Sunday, June 21, 2020

Buryat Society on Brink of Violent and Transformative Social Explosions, Ochirov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 18 – Social and political tensions in Buryatia are building to the point that almost anything could trigger a potentially violent and transformative revolution in a Buddhist republic that seldom gets much attention except as a kind of exotic outpost within the current borders of the Russian Federation.

            Journalistic criticism that might otherwise be objected to but not have significant resonance is such a possible cause of instability and change can become precisely such a prelude to that outcome, especially if one views events there through the prism of the American film “Joker,” Buryat commentator Bato Ochirov says (

            In that movie, he recalls, someone who has been repressed and marginalized suddenly breaks out and discovers that there are large numbers of people who feel as he does and are prepared to take action to escape their current situation and create a  new one more in conformity with their values. 

            Recent months in Buryat have been marked not only by the pandemic and efforts of the authorities to control its spread but also by a debate, started by the Khambo Lama about the value and place of traditional nomadic herding. That debate has now embraced the entire society because of the centrality of that way of life to Buryats’ self-conceptions.

            These discussions are not new, Ochirov says; but they have become more intense. And they were recently sent to a new level and transformed into a political fight over the future of Buryatia and its place within the Russian Federation by an article Tatyana Nikitina, a Russian journalist, published in MK v Buryatii.

            That article made fun of the Khambo Lama’s position. It sparked outrage among Buryats who did not necessarily agree with the Buddhist leader but who didn’t like his being attacked by someone they viewed as an outsider. They successfully demanded that the article by taken down, and that success has led them to consider making bigger demands. 

            This conflict now involves not only Facebook habitues and other “marginals” but an increasing number of others, including many businessmen, part of the political elite, “and a large part of the Buryat intelligentsia,” as well as the broader Buryat populations.  They have come together to oppose that article and to demand a very different Buryatia than the one now existing. 

            That Buryatia, Ochirov suggests, will be one that more fully reflects the three ideological sources of the nation: shamanism, Buddhist philosophy and Confucianism.”  Those have been denied or pushed to the side under Russian rule, but they are now coming back together because the Buryats still highly value all of them.

            In response to the attack on the Buddhist leader, Buryat blogger Erdem Gomboyev has taken up his cause and found himself in the position of the Joker or the Joker’s first follower.  The Khambo Lama may not be comfortable with this, but that is no longer the question among the Buryats.

            “Therefore in considering the situation in the republic through the prism of “The Joker,” one can conclude that “society at present has seen build up a sufficient amooung of unexpressed aggression at the surrounding injustice,” Ochirov says.  And that means that “a big explosion will occur if the revolt gains a living symbol.”

            The Khambdo Lama is such a one, and in the East, that is no “empty thing.” And he has become that not through any action of his own but through the incautious and thoughtless commentary of a Russian journalist. The situation is thus more explosive than almost anyone thinks, Ochirov concludes. 

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