One third of the population of Kalmykia was deported during Stalin’s
terror. As the region struggles, it returns to its roots for answers.
Kalmykia, Russia -- “Let all our wishes come true! Let all living
creatures be free of suffering, of danger, of diseases and sadness! Let
peace and happiness govern on Earth!”
More than 2,000 Buddhists chanted the mantra, kneeling on mats
before the Golden Abode of Buddha temple in Elista, the capital of the
republic of Kalmykia, one of three traditional Buddhist regions in
Russia. They repeated words of prayer after the Kalmyk Buddhist leader,
Telo Tulku Rinpoche. Finally, the square grew quiet as the group went
into deep meditation.
The first Ceremony of Light offering to Buddha was held last month in
Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. Source: Getty Images / Fotobank
As night fell, thousands of candles were lit. Buddhist monks visiting
from Tibet, Thailand, and the United States, as well as Russian Buddhist
regions of Buriatya and Tuva, blessed those who gathered from all over
Kalmykia and the neighboring southern regions of Russia. They sent
candles flying skyward in hot air balloons, illuminating the dark night
The ceremony, an offering of light to Buddha, was introduced to Russian
Buddhists for the first time as a symbolic event celebrating the
beginning of the international forum, “Buddhism: Philosophy of
Non-Violence and Compassion,” held in Elista last month.
Despite objections from China, a group of 30 Tibetan monks from the
Gyudmed Monastery, assigned by the Dalai Lama, arrived to bless the
republic’s main temple and 17 sculptures of Tibetan Buddhist scientists
At the ceremony, the candle kites formed a path of light in the
pitch-black sky. “That is our white road,” somebody whispered in the
“Have a white road” is the most sincere greeting people traditionally give each other in Kalmykia.
It’s a fittingly modest wish for people in this poor region, stuck in
sandy steppe as flat as a pancake. The republic of Kalmykia, with its
population of more than 300,000 people, chose to revive the traditional
philosophy and culture of Tibetan Buddhism. The religion was adopted by
their predecessors, the Oirat tribes in Mongolia, in the 13th century
and imported to the Russian empire when Oirats migrated there in 1609.
It was violently destroyed, together with all Buddhist prayer houses,
temples and holy relics, during Stalin’s repressions of the 1930s. The
entire indigenous Kalmyk population spent 17 years in exile in Siberia.
Today, Kalmykia is the second poorest region in Russia, after
Ingushetia. Visiting Kalmykia last March, President Dmitry Medvedev
called the situation “difficult,” as the 15 percent unemployment rate in
Kalmykia was twice as high as the national average.
Buddhism teaches tolerance and loving-kindness, so Kalmyks have learned
to cope with their harsh realities. “We have seen it much worse,”
Yevdokiya Kutsayeva, 84, said. She had tears in her eyes as she recalled
Stalin’s deportations. “One October night in 1943, they packed the
entire population of the republic into dirty train wagons and sent us to
Siberia. Thousands died on the way. I remember the stacks of dead
bodies along the platforms,” she recalled.
Until the late 1980s, it was dangerous for Kutsayeva and her family to
light a candle for Buddha, much less send one into the sky in a hot air
balloon. To Kutsayeva’s joy, Kalmykia has built 55 new Buddhist prayer
homes and 30 temples in the past decade.
“That is all we have left to make people happy and peaceful today,”
Alexander Nemeyev, a local businessman, said. Nemeyev pointed at the
golden statue of Buddha in the temple that he had built for his village,
Ulduchiny, two years ago. He spent about $41,000, or 1,230 rubles. On a
recent weekend, about 100 Buddhists came to pray together with Tibetan
monks visiting the republic.
Not everybody in the village participated in the religious ceremony.
“The temple is not giving me food for my two children,” said Khondor, a
47-year-old widower and an electrician who did not want to give his last
name, showing his modest two-room house that he shares with his two
teenage children. Khondor said he was proud to be one of two people who
had full-time jobs in Ulduchiny. “Kalmyk people historically tolerated
troubles,” he said, adding what could be said about a good number of
different people in Russia, “to cope with difficulties is our
Khondor’s children, Aveyash, 14, and Nagaila, 13, said their dream was
to leave Kalmykia, perhaps by going to study in Moscow or St.
Petersburg. Their father did not mind this goal, as he saw no future for
them in the republic, he said.
Exhausted after two decades of economic and social crises, Kalmyks often
come to the republic’s main temple, or Central Hurul, saying, “my soul
is damaged, please help me,” the Buddhist leader, Telo Tulku Rinpoche,
said. “In a way we are a spiritual, psychological center giving people
hope, moral support and spiritual guidance.”
According to Yulia Zhironkina, director of the Moscow-based Save Tibet
Foundation, Telo Tulku Rinpoche has become Russia’s major spiritual
leader for Buddhists. “He goes to India to consult with the Dalai Lama
about most of his important decisions for Kalmykia education and
cultural programs,” Zhironkina said. Kalmykia is one of the 19 Russian
regions introducing experimental programs on basics ethics for the 4th
and 5th grades at Russian state schools. “The Dalai Lama consulted Telo
Tulku Rinpoche about the concept for the school history and basics of
Buddhism in Kalmykia,” Zhironkina said.
But there are areas where neither the Dalai Lama nor his followers have
power to help. On one of his visits in Kalmykia, Barry Kerzin, a
Buddhist doctor from Philadelphia, said he was shocked by the problems
local doctors faced. “The entire hospital, including the surgery rooms,
had no running water that day,” he said. This year, local activists
criticized the authorities for not finishing the reconstruction of the
republic’s only children’s hospital. This month, about 300 successful
Kalmyks, calling themselves “a partisan Internet movement,” wrote a
letter to President Barack Obama asking him to restore the hospital,
currently in disrepair. The letter was also designed to shame the
Russian federal government and at the same time call attention to their
Doctors at Kalmykia’s only children’s hospital had trouble listing the
most needed medicine and equipment. “We need everything,” Tomara
Nemchirova, the administrator of the hospital said. “We have kids on a
waiting list until next spring.”
Kalmykia has not seen any bounty, nor promises of any infrastructure
from deals that Royal Dutch Shell signed this year for the exploration
of oil fields on the steppe. Major discoveries have been made in nearby
Kazakhstan, also on the Caspian Sea.
The former Kalmyk president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was on hand for the
recent ceremonies. He stepped down in 2010. The controversial former
leader said that the teachings of Buddhism he supported during his rule
saved Kalmykia from getting involved in the terrorist wars in the
neighboring North Caucasus republics.
“The peaceful and kind philosophy of Buddhism is a solution for Kalmyk
people in the chaos and hard reality they live in,” Zhironkina said.
3 facts about buddhism
1. Traditionally, Buddhism is the main religion in Republics of
Buryatia, Kalmykia, The Tyva, Altai Republic, Zabaykalsky Krai and
Irkutsk Oblast (all of them in Siberia except Kalmykia). Buddhism came
to Russia in the 17th century; in 1764 it was officially accepted as one
of the state religions.
2. Today, there are approximately 1.4 million Buddhists in Russia,
according to the most recent census, and Buddhists comprise 1 percent of
3. In 1979, the Dalai Lama made his first visit to the Soviet Union.
After 1994, the Dalai Lama was received enthusiastically when he visited
Russia’s three Buddhist republics. But as Moscow’s trade with China
became increasingly important after 2004, Russia stopped giving visas to
the Dalai Lama.
Kalmyk Buddhist leaders say that today, their efforts are not about just
rebuilding the temples, something supported by the government, but
about the revival of Kalmyk Buddhist mentality and culture, along with
basic secular human ethics like compassion, love, kindness and
A phoenix from the ashes
Kalmyk Buddhists were first widely repressed in the 1930s during
Stalin’s Terror. Every religion was persecuted under Soviet policies,
but Buddhism experienced almost total destruction. By 1941, all Buddhist
monasteries and temples had been closed or destroyed; the most
outstanding members of the Buddhist elite (monks of a high rank, experts
on Buddhist doctrine) were executed or disappeared in concentration
camps. A second wave of repressions took place in 1943 when about one
third of Kalmyks were taken from their homes and sent to Siberia.
Anna Nemtsova is a Moscow correspondent for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast."