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“Religion is a process in the heart of every believer”, – Artem Poltoratskyi

    More than two years have passed since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, which, among other things, has led to a humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people have suddenly become refugees – internal migrants who are trying to meet at least their basic needs in the face of war. Volunteers of the International Charitable Mission “Food for Life”, founded by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), were among the first who addressed these challenges. We have talked to Artem Poltoratskyi, the regional coordinator of the Food for Life project and a practitioner of Krishna Consciousness, about the activities of the ISKCON religious movement in Ukraine, the deployment of the Food for Life mission in frontline cities, the importance of supporting and helping those in need, especially during the war, and addressing public needs.

    Welcome, Artem, and thank you for coming to this interview. Tell us a little bit about yourself and the religious movement you are a part of.

    Well, my name is Artem Poltoratskyi. My spiritual name is Audarya Gauranga das. I practice Krishna Consciousness. I got involved in this field sometime in 2012, so I’ve been practicing for about 12 years. The fact that I have a spiritual name means that I was initiated by a spiritual master. What does this mean? This means that I have accepted a spiritual master and follow his instructions in accordance with our spiritual tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya, or disciplic succession. We are commonly known as Hare Krishna. Our main goal is to awaken the love for God that every person has in his or her heart. This spiritual tradition is deeply rooted in ancient times and holds a thorough knowledge of the material and spiritual worlds, and explains that God is the Supreme Personality and that we can gain insight into Him through selfless loving service. 

    This eternal spiritual knowledge is best preserved in India. In 1965, the founder Acharya of our Movement, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, feeling compassion for all people who had lost sight of their eternal life, translated the fundamental philosophical treatises of Vaishnavism into English and thus spread the knowledge of this philosophy in the West and later throughout the world by founding the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. In English, it sounds like the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON in short.

    Today, I am the regional coordinator at the Food for Life project, where we provide food to all those people in need. This project was founded by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in 1974 in America. In Ukraine, it launched in 1994. I was asked by the senior members of our Society to take on the management of this project in Kyiv even before the start of the war. Currently, I am in charge of the regions, communication with international and local donors and local governments.

    Did the Food for Life project in Ukraine start regionally in Kyiv or in another city? 

    That’s right, it all started in Kyiv. In Ukraine, the Food for Life project was founded by the Kyiv community of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and then branches were established throughout the country. We follow the principle of decentralization. In other words, legally, the regional Krishna Consciousness communities are the founders of the Food for Life project in their cities, but politically we are subordinate to the ISKCON Regional Secretary for Ukraine and Moldova. I mean, we have a spiritual and an administrative command structure. Our organization has external projects designed to take care of people. These projects are not about emphasizing that we are Hare Krishna, they are not about the proselytization, or converting people to our spiritual tradition, as this is not a tool for us to attract people. We just provide people with food and that’s it. This is our mission. It is worth noting that Food for Life, as it is known around the world, is the largest program for the distribution of vegetarian food. Generally speaking, ISKCON has two programs. One of them is designed to serve people, and the other is aimed exclusively at preaching. We hold programs in our churches, distribute books for donations on the streets, and sing devotional songs. You must have already seen our followers singing on the streets.

    Yes, that’s right. Based on your words, we can summarize that Hare Krishna has two forms of interaction with people: Food for Life and public prayer on the streets. Is there anything else, any social projects?

    Yes, there is an educational project, Kyiv Spiritual Academy of Krishna Consciousness. We also have an eco-settlement. One such settlement, where Krishna’s devotees live, is located in the village of Mahdalynivka in Dnipropetrovsk region. We have a training and Ayurvedic center there. It is quite a popular trend nowadays. We take care of the cows in our eco-settlements – we take care of them for life, we don’t kill them. Everybody is talking about Ayurveda these days. Ayurveda is translated from Sanskrit as “the science of a happy life”. So this project is very popular now, because people want answers, they ask: “Who am I? Why am I here? Why is this happening? What can I do to improve my life?” People are interested in a scientific approach. And if religion is based only on rituals, then there is nothing but sentiments. If there is only science, it will be too matter-of-factly. We have a certain synthesis of knowledge and practice. We explore this world from a scientific point of view, based on the knowledge contained in the Vedic literature, and apply this knowledge in practice. At the same time, there is also a certain philosophy, aspects of belief in the transcendence, which is beyond our perception. According to our tradition, this is where we rely on the authority of the holy sages of the past who have already traveled this path. Our philosophical basis is the Bhagavad Gita (the Song of God), which is now well known in the Western world, even among movie and music stars. Same thing goes for Srimad Bhagavatam treatise. These books are studied within the ISKCON educational projects under the guidance of spiritual masters, senior Vaisnavas. We also have training programs for married people regarding relationships and parenting to make their married life happier. We learn to be full-fledged individuals, to be helpful in serving people, in serving God. The main thing is that any of our activities should be aimed at progress in Krishna Consciousness.

    What does progress mean? This means that, first of all, a person gradually realizes that he/she is an integral part of God, that he/she has an eternal relationship with God. Unfortunately, the concept of monism often prevails among people, i.e. people mistakenly believe that they can become God themselves, which means that they will enjoy life to its full extent without any rules, they will control everyone else, and so on. Well, this is some kind of hedonistic mood. There are those who understand: “I agree that there is a God, but He is somewhere else and He is not interested in me, and I am living and breathing here.” Therefore, we explain people that this world is a manifestation of the external energy of God, God is a personality and that one can build relations with Him. Religion is not about belonging to a particular ritual tradition, but about a process in the heart of every believer. In other words, the love for God must be born inside him/her, and it must grow stronger every day. The said educational projects contribute to that. According to our tradition, every devotee who is serious about the practice of Krishna Consciousness is recommended to regularly read and study the books translated and commented on by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, as well as the books of other holy sages in our disciplic succession.

    Thank you for such an interesting story about your service and your religion. Let’s get back to the main point of our conversation. Do you remember where you were when the war started, and how did Thursday, February 24, 2022, start for you?

    That day I was in Kryvyi Rih with a preaching program. I arrived there with my wife on February 19, when a Sunday program was planned in the church in Kryvyi Rih. We stayed for a few days to spend more time with the local Krishna devotees. We planned to stay there for about a week, so the war found us in Kryvyi Rih. We had no idea what to do, but the ISKCON Regional Secretary for Ukraine and Moldova contacted us. He called me and asked where I was, what I was doing. He said that we need to find out how we can involve devotees in all the cities in the Food for Life project, that is, we have internal mobilization. Just to give you an idea, even before the war, since 2021, we have been providing 150 hot meals a day to the people in need in two local social assistance centers in Podilskyi and Shevchenkivskyi districts of Kyiv. Currently, we provide 500 meals a day in Kyiv. 

    Has such a change occurred due to the war?

    Yes. In general, if we talk about the whole territory of Ukraine, Food for Life provides six thousand hot meals a day. Today, we have about 50 distribution points across Ukraine, including cities near the frontline, such as Kharkiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv, Odesa and Dnipro. The situation in these cities is very challenging, and we are trying to provide as much hot food as possible because people need to feel well cared for. People need to feel that the community and the state take care of them somehow, so we bring hot food, and people are very grateful. There are cities where there is no water, no heating, no gas, no way to cook food, so people have difficulties with normal nutrition, but, as I experienced personally, most of all people need basic care and kindness, so that someone can heal their hearts. 

    Your activities are really important, because we need bright people to support us and give us hope in such a dark time.

    Thank you, this is our service to God. We were recently invited to the World for Ukraine International Summit in Poland. They invited us to the main stage to talk about our activities, about the motivation of our volunteers, because we do it selflessly and continuously, all the time. We do this work for free. It’s just the voice of the heart. You know, people don’t really understand when we say that this is our service. We are often asked about how we support ourselves. Where do we get our energy and inspiration? We choose words carefully. At large summits, we do not explain that we are Hare Krishna, that this is our service to God, because then not everyone can accept such a message. Some people are very religious, following their own movement, while others understand only the material aspect of life. One way or another, we share a common goal with all other denominations, with all movements, with all major religions: service to God. 

    Are all your volunteers members of the Society for Krishna Consciousness?

    Yes, they are followers of Krishna Consciousness, but there are also friends of Krishna’s devotees. One more thing that is very important is to understand why we took food as a basis. There is a well-known expression: “We are what we eat,” meaning that food has a great influence on our consciousness. That is why we cook food in a prayerful mood, because the quality of food is deeply influenced by the consciousness of the person who cooks it. This mood is transmitted to those who taste it. Therefore, only experienced devotees of God are allowed to cook food, and we can engage other volunteers at the distribution points. People who are involved in this process also feel good, their hearts are purified. 

    You give food to anyone who needs it, aren’t you? 

    That’s absolutely right. We have a slogan, and it is Vedic wisdom, that says, “Anyone who is hungry deserves to be fed.”  This is our philosophy.  We don’t have a body concept, we have no discrimination based on a person’s beliefs or social status, etc.  They can be homeless or wealthy, but if they are hungry, we will always feed them, because we don’t really give food, we give love. 

    Food for Life volunteers helped people a lot when the war started.   I remember them sharing food and water near Lviv’s central station, which became a humanitarian hub in the first days and months of the full-scale invasion, where people from all over Ukraine arrived.

    Yes, that’s true. Our volunteers helped the people in need not only in Lviv, but also in many cities in the West of Ukraine, where people migrated from the war zone and beyond. In March 2022, I was temporarily in Uzhhorod, where volunteers of the Food for Life project from Hungary were staying. Food for Life volunteers from the UK also came and helped a lot with food. We loaded trucks every week and sent them wherever we needed to send them – to Dnipro, Kyiv, Lviv, Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lutsk, and so on – just to keep feeding people. We have never had a day when we stopped doing this. We have weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, which are the days when we need physical rest and need to be filled with inspiration at programs in our churches, where we chant the holy names of God, read books, listen to lectures, and hold Sunday programs.  Everyone who wants to see the beauty of Vedic culture and amazing tradition of caring for people comes to us.

    Have you now shifted your focus to the frontline areas?

    When the situation in the western regions became stable and the flow of people decreased, we returned to our cities, where we keep serving. Currently, we have Food for Life branches in twelve cities of Ukraine, six of which are in the frontline zone.

    People who go on missions to the frontline areas put their lives on the line because of the constant shelling and bombing. Have there been any cases of serious danger to them?

    Thank you for this question. In Kherson, there was a case when the church was shelled, and there was a kitchen where we cooked. Thank God, everyone is alive. In general, we have a very balanced approach to planning our volunteers’ trips to the de-occupied cities. We have a coordination center that operates in all cities and contacts the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The military informs us about the danger, about the possibility of coming, about the number of people on site, and so on, as well as about the time when we can come. One way or another, we are always ready to go. Moreover, we have a rapid response team. It is available in Odesa, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Kyiv. What does this mean? When an emergency event occurs, i.e. shelling, we get a notification from the local administration if our support is needed. Well, according to the head of Podilskyi district of Kyiv, our support is always needed. They are counting on us when it comes to dealing with the consequences of terror. We quickly heat up the caldrons and prepare all the necessary equipment. We have frozen food, and we have a set of meals that we cook immediately and go.

    Is the church in Kherson seriously damaged?

    Yes, as far as I know, it is seriously damaged. Although I am not an expert. It is beyond repair. 

    I do sympathize with you. What thoughts, moods and attitudes do people have in your community towards a full-scale invasion, and the aggressor?  

    I cannot speak for the entire community, so I will answer for myself. Well, one way or another, even the Bhagavad Gita was narrated by God during the war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Analyzing the Bhagavad Gita, we realize that there are laws of Karma. In Christianity, these are defined as the laws of divine punishment. Punishment or Karma is the same thing, and this means that we must be accountable for our actions. I keep observing, and for me it is a tragedy that people have no idea of God at all, and some even want to shift the responsibility to God and make claims against Him: “Why did You let such terrible things happen?” However, God loves us. His love is infinite. Once we chose to exist separately from God, so He created this material world which has its own laws. These are the laws of Karma and reincarnation, i.e. the laws of cause and effect. We are accountable for our actions and omissions. War is a great tragedy, it is unacceptable, and it is a great pain.  However, we, our society and the state, need to elevate our consciousness. It is very important. We must implement the principles of a civilized person in our everyday lives. After all, we need to minimize animal killing, which is happening every minute. The entire cruel industry operates just to satisfy people’s appetites.  According to the laws of Karma, violence begets violence. 

    It is important to take care of one’s consciousness. I do not support the war, I also depend on the circumstances. I stay in Kyiv, where I constantly hear explosions, feel worried about my loved ones, and don’t know what will happen to me and my family the next minute. I sympathize with the suffering of people, but at the same time I realize that this war is an inevitable consequence of our sinful actions. Wars will always break out because people have turned away from God, because we develop our own artificial standards of life that contradict the standards of a civilized society of people who live with God. 

    Looking back at history, we can see that wars happen all the time. Why? Because people do not follow God’s laws. There are laws that we have to follow in order to live this life in peace in a way that does not cause suffering to anyone. I am glad that during the war Ukrainian society changed a lot, we started to care more about each other. But why did we need these external factors, and all that pain? We needed them to finally realize that here in Ukraine we are brothers and sisters to each other… Why? Because there is no spiritual education, and this is a great problem. There is education intended only to be able to make good money for sensual pleasures, but we were not taught anything about culture, the right value system, the way to build relationships. 

    Let’s get back to the matter in hand. I am sure that to win this war, we need to believe in victory. Isn’t that right? If there is no belief in victory, we will not win the war. The same goes for our understanding of God, we must have faith. One needs to have at least an initial level of trust in the scriptures, in holiness. Trust is a step towards at least some kind of balanced faith, and we have to move in this direction.

    That’s a thoughtful insights, and I agree with you.

    I would also like to say that I heard this question about the attitude to the war 14 years ago. My friends in Kryvyi Rih, where I come from, asked me: “Why did this happen? What do Krishna’s devotees think about war?” And what do we think? War is a great tragedy, but we stand up and serve people. This is what we think about it. The war goes on, but we do not stop. We have been doing this since 1994. We provided food for people before the war, at the beginning of the war in 2014 we sent aid and visited Donetsk region as often as possible. We supported people from Donetsk region who moved to other cities. We are also involved in the process during a full-scale war. When the war is over, we will keep caring for people. This program is ongoing, because there are always people to take care of. We do not take up arms as this is our philosophy. According to the Constitution of Ukraine and the Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers on alternative (non-military) service, the Society of Krishna Consciousness is on the list of organizations whose followers do not take up arms because they follow the principles of nonviolence. Nevertheless, we are involved in a common goal.

    What is alternative (non-military) service?

    We are already serving. We are already well-known and well-recognized. When we are stopped at checkpoints in Kyiv, they see that we are Food for Life volunteers, and there are no problems. We support people by investing our relations and energy to bring love and warmth to the hearts of all those in need.

    Did the number of people in your community, followers of the Society for Krishna Consciousness, increase during the war? I mean not just friends, as you said, but devotees? 

    At the start of the war, many of our members moved across the world, and I’m sorry to say that many of my friends have left, and some of them have no plans to return to Ukraine. At the same time, I am happy to see that many new people attend our Sunday programs in churches. The altar room always looks full of people, many new people have come, those who are serious practitioners. Little by little, people are initiated and become even more involved in the service. We have calculated that by the end of 2023, we had provided 2 million 200 thousand meals. It would be impossible if only initiated members of the Society could do this, so we involve volunteers. People who want to get involved in volunteering come to us. It happens that later some of them, while working with Krishna’s devotees, are inspired by our philosophy and get a desire to gain Vedic knowledge and practice Krishna Consciousness. For instance, today I got two volunteer applications in Kyiv. Please try to understand that a wonderful thing is happening – God lacks for nothing, neither money nor food, because it is all His energy. If we want to use these energies in the service to God, He will give us both money and people. So I would say that there is no shortage. 

    It’s great that you unite people for such a great goal. 

    The only thing I would like to emphasize is that we, the Krishna Consciousness Movement, want our volunteers or those who join us from the outside to also develop a high level of social consciousness and social responsibility. I mean, they should become full-fledged citizens for the state, involved in all processes, and they should become concerned.

    They should become involved in the process. 

    Involved and connected. It is essential to be connected to one of the authoritative spiritual traditions in order to be under proper guidance and avoid acting capriciously and arbitrarily. You know, it happens that someone announces to his family: “I’m done. I’m going to the church to serve. Goodbye.” Well, you already have a family, so serve them. True service to God starts with serving one’s family and friends, and one must first build relationships with them so that they are happy. One has to become the best version of oneself for one’s wife and children. That’s a great deal of work.

    Moreover, now we all, believers of all religions, need prayer to overcome the enemy from the outside, as well as in our hearts.

    It’s a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for this interview. You are very inspiring person. 

    The pleasure is mine. I am also inspired by our interview. Thank you for taking the time to share the thoughts of believers who have dedicated their lives to serving people and God.

    The interviewer:  Uliana Sevastianiv

    The conversation was recorded on March 2, 2024

    The interview was a part of the project “Religion on Fire: Documenting Russia’s War Crimes against Religious Communities in Ukraine”, implemented by the NGO “Workshop of Academic Religious Studies” with the support of “Documenting Ukraine”, a project of the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna.