Deep in Siberia, Buddhist Comeback Is Under Way

Vladimir Chimitdorzhiyev was once an ardent communist who wanted to lead young people in Siberia to a Soviet paradise.

"That was a long time ago. All that is water under the bridge now," he said in his dimly lighted retreat near Russia's border with Mongolia, ancient scrolls depicting Buddhist masters hanging over his shaved head.

"I am now a Buddhist monk. I've left irrelevant things behind. I've come here to learn and to teach."

Tibetan teachings Chimitdorzhiyev helped revive in his ancestral homeland 3,600 miles southeast of Moscow are now at the forefront of a revival of interest in Buddhism in post-Soviet Russia.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Chimitdorzhiyev -- now known as Babu Lama -- returned to the rolling hills of his native Buryatia, brought together a dozen Buddhist lamas (priests) and helped rebuild an old shrine.

Closed for decades in Soviet times, the Aginsk Datsan is now Russia's biggest Tibetan Buddhist temple.

"Peace has returned to this land ... But there was no peace here when the Datsan was closed," said Babu Lama, 46.

Under a fixed stare of a bronze statuette of Buddha, he looked out of a window and gazed at the temple's golden roofs.

Yellow banners with densely printed Tibetan inscriptions flapped in the wind, and worshipers chanted prayers inside the temple.


Before Buddhism spread here from Tibet three centuries ago, Siberian tribes worshiped trees, animals and stones, their beliefs linked to other forms of Asian animalism such as Japanese Shintoism.

For those tribes -- Buryats, Kalmyks and Tuvans -- Buddhism was their first source of education. In many ways, this is still the case in the most desolate villages like Aginskoye in this swathe of Siberia between Lake Baikal and Mongolia.

Following in his ancestors' footsteps, Babu Lama -- involved in various youth organizations in eastern Siberia in Soviet times -- reopened a Buddhist academy here to teach Buddhist ways to 50-odd disciples from all over Asia.

"We teach everything a monk or a secular person may need to know: philosophy, science, Buddhism, Tibetan, Latin and even English, and also ways to live in harmony with these steppes and rivers," Babu Lama said.

"We teach how to understand that herbs and water are alive and why it is not advisable to harm them."

Russian Buddhism -- still linked to shamanism -- dates back to the 1700s when Empress Elizabeth, the liberal daughter of Czar Peter the Great, issued a decree recognizing Buryatia's Lamaistic beliefs and ordered the building of dozens of Buddhist temples.

Recognized as one of Russia's four official religions, Buddhism numbers a million followers in Russia, mainly in Buryatia -- a region once visited by the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Both the Aginsk Datsan and the academy, built by Tibetan astrologists in the 19th century, were shut down in a clampdown on religion by dictator Josef Stalin in the 1930s.

Many lamas were arrested and deported to penal colonies, some accused of being Japanese spies.

Temples were turned into tuberculosis asylums to scare off believers.

The communists reopened a few temples after World War II to appease predominantly Buddhist tribes and even allowed theologians to travel to Soviet satellite Mongolia to study.


But it was only after the Soviet collapse when people like Babu Lama returned to Buryatia and Buddhist communities started to mushroom along the Mongolian border.

"And then we who doggedly carried Buddhism through the harsh Soviet years, gathered here in the 1990s and declared the temple open," said Lyubov Austermonas, a sinewy woman in her 50s and the Datsan's chief administrator.

"We don't mind living in the middle of nowhere without water or gas. We bathe once a week, and what's the big deal? Our Tantric sculptures and sacred texts are more important than a good toilet."

Babu Lama's sanctuary in Buryatia -- one of Russia's poorest regions with average monthly income equivalent to less than $20 -- has now also turned into a fashionable travel destination for free-spending young Russians with Bohemian pretensions.

"We had this girl a few years ago, Vika from St Petersburg. She was a model," said Austermonas. "Tall, skinny and a bit conceited, she was one of those new Russians who can spend hundreds of dollars on rather useless adventures.

"But she went through this amazing transformation -- settled down in a hut, bought herself some cattle and plunged into Buddhism. She's now a famous theologian now in our circles."