Diary of a Traveling Preacher – Volume 9, Chapter 14 – August 22 – 24, 2008
By Indradyumna Swami
After the Polish tour I rested for a day in Warsaw and then flew to Moscow, where I met my disciple Uttama-sloka das. The same day we connected with an overnight flight to Irkutsk in eastern Siberia to attend a devotee festival.
Although much has changed in Russia since the fall of Communism in 1990, some things, like the airplane on which we flew, have stayed the same. The Tupolev Tu-154 has been the mainstay of Russian passenger airlines for decades. It has the mood of a bus more than an airplane. Its rugged design enables it to land on unpaved, gravel airfields but makes long-distance travel quite austere.
To make things easier, devotees had bought me a business-class seat for the seven-hour flight, but the only difference between business and economy was a curtain separating the sections.
There was only one other passenger in business, and he fell asleep in his seat well before departure. As the flight took off, no announcements were made and the two stewardesses assigned to our section didn’t check to see whether our seatbelts were fastened.
When we were airborne, one of the stewardesses asked if I wanted anything to eat. I rarely eat food served on an airplane, but I was exhausted and hungry.
“Could I have a vegetarian meal?” I asked.
The stewardess looked at me intently. “Are you serious?” she said.
During the flight I tried to sleep, but fleas in the old seat cushions bit me relentlessly. I changed seats several times only to meet the same fate. Finally, I just sat and chanted on my beads.
At one point I noticed the stewardesses taking small bottles of vodka intended for business-class passengers and putting them in their own hand luggage. They then sat in the spare seats and fell asleep.
Several hours later I became thirsty, so I nudged one of the stewardesses and asked for some water. She woke up with a start, swore at me in Russian, and stormed off to get a bottle of water. After giving it to me, she sat back in her seat and went to sleep again.
The captain eventually announced that we were approaching Irkutsk but would have to circle the airport until some fog had dispersed. Some time later the two stewardesses approached me. “The captain is asking you to pray to God for all of us,” one of them said.
“We are running out of fuel,” said the other, “and we can’t circle the airport much longer.”
They stood waiting. “Well,” said one of them, “are you going to pray?”
I hesitated. Then I joined my palms, closed my eyes, and said a short prayer. When I finished, they left to tell the captain.
Suddenly the plane veered left and headed in another direction. There was no announcement. The plane continued for about half an hour and then began to descend. I called one of the stewardesses over and asked what was happening.
“We’re landing in Ulan Ude to wait until the fog clears in Irkutsk,” she said nervously, smelling of liquor. “We had just enough fuel.”
We left our bags on the plane and walked down the steps to the terminal. As I took in the surroundings, I almost thought we’d landed on another planet. The vast Siberian steppe stretched endlessly in all directions, and although it was the end of summer, the temperature was only six degrees centigrade.
As I reached for my sweater, Uttama-sloka turned to me with a smile. “The man sitting next to me said this is the best time to visit Ulan Ude,” he said, “because it’s between the ferocious mosquitoes of summer and the freezing temperatures of winter.”
As we entered the terminal, several people of Asian appearance stood before me with palms joined and offered respects.
“What’s that?” I asked Uttama-sloka.
“Many of the people here are Buddhist,” he replied. “They think you’re a Buddhist monk because of your robes.”
Looking through the windows I noticed a large number of Asians on the concourse outside.
“Ulan Ude was founded by Cossacks in 1666,” Uttama-sloka said. “Because of its geographical location it became a trade center connecting Russia, China, and Mongolia. There are about 400 thousand people living here now. It’s at the 5,640-kilometer mark on the Trans-Siberian railway.”
I looked at him in surprise.
“I remember that from school,” he laughed.
“Gosh,” I said. “I wonder if there are any devotees in this Siberian outpost.”
“I’ve heard there are quite a few devotees here,” he said.
I suddenly realized I’d left my beads on the plane. “Oh boy!” I said. “I was hoping I could catch up on my rounds while I’m waiting here.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a kiosk selling what looked like souvenirs. We walked over and found statues and paintings of the Buddha. There were also the small-sized meditation beads used by Buddhist monks as well as strands of larger beads similar to our Krsna-conscious chanting beads.
I pointed to a strand of beads. “Count the number of beads on that set,” I said to Uttama-sloka
He counted the beads. “There are 108, Guru Maharaja,” he said.
Just then the salesman stood up behind the counter. “Hare Krsna, Maharaja,” he said. “I’m a devotee, and this is my shop. I sell Buddhist and Krsna-conscious paraphernalia. Are you interested in that japa mala?”
Uttama-sloka winked at me. “Every town and village,” he said.
Two minutes later I was happily chanting my rounds on my new set of beads. And I had plenty of time to chant. Twenty-four rounds later I turned to Uttama-sloka. “Go and ask what is happening,” I said.
He went and then came back. “The fog has lifted in Irkutsk,” he said. “We can start boarding soon.”
We went to the boarding gate along with the other passengers. An hour later we were still waiting. People started getting angry and shouting at the ground staff. One man even threw something at them.
“This would never happen at an airport in America,” I said to Uttama-sloka.
He shrugged. “America is 9,680 kilometers away,” he said.
“Did you learn that in school, too?” I said.
He smiled. “No,” he said, “on the internet while we were waiting.”
After a while the shouting stopped, and people sat down on the ground or on their bags, frustrated. Uttama-sloka went up to the counter and then came back. “I overheard them discussing the real problem,” he said. “The pilots have gone into town to sell merchandise.”
“What?” I said. “To sell merchandise?”
“It’s not uncommon,” he said. “This is the middle of nowhere, and you can make a quick buck if you bring in what’s in demand and sell it to retailers.”
An hour later the two pilots returned.
We finally landed in Irkutsk and were driven to where we’d be staying. We joined 500 devotees in the evening on the first day of festivities. BB Govinda Swami, Bhakti Caitanya Swami, and Prabhavisnu Swami were there as well. It’s rare for the Siberian devotees to get so much association, so they were especially excited. Kirtan went on for hours.
Siberians are a hardy bunch, having to live most of the year in harsh conditions. The winters are especially difficult, with temperatures plunging almost down to -50°C. And unlike Moscow and St Petersburg, which are now prosperous, modern cities, Irkutsk and other Siberian towns still look the way they did during the Communist era.
The good side is that many people there are under no illusion about the difficult nature of material existence and are open to spiritual life. As I have been coming to Siberia off and on since 1990, I have a number of disciples in the region. Few have left Krsna consciousness, knowing well the difference between stark material life and blissful devotional service.
In between the seminars and kirtans over three days, I made an effort to meet as many disciples as possible. I would often ask how they became devotees.
Actinya-sakti dasi came to see me, and I asked her when she had joined.
“Eleven years ago,” she said.
“So you must be in your mid forties,” I said. “Correct?”
“No, Guru Maharaja,” she said with a chuckle, “I’m 71.”
I looked at her and shook my head. “That’s not possible,” I said.
“I was born in 1937,” she said.
“But you look half your age,” I said.
“Life in Siberia can work to one’s advantage,” she said. “I attribute my good health to the simple life I’ve lived. Of course, sometimes it was more than simplicity. It was deprivation.
“World War Two broke out when I was a child. All the men of fighting age were sent to the front. The women and children had to do everything while the men were away. Communications and transportation had been destroyed on the Moscow front, so few if any supplies reached us in Siberia. We had to live on the fruit and vegetables we grew during the summer.
“There were few cars in those days, so we walked everywhere. After the war, I still used to walk seven kilometers to school and back each day even in the winter, and you know what winter means in Siberia.
“We lived a simple but healthy life. During the summer we would plow the fields with horses, harvest the grain by hand, drink milk from the cows, and make jam from fruit and berries.
“We didn’t hear much news about the world during Communism. There was only one local newspaper, and we had a radio in our house, but information was heavily censored. In one sense it was good. We had no fear or anxiety about distant events unconnected to us.
“I eventually got a degree in geology and worked for the government, searching for minerals in different parts of the country. It was then that I saw the difficulties others experienced in Russia. It made me begin searching for spiritual life.
“Once I was sent to Mongolia, where most of the people are Buddhist. I was attracted to the philosophy of karma and reincarnation. Then, in 1997, I met the devotees, and eventually you, at programs in another city in Siberia.
“Since then I’ve lived the good life of Krsna consciousness. That’s why I’m healthy and happy.”
I smiled. “You look so fit,” I said, “I think you’ll live to be well over
“Please no, Guru Maharaja.” she said. “I don’t want to stay here that long. I want to go back to Godhead.”
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“I have a small apartment, and I live off my government pension,” she said.
Her tone became excited. “I want to help your preaching,” she continued. “I want to donate each month for your festival program in Poland. Can you give me your bank account details?”
“But how is that possible?” I said. “How much do you get each month?”
“My pension is 250 dollars,” she said, “and I want to give you 100 dollars every month.”
“That’s almost half your income,” I said. “I won’t accept that. It will make life too difficult for you. How will you survive?”
She smiled. “Like I always have,” she said. “Maybe it will be a little more austere. But if it will help your preaching I’m happy to do it. You’re my spiritual master, and I have a great debt towards you.”
She paused for a moment. “I’m used to these things,” she said. “I’m Siberian.”
After she left, Uttama-sloka turned to me. “They’re tough here,” he said.
“And good devotees,” I added, “but I won’t accept her proposal although her offer of 100 dollars a month means as much to me as 1,000 dollars from someone else.”
The day after the festival in Irkutsk, we went to the airport to catch our flight back to Moscow. I was worried that there might be fog again and we would be delayed. But the sky was clear, and our flight took off on time.
When we reached Moscow, one of the devotees meeting us rushed up to me in the parking lot. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “after your flight took off from Irkutsk, there was an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale. There are reports of 900 people injured, some dead as well. They are estimating more than 15 million dollars worth of damage.”
“Call and see if the devotees are okay,” I said.
As he turned to leave I caught his arm. “There’s an elderly mataji, Actinya-sakti dasi. Ask if she’s all right.”
“Who is she?” he asked.
“A surrendered devotee who I wouldn’t want to lose,” I said.
That evening he called to report that all the devotees in the earthquake region were safe and well.
“And there was one other thing,” he said. “Actinya-sakti is asking for your bank account number.”
Srila Prabhupada writes:
“[Lord Krsna said to Sudama Brahmana:] ‘With great compassion our Gurudeva said, “My dear boys, it is very wonderful that you have suffered so much trouble for me. Everyone likes to take care of his body as the first consideration, but you are so good and faithful to your guru that without caring for bodily comforts you have taken so much trouble for me … That is the way for a bona fide disciple to become free from his debt to the spiritual master.”‘”[Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, The Meeting of Lord Krsna with Sudama Brahmana]
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