’90s, Krishna consciousness in Russia began to flourish, resulting in 97 registered communities, 22 monasteries, and 250 home groups.
As the new millennium dawned, the prime minister of India, A. B. Vajpayee, learned about ISKCON’s work from Russian administrators. Despite the gracious approval of Vajpayee, the government of Moscow decided to renovate the area surrounding ISKCON’s longstanding temple, threatening the devotees’ practice of Krishna consciousness once again.
And so it was that, in 2004, the Moscow government took back the building and destroyed it according to city renovation plans, depriving thousands of devotees of their place of worship.
Seeking support, ISKCON asked prominent Indian politicians to help. By this time, Vajpayee, the former prime minister, had been following the events in Russia for several years. He met with devotees on numerous occasions, both in India and in Moscow, to map out the best way to resolve their dilemma.
In January 2004, after many years of struggle, the mayor of Moscow finally signed an order proclaiming that land would be given for a new ISKCON temple—in a prominent Moscow location and free of charge, no doubt at the behest of important Indian politicians. The land was on the main road from the Kremlin to the international airport, about a ten-minute drive from the heart of Moscow. The devotees happily relocated to a temporary building on their newly acquired land and were prepared to develop their new temple complex.
It didn’t take long, however, for the Russian Orthodox Church, along with Muslim and Jewish authorities, to speak out against the construction, opining that the entire Krishna religion was against Russian tradition. Protestors rallied in Pushkin Square, in the center of the capital, brandishing icons, flags, and banners with warnings like "Krishna Followers Are Brainwashed” and “Friends, Defend Your Faith. We Oppose the Expansion of Sects. Beware!"
The protests offended the nearly 100,000 followers of Lord Krishna spread across the country. In response, Russia’s Indian community, led by Sanjit Kumar Jha, president of the Association of Indians in Russia, retaliated, and a vehement back-and-forth surfaced yet again. Though the devotees knew that Krishna would ultimately emerge victorious, it now looked like the odds were against them. As sure as Spassky landed some strategic moves in the early rounds of the Fischer-Spassky match, the Kremlin now seemed to be getting the upper hand. In October 2005, the mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, suddenly reversed the order for ISKCON’s land, and the temple was demolished.
Conveniently, the office of the city executive attorney found legal discrepancies in the wording of the Moscow government’s original order and decided to revise it. The revision was merely a form of subterfuge so that they could gradually cancel it altogether. In short, the devotees now had no home and no outlet for their practice or their preaching.
That being the case, they were inundated with journalists and reporters from major newspapers, radio shows, and TV networks, including the main Russian TV-news program, “Vremyachko.” His Holiness Bhakti Vijnana Goswami, president of ISKCON Russia, was interviewed, as were prominent members of the Indian community, who made their outrage clear. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad stepped in, agreeing to mount a “Defend Russian Hindus” campaign. Dignitaries from India and Russia came forward, until their voices were heard loud and clear.
The Moscow mayor finally allocated land to ISKCON, despite objections by the Orthodox Church, which threatened to renew its protests against the construction. But the die was cast, and overturning the mayor's decisions seems highly unlikely. Devotees played a winning move.
The significance of a final and abiding land allocation should be clearly understood. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, along with the Russian Orthodox Church, are Russia’s traditional religions, deemed part of Russia's heritage. But the Hare Krishna religion—Vaishnavism, and even its Hindu relatives—is not part of that exclusive group, which makes the land grant a coup of historic proportions. Land was not awarded to Catholic and Protestant sects; the only Christian sect to get land was the Russian Orthodox Church. Only ISKCON and the other three accepted religions received land.
An important voice influencing the mayor's decision was that of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, who had come to Russia for the Delhi Culture Fest and to renew diplomatic relations. She was incensed by the entire temple debacle and insisted that the situation be corrected at once.
Earlier, the issue had been raised at various diplomatic meetings, with Russian President Vladimir Putin assuring Indian Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh that he would look into the matter. Apparently, he did.
K. Raghunath, India's ambassador to Russia, made the following comment in a speech aired nationwide:
I would also like to speak a few words in address to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). We are close to this organization. ISKCON attained a wonderful success in spreading the philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita and implementing it in everyday life. Besides this, ISKCON works hard to preserve and protect the unparalleled culture of India. ISKCON also deserves glorification for strengthening the friendly bond between Russia and India.
The campaign to build the new temple, known as “Temple of the Heart,” is receiving support from patrons around the world.
Fall 2006 witnessed a new dawn for ISKCON Russia: More than six thousand people, mostly Indians, came to the still unfinished but beautiful temple to celebrate Janmashtami, the anniversary of Lord Krishna's advent in this world. In attendance were the ambassadors of Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius and the Director of the J. Nehru Cultural Center. One year later, also on Janmashtami, ISKCON signed a contract to proceed with architectural plans for the new temple. That day they also secured the governmental approvals and permits needed to start building.
Though some intrigue lingered, with special interest groups trying to thwart the work, nothing could stop the devotees now. They had important political leaders on their side, and the public had become fully aware of the situation. Any attempt to stop the project would become prominent in the news. Because of the determined efforts of the devotees, the Indian government, and other international entities, ISKCON Russia is now on solid ground.
“It was all Krishna's arrangement,” says Bhakti Vijnana Goswami, one of ISKCON's governing body commissioners in Moscow (with Niranjana Swami and Gopala Krishna Goswami). “Through all the political machinations and the difficult times, we ended up with the best possible temple grounds. It's much better land than we had before, and quite reminiscent of Vrindavana, where Krishna came to earth five thousand years ago. It's a bit away from the center of the city, and it's in the midst of beautiful rivers, rolling mountains, and a gorgeous forest area. Krishna knew what He was doing. Hundreds of thousands of people will come here to learn mantra meditation and the philosophy of Krishna consciousness.”
Even in 2003, while going through more trying times, the devotees knew considerable success: Almost 6,000 people visited the temple that year, and an additional 14,500 schoolchildren observed temple services as part of mandatory classroom experience. Devotees chanted regularly on Moscow streets, distributed prasadam widely, and put over 160,000 books into Russian hands.
Naturally, with the new temple things have only increased. The Indian congregation numbers around 15,000 people, many of them students at colleges and other institutions of higher learning. Many native Moscovites have become full-time devotees or attend ISKCON's temple services and festivals throughout the year. Prabhupada's books now appear in ten of Russia's offical languages, and more than eleven million copies of his Bhagavad-gita As It Is, in Russian translation, have been distributed.
The Vedic Cultural Center
All that being said, the new temple is clearly the most significant trophy in ISKCON Russia's battle for religious freedom. As currently planned, it will be a Vedic Cultural Center with the following features:
1. Vedic temple
2. Veda-expo multimedia hall
3. Educational and cultural center
4. Library of Vedic classics
5. Social services center
6. Healthcare center
7. Conference hall
8. Restaurant of Vedic cuisine
9. Winter garden
Prominent ISKCON devotees from around the world have visited the fledgling Moscow temple, considered its leaders’ vision for the future, and come away deeply impressed. They could not help but acknowledge its potential and its worldwide ramifications.
Said Bhakti Tirtha Swami (1950–2005) soon before he left this world: “We are noticing that the Russian devotees are some of the most enthusiastic devotees in the world. So many devotees are being made, so much preaching opportunity, so many people are coming forth. Therefore, we need something very grand, very wonderful, to accommodate all of these people. . . . History will show how the devotees in CIS, and Russia in particular, were empowered to establish this most grand and glorious, famous and fabulous, temple.”
“We are excited," he continued. "We want to encourage as many people as possible to support this effort—because it is an effort not just for CIS, or for Russia, but . . . it is something for the whole world, something Srila Prabhupada himself very much wanted. He was so concerned about preaching throughout the world, and in his last days he expressed a special concern about the preaching in the communist countries.”
Radhanatha Swami, too, was recently outspoken about the far-reaching potential of the project in Russia: “I sincerely believe that building this temple in Moscow is one of the most important projects in the history of the Hare Krishna movement.”
“Srila Prabhupada personally went to Moscow in the early 1970s,” says Radhanatha Swami, “and although it was behind the Iron Curtain, where atheism and communism were prominent, Srila Prabhupada saw immense potential in the people of Russia to accept the doctrine of pure, unalloyed love for Sri Krishna. And so he wrote that if the devotees sincerely worked together . . . this temple would be built. And he stated emphatically that it would be a great triumph.”
Bhakti Caru Swami also spoke eloquently about the significance of the devotees’ work in the former Soviet Union: “Who could have imagined that Krishna consciousness would spread in Russia? But Chaitanya Mahaprabhu predicted that the Krishna consciousness movement would spread to every town and village of the world, and He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead—so His prediction will never go in vain.”
Concludes Bhakti Vijnana Goswami: “The establishment of this temple in Russia is huge—historically, symbolically, emotionally, and spiritually. The temple will also be huge in size, accommodating thousands of devotees, visitors, and seekers. We are already seeing this on a practical level, and its impact is second only to temples in India. In the long run, its influence will be felt all over the world, not only in Eastern Europe, Russia, and the former Soviet Union. It will have huge meaning for ISKCON and beyond ISKCON, all over the world.”
Boris Spassky lost his world championship chess match with Bobby Fischer. Though Russian chess pros had held the title for more than forty years, this was the first time a Soviet player would enter the match as an underdog. In chess, superior strategy always wins in the end, but in life, it’s always best to be on the side of the righteous. As the Bhagavad-gita tells us in its concluding verse, “Wherever there is Krishna, the master of all mystics, and wherever there is Arjuna, the supreme archer, there will also certainly be opulence, victory, extraordinary power, and morality.” Nearly every Moscovite now benefits from Prabhupada's books and the holy name of Krishna, which is a winning move. And though Red Square is still the most famous city square in Moscow, the Temple of the Heart will soon have everyone in check.