Please accept my blessings. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
I last wrote from the festival in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. That was about 2 weeks ago, and unfortunately I’ve had a cold since then, and even now it’s trying to hang on, although it’s 90% finished. I’m resting my voice today and most of tomorrow and hopefully it will stabilize more in the meantime.
From Altai I went to Moscow for a night, where I stayed in the beautiful flat of Denis and Svetlana, aspiring disciples of BB Govinda Maharaja, and then on the morning of June 22nd I flew with Bhakta Igor from St Petersburg to Syktyvkar, a place I had never heard of before. We stayed there till the 24th, when I had to fly to Arkangelsk via Moscow.
Syktyvkar is a relatively new yatra, being developed under the supervision of Vanamali Kaviraja prabhu the Regional Secretary for most of North West Russia. He’s an older person, and although still a householder he’s
traveling around the region all the time, encouraging the devotees. We did evening programmes in a hall, which were attended by 30 or so devotees and others, and one day we did a harinama.
Of course I had to lead the harinama, at least at the beginning, and that was quite a strain considering my health. There was no sound system so somehow I had to shout over the top of the instruments, which made it worse. In between mantras I would cough to clear my voice a bit, and somehow I managed to carry on for about 30 minutes.
In Russia generally the devotees have to get permission to do harinama, and this day we only had permission to stay in a particular spot near the centre of town, and not to move around the town. Because of being new the devotees were not so expert when it came to dancing and generally developing the kirtana, and I wasn’t feeling up to running around too much, so we basically stood in the same spot and sang, although the ladies, as Russian ladies often do, got into some simple dancing.
There is no temple in Syktyvkar, and all the devotees are living at home, so I appreciated very much that practically the whole yatra came out and chanted in the streets with us.
One thing I noticed about Syktyvkar was the mosquitoes! When we left on the 24th morning they had taken over the airport, and it was practically impossible to avoid being bitten several times. Actually the most powerful mosquitoes in Russia, and maybe the world, are the Siberian mosquitoes, who are relentless in their pursuit of blood, but their Syktyvkar brothers did very well for themselves that morning. It was something like a Food for Life programme for them!
Vanamali Kaviraja prabhu and I then flew to Moscow, and he went on to the Russian National Council meeting in Sochi, and I flew back to Arkanglesk. Arkangelsk is a very nice yatra, which has been going for many years. There used to be a temple there, which had many brahmacaris and barhmacarinis, but then some of them married and others moved elsewhere, and the temple closed. Now they regularly hold their programmes in the house of one of my disciples, Lalita Madhava devi dasi, and this was where we met.
Nearby is the town of Severodvinsk, which is a closed city where they make submarines. You need permission to get in there, and the devotees have not been able to get it for me yet, so again I wasn’t able to go in. but the devotees from there came and joined us for our programmes at Lalita Madhava’s.
One day I went for a walk on the river front with Aravindaksha prabhu the Arkangelsk yatra leader and husband of my disciple and Arkangelsk translator, Jaya Radhika devi dasi. As we walked along the river bank we saw a couple of Indian boys drinking beer with some Russian boys. Aravindaksha called out “Hare Krishna!” to them and they responded, although they seemed a little embarrassed to be seen by us, drinking liquor. But Aravindaksha prabhu told me that he lives nearby, and Indian boys like this, who are
studying at the medical school in Arkangelsk, often come to the shop near his flat and buy meat and liquor. As soon as they leave India behind they start losing their culture.
I then flew to St Petersburg, where the devotees have a Saturday programme instead of a Sunday programme. On Sunday they do harinama. I arrived on Saturday and we went to the programme, and found at least 300 or so devotees there, chanting and dancing very enthusiastically.
St Petersburg used to have the biggest temple in Russia, which was being rented at the time Harikesa das left ISKCON. When he left his followers kept the temple, and since then, more than 10 years ago, we haven’t had a temple here, but have had to rent halls for all our programmes. However the devotees have now got some land and will hopefully start construction soon.
I had to meet devotees on Sunday, so I didn’t go on the harinama, and in one sense that was good, as I need to rest, particularly my voice. Then on Monday afternoon we had another programme in the same hall we used on Saturday. I was skeptical whether the devotees would come, but to my surprise, when we started at 3pm, there was almost the same number of devotees there as on Saturday, despite it being a working day.
That evening, the 29th of June, I flew on my own to Murmansk. The plane took off at about 9pm and as we approached Murmansk I noticed some spots of snow on some of the hills nearby. Even though it is officially midsummer, still this part of the world is cold.
Murmansk is in the Arctic Circle, and as far as I know it’s the northern most temple in ISKCON worldwide. We finally arrived at the temple around midnight, after being met at the airport by a large group of devotees
(accompanied by a very enthusiastic team of mosquitoes), and when I went to the bathroom at 12.15 I saw that the sun was still up in the sky, shining directly on some of the buildings in the city. Living in the far north is quite an amazing experience.
Again we went on harinama in Murmansk. There were about 15 or so of us, with accordion, and it all went very well, although the weather was a bit too cold for me, and my cold returned again. I assumed we had permission as usual, but as we stood in a particular place with a crowd gathered around us we noticed a police car stop right next to us.
The Temple President, Paramananda prabhu, immediately told us to move on, and as we walked down the street the police car followed us, stopping occasionally next to us and staring at us. When we finished I asked Paramananda if we had had permission, but he said no. In the past they would get permission, but the authorities would only let them go to quiet parts of the city, and they wanted to go into the centre, so they decided not to bother with permission and just take a chance with the police.
That was ok for them, but for me as a foreigner it’s very dangerous to get caught doing something that’s against the law. The Russian authorities are very touchy about such things, and will arrest foreigners easily if they do something they shouldn’t.
In both Syktyvkar and Arkangelsk news people came to interview. In Syktyvkar they did a very favourable half page article about my visit, and in Murmansk two television stations and a newspaper came. I saw on the temple noticeboard a clipping of an article done the previous year by a reporter who was a big George Harrison fan. When he heard that I had met George and spoken with him, the reporter couldn’t believe it, and thought I was some sort of big celebrity, and then wrote the article, which was very favourable indeed, and also half a page of the newspaper.
In Murmansk the devotees own the temple, having bought it from the profits from their transcendental cake business. They have cakes named Vrindavana, Mayapur, Radhe Syama, and many other names. We’ve included some photos of them, so please have a look. Some of them are quite amazing.
This morning I had to get up at 2am to take a cheap flight to Moscow, where I am now, waiting to fly to South Africa for the Phoenix Rathayatra this weekend. I will write further from there.
Hoping this meets you well.
Bhakti Caitanya Swami