Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Buddhists Push for Buryatization of Buryatia and Closer Ties with Mongolia

Paul Goble

Staunton, November 13 – In a move that the Moscow Patriarchate might envy if it were about Russians, Buddhist leaders from Buryatia, the Transbaikal, Irkutsk, Mongolia, and China’s Inner Mongolia have called among other things for a dramatic expansion in the use of the Buryat language and the introduction of a requirement that all officials in Buryatia speak Buryat.

At a meeting convened by the central Buddhist organization of Russia at the Ivolgin datsan last weekend, 335 scholars, politicians and Buddhist leaders met to discuss how to preserve the Buryat language, but their recommendation for action went far beyond that and called for the Buryatization of Buryatia and closer ties between that republic and Mongolia.

Both because the 500,000 Buryats sit astride the Trans-Siberian route in the Trans-Baikal and because they have traditionally looked to Mongolia whenever Moscow is weak and thus have a certain clout when they choose to use it, this meeting represents a challenge to the central Russian authorities far greater than just an annoyance to Russian speakers in Buryatia.

The meeting, reported, was conducted “exclusively in the Buryat language in all its dialects,” an indication that the Russian speakers played  only a marginal role there, and it published its 26-point resolution in Buryat as well as Russian, another indication of the changing  ethno-linguistic balance there.

(For a report on the meeting, see For the Buryat text of the resolution, see and for the Russian translation of that document, see

Among their demands are the establishment of obligatory Buryat-language pre-school institutions, a dramatic expansion in Buryat-language media and especially radio and television, the obligatory use of Buryat names in toponymy, the requirement that Buryat has equal status to Russian in schools and other institutions, and a demand that all senior officials must be able to speak Buryat.

In addition, the meeting called for requiring parents to use Buryat names for their children, giving the Buryat Republic a greater role in promoting the language in the Transbaikal kray and Irkutsk oblast, and ensuring that all residents of Buryatia can receive television broadcasts from Mongolia.

Some of these appeals are openly political: the reference to the Transbaikal and Irkutsk is about the status of Buryats whose autonomous formations were amalgamated with surrounding Russian regions by Vladimir Putin, and calls for Mongolian television to reach all Buryats will inevitably undermine the separate Buryat identity Moscow has long tried to create.

Other such as the requirement that all senior official speak Buryat and that Buryat be a required course through the ninth grade in schools will have an immediate impact.  Many non-Buryats living in the republic are certain to be furious about both measures: they have protested earlier efforts to promote Buryat at the expense of Russian.

But this meeting is important for three interrelated reasons.  First, it is an indication that ethno-nationalism is on the rise in a place where few outside observers have thought it possible.  The idea of “militant Buddhists” is often presented by them as a contradiction in terms, even though many Mongols, Khalka and Buryat alike, have often been exactly that.

Second, the meeting which was organized by the Buddhist leadership, one of the four “traditional” religions of the Russian Federation, advanced demands far beyond those the republic leadership did only two months ago (, an indication that pressure is coming from below.

And third, the meeting itself has already become a source of pride for many Buryats.  One of them, Darima Dymchikova, said in a VKontakte post that she was pleased that in the meeting’s presidium “sat the entire flower ofRussian Buddhism” and that everyone at the session spoke Buryat (

She concluded with words that reflect Buryat pride but may disturb many in Russia, including those who have allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to play a greater role in Russian life. “This is how problems are solved in Buryatia – with the involvement of religion,” pointedly adding that “in this we are clearly Russianized!”

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