Reminiscing Yoga in the erstwhile Soviet Union while now watching cruel assault on Ukraine

Vijaya S’navar Patil-

Vijaya S’navar Patil

(Vijaya is a technology professional based in Dayton, Ohio (USA). After working in the Software and Healthcare industry for 16 years, she is donning various hats now including as a Yoga teacher, a host for a media house and managing an advanced manufacturing center at a local Stem School.)

Russia’s ruthless war in Ukraine, now well into its second month, takes me back to erstwhile Soviet Union of the 1980s and early 1990s when my family lived there.  Our extraordinary connection to this land and its people’s warmth towards all things India was my father, Prof. Laxmankumar Sannellappanavar’s life as a much sought-after Yoga teacher.

The India-Soviet Union friendship had many layers, one of which was Yoga that my father took across the then Soviet republics, including to Kyiv in Ukraine. Those memories have come in floods as I watch the war on Ukraine with deep anguish.

For me it isn’t about Vladimir against Volodymyr. It isn’t about Russia against Ukraine. It is a war waged among families separated by borders, once all living together within the same country. The most memorable part of our life in the Soviet Union back in the late 80s and early 90s was how hospitable, warm and welcoming the Russians were to us and everything Indian. When I say Russians, it is important to clarify that I mean the citizens of the Soviet Union or the erstwhile U.S.S.R., who were predominantly referred to as Russians. Not Ukrainians and Russians separately, but as a whole. The citizens of the World’s biggest and most powerful country at one time.

We flew into the Soviet Union back in 1989 and flew out of Russia in 1992, following the disintegration of the United Soviet Socialist Republic, the U.S.S.R, when it’s various Republics like Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and others became independent countries. What a historic time to be living there! Looking back, I would say that may not necessarily have been a good time for the people of the Soviet Union many of whom had to deal with families, homes and their lives being defined by new boundaries. Borders drawn and separations created by those in power or those who couldn’t retain power. The ordinary people as always being the worst-hit victims of the actions of the powerful bureaucrats. Then again, generations there have seen the worst of times through eras of different leaders. Their lives have been drastically affected by many conflicts including the World Wars. The people of the former Soviet Union had perhaps come to terms with the new normalcy of living in separate countries over the past 3 decades of their lives until Putin waged this current war uprooting their lives yet again!

Back in 1989, it was quite a transition for our family to move from the small city of Dharwad (Karnataka state, India) to one of the major metropolitan cities of the World – Moscow. This move was the outcome of the friendly relations between the then U.S.S.R and India. It was decided by the Government of India on the behest of the then Ambassador of India to Moscow, T.N. Kaul, that an Indian Cultural Center be established in Moscow to foster the friendship. Thus, came into existence the Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Center (J.N.C.C.) under The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (I.C.C.R) at the Embassy of India, Ulitsa Obukha Moscow.

My father was selected to represent India and lead the Yoga activities at J.N.C.C Moscow. It is worth mentioning that the interview was a deliberate, stringent process conducted by top officials and experts, in order to select only the best from a massive pool of candidates from all over India. Rightfully so, because what was to come was not a job for an ordinary person. Once the Embassy announced the Yoga classes at J.N.C.C., it started getting a steady influx of Yoga aspirants. Father taught Yoga for extended hours every day, even on weekends, to meet the demand. There were several hundred if not thousands in the waiting list every enrollment period.

Father was the only foreigner permitted on Communist Soviet TV to broadcast Yoga lessons for 2 years successfully that reaching 80 million Russian youth on their Educational channel and many more on their main Channel 1. He toured many Republics on the invitation to teach Yoga in cities like Kyiv, Odessa, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Tashkent, Kazan, Ryazan etc. It was clear how deeply interested the people of the Soviet Union were to learn and adopt Yoga. They took to Yoga like fish to water. In retrospect, the demand actually seems to have been an indication of the needs of the people and the direction in which they were heading towards a renewed, more enriched life away from the horrifying past.

While touring the Republics, war memorials were a common sight. During our daily routine in those 4 years, we observed women being the workhorses in many places. The Wars had taken the lives of many men from their country and hence women had to step up to even do tedious and laborious tasks, besides caring for their families. We encountered strangers singing “Main awaara hoon” telling us how much they loved Raj Kapoor and India! Ya Lyublyu Indiyskiy (I love Indian) was heard often. They surprisingly knew a lot in the age of no internet and were not shy to talk to us anytime we went out in public. We were part of the Diplomatic circle but the environment seemed quite safe even for us as children, to be going out by ourselves like locals. We took the public Metro to school and walked to parks with friends. Even strangers came across as warm and eager to know more about Indian culture, traditions, language etc.

The impact of my father’s Yoga service to the people around the U.S.S.R. was such that our family was always showered with immense love from the Russians (aka people of the Soviet Union) that we can still feel in our hearts when we reminisce those days. The innumerable flower bouquets that the students brought as a mark of reverence for their beloved ‘Guruji’ (teacher) often, the 6-course homemade meals they invited us to, the special seats at the Bolshoy theater to watch the internationally acclaimed Ballet dancers or to the concert of the nationally known musician Rim Hasanov followed by private visits with him, the big jar of fresh Smetana (sour cream) that one student carried all the way from her village in another Republic to Moscow just for us, many occasions with father’s students at our home enjoying Indian food, soaking in the Indisky Kultura (culture), learning our native language Kannada from my mother, us learning their beautiful Russian songs and language from them … several fond memories that invoke pain in my heart today knowing that these people with so much love in them to give to the World, are in the thick of war losing their life and families!

Ever since the war began, my heart has been heavy. The people of the former Soviet Union are facing the worst situation following the disintegration i.e., being put up to war against each other. The once freely traveling people between Ukraine and Russia are now forced to fight and kill each other for survival. Then we hear of those inhuman acts of violence against civilians that are totally uncalled for.  We have read about such ghastly invasions in history books but this happening in today’s day and age? It is beyond belief! All the progress we made as a human race on our fundamental human rights and fighting for it over decades seems to have been set back in light of this war. How could we let this happen and let it get this far? I cannot begin to fathom what innocent people are going through in the war zone at this very moment while many of us are continuing to lead a comfortable and normal life elsewhere. I feel like I have blood on my hands not doing anything for them knowing this is happening.

Just like many others in the rest of the World, I have been critical of Putin’s actions, raving about Zelenskiy’s grit, praying for the Ukrainians, and wondering why this war has not been put to an end yet, by the other powerful leaders of the World. While I am carrying on with my worldly duties towards my family and community, I know that many families may not have food, rest or be able to see each other ever again, entire communities are being shattered. The images of the babies being cared for in the basement shelters, the struggles of the elderly and the disabled, the faces of the family members of those killed, the brave people in Russia protesting against their leader out on the streets not caring for their own life… visuals and news that are impossible to pass up or forget. I feel helpless but I continue to pray for this misery and distress to end soon and for the safety of the people who introduced the words ‘camaraderie’ and Mir (peace) to a young me many decades ago.