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Buddhism flourishes in Siberia, opening window on its pre-Soviet past

Why We Wrote This

Orthodox Christianity may be Russia's most high-profile religion, but it is only one of the country's four official “founding” faiths. Another of the four, Buddhism, has been experiencing a rebirth in post-Soviet Russia. Second in a five-part series.

Valeriy Melnikov/Sputnik/AP
Pilgrims visit a temple at Ivolginsky Datsan in Buryatia, Russia. In a major shift from Soviet times, almost 40 temple complexes now exist in this region alone, as native Mongol-speaking Buryats rediscover their ancestral beliefs.

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For decades, the only Buddhist structure in Ivolginsky – indeed, anywhere at all in Russia – was a little wooden temple that Joseph Stalin allowed to be built in 1946. But since the fall of communism, Buddhism has experienced a rebirth in Russia, particularly in the ethnically Mongol republic of Buryatia in Siberia, where Ivolginsky is now a kind of Russian Buddhist Vatican. For indigenous Buryats, who have been mostly Buddhist for the past 300 years, the resurgence is part of a complex awakening. Local scholars are exploring the Buryats’ distinctly non-Russian historical and cultural heritage and endeavoring to reconcile it with their identity as modern Russians. “It's only recently that we got the intellectual freedom to explore our past, and understand that our history, our religion, language, and culture make us quite different from Russians,” says Timur Dugarzhapov, editor of New Buryatia, a local journal. “Yet much of what we value, including our window on modern world civilization, we access through Russia and the Russian language. It’s not a dilemma; it’s a process. Nobody sees our future as separate from Russia, but we do need to discover our own roots.”

This cluster of wildly eclectic, multicolored pagoda-style temples, rising out of the dusty steppe a few miles south of Ulan-Ude, is something almost unique in a Russian landscape.

It’s a sprawling Buddhist monastery, with a religious university at its core, something like the Vatican of Buddhism in Russia and a living monument to the rapid revival of traditional religions in post-Soviet Russia. Just 30 years ago there was only one little wooden dugan, or temple, in this place: the first – and for a long time, only – one allowed to exist in the entire Soviet Union. Now there are almost 40 temple complexes in Buryatia alone, as the native Mongol-speaking Buryats enthusiastically rediscover their ancestral beliefs.

It’s a development that is encouraged by Moscow, at least for what it regards as indigenous Russian religions. This rapid growth is approved by authorities as a justified revival of one of Russia's four “founding” faiths – Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.

For ethnic Buryats, the resurgence of Buddhism is part of a more complex awakening, as local scholars explore the Buryats' distinctly non-Russian historical and cultural heritage, and endeavor to reconcile it with their identity as modern-day Russians. Similar processes are unfolding in many of the 22 “ethnic republics” that are part of the little-known tapestry of today’s Russia.

“Tradition is very much in demand among young Buryats these days,” says Timur Dugarzhapov, editor of New Buryatia, a journal of local scholarship. “It's only recently that we got the intellectual freedom to explore our past, and understand that our history, our religion, language, and culture make us quite different from Russians. Yet much of what we value, including our window on modern world civilization, we access through Russia and the Russian language. It’s not a dilemma, it’s a process. Nobody sees our future as separate from Russia, but we do need to discover our own roots.”

Buryat and Russian

Today, there are about 1.5 million Buddhists in Russia, concentrated in three ethnically Mongol republics: Buryatia and Tuva in Siberia, and Kalmykia in the North Caucasus. Indeed in Russia, specific religions are viewed as belonging to a particular population: The various faiths are bureaucratized and integrated into a central government-run council, and they are strictly enjoined not to poach upon each other’s flocks.

It’s a system that is warmly embraced here at Ivolginsky Datsan. The indigenous Buryat population has been mostly Buddhist for the past 300 years. The datsan, or temple complex, is filled with visiting locals, eager to reconnect with their traditional faith. Most seem to know the intricate, clockwise rituals of worship, how to recognize and pay homage to the wide array of icons that line the temples’ walls, and never pass a prayer wheel without spinning it. New and grander temples are under construction. Scores of local young men are training as monks at the university, and there is even a large class of students from Chinese Inner Mongolia.

Valeriy Melnikov/Sputnik/AP
A class studies at the Buddhist University of Ivolginsky Datsan in Buryatia, Russia.

“Every Buryat is a Buddhist,” says Dymbryl Dashibaldanov, the rector of the datsan's Buddhist University. “The state recognizes our religion. Once it is recognized, it means people need it.”

Buryatia has been ensconced within Russia for around 300 years, and that history has produced an extraordinarily diverse population who seem to get along without any observable tensions. Many of the Soviet-era immigrants to the territory, who came to man new industries, departed in recent decades as factories closed in the wake of the Soviet collapse, leaving mostly the descendants of the pre-Revolutionary population.

Today the republic is home to about 1 million people, divided about evenly between Russians and ethnic Buryats. The Russians are mostly descendants of the militarized Cossacks who arrived in the 17th century to conquer this land – in a colonial-settler expansion roughly analogous to the United States’ spread across North America a bit later – and thousands of Old Believers, religious dissidents exiled here by the czars.

Before the Russians arrived, this land was all part of the vast Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan. Buryats are basically Mongols; they only developed a separate identity after the Russians drew a border between this territory and neighboring Mongolia a few centuries ago. The traditional religion here was Tengrism, a mix of ancestor worship and animism that imputed spiritual being to natural phenomena. Even today, many Buryats loosely practice what they call shamanism, and visibly leave offerings of food, coins, and other little gifts to the natural spirits beside waterfalls, mountains, or the shores of Lake Baikal.

'Where different faiths meet'

Tumultuous changes hit in the early 17th century. “Buddhist missionaries came from the east, Cossacks came from the west,” says Mr. Dugarzhapov. “That shaped what we are today. No faith here is dominant. A lot of people somehow manage to acknowledge them all. We have a saying that you can ‘go to an Orthodox priest in the morning, a Buddhist lama in the afternoon, and a shaman in the evening’ and all will be well.”

The Russians conquered Siberia by subduing the local peoples through violence, an unresolved issue that has seen little attention from Russian historians. But unlike the US, where indigenous peoples were displaced and marginalized, the Russian settlers tended to intermarry with native peoples and to find terms of coexistence with them. The Bolsheviks later created a system of national “autonomous republics,” like Buryatia, which in principle recognized the rights of native peoples, even creating written languages for many who had never had one before.

At the same time, they severely limited political options, pressed everyday life into a Soviet mold, and cracked down hard on all religions. Of the more than 80 Buddhist datsans that existed in 1917, not one survived until Joseph Stalin permitted the small wooden temple to be constructed at Ivolginsky in 1946.

Karen Norris/Staff

“Buryatia was a religious border zone, where different faiths meet and learn to coexist,” says Boris Bazarov, director of the Institute for Mongolian, Buddhist, and Tibetan Studies in Ulan-Ude, a branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Soviet rule was very hard on all of them. It’s only in the post-Soviet period that we’ve seen a real flowering of Buddhist faith in this republic. In this respect, Russia has finally modernized itself.”

Mr. Bazarov says the main challenge for the resurgent Buddhist faith has not been how to get along with the Russian Orthodox Church, but how to deal with the pre-existing shamanist beliefs that many ethnic Buryats still cling to.

“A lot of Buddhist ritual has been adapted to accommodate shamanist rituals,” he says. “It’s been very flexible. It enables people to do things they are used to, like leaving coins and other little offerings, and call it Buddhism.”

Lamas' leadership

It was Tibetan Buddhism that came to Buryatia three centuries ago, and still strongly influences its architecture, beliefs and practices. A wave of popular enthusiasm for the faith took off here when the Dalai Lama visited the republic twice in the early 1990s. But, according to government requirements, Russian Buddhists have their own internally elected religious chief, the Pandido Hambo Lama, who sits on the state-backed Interreligious Council in Moscow. No Russian religion is allowed to recognize any outside authority.

That is a potential political problem, since the influence of the India-based Dalai Lama appears very strong here, and his image is almost ubiquitous in the temples of Buryatia’s datsans. But because of Russian-Chinese rapprochement in recent years, everyone agrees that no future visits of the Dalai Lama to Russia would be permitted. Beijing views the Dalai Lama, who advocates Tibetan self-rule, as a threat to Chinese sovereignty.

Mr. Dashibaldanov, the rector, is philosophical about that.

“The Dalai Lama is our spiritual leader, and what is happening in Tibet today is like what happened to us under the Soviet regime,” he says.

But Buddhists are strictly enjoined not to get involved in politics, he adds. “We live in the time where we find ourselves, and we must accept the realities as they are. The main thing is, we continue with our faith.”

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