Tuesday, August 29, 2023

New Kalmyk Novel Recounts History of Buddhist Cossacks in the North Caucasus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Aug. 28 – Vladimir Putin has insisted and many Russians and Westerners have accepted the idea that the Cossacks are all Russian Orthodox Christians and committed to promoting a fundamentalist version of that faith as well as a narrowly and Kremlin-defined kind of Russian nationalism.

            But historically and to this day, many Cossacks have been Muslims (in the North Caucasus and Middle Volga) or even Buddhists (in Kalmykia and the Transbaikal). Those seeking to revive Cossack traditions actively promote this. The author of these lines even has a pamphlet from the 1990s entitled How to Raise Your Transbaikal Cossack as a Buddhist.

            (On the religious diversity of the Cossacks, who included Jews and animists as well, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/09/kalmyk-cossack-leaders-must-now-receive.html, windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/08/window-on-eurasia-buddhist-cossacks-to.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2018/05/genuine-cossacks-welcome-muslims-and.html.)

            (And on the revival of Cossacks independent from and often at odds with the Kremlin more generally and their acceptance and even support for such religious diversity, see jamestown.org/program/cossackia-no-longer-an-impossible-dream/ and jamestown.org/program/cossackia-a-potentially-powerful-bulwark-against-russian-imperialism/.)

            The Buddhist Cossacks have received relatively little attention except for their role in the anti-Bolshevik movements in the Transbaikal and Mongolia during the Russian Civil War a century ago. Now, however, that may be beginning to change with increased research of the Buddhist Cossacks of the North Caucasus and a new novel about their troubled life.

            For a scholarly discussion of the Buddhist Cossacks of the North Caucasus, who are known as the Buzavy or Kalmyk Cossacks, see Mergen Ulanov and Arya Andreyeva, “Buddhism and the Don Kalmy-Cossacks in the Socio-Cultural Space of Russia” (in Russian, Novyye isseledovaniya Tuvy no. 2 (2021): 101-114 at nit.tuva.asia/nit/article/view/1024/1415.

            But perhaps more important for bringing the story of the Buddhist Cossacks up to the present day, is a new novel by Natalya Ilishkina. Entitled Ulan Dalay, which translated from the Kalmyk, means “the red ocean,” the Kalmyk name for hell. It has just been reviewed in Novaya Gazeta Yevropa (novayagazeta.eu/articles/2023/08/27/poka-my-ne-uviazli-v-borbe).

            Ilishkina traces the history of a family of Buddhist Cossacks from tsarist times through the Soviet period during which they were subject to the worst forms of repression all the more so because they did not fit into the template of either Russian or Cossack history that the authorities were working with.

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