by Madhava Smullen
One thousand devotees from all over Russia gathered in Moscow for an eight-day festival from June 12th to 19th this summer, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of ISKCON Founder Srila Prabhupada’s first and only visit to the city.
The attendees included eighty veterans of ISKCON in Russia—devotees who joined during the oppressive communist reign, and before the movement’s official registration in 1988. They arrived for the festival from the Ukraine, the Baltics, and other ex-Soviet Union countries.
ISKCON leaders Niranjana Swami and Bhakti Vijnana Swami welcomed everyone at the opening ceremony held in a huge, colorful pandal (tent) on Sunday June 12th. Excited to see each other, the devotees then all settled down to hear about Srila Prabhupada’s visit to Moscow from his early disciple Shyamasundara Dasa.
Srila Prabhupada had always very much wanted to visit Russia, so when he got the chance in June 1971 he immediately went with his servants Shyamasundara and Aravinda.
Although he spent only five days in the country, those five days changed Russia’s history. During them, Prabhupada spoke with Professor G. G. Kotovsky, then head of the Indian and South Asian Studies Department of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. The conversation left a distinct impression on the professor, who had it published in an important Russian periodical.
But it was Prabhupada’s meeting with a young Russian seeker—Anatoly Pinyayev—that was the biggest catalyst for Krishna consciousness in the then Soviet Union.
“Prabhupada convinced him about the philosophy of Krishna consciousness and taught him about its culture in only three days,” Shyamasundara recalled to the vast assembly of enraptured devotees at the 40th Anniversary festival. “He taught Anatoly about offering food, how to cook it, how to eat it, everything. In great detail Prabhupada taught him about varnasrama dharma, vedic social relationships, and more.”
Anatoly would stay late into the night, and return early the next morning. After learning so much, he immediately turned to practical matters. “How can I relate what you are teaching me to the Russia of today?” he asked Srila Prabhupada. “How can I help you?”
“And Prabhupada taught him how to do so in detail,” Shyamasundara told his audience. “You could just see Prabhupada transferring the potency, the power from his eyes, from his hands into this boy. I’ve never before or after seen such a display of Prabhupada’s power entering into another person.”
Renamed Ananta-shanti Dasa, the young man took Prabhupada’s message to heart, and began to enthusiastically spread the Krishna conscious message he had learned all over Russia.
Such stories were a highlight of the festival, told every evening. Mandakini Dasi recalled how she traveled from her native France to Moscow in the 1970s to help Ananta-shanti share Krishna consciousness with the Russian people. Other pioneers of the movement—Bhakti Vijnana Goswami, Vrindavan Dasa, Bharadvadj Dasa, Vidura Dasa, and others—told stories of the hardships they had faced during the communist 1970s and ‘80s, when devotees were persecuted and imprisoned for their faith.
Russian devotees and leaders also told stories of the later days: How in 1988, ISKCON was officially registrated in the Soviet Union; how preaching and book distribution boomed in the 1990s; how the Begovaya temple was demolished by the city’s government, and how devotees struggled to acquire a new piece of land.
Today, however, ISKCON is thriving in Russia and is more popular than ever. According to Moscow’s ISKCON Communications director Yadunandana Dasa, the country is now home to an amazing 100,000 Hare Krishna followers, while there are more than 100 outreach centers and 400 congregational groups. Devotees have all rights to practice their religion, and in most regions of the country there are positive relations between ISKCON and local government.
Nowhere is this evident more than in last year’s news that the Mayor of Moscow had signed over five acres of land for devotees to build a brand new mega temple in a Moscow suburb. A presentation by Bhakti Vijnana Swami at the festival outlined the progress of the project, which is currently the main focus of Moscow devotees’ efforts.
Another major highlight of the 40th Anniversary festival was the Veteran’s Reunion, attended by around fifty heroes of ISKCON Russia’s difficult early days.
“We served them prasadam, and they had the opportunity to enjoy each other’s company and remember old times,” says Bhaktin Olessia, who organized the Reunion. “It was a special event where they could be in their own circle, with friends whom they had not seen for many many years. It was also the largest gathering of veterans in over thirty years.”
The 40th Anniversary festival also featured a seminar by renowned book distributor Navina Nirada Dasa on the six types of loving exchanges between devotees, an abhisekha bathing ceremony of the Moscow Deities, a ladies’ seminar with senior devotees Mandakini Dasi and Aditi Dasi, hours of blissful kirtan, and of course delicious prasadam.
“There was also a very inspiring initiation ceremony by Niranjana Swami, in which many devotees took spiritual vows and received new names, and we welcomed a new Russian sannyasi—Bhaktivedanta Sadhu Swami,” Olessia says. “And finally, we concluded the festival with a huge Ratha Yatra celebration at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre in Moscow. All in all, it was a very packed and fulfilling week.”
The response to the festival was enthusiastic, with devotees suggesting that it should become an annual event from now on.
“This has been one of the most successful festivals in Russia in the last fifteen to twenty years,” says Olessia. “It has helped devotees to become stronger and get closer to Srila Prabhupada and his mission, to feel that we’re under his constant protection. It gave us a chance to compare the different periods in our history, to learn from our mistakes, to communicate with different generations, and to foretell how the future will develop.”
And the future looks exciting, according to Radha Damodara Dasa, president of the Moscow Society for Krishna Consciousness.
“ISKCON Russia is moving towards becoming a mature and thoughtful organization, that analyzes past experiences and carefully plans future growth,” he says. “And it has every chance in the next forty years to realize Srila Prabhupada’s dreams—massive preaching of Harinam Sankirtan, and building a society of Vaishnavas that will actively influence all fields of society, such as culture, economy, education, lifestyle and the general consciousness of the people.”
To listen to Shyamasundara, Mandakini and others tell stories about ISKCON Moscow’s early days, please click here and scroll down until you see the classes entitled ‘40th Anniversary of Prabhupada’s Visit Festival.’