Sunday, March 3, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Buddhist Nations, Mongolia Expanding Ties

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 3 – Last Wednesday, the Russian military announced that it was setting up Buddhist prayer rooms in units along the Russian-Mongolian border, a rare indication that Moscow is concerned about the state of the roughly 600,000 traditional Buddhists in the Russian Federation and their relations with 2.8 million Mongols across the frontier.

            There are two major traditional Buddhist nations inside the borders of the Russian Federation with Mongol ties: the 465,000-strong Buryats in the Transbaikal and the 190,000 Kalmyks just north of the North Caucasus. And while their faith enjoys the status of a “traditional” religion with Moscow, their Buddhist practice and politics often have not.

            (The third major Buddhist nation inside the borders of the Russian Federation, the 250,000 Tuvins, may be even more committed to its Buddhist traditions than the other two, but its members have focused on their links with Tibet rather than any ties with the government in Ulan Bator.)

            On the one hand, the interest of Buddhists in both these countries in developing ties with the Dalai Lama has created political problems for Moscow. And on the other, their growing links with Mongolia have raised the spectre in the minds of some of “pan-Mongolism,” an ideological trend that has been strong only when the Russian state has been weak.

            Nonetheless, Buryat and Kalmyk ties to the outside world and especially to Mongolia are an important political and cultural resource for these two peoples, one that they are certain to use to promote and defend their own national cultures and one that is likely to contribute to their sense of belonging to a larger Mongolian and Buddhist world abroad.

            On February 27, Boris Lukichev, the head of the Russian military’s administration for work with military personnel who are believers, announced that the Russian command was opening prayer rooms for Buddhist soldiers in units along the Russian-Mongolian border (

            While the percentage of Buddhist troops in the Russian army is “not large” and while putting up statues of Buddha in military facilities would be “problematic,” Lukichev said, “organizing special prayer rooms” with holy texts in Tibetan “and all the attributes necessary for prayers” is something the military can do.

            He added that “in the near future,” his administration will be considering Buddhists who have applied to serve as chaplains in the Russian army,” an innovation that Lukichev said “would be a first in the history of the armed forces of Russia.”

            Since the changeover at the top of the Russian defense establishment, the Russian high command has pursued a more realistic and tolerant approach to individuals who are not Russian Orthodox than have some other parts of the Russian government, and this announcement may represent little more than an extension of that policy to the Buddhists.

            But it may also reflect a decision to inoculate such soldiers from the appeals of Mongolia, which has been expanding ties with these two Buddhist peoples over the last 20 years and thus reviving, albeit below the radar screens of most but not all Russian observers, a sense of this broader cultural and religious community.

            The links between Buryatia and Mongolia are the more familiar, both because of geography – the two republics are neighbors – and especially because the Buryats are closely related to the Khalka Mongols of Mongolia and were known as the Buryat-Mongols until the late 1930s.

            Since the 1950s, there has been an active educational exchange between the two, with Moscow assuming that it would help more tightly integrate Mongolia into the Soviet orbit but more recently fearing that these contacts may be drawing the Buryats further away from Moscow into a Mongolian one.

            A few Russians, especially those around Aleksandr Dugin and Geydar Dzhemal and the Eurasianists, even now celebrate these ties and see them as something that will help revive Russia.  At the end of January, they sounded those themes at a conference on the notorious Baron Ungern, who converted to Buddhism and led White Russian units in Mongolia in 1920-21.

            At that time, these activists even released a two-hour film on what they said was “the fierce humanism of Baron Ungern.”  That film is available embedded on the Eurasia website and to date has been viewed by some 4100 visitors (

            Links between the Kalmyks and Mongolia are less often noted, but two recent articles, one by Tuvin scholar L.B. Namrueva (, and a second by the Kalmyk State University (, detail growing academic and cultural ties between these two peoples.

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