“My grandfather was a Communist who was sent to the Siberian republic of Buryatia in the 1930s to bring Communism to the people and build collective farms, but he returned to Leningrad a few years later with great respect for the people and culture, and he brought with him an ethnic Buryat wife and a number of thangkas,” says Noskov, sitting in his apartment, a short walk from St. Petersburg’s only datsan, or Buddhist temple.
Once a Russian Orthodox believer, Sergei later took up the thread of his childhood fascination and converted to Buddhism in the 1980s. By 1988 he had moved to Buryatia, where he lived for several years. Sergei came to the United States in 1998 and has since been dividing his time between Russia and the Catskills in New York State, painting the exterior of the Palden Padma Samey Ling datsan located there.
Buddhism has enjoyed a revival in Russia during the past ten years of religious freedom, and believers today account for just under one percent of the country’s population. For centuries most Buddhists have come from among the indigenous peoples of the Russian republics of Buryatia, nearby Tuva, and Kalmykia, situated in southern Russia near the Caspian Sea. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a growing number of ethnic Russians have become acquainted with Buddhism.
Kalmykia is considered to be the only Buddhist republic in Europe. The Kalmyks are an Asian people who migrated to their current homeland in the early eighteenth century. Along with the Buryats and Tuvans, they were converted to Buddhism in the tenth and eleventh centuries by missionaries from Tibet. These three Buddhist peoples were conquered centuries ago as the armies of Russian czars spread eastward, but the local population remained free to practice their faith. Czarist-era Buddhism got a boost in 1909, when Tibetan lama Agwan Lobsan Dorzhiev (1853—1938) obtained permission from the Russian emperor Czar Nicholas II to build a temple in St. Petersburg to meet the faith needs of the growing diaspora of Buryats, Kalmyks, and Tuvans in the empire’s capital. The temple was completed in 1913, and today the St. Petersburg datsan is the oldest in Europe outside of Kalmykia.
Like all other religions, Buddhism suffered greatly when the Communists came to power in October 1917. In the 1920s, when Communist power was still relatively weak, a modicum of religious freedom was possible, but in the 1930s Stalin launched an all-out war against “enemies of the people,” and thousands of monks were among the millions of people killed. In the Siberian republic of Buryatia alone, 46 monasteries and 150 temples were closed and desecrated by the Communists.
World War II brought some degree of liberalization. Two monasteries, both in Buryatia, were allowed to reopen, but only under the watchful eye of the state-controlled Central Agency of Buddhists, a government agency set up by the Communists to co-opt the faith in order to better control it. Meanwhile, KGB agents watched the entrances to datsans, taking note of visitors, who later faced persecution for their faith.
In the 1960s a group of students from Leningrad, curious to learn about the roots of Buddhism, defied Communist leadership and went to Buryatia to visit the leading Buddhist scholar and Buryat religious leader Bidiia Dandaron, who had already spent twenty-five years in a gulag prison camp. Dandaron is known for his words “It is useful for a Buddhist to be born in Russia,” meaning that Soviet repression can provide an opportunity to test, enhance, and purify a believer’s faith. Dandaron and the visiting students were arrested and imprisoned for “anti-Soviet activities” and Dandaron later died in a Soviet labor camp.
Today, fewer than two hundred Buddhist groups are registered in Russia, but Buryatia remains the center of the faith and is home to about one third of Russia’s one million Buddhists as well as to the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia. Since the collapse of Communism, almost forty datsans have been built in Buryatia, and the Dalai Lama has visited three times.
Unlike the populations of Tuva and Kalmykia, whose resistance to Soviet rule was answered by Soviet terror tactics, the Buryats were able to find a measure of accommodation with their Soviet oppressors and managed to preserve many of their Buddhist traditions. The Buryats, who make up only one quarter of Buryatia’s population of one million, practice Tibetan Buddhism. At the Ivolginsk Datsan, where a return to Tantric practice has begun, students learn the Kalachakra Tantra and ritual dancing.
In Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, many Soviet-era buildings have been decorated with Buddhist architectural elements, and the republic’s leader, Kirsan Iliumzhinov, says that Buddhism has privileged status in the republic. In the early 1990s, ritual objects and texts were brought in from Buryatia, and now there are seventeen datsan in Kalmykia, the largest at Sakhiusn Siume, which also claims to be the largest in Europe.
In September 1992 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made the first visit of any Dalai Lama to Tuva, where tens of thousands thronged to see him in the central square of the capital city, Kyzyl. Over a dozen datsan have opened since his visit.
There has been a downside to religious freedom, however, and the faithful complain of conflicts over power and property at some datsan. For instance, in August 1998 at St. Petersburg’s czarist-era datsan, lamas and novices were thrown into the street by police acting with a court order at the behest of a rival monastic group who accused the lamas of mismanaging funds earmarked for repairing the datsan. While it’s hard to determine the facts of this incident, many Buddhists began to shy away from the datsan following the conflict.
Sadly, as the faithful continue to strive toward formulating a consensus for their communities, internal strife has plagued most religions in Russia in the wake of Communism’s fall. While the dawn of religious freedom has brought opportunities to develop and practice one’s faith, these same circumstances are challenging the ability of Russian believers to compromise and find a common ground.