Staunton, Feb. 14 – Russia’s Buddhists seldom get much attention even though they are one of the country’s four “traditional” faiths, but they have attracted a great deal since the start of Putin’s war in Ukraine because the Buryats, a traditionally Buddhist nation, have become known as the fiercest fighters in the Russian army and the nation that has suffered the greatest losses.
Karina Pronina, a journalist with Irkutsk’s Lyudi Baikala portal, provides one of the most comprehensive pictures yet of what she calls “the Buddhism of the Putin regime,” a community of faith that is every bit as much divided about the war as are Orthodox, Muslims or Jews (baikal-journal.ru/2023/02/14/buddizm-putinskogo-rezhima/).
It speaks volumes about knowledge of this community among ordinary Russians that she has to begin to trying to establish how many Buddhists there are in Russia today. Andrey Terentyev, editor of Voprosy Buddhism, says the numbers are often exaggerated because often people say all Buryats are Buddhists when in fact half of them aren’t.
Nonetheless, he indicates that about one percent of the country’s population is Buddhist, a majority of whom are members of traditionally Buddhist nationalities but many others of whom have come to Buddhism since 1991. Terentyev stresses that the faith is radically decentralized so there is no top leader of the kind Russian Orthodox have.
Instead, there are several hundred communities, the majority of which are independent of one another and do not recognize any higher religious authority except perhaps the Dalai Lama of Tibet. And because they are so diverse, Pronina says, it is not surprising that they are so divided about the war.
Most Buddhists in Russia view the war as an act of karma that they cannot avoid. That doesn’t mean that they have to support it, but they view their own positions as irrelevant in most cases. Some back the war, but others do not – and some oppose it so strongly that they have been fined or forced in several cases to emigrate.
Opponents say those supporting the war are doing so to gain favor with the authorities or even because they have received money or hope to from Moscow. They argue that no real Buddhist can support war, although some of their fellow believers argues that they owe a duty to the country in which they live.
But overwhelmingly, the leaders of Buddhist communities haven’t spoken out or even discussed their views with their co-religionists. Most apparently avoid doing so out of fear, and one opponent of the war says that this is understandable given that “Russia is no longer a prison; it is of peoples; it is concentration camp.”