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Buddhism in Russia: Historical Perspective
January 30, 2014 10:50


Buddha’s teaching emerged in the middle of the first millennium BC in India. Though from far away geographically, for many centuries Buddhism has been organically manifesting itself in Russian lands as well.

The first evidences of Buddhism existing in the areas of contemporary Russia date back to the 8th century AD and are associated with the state of Bohai, which occupied some part of modern Primorye and the Amur River Region in 698-926. Bohai citizens, whose culture experienced a great influence of neighboring China, Korea and Manchuria that practiced Mahayana Buddhism.
 
The second penetration of Buddhism into Russia occurred in the 16th-17th centuries, when nomadic tribes of western Mongolia known as the Kalmyks came to the Volga region through Siberia. They adopted Tibetan Buddhism in the 13th century and were originally initiated by lamas of the Sakya and Kagyu schools. By the time of reaching the Volga region due to the political situation in Tibet they mostly shifted to the Gelugpa school of Dalai Lamas.
In the 12th century Tibetan Buddhism spread around Buryatia as well: it came there with local devotees who were trained in Tibet, mainly in the Gelugpa monasteries and then brought Buddha’s teachings to their homeland.
 
By the Empress Elizabeth’ decree of 1741 Buddhism was recognized one of the religions of Russia.
 
Over centuries Buddhist culture was developing on the territory of Russia. The presence of two Buddhist regions within the empire and close proximity of other countries with Buddhist culture largely contributed to the fact that one of the world’s strongest Oriental schools took shape in the 19th- early 20th centuries in Russia. Departments of Sanskrit, Tibetan Studies, and Sinology were opened in universities of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kazan, Kharkov and other major research centers.  Important Buddhist treatises were translated and expeditions to Asia were arranged. Treatises by V.P. Vasiliev (1818-1900), F.I. Scherbatsky (1866-1942), E.E. Obermiller (1901-1935) and other prominent Russian Orientalists became paragons for scientists around the world. With active cooperation of leading Buddhologists and support of tsarist government the Buryat Lama Aghvan Dordzhiyev built a datsan (Buddhist temple) in St. Petersburg in 1915.
 
The thorny 1930s were a period of persecution of Buddhism and Buddhology as a science. Lots of lamas and monks died in Gulag camps, most of the temples and monasteries were closed or destroyed. For nearly two decades Buddhist studies were completely stopped in Russia.
 
Partial revival of Buddhism and Buddhist tradition began in the 1950s and 1960s, but they were officially rehabilitated as late as in the 1980s - 1990s. In 1989 a Buddhology group was created at the St. Petersburg branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies. It was the first officially registered Buddology school since the time of Scherbatsky. From then onwards other offices and departments for Buddhist studies were opened in several universities and the process of recovery of Oriental science gathered pace. At the same time surviving Buddhist temples were restored and new ones were opened in Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva. Buddhist educational institutions were founded and Tibetan teachers were invited. Presently a number of Buddhist schools are presented in Russia: Theravada, Japanese and Korean Zen, several schools of Mahayana and virtually all the world's schools of Tibetan Buddhism. According to the last census, about 900,000 Russians consider themselves to be Buddhists.
 

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Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Buddhism Religion Russian Culture   

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