May 19 – May 20
By Indradyumna Swami
After the morning program with the local devotees at the temple, I talked with Acaryanidhi about the war in nearby Chechnya as we waited for a car to take us to our apartment. Being so close to the fighting, he’s had the opportunity to meet soldiers from both sides and many refugees as well. He told me the Russians were eager to take control of Chechnya to reject Chechnian independence, because the Chechnian Mafia was more powerful than the Russian Mafia throughout the CIS. But the Russians underestimated the fighting spirit of the Chechnians. When Russian tanks entered Grozny, the local people destroyed three hundred of them in the first few days of fighting. Many were destroyed by ten- or eleven-year-old Chechnian boys who would climb onto the tanks and speak Russian, as if they were Russian boys asking for help. When the soldiers opened the hatch the boys would throw Molotov cocktails inside, killing the crew and leaving the tanks to burn.
Acaryanidhi told me that although the Russians have control of the city, the soldiers are always afraid of the rebels. Thus they drink and take drugs. In such a condition they commit many atrocities against the Chechnians, even against women and children. After hearing this I was surprised when Acaryanidhi said, “But our Food for Life program is doing well.” I was amazed that devotees were there in such dangerous conditions distributing food.
“Yes,” said Acaryanidhi, “we have ten devotees there who distribute fifteen hundred plates of food every day. Without them many people would die because many are old and invalid.”
I marveled at the courage of devotees who stay in a place where there is no law and order. I asked Acaryanidhi if we could visit the devotees there to encourage them, but he said the situation was too dangerous. I asked if perhaps we could arrange it at the end of my visit to the CIS in six weeks, but he smiled and said that while only ten percent of the Chechnian men are engaged in the fighting, the rest are waiting for the opportune moment to push the Russians back.
I asked what would happen to our Food for Life devotees in Grozny. “We’ve left them with a vehicle,” said Acaryanidhi. “I’ve instructed them to leave when it really gets hot.”
Many devotees would have left long ago,” I thought. All glories to the Grozny Food for Life devotees!
In the afternoon we went to the village of Elhotovo, where we were to have an evening program. We were driven in Bhakta Tomas’s 1978 black Mercedes. It formerly belonged to Communist bosses, and Bhakta Tomas bought it for one thousand American dollars in Tbilisi, Georgia, two years ago. It was a pleasant change from the usual uncomfortable, small Russian cars we travel in, but one hour into our journey the steering mechanism broke, and we had to switch to a smaller car. The journey was made more austere when every three meters we swerved to avoid the potholes in the road. The roads in Russia are the worst in the world. I often see open manholes leading to underground sewers on major Russian highways.
Just after we arrived at Elhotovo’s village hall, the devotees from Vladikavkaz joined us in a small minibus (World War II vintage). I was surprised to see two policemen in the bus. I asked Acaryanidhi what they were doing there, and he explained that the police in Vladikavkaz offered the bus and two police officers to escort us to the village program. Although Acaryanidhi didn’t see any reason for them to be there, he accepted their offer, and so the devotees went in official style.
We started a harinama party and proceeded through the village. The warm reaction from the villagers was even bigger than in Vladikavkaz, as the people came out of their houses and followed us. We circled the town and brought several hundred people back to the hall to hear Govinda Maharaja’s lecture.
On the way back to Vladikavkaz, we were stopped at a police roadblock, a common occurrence in this country. One of the policemen looked at Govinda Maharaja and me and snickered. “What kind of hairstyles do they have?” he asked. “They are monks,” said Bhakta Tomas. “With their shaved heads, they look just like your forefathers.” He was referring to the ancient Cossacks who often had shaved heads with a sikha or tuft of hair on top.
The policeman’s face suddenly changed. “Tell them they are our brothers,” he said in a respectful tone.
After a long and arduous drive, we arrived back at our apartment at midnight and went to bed.