Chapter 15: Faith Grows in Chechnya

Faith Grows in Chechnya

Volume 3, Chapter 15

March 02, 2001, Perm, Russia.


We caught the train from Ekaterinburg at 1.30am en route for Perm. The first thing I noticed upon entering my compartment was its unique reddish color, almost that of dark red wine. I laughed, because in an unusual way it caused me to remember Srila Prabhupada. When devotees were ordering a new Ambassador car for Srila Prabhupada in India in 1974, they asked him what color he would prefer.

He replied, “Wine color.”

I took it as my good fortune that I was riding to Perm in Srila Prabhupada’s preferred color for transport, red wine!

Instead of sleeping I decided to finish my rounds, then dozed off towards the end of the night for an hour or two. Later this morning, as we approached our destination, a Russian soldier passed Uttamasloka in the corridor and asked if he could speak to me. I agreed, and Uttamasloka brought the man into my compartment. He introduced himself as Sergeant Eugeny Gorbunov, a career soldier in a special unit of the army. A deeply religious man, he had recently come back from fighting in Chechnya and wanted to talk about how the experience had brought him closer to God. He said he rarely found anyone in the military with whom he could share his realizations. He was dressed in fatigues and had a special inscription sewn on to his clothing. When I inquired about it, he said it identified his blood type and was standard for all Russian soldiers serving their compulsory two-year term in the army. Then he opened his shirt and showed us the same information, tattooed in bold blue letters by the army on his chest! “This is for career soldiers,” he said.

From his shirt he also produced what he described as his traveling altar. It was a small, three-piece metal frame with beautiful pictures of Jesus, Mary and St Michelle. Looking at them with faith and devotion, he described how they had recently saved his life. The way he spoke, it was as if the pictures were conscious personalities. I admired him, because this is a realization I strive for in my own Deity worship. Accustomed to fighting and callous to the horrors of war, Eugeny began describing in detail a recent battle he fought in Chechnya. He was part of a convoy of 50 trucks ferrying 800 soldiers south from Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, to the Caucasus mountains where Chechen rebels have taken refuge. Along the way the convoy was ambushed by rebels and a fierce fire-fight took place.

Eugeny jumped out of his truck and took shelter behind a wheel, returning fire with his AK-47.But the well-planned ambush had him and the other soldiers pinned down, and the Chechens took full advantage. Using mortars they picked off 47 of the trucks one by one. By a miracle of God, according to Eugeny, the remaining three trucks were spared and the Chechens disappeared into the mountains. Only 45 of the 800 Russians survived. Although a committed soldier, Eugeny expressed his disgust with the war. He said that years ago he served side by side with Chechen regulars in the Russian army, and the current fighting in Chechnya is simply the business of politicians eager for power. He listened patiently as I described the law of karma, and how we are all bound by destiny – by our past pious and impious activities. When I said that the only way to become free from such reactions is to take shelter of God, he pulled out his altar and looking at it with devotion said,

“Yes, this is so.”

I felt humbled in his presence, because he seemed to have more realizations in taking shelter of God than I. I have “book knowledge,” but he’s had real-life experiences that have tested his devotion to God and brought him closer to the goal. We talked for over an hour, and when it was time for him to go we exchanged addresses so we can write to each other. As I was leaving the train he embraced me and asked me to pray for him. We had our photo taken together and decided we’d meet when I come through Russia next autumn. But he frankly told me that he was on his way back to Chechnya and didn’t know if he’d survive this time.

Arriving in Perm, we were met by devotees and whisked away to do a marriage ceremony for 11 couples. When I reminded our hosts that we hadn’t bathed yet, our driver made a detour to our apartment where we quickly showered before going to the temple.

It was the second wedding I had presided over in two days. There were many guests, and I also noticed a number of parents whose children were obviously the ones taking their wedding vows. Because the parents appeared a little uncomfortable, I assumed that many of them were visiting the temple for the first time. To put them at ease I thanked them for coming in my welcoming address, and then noted their service to their sons and daughters. I began the lecture by saying that because life is fraught with difficulties, we require all the help we can get to pass through it and make our way back to the kingdom of God. It was a logical point, and many of them nodded their heads in agreement. Then I emphasized that the first helping hand comes from our loving parents, who take on the initial burden of raising us from infants to young adults. With that they all smiled and looked around for acknowledgment. When the audience clapped and their sons and daughters smiled at them, they relaxed in their chairs and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the talk and the ceremony.

As in yesterday’s marriage ceremony, I carefully injected humor and sobriety into the program. The ladies loudly cheered and applauded when I mentioned that a woman is considered the “better half” of the marriage – because as Srila Prabhupada said, women are generally more soft hearted and inclined to religious duties. But the audience became quiet and thoughtful when I mentioned that in modern society three out of four marriages end in divorce, and therefore the couples being married must strive to make Krsna the center of the relationship (not sense gratification) to ensure their ultimate success.

As is always the case with Krsna conscious weddings, the event was festive, colorful and blissful – and very long! When it finished everyone disappeared to stretch their legs, but came running back a few minutes later when it was announced that Sri Prahlad was about to begin a kirtan. Within a few minutes Sri Prahlad had us all dancing wildly, including many of the guests. I noticed that even a few of the parents who were silent and grave at the beginning of the wedding were now dancing gleefully with their sons and daughters. Such is the power of the holy name!

“May Krsna’s holy name, which is a reservoir of all transcendental happiness, the destruction of Kali-yuga’s sins, the most purifying of all purifying things, the saintly person’s food as he traverses the path to the spiritual world, the pleasure-garden where the voices of the greatest saints, philosophers, and poets play, the life of the righteous, and the seed of the tree of religion, bring transcendental auspiciousness to you all.” [Padyavali Nama-mahatmya, Text 14]