Buddhism in Russia is alive and growing

Story by  Aditi Bhaduri | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 02-04-2024
Datsan in St. Petersburg
Datsan in St. Petersburg


Aditi Bhaduri 

One of India's greatest gifts to the world has undoubtedly been Buddhism. The spatial spread of Buddhism is breathtaking; the depths of its impact are unquantifiable, and all of it without recourse to violence for its propagation. However, much of the focus of studies or discussions, at least in India, has been on Buddhism's presence in south and southeast Asia. Missing is Buddhism's spread and existence in Russia. This is surprising, given the close relations between India and Russia. 

At least three of Russia's autonomous provinces are Buddhist, while adherents are found across the country, many of them are more recent converts. Today in Russia the Buddhist majority regions are the Kalmyk Autonomous Region, the Buryat Autonomous Region (Eastern Siberia), and the Tuva Autonomous Region (Southern Siberia).  

Buddhism traveled to Russian territory from India through Central Asia. Scholars are divided on when Buddhism appeared in Central Asia. Some say it was in the first century while others think it was much earlier in the 3rd century BC during the Mauryan Empire. In any case, Buddhism had already spread in the spatial territory of Central Asia, the large landmass between India and Russia, by the time of the Kushan Empire. The Kushan Empire rose from the debris of the Bactrian Empire, which in turn had broken away from the Greco-Bactrian state, formed in 3 BC, a result of Alexander the Great's military expedition to Asia. The Kushan Empire incorporated parts of Central Asia, present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Northern India. 

Buddha statue is in Kalmykia

Buddha statue is in Kalmykia

Kanishka, in particular, is credited with the propagation of Buddhism, especially the devotional aspects of it, which also resulted in the beginning of the demand for figures and deities of the Buddha. Excavations and the discovery of Buddhist stupas and relics in the historical Merv region in present-day southern Turkmenistan testify that Buddhism was a functioning and growing faith in the region well into the 6th century AD. It was through Central Asia that much of Buddhism and Buddhist traditions traveled to the territory of the Russian Federation. 

When did Buddhism appear in Russia?  

According to Batyr Kitinov, a Leading Research Fellow of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, and a native Buddhist from Kalmykia Region, Buddhism came to Russia in three waves. It first appeared in the Russian Far East from China, through Mongolia, and was a form of Chinese Buddhism, in the eighth century AD. The second wave appeared at the beginning of the 15th century. This was also a form of Chinese Buddhism with some Tibetan characteristics. The third and last wave occurred towards the end of the 16th century and this was Tibetan Buddhism. 

Buddhism in these regions is linked to Tibetan Buddhism. While the oldest school of Buddhism was founded in the 9th century by the Tantric master Padmasambhava, the Geluk School - Yellow Hats - was established towards the end of the 14th century by Je Tsongkhapa. The Mongols adopted Buddhism from the Uighurs, who had taken to Buddhism since the middle of the 9th century AD.

Buddhism helped in the consolidation of the Mongol identity and pan-Mongolian statehood.

Kalmyks became Buddhists sometime in the middle of the 13th century AD. Till then they were Shamanists and partly Christians. In the middle of the 15th century, the Geluk branch of Tibetan Buddhism arrived in the region and the Kalmyks adopted this branch of Buddhism. Kitinov pointed out, that it was the Kalmyks who (helped to) establish the power of the Dalai Lama over the Tibetan Buddhists – in 1652 with the fifth Dalai Lama, with their military support.

Buddhist Temple in Kalmykia

3It was the Kalmyks (also known as Oirats) who began migrating from near modern-day Xinjiang in China to the territory of the Russian Federation along southern Siberia in the middle of the 16th century. This, according to Kitinov, also meant the appearance of Tibetan Buddhism inside Russian territory. Later, for a variety of factors, they migrated to the Astrakhan Region near the Caspian Sea. Along with their migration, the Kalmyks brought Buddhism to the European parts of Russia where the Kalmyk Region today is the only Buddhist-majority province.

In the second half of the 18th century AD, the people in the Buryat Region became Buddhists. People in Tuva already had Buddhist temples in the 13th century. They became followers of the Yellow Hat teaching when they became part of the Junggar Khanate. The Junggar ( also known as Dzungar) Khanate, was an Inner Asian khanate of Oirat Mongol (Kalmyk) origin that arose in the 17th century AD. At its height, it covered an area from southern Siberia in the north to present-day Kyrgyzstan in the south, and from the Great Wall of China in the east to present-day Kazakhstan in the west. The core of the Dzungar Khanate is today part of northern Xinjiang, also called Dzungaria. 

Today there are approximately one million registered Buddhists in Russia. The Buryat Autonomous Republic has around 400,000 Buddhists, Kalmykia has 135, 000 Buddhists, the Republic of Tuva has 100,000, and the rest are mostly recent Russian converts. Buddhists are recognized as an official minority, and as state and religion are separate in Russia, they are free to practice their faith and preserve their traditions. But it was not always like this.

Under the Russian Tsarist Empire, there were many attempts to convert these perceived “pagans” to Christianity as that was the state policy then. However, towards the end of Tsarist rule, there appeared a wave of Indophiles, especially those interested in Buddhism. 

According to Indologist and anthropologist Svetlana Ryzhakova of the Centre of Asian and Pacific Studies in the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Indology, and interest particularly in Buddhist studies, began in Russia around the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20tb century. It was mostly a philosophical and intellectual pursuit. Ivan Minayev was the first Russian Indologist, who as a student at the University of Saint Petersburg developed an interest in Pali literature.

Batyr Kitinov

His Russian-language Pali grammar (1872) was soon translated into French and English; his main book Buddhism: Untersuchungen und Materialien, was printed in 1887. His student Fyodor Shcherbatskoy, in large part, was responsible for laying the foundations in the Western world for the scholarly study of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. Another pupil of Minayev, Sergey Oldenburg, was also engaged in Buddhist studies. At the same time, in Kunstkamera in Sankt-Petersburg, an Indian ethnographic collection was created by Aleksandr Mervart and his wife, eminent personalities exploring South Asia.

All of this helped to promote the appeal and attraction of Buddhism, which till then had largely been looked upon as an Eastern superstitious faith. The state began patronizing Buddhism and so monks were allowed to travel to Tibet for studies, and grants and donations were given for the building of temples and monasteries. The famous Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg was built during this time in 1913.

However, all this was soon eclipsed by the Bolshevik Revolution; after the establishment of the new state many intellectuals left the country, many people went into exile, and Indology and Buddhist studies took a backseat in the newly formed Soviet state. Ryzhakova believes that the second flowering of Indology began in the 1957-1960s, largely due to the efforts of Dr. Yuri Roerich, the son of the Indophile painter and philosopher Nikolai Roerich who had made India his home along with his family.

Yuri (George) Roerich

Yuri Roerich came to Russia in 1957 and lived there for three years before his sudden demise. Russian Indologists consider him and his contribution as key to the second flowering of Buddhist and Indian studies in the Soviet Union. He was a scholar who achieved the publication of the Russian translation of the Dhammapada [Buddhist holy text] by Vladimir Toporov. This was unheard of then. Ryzhakova believes it was an immensely revolutionary step in an officially atheistic state.

Today, there is renewed interest in Buddhism, aided by the information revolution and free passage between Russia, India, China, and other Buddhist countries. Most Russians find Buddhist teachings attractive and its studies are developing there. Several Tibetan Buddhist university monasteries, known as dastans, exist throughout Russia, and a large number of these are in Siberia.

The Dalai Lama first visited the Russian Federation in 1992, but today, his entry is restricted because of Chinese objections.

Howdid Buddhists in Russia retain their faith throughout these turbulent centuries? 

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There is no simple answer, says Kitinov. "The people of Buryatia and Tuva lived far away from the European part of Russia. The Kalmyks, on the other hand, faced many wars. So it was difficult for them to keep their faith. Yet, they did, in the face of tremendous odds. Their loyalty to the Dalai Lama played a significant role. Their belief in their faith – in karma – played another major role. We believed that everything is karma, and if we were to keep the faith, it would keep our karma clean."

Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst specializing in West and Central Asia.