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Russian Yoga Instructor Becomes Unlikely Spiritual Warrior As He Fights Counterterrorism Law


Yoga teacher Dmitry Ugay (center) appears in court in St. Petersburg on January 9.
Yoga teacher Dmitry Ugay (center) appears in court in St. Petersburg on January 9.

MOSCOW -- A Russian yoga teacher has been forced into the role of spiritual warrior in the face of charges he was missionizing in violation of a controversial new law.

Computer programmer Dmitry Ugay was detained by police in St. Petersburg on October 22 while giving a talk at a festival about the philosophies behind yoga, a discipline for achieving physical and spiritual well-being.

The 44-year-old faces a fine for allegedly conducting illegal missionary activity, an administrative offense under the new Yarovaya Law, a package of legal amendments intended to fight terrorism that is named after its author, lawmaker Irina Yarovaya.

Signed by President Vladimir Putin in July, the amendments include restrictions on religious groups and missionary activity that could potentially put pressure on followers outside what the government considers "traditional" religions.

The charges against Ugay are not criminal, but observers fear that a guilty verdict in the misdemeanor case against him would set a precedent for the harassment of even yoga instructors.

Yoga has a strong following in Russia, underscored by Dmitry Medvedev's professed love for the practice. In 2007, during his first stint as prime minister, Medvedev was quoted as saying that "little by little, I'm mastering yoga." His advocacy of the practice gained him a group of supporters described as "Medvedev's Girls" who performed exercises on Red Square to promote yoga.

Ugay was detained by police officers who were reportedly acting on a complaint filed against him. Ugay says he was stopped 40 minutes into his discussion on the philosophical underpinnings of yoga, put into a car, and taken to the police station without being informed of his apparent offense.

The Meduza news portal on January 9 spoke to the complainant, Nail Nasibulin. The man accused Ugay of being a missionary monk on behalf of a local Hindu center that, he alleged, "recruits young people into the ranks of this pseudo-Hindu organization under the guise of cultural events."

He said he knew of several families that had been destroyed by this alleged recruiting. He declined to name any, although Meduza pointed to a Mir 24 news report from April 2016 in which Nasibulin said that his wife had left him for a "sect," taking their 4-year-old child with him and then filing for divorce. His sister also reportedly joined the unidentified sect.

Media Zona, another online news portal, reported that a man named Nail Nasibulin is listed as belonging to Stavros, a group of Orthodox Christian missionaries.

Yoga students in St. Petersburg (file photo)
Yoga students in St. Petersburg (file photo)

In comments to RFE/RL's Russian Service on January 8, Ugay said police at the station asked him to sign a blank piece of paper, which he refused to do. He said he was later released without being informed of the charges against him.

Two months later, Ugay said he learned that he stood accused of illegal missionary activity. He said the accusations are based on evidence from three witnesses, two of whom were not present at his talk.

Ugay identifies himself as a Hindu but denies the charges of missionary activity.

"I relied on special publications that are used in all universities where they study Indian philosophy. I did not name a single religious organization in my speech, nor did I use a single religious book, and did not name a single religious figure apart from Christ and Buddha," he said in comments to RFE/RL's Russian Service.

His court hearing in St. Petersburg began on January 9 but was adjourned until January 18, state legal news agency Rapsi reported. The agency said the court has summoned the police officer who processed Ugay's detention.

Yoga aficionados in Russia have reacted to the case with alarm. In a message on Instagram, Sati Kazanova, a famous Russian singer, actress, and TV personality, wrote:

"So for all of us who do yoga, teach yoga (I became an Atma Kriya yoga instructor last year) they can just come and place us under arrest? We've been through the era of Stalinism, we live in a country that allows its citizens freedom of thought, speech and most important belief!"

The Snob news and commentary magazine posted a disapproving story on its Twitter account: "A computer programmer from Petersburg is being accused over the Yarovaya Law. For a lecture about yoga."

Beneath the link, Snob.Ru parodied cigarette health warnings to provide warnings against yoga with messages like "Yoga can cause addiction to good moods" and "Yoga can cause a long and healthy life."

Aleksandr Verkhovsky, head of the Sova Center, which monitors the abuse of antiextremism measures, says the wording of the legislation is too vague.

"It's entirely unsurprising that police officers on the ground cannot work it out," Verkhovsky says. "Because the law exists, it is going to be implemented somehow. It cannot be implemented well because of the stupidity of the phrasing."

Verkhovsky also questions the charge of missionary activity against Ugay.

"In his case, it is not clear which religious group he was calling for [people] to join. According to the law's definition of missionary activity, it is necessary for the person conducting missionary activity to call for [people] to join some religious group," he says. "What was he calling people to join? Yoga is in no way a religious group."

In Vladivostok last month, the new legal provisions regarding missionary activity were invoked when a court authorized the destruction of 36 copies of the Bible that were confiscated from the Salvation Army. The Bibles had not been correctly labeled as religious literature in line with Yarovaya's amendments. That decision was later reversed as too harsh, but the confiscation of the texts remained in force. The Salvation Army was fined.

In August, a follower of Hare Krishna in southern Russia was charged with illegal missionary activity for telling passersby on the street about his beliefs and handing out literature. He faced a fine of up to 50,000 rubles ($820), but a court subsequently rejected the case.