A Most Non-Russian Republic Tends to Its Buddhist Roots

Kalmykia rebuilds its post-Soviet cultural identity with help from Buddhists in India, Tibet, and the US.

Only the Soviet-style heavy glass chandeliers give away that this isn't Asia.

The red Buddhist temple rises from the steppes with hints of Mongolia. Monks pad barefoot in maroon robes, chanting and fanning themselves with peacock feathers. Portraits of Buddha and the Dalai Lama adorn the temple walls. Listen carefully and you'll hear Sanskrit, an Indian language dating back to the 4th century BC, being spoken.

But although the features and language of the worshipers could lead you to believe you were in China or Tibet, this is Russia.

Welcome to Kalmykia, Europe's largest and only traditional Buddhist center.

Deep inside Russia on the north of the Caspian Sea, it is a tiny republic settled by nomads who thundered westward on horseback from Xinjiang (now China) in the 17th century. Somehow this ethnic minority has managed to preserve its ways, despite determined Soviet efforts to stamp it out.

After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Kalmykia's 100 Buddhist temples were destroyed. The Russian language was forced upon its schoolchildren.

Sent to Siberia by Stalin

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who was suspicious of all non-Russian minorities, viewed the Kalmyks as traitors after their three-year occupation by Germany during World War II. In 1943 the Kalmyks joined the ranks of ethnic groups summarily deported into inhospitable exile.

The entire Kalmyk population of about 150,000 was packed off to Siberia, where tens of thousands died from hunger and cold. They lived there as official "enemies of the people," prohibited from practicing their religion or speaking Kalmyk.

When the Kalmyks were finally allowed to return to their homeland in 1957, only 70,000 survivors were left.

Since then the population has climbed back to 160,000 people, who have been steadily reclaiming their cultural identity.

Republic President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, elected two years after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, is aggressively promoting the culture that his parents had to embrace in secrecy.

When Mr. Ilyumzhinov came to power in 1993, there were no Buddhist temples. Many younger residents did not know how to speak Kalmyk. The language is now taught alongside Russian in schools and an estimated 70 percent of the population speak it. Streets and gardens are graced with statues of Buddha, pagodas, and stone dragons. And some 200 Buddhist religious centers are operating in the republic.

Residents of the capital, Elista, are especially proud of the Buddhist temple finished in 1997, on a spot chosen personally by the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

"Religion fills the vacuum left for youths left after the death of communism," says Culture and Religion Minister Nikolai Sandjiev, himself a Buddhist.

Being able to worship openly is a great relief for elderly people such as Lydia Dakinova, who experienced the Siberian exile. "My mother had a small picture of Buddha that someone gave her before the Revolution. We hid it behind a curtain so authorities wouldn't find it. She also taught me Kalmyk secretly. It is a great joy to act freely now," she says.

So short was Kalmykia of trained spiritual leaders that the government has had to import monks from Tibet and send young people to study in India.

The American connection

The local spiritual leader, Telo Tulka Rinpoche, also came from abroad after being invited by the Dalai Lama to assume the religious mantle in Kalmykia. Many locals refer to him as "the American."

Born to the diaspora community in Philadelphia, Mr. Rinpoche came to the land of his ancestors in 1991. In his mid-20s, Rinpoche is known for his affinity for rock music: His favorite group is "Smashing Pumpkins" and he was at one time spiritual adviser to the Beastie Boys.

Rinpoche has had some trouble getting used to life in Kalmykia. He has raised eyebrows by getting married, which is highly unusual for a Buddhist spiritual leader. Over the past year, he has rarely spent time in Elista, because of extended trips to India and the US.

The imprint of Western culture has inspired Rinpoche's young disciples, including Erni Nemgiov.

The teenage monk wears a tie-dyed T-shirt and listens to heavy metal music on his Walkman as he paints wall murals in the temple.

He insists, however, that his sense of traditional roots is strong. "I've rebuilt myself with Buddhism," Erni says.

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