Yogi accused of illegal missionary activity after giving philosophy talk at festival amid clampdown on ‘non-traditional’ religion


By: Tom Balmforth

The Guardian (12.01.2017) – – A yoga teacher in Russia has been charged with illegal missionary activity under a controversial new law designed to fight terrorism.

Computer programmer Dmitry Ugay was detained by police in St Petersburg in October while giving a talk at a festival about the philosophy behind yoga.

Ugay says he was stopped 40 minutes into his discussion, put into a car and taken to a police station without being informed of his apparent offence.

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

Ugay’s court hearing in St Petersburg has been adjourned until next week, the state legal news agency Rapsi reported.

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

Yoga has a strong following in Russia, with even the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, joining in. In 2007, during his first stint in office, Medvedev was quoted as saying that “little by little, I’m mastering yoga”.

His comments won him fans described as “Medvedev’s Girls”, who performed exercises on Red Square to promote yoga.

Police detained Ugay at the festival after he was accused of being a missionary monk by a complainant, Nail Nasibulin.

Speaking to the Meduza news portal on Monday, Nasibulin alleged that Ugay had been “[recruiting] young people into the ranks of this pseudo-Hindu organisation under the guise of cultural events”.

Speaking to reporters the same day, Ugay said officers at the police station had asked him to sign a blank piece of paper, which he refused to do. He said he was later released without being informed of any charges against him.

Two months later, Ugay said, he learned that he was accused of illegal missionary activity, based on evidence from three witnesses, two of whom had not been 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 organisation 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.

Yoga aficionados in Russia have reacted with alarm. In a message on Instagram, Sati Kazanova, a well-known singer, actor 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!”


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