The fate of Dmitry Ugay will be decided in a Russian court of law next week. His crime? He is a yoga teacher. By day he is a computer programmer, and in his spare time he teaches yoga classes. In October, Ugay was invited to give a talk and demonstration of yoga, the philosophy behind it, and the benefits at a festival in St. Petersburg. About 40 minutes into his talk/demonstration, he was grabbed by police, put into a car and taken to the police station without being informed of the charges against him. At the police station, Ugay was told to sign a blank sheet of paper, which he refused to do. Eventually he was released, still without being informed of the charges against him. Two months later he was informed that he is charged with “illegal missionary activity”. Allegedly, three witnesses, two of whom were not at the festival, reported him to police.
Ugay says that while he is a Hindu, “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.”
Last summer, the Russian Parliament passed a series of laws called the “Yarovaya law”, named after its originator, party member Irina Yarovaya. The lower house passed the series of amendments by 325 to 1. The laws are intended to be anti-terrorism laws, however NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has lived in Russia since 2013, refers to them as the “Big Brother laws”, saying they are “unworkable, unjustifiable violation of rights” that would “take money and liberty from every Russian without improving safety”.
In addition to acceptable anti-terrorism measures, such as making it a crime to fail to report knowledge of terrorist activities, the laws step into other areas. For example, it is now illegal to protest or oppose Kremlin policies, such as their involvement in the Ukraine. A simple statement on social media that is seen as going against the policy is now punishable by up to eight years in prison, as are protests or demonstrations. Another amendment restricts missionary work to specially designated areas, and religions that are considered by the government to be traditional. The measure has drawn criticism from Muslim, Jewish and Russian Orthodox organizations.
Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director for Human Rights Watch, called it an attack on freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and the right to privacy that gives law enforcement unreasonably broad powers. “It’s very infamous provision of Soviet law they’re basically re-enacting, and it’s problematic because there’s no legal clarity,” Lokshina said of the requirement to warn authorities of crimes planned by others. “It’s clearly designed for selective implementation.”
Yoga, as defined by Wikipedia, is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India. I’m not a theologian, but I’m not sure that yoga qualifies as a religion. I have friends who do yoga and for them, it is more a form of exercise, or a method of controlling body and mind, of attaining peace of mind, albeit temporary. Even ahead of the Yarovaya Law, some cities in Russia, most notably Nizhnevartovsk, banned yoga classes, saying they could “spread new religious cults and movements.”
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”.
Technically, Russia is a democracy, but many refer to it as a highly flawed democracy, a ‘managed’ democracy, or a sovereign democracy. There is no longer a free press in Russia. In 2013 Russia ranked 148th out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders. Then in 2014, still more laws were introduced that further limited the freedom of the press.
According to Glasnost Defence Foundation, there were 9 cases of suspicious deaths of journalists in 2006, as well as 59 assaults on journalists, and 12 attacks on editorial offices. In 2005, the list of all cases included 7 deaths, 63 assaults, 12 attacks on editorial offices, 23 incidents of censorship, 42 criminal prosecutions, 11 illegal layoffs, 47 cases of detention by the military, 382 lawsuits, 233 cases of obstruction, 23 closings of editorial offices, 10 evictions, 28 confiscations of printed production, 23 cases of stopping broadcasting, 38 refusals to distribute or print production, 25 acts of intimidation, and 344 other violations of Russian journalist’s rights.
Russia may be called a ‘democracy’, but the reality is it is run as an autocracy, with Vladimir Putin, controlling the show. Donald Trump has called Putin a “great leader” and praised him for being a stronger leader than President Obama. In the last few days, Trump has indicated that he would be willing to drop U.S. sanctions against Russia, sanctions that were imposed after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, in return for favours. Putin, likewise, has praised Trump and the Russian Parliament “burst into applause” upon learning of Trump’s electoral win. Not to even mention the fact that it has been proven the Russian government was behind the hacking of the DNC last year which helped Trump’s campaign to some degree. It is obvious that Putin and Trump see benefit to a coalition of some sort.
Now, I started with yoga being banned from Russia. From there I went to Putin’s brand of ‘autocratic democracy’ (an oxymoron if ever there was one!). I concluded with the special, close ties that seem to be forming between Putin and Trump. I leave it to you to connect the dots. I hope none of my readers are partial to their yoga classes.