A Short History of Yoga in the USSR

Sergey Pakhomov

There is a huge empirical material on the topic of the history of yoga in the USSR, i. e. memories of contemporaries, photographic and film documents, various articles, and books. However, it has not yet become a subject of serious scientific analysis, despite its relevance: Yoga is extremely popular in various countries of the former Soviet Union, and many of the actual teachers, experts in yoga, and many schools appeared in the Soviet era (mainly towards the end of it) or were connected with this era by genetic ties.

I restrict myself to outline the most important “yogic events,” as well as to show the conceptual framework of understanding yoga in the Soviet Union. Beyond my review will be Buddhist yoga in the USSR, as well as different forms of confessional yoga such as Vaishnava bhakti-yoga. I will consider mainly the mainstream of Soviet yoga. It should be noted that the sources about the history of yoga in the Soviet period are quite uneven. Thus, the period of the 1920s–1940s has been very poorly documented, while there is rich material about yoga in the 1980s. Information about yoga came into the USSR primarily from the West (very seldom from India itself). Yoga in the USSR was outside of its historical homeland, outside of distinctive religious and philosophical foundations, almost no one who had practiced yoga knew Indian languages; yoga usually functioned as a part of a broader set of, say, cold hardening practices, physical training, gymnastics, and so on. Very few people could do yoga professionally.

Although this post focuses only on yoga in the Soviet period, it seems obvious that yoga existed in Russia earlier, and in many ways, the image, which was accepted in the pre-Soviet era, determined also the attitude and perception of it in later times.

 

In the history of Soviet yoga six different periods of unequal length can be distinguished.

1922–1930: Pre-revolutionary yoga, which was very fashionable, gradually disappeared.

1930–1953: Yoga was almost absent in the country. Only rare, single cases of yogic practice have been documented. In this period the samizdat, i. e. self-publishing, appears, including a yogic one.

1953–1960: Cases of documented yoga-practices were still rare and singled out. Yoga was publicly criticized, but there was no physical persecution anymore. The first large-scale attempt to popularize yoga (by Ivan Evteev-Volsky) dates back to this period. More yogic-samizdat writings have appeared.

The 1960s: The interest in yoga increased in Soviet society. The first official article on the subject appeared in the press. For the first time, an Indian guru (Dhirendra Brahmachari) visited the USSR. The first schools of “Neoyoga” appeared. And the first certified yoga instructor (Zubkov) began to popularize yoga.

1970–1988: The popularization of yoga; professional yogis appeared, especially after the documentary Indian yogis: Who are they? (1970) was screened. Health groups, sports clubs, and public round table discussions were organized, together with numerous articles and books in print. There were attempts to mildly persecute yoga: In 1973, it was prohibited.

1988–1991: The golden age of Soviet yoga. Political problems with yoga had been suspended; there was an explosion of yoga. Large international conferences were held: Foreign specialists arrived, including B. K. S. Iyengar. In 1989, the Association of Yoga in the USSR was founded.

The development of yoga in the USSR went largely parallel to its history in the West, from where it came to the Soviet Union. The same authors who were popular in the Western world were in demand also in pre-revolutionary Russia. First of all, there were Swami Vivekananda and Yogi Ramacharaka (William Atkinson), whose books were translated into Russian before 1917 and who gained a large audience in Russia (see, for example, Vivekananda 1911; Ramacharaka 1914; 1916).

The position of yoga in the USSR from early on was the same as any other worldview and practice, which did not fit into the official ideology. This was a matter for every religious dogma or movement, including Western esotericism. During the first years after the revolution, some isolated groups of adherents of esotericism and Eastern spirituality were still active. Books by Ramacharaka, Vivekananda, Sedir, etc., and theosophical literature, published shortly before the October Revolution, did not disappear at once. For example, yoga was incorporated into the educational system of Konstantin Stanislavsky, the great Russian theater director, who had read books by Ramacharaka attentively and used them in his training program for actors (Cherkassky 2009).

After the gradual decline of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the late 1920s, the ideological situation in the country deteriorated, and these changes affected yoga.  Stanislavsky himself did not use the term “yoga” in his writings anymore since this period, because he had to fear repression as well (Cherkassky 2009, 282–283). Yoga gradually disappeared, and seemed to have gone into oblivion, texts related to yoga were not published anymore. Although practicing yoga was not officially forbidden, the general situation in the country was unfavorable to it. The (geo-)political situation in the 1930s and the 1940s only supported this trend. In a country where political control and repression were omnipresent, open yoga classes were impossible. Single enthusiasts like Ivan Yevteev-Volsky were exceptions to this sad situation. Different from the pre-revolutionary encyclopedias, i. e. the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary and the Granat Encyclopedic Dictionary (Bulich 1894; P. R. 1914), the first edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, published in the 1930s, contains no article on yoga.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, yoga slowly reappeared, although there were no organized groups, only solitary adherents engaged in yoga in order to improve their health. For them, Yogi Ramacharaka remained the main authority. However, information about yoga was gradually increasing thanks to the emergence of translated histories of Indian philosophy, such as those by S. Radhakrishnan (1956–1957), S. Chatterjee & D. Datta (1955), M. Roy (1958). The first Soviet edition of the Bhagavad Gita, translated by Boris L. Smirnov, was published in 1956 (Bhagavadgita 1956). In the preface to this translation, Smirnov writes a lot about yoga, correlating its practices with modern medicine and focusing mainly on the description of asanas in the interpretation of the contemporary Indian yogi Swami Kuvalayananda (Arkhipov 2012, 272).

At the end of the 1950s, the magazine Knowledge is Power (Russian: Знание – сила) published an article on yoga by Ivan Yevteev-Volsky (Yevteev-Volsky 1958). His author was a unique person who at 60 years of age (in 1941) began practicing yoga and significantly improved his health. He first presented a set of yogic exercises. For him, the idol also was Ramacharaka. In 1960, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya’s famous disciple Indra Devi came to Moscow, where she met with several high-ranking Soviet officials (Anastas Mikoyan, Alexei Kosygin, Anatoly Gromyko) at a reception in the Kremlin. Her visit was organized by the Indian ambassador, but it remained unnoticed by the press and the general public. Nothing followed from this visit (Klevalina 2010).

The authorities regarded yoga with suspicion. While its philosophical and religious foundations were completely swept aside, the contribution of yoga to human enhancement was partly accepted and seen as compatible with modern scientific data.

Anatoliy Zubkov, 1990
© A. N. Zubkov’s personal archive

The 1960s were characterized by the first appearance of yoga professionals, who actively popularized yoga. The one who had a most unique experience was Anatoly Zubkov, who during his four-year official journey to Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh) in 1963–1967 had studied yoga under the guidance of a guru from the Swami Sivananda’s tradition (Kukalev & Zubkova web.). He even received a certificate giving him the right to heal with yoga and to teach yoga. Almost until the end of the USSR, he was the only certified yoga instructor, who had studied with an Indian (ibid.). Indian gurus were absent in the USSR. This period is also interesting by the appearance of a “new”, i. e. modernized, a form of Hatha Yoga from schools by Krishnamacharya, Brahmachari, Shivananda. This new yoga was superimposed on the yoga practiced before (Ramacharaka-yoga) and gradually came to replace it.

The consolidation of Soviet-Indian relations in various fields of politics and economy in the 1950s started a new wave of interest in yoga. In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, paid an official visit to India. In the following year, the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi visited the USSR. Yury Gagarin and Leonid Brezhnev, too, went to India in 1961; and in 1964, Indian President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan visited the Soviet Union. Interest in Indian culture, fostered by the government, was met by a vital interest in Russian literature in India. In this period, the attitude of Soviet authorities toward yoga was still restrained, but not hostile. Yoga was considered to be incompatible with the spirit of building communism. The science-fiction writer Ivan Efremov expressed criticism with this position in his novel Razor’s Edge (Russian: Лезвие бритвы) (Efremov 1964). It expressed the hope that Soviet scientific materialism would be compatible with the positive achievements of Indian yogis and introduced a lot of information about an amazingly wide spectrum of different yoga schools and traditions. However, in the 2nd edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, which was published in the 1960s, articles on yoga were still not allowed to be published.

A scene from the documentary Indian yogis: Who are they? © Kievnauchfilm, 1970

A second significant influence on the development of yoga came from the writings of Vassily Brodov (1912–1997), a Soviet orientalist and expert on Indian philosophy. Since the 1960s he had been secretly practicing yoga in order to restore his failing health. His article “The Doctrine of Indian Yogis Concerning Human Health in the Light of Modern Science” (1962) (Brodov & Sukharebsky 1962) represented the first official attitude, although even this was in disguise. Yoga was mainly treated in a critical way against the background of a significant superiority of Soviet scientific communism to the mystical idealism of yogis. Brodov is also explicitly critical about Yevteev-Volsky’s earlier articles, calling them “nonsense”.

Slava Kurilov
© Elena Gendeleva-Kurilova

Although Soviet authorities demonstrated their ideological rejection of yoga, their politics were contradictory. There were, at the same time, attempts to use yogis’ developments for economic needs and health training for technological advantages in the space industry. For this secret task, the famous guru Dhirendra Brahmachari arrived in Moscow in the early 1960s and held several lessons for Soviet cosmonauts. He also organized a yoga club, in which Brodov was included. Other clubs would follow. In the late 1960s, there was a new wave of interest in yoga. In the Rural Youth (Russian: Сельская молодежь) magazine yoga popularizer Anatoly Zubkov published a series of articles, which caused a boom of enthusiastic readers’ letters from all over the country (Kukalev and Zubkova web.). Zubkov took advantage of this interest and wrote the screenplay for the documentary Indian yogis: Who are they?, which was directed by Almar Serebrennikov and shot in Kyiv in 1970. It was the first film on yoga in the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that the philosophy of yoga was condemned for its mystical implications (Arkhipov 2012, 272), the release of the film on TV screen caused a great wave of interest among spectators, and in 1972, a round-table discussion was organized by the popular Literary Newspaper (Russian: Литературная газета) (Boyko), in which authoritative medical experts expressed various opinions against and in favor of yoga.

Alexey Katkov (1949–1987)

The authorities seemed to take the great popularity of yoga as a failure of their strategy to debunk “yogic mysticism” in that documentary. They went to take extreme measures. On January 24, 1973, the Committee for Physical Culture and Sports under the USSR Council of Ministers issued a decree prohibiting the promotion and dissemination of yoga and karate, bodybuilding, women’s football, and for some reason, the card game of bridge. The title of this document is “Certain facts concerning the improper development of certain types of physical exercise and sport” (Makarov 2011, 46). The reason was given that these exercises are not contributing to the harmonious development of man and do not conform to the ideological orientation of the Soviet system of physical education. Yoga was called a “Trojan horse of Indian idealism”. However, by then, this prohibition couldn’t stop the engagement of the Soviet people in yoga anymore. They continued to do what they liked in the semi-underground. “Competent authorities” periodically dispersed these groups, seized their samizdat literature, conducted educational talks, but, by and large, the persecution was soft enough and no yogi was arrested for practicing yoga. But nevertheless, there were lawsuits against them. In particular, “for disseminating fabrications defaming the Soviet system” (article 190-1 of the Russian Criminal Code), the famous Leningrad yogi Anatoly Ivanov suffered in 1977. He spent three years in a prison camp (ibid., 47–49). But even then, he was not judged explicitly for yoga. Almost a decade later in the Perestroika period, shortly before the annulation of the prohibition, the head of a large yogic school, Arkady Greenblatt, was arrested in Moscow in 1986. However, he was accused not of practicing yoga, but of making a profit out of his classes. Three years later he was released, but in the West, he was still seen as a victim of the state regime.

Another unique case of a confrontation of a yogi with the state system was the oceanologist Stanislav Kurilov (1936–1998), who ran off from the cruise ship “Soviet Union” in December 1974, eager to break through to the West. He swam about 100 km to Siargao Island (Philippines) for three days, without food and water. He owed his success to yoga, which he practiced intensively at that time (Kurilov 2019).

The suspicion the authorities expressed toward yoga can also be explained by the fact that yoga classes were often taught by incompetent people based on bad translations, and some Soviet people have been badly injured as a result.

By the 1970s–1980s, there was a lot of information available on yoga. There was, for example, the article Yoga (1973) in the third edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, written by Alexander Pyatigorsky and David Zilberman (Pyatigorsky and Zilberman 1972). It was devoid of the Marxist attributes and quite intelligible at the time. Other articles appeared in popular science magazines, and in 1982, Victor Vereshchagin’s book The Physical Culture of Indian Yogis (Vereshchagin 1982) was published in Minsk, celebrated as another significant breakthrough. This was the first book published on yoga in the Soviet Union. The author treats yoga devoid of any religious and philosophical dimensions, but exclusively as a recreational practice, aiming at “open[ing] the hidden physical and mental reserves of the human body, the mastery of which is not available through other means of training” (ibid., 9).

B. K. S. Iyengar’s presentation in Moscow, 1989

In the 1970s scattered yoga groups spread especially in Moscow, but also across the country, were organized as health or sports clubs, such as Yan Koltunov’s club “Cosmos” in Moscow. Some of the most influential teachers of the yoga of that time were Igor Poltavtsev, Grigory Statsenko, Yan Koltunov, Anatoly Zubkov, and Victor Boyko. Scholarly research on yoga also continued, often conducted within the secret Soviet laboratories. The physiologist Alexey Katkov studied yoga in extreme conditions. Unfortunately, he died during the performance of an experiment and froze on Elbrus in 1987 (Menzel 2011, 167). By the end of the 1980s, yoga’s popularity in the USSR greatly accelerated. The public mood was in favor of the yoga community. A new chapter in the history of yoga began when, in 1988, the “Physical culture and sport” magazine arranged a round-table discussion about the uses of yoga, including Brodov, Zubkov, and other scientists (Boyko). The vast majority of opinions about yoga were positive. At the end of the same year, the Center of Nonconventional Methods of Recovery at the Central Research Institute of Biomedical Problems of the USSR State Committee was founded, presided by Yury Belous, with a yoga section led by Lev Teternikov. The first legal seminar on yoga was held in May 1989 in Dagomys (Black Sea region) on “Yoga and Health” with more than 100 participants (ibid.).

Another pivotal event of 1989 was the First All-Union Scientific and Practical Conference on “Yoga: The problem of healing and self-development of man” (ibid.) in Moscow (October 19–21, 1989). Among the 700 participants, there were also many foreigners. For the first time, Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar came to the Soviet Union, and he was received as a star. Among other notorious guests were Angela and Victor Farmer. During this conference, the Association of Yoga in the USSR was founded, headed by Brodov. Although this Association quietly ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, another conference (the second and the last) was held in December 1990. During the flourishing period of Soviet yoga right before the collapse of the Soviet Union, many editions of manuals, numerous books, articles, and magazines on yoga were published. Foreign, in particular American, experts on yoga visited Russia even more frequently, yoga lessons were broadcasted (i. e., Faeq Biria), and yoga finally became a widespread pursuit. Interest in yoga continued to increase after the collapse of the Soviet Union when it remained in fashion both in Russia and in other post-Soviet countries.

References

{Arkhipov} Архипов, Владимир В. “Йога в России [Yoga in Russia].” Вестник РГГУ [Herald of the RSUH] (2012): 272–277.

{Bhagavad Gita} Бхагавадгита. Перевод, вводная статья и словарь Б. Л. Смирнова [The Bhagavad Gita. Translation, Introductory Article, and Glossary by B. L. Smirnov]. Ашхабад: Издательство Академии Наук ТССР, 1956.

{Boyko} Бойко, Виктор. “Страницы истории. Развитие йоги в СССР [Pages of History. The Development of Yoga in the USSR].” Accessed February 21, 2020. http://www.yogavstrecha.ru/st/boyko2.htm.

{Brodov & Sukharebskii} Бродов, Василий В. и Лазарь М. Сухаребский. “Учение индийских йогов о здоровье человека в свете современной науки [The Doctrine of Indian Yogis Concerning Human Health in the Light of Modern Science].” Философские вопросы медицины [Philosophical Medical Questions] (1962). Accessed February 20, 2020. http://www.yogavstrecha.ru/st/brodov.htm.

{Bulich} Булич, С. “Йога [Yoga]”. In Энциклопедический словарь Брокгауза и Ефрона. Том XIIIa, 724. Санкт-Петербург: АО «Ф. А. Брокгауз – И. А. Ефрон» 1894.

Chatterjee, Satishchandra and Dhirendramohan Datta. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Kolkata: University of Calcutta, 1954.

{Cherkassky} Черкасский, Сергей Д. “Станиславский и йога: опыть параллельного чтения [Stanislavsky and Yoga: An Experience of Parallel Reading].” Вопросы театра [Theater subjects] (2009): 282–300.

{Efremov} Ефремов, Иван А. Лезвие бритвы [Razor’s Edge]. Москва: Молодая гвардия, 1964.

{Klevalina} Клевалина, Наталия. “Поставившая мир на голову [The Woman who Turned the World Upside Down].” Вокруг света [Around the World] 10 (October, 2010): 208-221.

{Kukalev; Zubkova} Кукалев, Сергей В. и Роза В. Зубкова. Анатолий Николаевич Зубков – история успеха [Anatolii Nikolaevich Zubkov A History of Success]. Accessed February 20, 2020. http://yogaway.spb.ru/bio.html.

{Kurilov} Курилов, Станислав В. Один в океане [The One in the Ocean] 5 ed. Moskva: Vremya, 2019.

{Makarov} Макаров, Aлексей. “Преследования преподавателей йоги в Советском Союзе” [The Persecutions of Yoga Teachers in the Soviet Union]. In Acta Samizdatica. Альманах. Москва: ГПИБ России (2012): 46–53.

Menzel, Birgit. “Occult and Esoteric Movements in Russia from the 1960s to the 1980s”. In The New Age of Russia. Occult and Esoteric Dimensions, ed. by B. Menzel, M. Hagemeister, B. G. Rosenthal, 151–185. München / Berlin: Otto Sagner, 2011.

P. R. “Йога [Yoga]”. In Энциклопедический словарь Гранат, том XXII, 648. Москва: Братья Гранат, 1914.

{Pyatigorsky; Zilberman} Пятигорский, Aлександр M. и Давид Б Зильберман. “Йога [Yoga]”. In Большая советская энциклопедия, том 11. Москва: Советская энциклопедия, 1972.

{Radhakrishnan} Радхакришнан, Сарвепалли. Индийская философия [Indian Philosophy]. Пер. с англ. Москва: Иностранная литература, 1956–1957.

{Ramacharaka} Рамачарака. Жнани-йога [Gnani Yoga], пер. с англ. Санкт Петербург: М. Г. Корнфельд, 1914.

{Ramacharaka} Рамачарака. Наука о дыхании индийских йогов [Science of Breath. Indian Yogis], пер. с англ., 3rd ed. Петроград: Новый человек, 1916.

{Roy} Рой, Mоноронджон. История индийской философии [The History of Indian Philosophy], пер. с англ. Москва: Иностранная литература, 1958.

{Vereshchagin} Верещагин, Виктор Г. Физическая культура индийских йогов [The Physical Culture of Indian Yogis]. Minsk: Polymya, 1982.

{Vivekananda} Вивекананда, Свами. Философия Йоги [The Philosophy of Yoga], пер. с англ. Сосница, 1911.

{Yevteev-Volsky} Евтеев-Вольский, Иван. “Я занимаюсь по системе йогов [I practice the Yoga System]”. Знание – Сила [Knowledge is Power] 5 (1958): 15–16.

Documentary:

Индийские йоги – кто они? [Indian Yogis: Who are They?], produced by Almar Serebrennikov. 50 min. Accessed February 21, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0L4Gcu5U62A.

Cite this article as: Sergey Pakhomov, “A Short History of Yoga in the USSR”, in New Age in Russia, 29/02/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/3407

The editors do not assume responsibility for the content of this blogpost, including the author-provided photographs.


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