Who are yogis? Twenty years ago the answer to this quesion sounded something like this: “Indian herments and fringe elements who can sleep on beds of nails, tie themselves into knots and stand on their heads”. But today yoga is popular among trendy Russian youth. No fashionable fitness club in Moscow or other major cities can do without a yoga instructor, and one may even find queues for yoga mats at sport shops.
Prohibited during the Soviet times, yoga is becoming more popular in Russia. In Moscow and St. Petersburg alone, according to the publisher of the Russian version of “Yoga Journal”, there are at least 100,000 people who practice yoga regularly. Among them is even President Dmitry Medvedev! Having told Tainy Zvyozd (Secrets of the Stars) magazine that he can even do a headstand (shirshasana), Mr Medvedev stirred up a surge of enthusiasm both among long-time yoga fans and neophytes who decided to commit to this physical and spiritual discipline that is not a traditional part of Russian culture.
Nowdays there are no restrictions and obstacles for yoga practice. Few people remember the Russian trailblazers who mastered yoga on their own from translated books (“zamizdat“) and tried to share their knowledge and skills with other people. During the Soviet regime the price of this could be losing a good job, material well-being or even one’s freedom. Professor Vasily Brodov, the Chairman of the Yoga Association of the USSR, had first-hand experience with all of this.
However, his path towards Indian philosophy and yoga was not an easy one. A native of Moscow, he was born of 1912 in Tzarist Russia. After peaceful 1917 February revolution followed by October coup he graduated from the famous Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History in philosophy and literature in 1935 alongside with such famous poets, writers, scientists and philosophers like Alexander Tvardovsky, Alexander Zinoviev, Arseny Gulyga and many other creative people who left their remarkable works in Russian culture. Although he never even dreamed in those times that Indian philosphy, culture and yoga would become the mainstream of his life. In 1937 gravitation towards free thinking and participation in intellectual gatherings led Vasily Brodov, a young philosophy teacher at the time, to the infamous GULAG prison camps. In 1939 as a prisoner he participated in the Finnish war between U.S.S.R. and Finland. Then after the outbreak of Nazi invasion of U.S.S.R. in 1941 Brodov continuously applied to be sent to the frontlines again. At first, the GULAG administration replied with an unequivocal “no,” but as the situation at the front became more desperate prisoners were allowed to join penal battalions fighting in the most difficult areas of the front. After Vasily Brodov was wounded, shell-shocked and miraculously survived, he was transferred to a regular artillery unit and marched from Karelsky peninsular to Berlin. GULAG prison and fierce battles behind him, Brodov’s severe wounds after all served as a lifetime reminder of his hard-knock youth as he “paid his dues to the Motherland with his blood”.
Interesting to note that even during the war on the frontlines Vasily Brodov’s creative nature can’t stop to expressed itself. He wrote several poems and articles in the war newspaper “Stalin’s Fighter” which circulated in the troops. He even accomplished a rather rare and really amazing military feat which was documented in the rewarding list: during enemy bomber attack “by accurate and uninterrupted operation of PPSh-41 machine-gun“ he shoot down a Nazi diving bomber Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. He was rewarded the medal “For Braveness” for this feat which was equal to the Order. Such cases were extremely rare because it was a simple machine-gun, diving bomber was moving in high speed and was hit at the bottom of the dive. “My grandfather told me that he took one hundred meters ahead because he perfectly undertood it was a high-speed flying target. This was the secret of his success. He always tried to get ahead of events, to express his originality and to be a true pioneer in all areas of life be it Indian philosophy, yoga practice, literature, poetry or shooting down a diving bomber. He was very creative, original and versatile person”, recalls his grandson.
Even after the Second World war life of Valisy Brodov was not a bed of roses. Having finished his post-graduate studies at the Institute of Philosophy, USSR Academy of Sciences, he defended his thesis on a subject that was in high demand by the Communist regime (dissertation work “John Dewey’s instrumentalism in service of the American reaction“). However, in 1947 he was practically exiled from Moscow to the city of Saransk and worked there till the death od Stalin in 1953 as an assistant professor in the philosophy department of Mordovian Pedagogical Institute (nowdays the Mordovian State Unversity). Then he was transferred from one institution of higher learning to another as deemed “unreliable” as Soviet society was very suspicious to ex-GULAG prisoners. After exile, the talented lecturer became a teacher of philosphy at Moscow Art Institute named after Surikov (1953), then Second Moscow State Pirogov Medical Institute (1956), and then the department of dialectical and historical materialism of the natural sciences division of Lomonosov Moscow State University (1962 – 1966). Brodov’s “philosophical brothers-in-arms” recall these years as “the most fruitful time of his academic and teaching career.”
In 1966 Professor Brodov became the Head of the Department of Philosophy in All-Union Institute of Civil Engineering (nowdays Moscow State University of Civil Engineering) and worked there for 30 years almost till the end of his life. He tought different disciplines of philosophy – methodology, history of philosophy, epistemology, logic, ethics and estetics, etc. – to teachers and students alike and was widely recognized as a known philosopher professor and blilliant lecturer and speaker.
After the independence of India from the British colonial rule and emergence of a new state, the Republic of India in 1947, Vasily Brodov came to know more about India and Indian philosophy. The overall idea to undertake academical research of Indian philosophy was suggested to him by eminent Soviet academician and ideological functionary Georgy Alexandrov, his alumni, director of the Institute of Philosophy , USSR Academy of Sciences. Vasily Brodov was fortunate enough to study together with him in the the famous Moscow Institute of Philosophy,Literature and History. The subject of his doctor’s thesis was “Progressive social and philosophical thought in India in Modern Times (1850 – 1917)”. He successfully defended it in 1964. Brodov’s dissertation was a tremendous breakthrough not only in Soviet Indology, but it was also recognised by well-known German Indologist Walther Ruben as the first systematic research into the history of Indian philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Later on the basis of his doctorate thesis he wrote a Russian monography “Indian Philosophy in Modern Times” which was successfully translated into English and distributed by Soviet “Progress Publishers” with two editions in 80-s.
One notable event in his life was a meeting with Indian President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in 1964 at Moscow State University. Professor Brodov delivered a welcome speech for the President of India and gave him a copy of the book he compiled and edited himself “Ancient Indian Philosophy: The Early Period,” the first in the series “Philosophical Heritage”. This book was a translation from Sanskrit of the famous Upanishads, ancient Indian texts. A team of translators worked on the book, and professor Brodov, also the knower of Sanskrit, wrote the preface and scientific commentary on the ancient Upanishads.
The new subject matter steered the recently awarded doctor of philosophical science onto the right track. In 1966 he became the Head of the philosophy department of the All-Union Institute of Civil Engineering. Talanted researcher continued his studies in Indian philosophy and as an academic secretary, participated in preparing for publication of six volume work “The History of Philosophy”. Brodov penned individual chapters and it was published in full in 1965.
In the same period, in the early 1960s, Brodov was fortunate to meet in Moscow a renowned Indian guru Dhirendra Brahmachari, yoga teacher of Indian Prime Minister India Gandhi. He was invited to visit the USSR to research the possibility of applying Indian yoga to train Soviet cosmonauts in order to extend the time spend on the cosmic orbit witht he help of yogic asanas. Dhirendra Brahmachari gave the cosmonauts lectures and delivered practical lessons in closed sessions, which Brodov was able to participate.
Interacting with the famous guru, mastering asanas and pranayamas had an almost immediate salutary affect on the former frontline soldier’s health. Professor Brodov called yoga the “fruit of the creative genius of the Indian people”. He dedicated the rest of his life to promoting it in the U.S.S.R. and took every opportunity to impart Soviet people with some knowledge of this ancient self-healing art, despite official disapproval from the authorities (from 1973 to 1989 yoga was officially banned by Soviet regime for ideological reasons). And from time to time, he was able to cut through the Iron Curtain!
“My grandfather Vasily Brodov stood at the epicentre of the struggle for official, albeit indirect opportunities to study and promote yoga in the U.S.S.R.,” said Aleksey Brodov, grandson of Vasily Brodov, also a researcher and Indologist. “I remember his constant efforts to help Soviet people to know the basic principles of yoga, how to start yoga practice with little information available during the ofiicial Soviet yoga ban. He was a real Guru for Soviet people in this information vacuum which was created by Soviet buerocrats and short-sighted ideological bonzas who banned dessimination of genuine information about long-standing positive effects of yoga practice on human health”.
Intersting to note the real history behind the article “The Teachings of Indian Yogis and Human Health in Light of Modern Science,” which was published in the book “Philosophical Issues in Medicine.” (1962) and was co-authored by Vasily Brodov. In fact, this book was the first official publication on yoga after the Second World War in the U.S.S.R. published with the approval of the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Soviet buerocrats were concerned about going seepage of information about yoga into the Soviet Union which was a consequence of political friendship, cultural and economic cooperation with new Republic of India.
Communist ideologists tried to ban systems of personal human development for Soviet citizens, from Indian yoga to Chinese wushu, because they were in contradiction with different mental limitations and ideological restrictions which were artificially imposed and cumbered the intellectual and physical growth of Soviet people.
“Through the practice of yoga, my grandfather Professor Brodov by that time had genuinely improved his health, which had deteriorated in GULAG, in penal battalion, at the frontlines as well as in his post-war exile,” said Aleksey Brodov. “Being the actual exponent of the state order, he nevertheless understood that his task created real opportunity to provide at least some information about Indian yogic tradition in this government publication. As a result, this article became the first official publication on yoga since the death of Stalin and under the Soviet system in general, giving it a unique place in the history of yoga in the Soviet Union.”
This opened the door to a long series of different articles by Vasily Brodov on Indian yoga in various magazines and newspapers, including the authoritative “Scientific and Atheistic Dictionary,” (Moscow, 1969) and the magazine “Science and Religion” (1962, No. 4). Professor Brodov was also the co-producer and chief consultant of the famous Soviet documentary “Indian Yogis. Who are they?” (1970) which created a volvanic explosion of interest to yoga in the U.S.S.R. It was screened in the Sovit Union, Bulgaria and India and included information about asanas, pranayamas, suggestology and hypnosis methods by Georgy Lozanov and even parapsychology and telekinesis experiments carried with phenomenal Soviet woman Kulagina. However, only short 50-minutes version was available for a general Soviet public, censorship thoroughly edited the material and excluded any mention of parapsychology and other mental experiments carried out in secret Soviet laboratories.
After yoga ban by Soviet authorities in 1973 this documentary was shelved for many years. Later Vasily Brodov wrote on the making of this documentary and subsequent reaction to it: “The years of personality cult and stagnation in our country were also a time of strong negative attitudes towards yoga practices. The official line stated that yoga, from the point of view of its philosophy, is pure idealism, religion, mysticism, and in practice, it is quackery, hoodoo and acrobatics. We, as the filmmakers, had the intention, at first, to introduce to the Soviet people a unique phenomenon of ancient Indian culture, and, at second, to prompt our scientists, especially those from biological and medical sciences, to think about the human potential.” Thirdly, we wanted to motivate the experts to extract the rational seed from yoga that could serve as an additional source of health. Unfortunately, for ideological reasons during the period of stagnation, the intention did not meet with our expectations. The more influential officials at the Ministry of Health and the State Committee for Sport had an unequivocal reaction to the documentary. They called it the propaganda of idealism and religion. The result of this criticism was evident: they crucified yoga as not our Soviet ideology and it was banned for many years from the public areas of life.”
In the early 1970s, a group of scientists and other public figures, including Vasily Brodov, tried to influence Soviet System wrote an open letter to General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Leonid Brezhnev and Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Aleksey Kosygin with a request to officially legalize yoga and establish a yoga therapy scientific research institute. Many well-known medical doctors, scientists, journalists and cultural figures signed the document. However, the initiative produced no visible results at the time. There was no even a short reply from party bonzes.
“However, not all Soviet people shared the opinion and motives that led to the ban,” recalled Vasily Brodov later, in his tenure as president of Yoga Association of the U.S.S.R., which was created in 1989 in the wave of “Perestroyka” and “Glasnost“. “Many people practiced hatha yoga on their own at home and in private. Translations of foreign literature the so-called samizdat (the secret publication and distribution of government-banned literature – ed.) served as instructional aids. Following the Perestroika years, “yoga health groups” started popping up everywhere like mashrooms after summer rain. Among the leaders of the groups, the more enlightened and gifted ones became real yoga teachers and self-proclaimed gurus.”
It is true that after the collapse of the Soviet System a new openness brought a lot of rubbish to the surface. Among those who called themselves “gurus” there were many impostors and people who had no connection with real yoga looking just to make some money. Professor Brodov did not want to be associated with these people in any way. As a result he resigned from his chairmanship and, after all, the Yoga Association finally collapsed after the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. Despite not holding an official position, Vasily Brodov remained a recognised authority on yoga theory and practive among Russian practitioners. Incidentally, in the 1990s, in the so-called “era of hard times,” in his twilight years, Brodov said that the revival of Russia would only be possible on a path of growing nationalist sentiment, as he drew clear parallels from the Indian independence movement. He was sure that modern Russia could succeed by replicating the Indian experience of revival and the retention of its nationhood.
At first glance, the most paradoxical aspect of Vasily Brodov’s biography is the fact that he never visited India in his life. However, this is easily explained. One only need consider the times in which he lived and created his works! His friends and relatives recalled that in the 1970s, he was frequently invited to philosophical conventions abroad, including those in India, but for some reasons, perhaps, because of his time in GULAG or because of the secret programme of yoga practice for cosmonauts he was not allowed to leave the U.S.S.R. Brodov received the last invitation to visit India in the early 1990s from the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. But his health no longer allowed him long distant flights, and he never did see geographical India with his own eyes. Nevertheless, his colleagues noted that inspite of a hard life, Vasily Brodov always remained good-natured and cheerful personality with a very subtle sense of humour. He maintained his physical and mental health with daily yoga exercises and overall physical activity.
Professor Brodov wrote: “Yoga is a system of self-regulation and self-improvement of human personality, and here I can refer to my own experience. After WWII I returned wounded, shell-shocked and ill from the front lines in 1945. The doctor who prescribed my medicine reassured me, “You’ve got another 10 or 15 years to live…” Unfortunately, prescribed medicine helped very little. Illnesses that became more acute, cardiac insufficiency, radiculitis, salt deposits, kidney stones and many others forced me to try hatha yoga. Studying primary sources and consulting with Indian experts helped me master the elements of this physical therapy. As a result, all of the ailments that were troubling me disappeared. They disappeared without the aid of doctors or medicine. Today, being 78 years old, I give my heartfelt thanks and deepest respect to the great people of India for giving yoga to humanity.”
Today, millions of proponents of yoga in Russia would concur. We pay tribute to brave heroes of the past, true trailblazers and pioneers what Vasily Brodov really was.
[ NT ]