Dear devotees and friends,
Please accept my best wishes. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
My Godbrother Dhirashanta prabhu and I flew from Vilnius to Moscow early in the morning of August 2nd, following the Baltics Summer Festival, and then stayed the day at the house of Dayal Caitanya prabhu, Kamalalocana mataji, their daughter Karunamayi (who is also my Moscow secretary) and their son Harinamananda. That evening we drove back to the Vnukovo airport to fly to Murmansk, in the Arctic Circle, where ISKCON’s northernmost temple is located.
Moscow was in the grips of a major heat wave, with temperatures in the higher 30’s, so we were looking forward to going north, where the temperatures would definitely be lower. However when we got on the plane and were waiting to take off we had an experience similar to others I’ve had in the past.
Russian planes are designed for cold weather, and not for hot weather, so until a plane takes off there is no air conditioning functioning at all, and the temperature in the cabin simply gets hotter and hotter. This is what happened this day. The captain announced that we would be delayed 15 to 20 minutes, and we sat there, sweltering, as the temperature slowly increased. Sure enough it rose over 40 and then started going higher, to at least 45, and then continued to increase. Children were screaming and people were waving the safety instructions sheet to attempt to fan themselves a little.
Of course if a plane crashes there is very little chance of survival, so perhaps waving the safety instruction sheet as a fan is the best use for it!
Finally, after about 30 minutes, by which time the temperature was approaching 50, we took off and the air conditioning came on and the temperature dropped to a tolerable level. We then flew for two hours and landed in Murmansk at around 11pm. Murmansk is so far north that during the middle of summer the sun never sets, and it is broad daylight 24 hours a day. But now it was August, so it did set just before midnight, although it rose again around maybe 2am.
We had a celebration for the 15th anniversary of the installation of the Murmansk Deities, and during the day we went on harinama in the city centre. Russia is such a place that you have to get permission if you want to do harinama, or you risk getting into serious trouble. Dhirashanta prabhu had a tourist visa and for him to take part in a public religious procession was very unadvisable, but I assumed we must have permission and that would be enough to avoid problems.
We got out of the car and were surrounded by several television cameras and a group of reporters who wanted to know all about why we were in Murmansk, and what goes on in ISKCON here etc. The Temple President, Paramananda prabhu, has excellent connections with the media in Murmansk, and whatever we do there are always a number of reporters and camera people on hand.
The television crews and reporters came with us as we proceeded down the main street of the city, Lenin St, but then suddenly I noticed another presence with us. There were two or three policemen walking behind us, looking a little disturbed, so I asked Paramananda, “Did we get permission for the harinama?” “No we don’t bother doing that,” he told me. “But don’t worry, it’ll probably be all right!”
The prospect of ending up in police custody and then being deported entered my mind, but fortunately after 15 minutes the police left us and we were able to continue freely.
We also had an initiation ceremony there, and again there were about five television camera groups with us, this time in the small temple room in the Murmansk temple. They took up almost half the space with their huge cameras on tripods.
It was very nice having Dhirashanta prabhu with me. He leads nice kirtanas and gives nice classes, and this took the pressure off me some of the time. Actually he was already one of the senior men in ISKCON London when I joined on January 7th 1973, although shortly afterwards he left for Finland and I didn’t see again for many years. More recently we met in Mayapur and he told me he wants to become a vanaprastha and later take sannyasa, so I encouraged him a lot and arranged that he visit Lithuania. In the meantime he has been travelling around that part of the world and is moving nicely in the direction of taking sannyasa.
On the 5th we flew to St Petersburg and did programmes on the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon in the hall the devotees use for the larger gatherings. St Petersburg is a place that gets a lot of visitors. Gopala Krishna Maharaja was arriving in a few days, and then shortly after that Caitanya Candra Carana prabhu, a Russian devotee who is now an initiating spiritual master. Then shortly after that a few others are coming, so the local devotees get lots of good association.
That is very different from the other places we were visiting in North West Russia. Other than Dhirashanta prabhu and me, no Prabhupada disciples have been to Murmansk since the early 2000’s. The same applies to the next place we were going, Arkangelsk. Other than the two of us and Devamrita Maharaja, there have been no preachers there since perhaps the 1990’s, and Devamrita Maharaja is apparently not going to visit there again.
We arrived in Arkangelsk in the middle of the day on Sunday the 8th of August, and were soon whisked off to harinama on the beachfront. We joined the group of about 30 devotees in the blazing sun, in which the temperature was well into the 30’s. Everyone was perspiring freely as we chanted and danced up and down the promenade next to the beach for nearly two hours, sometimes being escorted by the police, as this time, fortunately, we had received official permission to do harinama. Following this we had a programme in a hall with the local devotees.
The next day we drove to Severodvinsk, a closed military town where atomic powered submarines are made. We had to get special permission to enter there from the FSB, which used to be called the KGB in Communist times, so when we
drove in we were in karmi clothes, and were equipped with our documentation. However in recent times they have taken down the checkpoints and one can just drive in without having to deal with the authorities, and before we knew it we were in the centre of the town, having not been checked. Despite that one still has to get permission to enter.
We then had an initiation ceremony on the beach near the submarine factory, and then a house programme in one of the devotee’s flats (where the temperature was around 40 degrees).
On the 10th afternoon we flew to Moscow, and then from there to Syktyvkar, a somewhat remote town, about two hours flight northwest of Moscow. Other than myself, no Prabhupada disciples or sannyasis have ever visited there. The Regional Secretary in most of the north west is Vanamali Kaviraja prabhu, an older person who is effectively a vanaprastha, and he has got the programmes in these places going very nicely.
We had a harinama (again with permission), and then we walked to a nearby hotel for an evening programme with the devotees and some guests. As we walked we were stopped by a newspaper reporter who wanted a quick interview. He asked me, “How do you feel being in a Christian country?” As I looked around I saw a number of girls in miniskirts, plus liquor stores and other such Kali Yuga sights, and I wondered what he was talking about.
He seemed particularly interested in whether we get on with the Russian Orthodox Church, and with the government. Probably in Syktyvkar they don’t get much sensational happening!
Then on the 13th morning Dhirashanta prabhu and our trusty translator Krishna Carana das (until a few days before, Bhakta Igor) flew back to Moscow. Dhirashanta prabhu went to Vilnius, Lithuania, Krishna Carana went to St Petersburg, and that evening I flew to Novosibirsk in Siberia for my birthday programme, which was happening the next day, the 14th.
I’ll write shortly about this and the other programmes in Siberia.
Hoping this meets you well.
Bhakti Caitanya Swami