Diary of a Traveling Monk
Volume 11, Chapter 5
May 7, 2010
By Indradyumna Swami
A few days ago, early in May, I boarded Flight 677 from Warsaw to Moscow. As I looked around, I marveled at how times had changed. The Aeroflot plane was a brand-new Boeing 737, a marked difference from the one I took from England to Russia in the spring of 1989. In those days every plane in Aeroflot's fleet was well over twenty years old.
And gone were the grumpy old stewardesses who wouldn't give you the time of day. Now the crew consisted of good-looking young women and men, fluent in Russian, Polish, and English.
"Please be seated, sir," said a stewardess as she took my boarding pass. "May I take your coat? Would you like some juice?"
"No thanks," I said, "I'll be fine."
She looked at her roster. "I see you've been upgraded to business class," she said.
I smiled. "Well, I've been flying with you for more than twenty-one years," I said. "I've racked up the miles."
Soon there was a party atmosphere in the plane as passengers began socializing with one another. I settled in my seat and closed my eyes. My thoughts went back to my first flight to Russia with its dark mood in the cabin.
Russia was a communist state then, the ruling country in the USSR. People's lives were controlled by the government, and they were poor in spite of working hard, mostly in factories. I remembered the many probing questions the immigration officials had asked me as I entered the country.
In the days and weeks that followed then, I took great risks meeting devotees at secret gatherings in apartments, basements, and attics. Religious movements were banned, and rumors persisted that foreign missionaries got fifteen years in prison if caught.
I opened my eyes and looked around. "Yes," I thought, "Russia's a democracy now, and things are so much easier and secure, but I do miss the old days, the struggle and adventure, always having to depend on Krsna."
After twenty minutes it appeared that the passengers had all boarded, but the door was still open.
"Are we waiting for someone?" I asked the stewardess.
"Yes, we are," she said politely.
Five minutes later a very old man came through the door assisted by two stewardesses. They directed him to the seat next to mine. But I was the only passenger in business class, so there were many empty seats.
"Shall we seat you elsewhere?" said one of the stewardesses to the old man.
He glanced at me and then at the empty seats. "No," he said, "I'll be just fine next to this gentleman."
With some difficulty he adjusted himself into his seat. I noticed five rows of brightly colored medals on his coat. There were a few moments of silence before he turned to me and spoke with a thick Russian accent. "I assume you're going to Moscow for the victory parade," he said.
"I'm sorry, sir," I said. "I'm not sure what you're referring to."
"It's the parade in Red Square to celebrate the sixty-fifth anniversary of our victory over the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War," he said. He paused for a moment. "Of course, Russia played the major role," he said, "but you people did assist. Are you British or American?"
"I'm American, sir," I replied.
"Your government is sending over a contingent of soldiers for the parade," he said, "as are France, Britain, and Poland. Twenty-five foreign leaders will join Russian President Medvedev to watch the procession."
"Oh, I see," I said.
He turned his head and looked off into space. "We fought hard," he said, his voice showing emotion. "We lost many soldiers, and many more were wounded. But we won. And we're glad that you Americans fought alongside us. The motherland is grateful."
"Yes, sir," I said.
"You know," he said in a tone of pride, still looking away, "the parade will feature some of our newest and most capable weapons. They'll have the Pantsir S1 and the Buratino rocket launcher, also the Topal-M intercontinental ballistic missile, the Yak-130 trainer jet, and the Mi-28 and Ka-52 attack helicopters." "He really knows his military hardware," I thought.
He turned toward me. "A total of a hundred and sixty-one tanks and missiles will roll through the square," he said, his voice getting louder and full of excitement, "and a hundred and twenty-seven aircraft will soar through Russian skies above. At this very moment the foreign troops are training with 10,500 Russian soldiers. It's a special honor for your soldiers to perform on Russian soil."
"Yes, yes it is," I said.
"It was the greatest victory of all time," he continued. Then his eyes became misty. "But we lost so many men," he continued, "and civilians too. The Germans were good fighters. We fought them hand to hand."
I was silent.
"Your Sergeant Beyrle was a good soldier," he said. "You know of him, yes?"
"No sir, I'm afraid I don't," I replied.
He looked a little disappointed. "'Jumpin' Joe Beyrle we called him," he said. "He was captured by the Germans after parachuting into Normandy on D-day. Later he escaped from Stalag III prison camp and joined up with our Russian forces. He won our trust by using his demolition skills to blow up German tanks. Later he was severely wounded, and our Russian commanders had him transferred to the US Embassy in Moscow. He's been called a hero of two nations, and we thank you for that."
"You're welcome," I said.
"But if you're not going to Moscow for the parade," he said, "then why are you going? And why are you dressed like that?"
"I'm a monk," I said.
"We have our religion," he said. "We are Russian Orthodox. It's our tradition, our history."
"I understand," I said, "but the movement I'm serving has been established in your country for thirty-nine years. In that sense it can be taken as part of Russian history as well."
He thought for a moment. "Thirty-nine years," he said. "Well, you have a point."
"Yes," I said, "we were able to share our ideals with your people because men like you fought against oppression sixty-five years ago."
"Yes!" he said. "We beat back the Nazi regime."
"And we're grateful for that," I said, putting my hand on his arm, "truly grateful."
"Thank you," he said. "But I'm still not convinced that your group, or whatever it is, can be accepted as a significant part of Russian history. What is your movement's name anyway?"
"It's called the Hare Krsna Movement," I said.
"Hare Krsna!" he said excitedly. His face lit up and he smiled broadly. "Why didn't you tell me? We have lots of Hare Krsnas in Russia. They are everywhere. They sing in the streets, sell books, and give food to homeless people in Moscow. They are all good Russian boys and girls."
I was speechless.
"You are right," he continued, "for all you people have done I consider Hare Krsna an important part of Russian history."
Just then a stewardess came by. "Would either of you like some juice?" she said.
"Yes," he said. "We will celebrate. I will take this gentleman to the victory parade tomorrow. I have seats."
"Thank you for your invitation," I said.
As the plane started down the runway we raised our glasses of juice in a toast. "To Victory Day!" the old veteran said.
"And to Hare Krsna!" I added.
"Yes, yes, to Hare Krsna," he said, "to Hare Krsna."
And as the plane took off, I thought about what Lord Caitanya said about victory some five hundred years ago:
ceto darpana marjanam bhava maha davagni nirvapanam sreyah kairava candrika vitaranam vidya vadhu jivanam anandambudhi vardhanam prati padam purnamrtasvadanam sarvatma snapanam praram vijayate sri Krsna sankirtanam
"Let there be all victory for the chanting of the holy name of Lord Krsna, which can cleanse the mirror of the heart and stop the miseries of the blazing fire of material existence. That chanting is the waxing moon that spreads the white lotus of good fortune for all living entities. It is the life and soul of all education. The chanting of the holy name of Krsna expands the blissful ocean of transcendental life. It gives a cooling effect to everyone and enables one to taste full nectar at every step." [Siksastaka Prayers, Verse 1]