Is Yoga a Crime in Petersburg?

Dmitry Ugay. Still image courtesy of
Dmitry Ugay. Still image courtesy of

Persecuted for Yoga
An article by Dmitry Ugay, a follower of Vaishnavism who has studied and practiced the ancient science of reality for many years
Hare Krishna in Novgorod the Great
January 2, 2016

On December 1,  2016, the Indian philosophy of yoga was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Culture of Humanity. A bit earlier, on October 22, 2016, I gave a lecture entitled “Varieties of Yoga” and was also written up—on a misdemeanor charge for violating the so-called Yarovaya Law. I was charged with engaging in missionary work, a charge of which I am innocent. I was not even allowed to familiarize myself with the charge sheet. I am concerned by the complete lawlessness of the incident, which could result in the persecution of my many fellow citizens who practice yoga and study Indian philosophy, completely unaware of the possible dangers.

There was recently a wild discussion on Facebook of an article by the Indian national Prasun Prakash, who was pelted with foul accusations and insulted. Later, an attempt was made to break into the Center for Promoting the Preservation and Development of Indian Culture, founded by his father. It is amazing that people are being persecuted for work that even the most subtle interpretations could construe as missionary work. People are being persecuted for practicing yoga, a culture whose history dates back several thousand years, for yoga, who beneficial health effects have been confirmed by a myriad of medical studies. Even in the Soviet Union, popular science films about yoga were shot and publicly screened.  The Soviet science fiction writer Ivan Yefremov wrote about yoga, and it was taught to Soviet cosmonauts as part of their physical training. Carl Jung wrote about yoga’s serious therapeutic value, and over 250 million people worldwide practice yoga seriously. In a word, there are signs that a campaign against an entire culture has been unleashed, a campaign against one of humanity’s supreme achievements, a very nasty xenophobic campaign not only against yoga, but against India, its traditions, and its people.

I had been invited to given a lecture on the varieties of yoga at the Veda Life Festival on October 22, 2016, at Loft Project ETAGI in Saint Petersburg. The audience consisted of neophytes, many of whom would be hearing about Indian philosophy for the first time. I tried to make the lecture as simple as possible. Nowadays, yoga is seen mostly as a means of wellness. The general public knows nothing about the worldview on which yoga is based, on its high ethical and spiritual standards. So I emphasized the philosophy and ethic of yoga. In my lecture, I talked about the fundamentals, the things one might here in classes on comparative religion and eastern philosophy at liberal arts universities in Russia. True, I had to make some effort to do this, because I had shout over the loud music playing next to me on the stage.

I was interrupted after about forty minutes. The audience was visibly agitated. I didn’t immediately understand what the matter was, noticing only later that police officers had entered the room. Two officers came up to me, one in uniform, the other in plain clothes. As I learned later, there was a total of six or seven officers. The others went to inspect the other events at the festival, checking people’s papers, looking for the organizers, and acting nervously when people took pictures of them, officers of the law at a public event.

They asked me rather rudely to go with them. Initially, they wanted to lead me out of the building without letting me put my coat on. They behaved rudely and cheekily in a calculated attempt to intimidate me and keep me from coming to my senses. Fortunately, Sergei, a professional attorney who was attending the festival, turned up in the audience. He forced the police to let me put on my coat. He persistently asked the officers whether I was officially under arrest or not, but the officers kept mum. They were trying to spirit me out of the building quickly, but the lawyer was clearly putting a spanner in their works. He asked them to draw up an arrest sheet. He asked them to show us their IDs. He insisted he intended to act as my advocate and demanded that I be allowed to write up a power of attorney in his name.

The police officers silently ignored all these legitimate requests and forcibly dragged me to the exit, where a car was parked. Resisting the police meant giving them grounds for yet another charge, in this case a completely real charge, so I had to obey. Outside, yet another uniformed officer joined us.  Sergei threatened to call the prosecutor’s office directly. One of the officers finally produced an ID: Arsen Magomedovich Magomedov, a detective with the 76th Investigative Division. I was pushed into a police car. The police gave Sergei the brush-off, and he and my friends set off after us in a cab.

I was taken to the 76th police precinct on Ligovsky. Sergei telephoned and asked what shape I was in. I remember that the police detectives laughed. They asked whether I understood that I would be put on trial, and that the judge would ask me unpleasant questions. They persuaded me to sign a statement they had written up beforehand They said if I signed, I would go home peacefully, but if I didn’t, they would put me behind bars for 48 hours: they had the right to do it.

Sergei had warned me that under no circumstances should I sign anything. Following his instructions, I refused to sign, invoking my right not to testify against myself under Article 51 of the Russian Constitution. They wrote down that I had refused to sign the statement and threatened to take me to court. I replied that, as officers of the law, they could perform their professional duties. A beat cop asked whether I understood that I was engaged in illegal missionary work, and what lay in store for me.

It was the height of absurdity. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Mircea Eliade had no idea that a simple recounting of their world-renowned academic works would be dubbed missionary work and sectarian preaching. In keeping with this rationale, any lecture on Indian philosophy at any university could be dubbed missionary work. But I was merely discussing how the various yogas imagined the law of karma and the way of liberation. Hundreds of similar lectures are given annually to students in different university departments. They form the basis for course exams and honor’s theses.  How would this mass of students feel were they to learn that they are now illegal missionaries? The level of nonsense has clearly gone off the scale.

At the precinct, there was a rather educated looking man among the officers. I don’t remember whether he was in uniform or not. He asked what my religious views were, how I viewed Russian Orthodoxy, whether I had a spiritual name, and whether I lived at home or the temple. I could not understand at all what this had to do with my case. I replied that I believed in Krishna, but in this instance it was completely irrelevant. It was my profoundly personal affair whether I believed in Krishna, Buddha, Cthulhu or a pasta monster. My lecture had not been about that. Besides, worshiping God was one variety of yoga, namely, Bhakti yoga.  Hearing an unfamiliar concept, the officer left me alone.

Then I was asked where I worked. I replied that I worked as a web programmer. They asked for and took my internal passport. I sat down on a bench in the waiting room along with other detainees.

Two hours later, a detective came for me. He sat down at a desk and wrote something with an intimidating look on his face.  Right then, Sergei called again. He told me to telephone the prosecutor’s office and file an oral complaint against the actions of the police detectives, because they were obliged to draw up a charge sheet and release me. They did not have the right to detain me. He texted me the on-duty number at the prosecutor’s office.

The detective said I had the right to make only one phone call (just like in American films about dangerous criminals!) and ordered me to switch off my phone, threatening me with force if I didn’t. I turned my phone off. Then he gave me a blank sheet of paper and said I had two options. I could go on denying everything and then I would spend a minimum of 48 hours behind bars here. He would lock me up in a cell, and then I would go to court. Or I could write out handwritten promise to report to the precinct on such-and-such a date and sign it, and I would be released immediately. I said I would not sign a blank piece of paper.

“Are you a moron?” the detective asked.

“Call me what you like,” I replied.

He left. I stayed in the waiting room. A woman who was not let out to use the toilet was wailing and cursing in the holding cell. Other police officers came and went, dealing with the current crop of detainees. Crates filled with fruit and peppers stood in the corner: a woman had been detained for selling them. She poured grapes into plastic bags and very humbly handed them over to the police officers. She was released, but her crates were left behind. Someone  else had been detained for not registering his car, while another man had been brought in for swearing in an Okay grocery store. The female desk sergeant quarreled with the women in the holding cell and the detainees, swearing at them.

I had been sitting there for a fairly long time. Three detainees had already been released from the front desk area. One of the detectives came in and asked the desk sergeant for the papers “on the Hare Krishna,” grabbed them, and left.

I went to the toilet. There were double doors in there without latches. I finally turned on my phone and called my friends. They had been scrambling on my behalf. They called me down and said I would be released soon. Soon after, the desk sergeant did in fact say I was free to go.

“And my passport? My passport was confiscated,” I asked.

She expressed surprised and walked out of the room. Ten minutes later, she gave me back my passport.

I headed out of the building. Passing a bored officer, I asked for a copy of my arrest sheet. He looked at me as if I were an imbecile and said I wasn’t supposed to get a copy.  Really? What about procedure?

There was nothing I could do, so I left the building. I hugged my friends and got into their car. We headed home.

Later, I learned that my case had been sent back by the judge due to multiple procedural violations and the lack of corpus delicti. The arrest sheet in the case file had been filled out extremely clumsily. I also found out that, two months later, the old arrest sheet had been destroyed and a new one  drawn up that took into account the judge’s criticisms. The judge admitted this arrest sheet into evidence, along with a charge sheet filed several days (!) before my lecture. The case file also included the testimony of two fake witnesses, two women, one of whom had not even my lecture. All this time I sense what Sartre meant by the phrase “being under the gaze” and the saying “We were born to make Kafka a reality.” I hadn’t studied philosophy under Valery Sagatovsky in grad school for nothing. He had been depressed by the state of affairs in Russia. Unfortunately, now, several years after his death, the situation is even more alarming and uncertain.

Indian philosophy has greatly enriched Russian culture. The impact of Indian though on the Russian Silver Age was huge.  The complete academic translation of the Mahabharata was published in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, an edition that required titanic efforts on the part of the editors and commentators. Numerous works by classic Indian thinkers, writers, and poets have been published. And who can imagine Russian today without the Indian cinema? Without Indian dance? Without yoga? Without vegetarian food? Is this Russia coming to an end?

P.S. I seek the help of religious studies scholars, lawyers, civil rights activists, reporters, and anyone who could help out by publishing this article in print and online publications or read the transcript of the lecture and confirm, as experts, that it contains no signs of missionary work.

Dmitry Ugay, “Varieties of Yoga” (lecture), Loft Project ETAGI, Petersburg, October 22, 2016

Also, if possible, you can support me by mentioning my court hearing in your publications, blogs, and social network pages. This will help avoid such incidents in the future. The hearing takes place at 3:10 p.m on January 9, 2017, in Saint Petersburg at 26 Fourth Soviet Street, Room 11, Section 211 (near Ploshchad Vosstaniya subway station).

With respect and gratitude,


UPDATE. A Petersburg court threw out the case againt Mr. Ugay on Wednesday, January 18, 2016.


E.M. Maha-Balarama Prabhu, “The Law on Missionary Work: A Survival Guide,” July 10, 2016, Moscow (in Russian)