RUSSIA: Few complaints over Kalmykia's state support for Buddhism
Despite large state subsidies for building Buddhist temples and training Buddhist monks, while "the basics of traditional religions are taught in a historical-informational context" in schools, officials and Buddhist leaders reject suggestions that Buddhism has become Kalmykia's state religion. "In Russia the government and churches are separate, so it doesn't unite us that much," Buddhist leader Telo Tulku Rinpoche told Forum 18 News Service. Members of religious minorities voiced few complaints about this government support for Buddhism.
"Despite economic difficulties," the state will continue to play the leading role in providing material support for Kalmykia's Buddhist community, the website maintains, so that "the young generation growing up in conditions dominated by western pop culture might be inculcated with love for their national traditions, rituals and language."
On 12 April 1993, 31-year-old Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was elected president of Kalmykia for the first time. Ten years on, a billboard on the main street of the Kalmyk capital, Elista, features him alongside the Dalai Lama beneath the Buddhist mantra "Om mani padme hum". Nearby stands a statue of the "Blessed and Holy Teacher" Buddha, erected by Ilyumzhinov on behalf of the Kalmyk people in 1995. It was thanks to his programme to revive Buddhism that the Kalmyks supported Ilyumzhinov in the first place, chairwoman of the president's expert co-ordinational council, Zinaida Dorzhiyeva, explained to Forum 18 News Service at the Syakyusn-syume temple on 1 April.
According to Kalmykia's US-born head Buddhist, all of the republic's 21 khuruls, or temples, were built with state assistance. Speaking to Forum 18 on 1 April, Telo Tulku Rinpoche estimated that state contributions to new khuruls accounted for approximately 70 per cent of their cost. Acknowledging that the pace of temple construction "was not quite in balance" with that of living conditions in the republic, Telo Tulku Rinpoche nevertheless strongly defended the programme. "The state destroyed them," he explained, "they took from the people. The state feels guilty now, that is why they concentrate so much towards building temples." Before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution there were just over 100 Buddhist khuruls in the republic, but all had been destroyed by the late 1930s.
There were also approximately 1,000 Buddhist monks in the republic at the beginning of the twentieth century, according to Kalmyk government figures. Telo Tulku Rinpoche told Forum 18 that today there are fewer than ten who are fully-ordained, with approximately another 11 novices studying in southern India. Others serving in Kalmykia's khuruls are at a preparatory stage, he said. "We haven't really got up to the standard prior to the Revolution." A fully-ordained monk, or gelong, must keep 253 vows and traditionally lives in a highly disciplined environment, he pointed out.
This process of training Kalmykia's monks is also supported by the state. According to the republic's official dealing with religious affairs, President Ilyumzhinov recently signed a decree awarding scholarships to eleven Buddhist novices to be selected by Telo Tulku Rinpoche. Whereas some state officials might display Orthodox icons on their desks, Mikhail Burninov sits beneath a large wall poster of the Dalai Lama and Lhasa's Potala Palace. Speaking to Forum 18 in his office on 3 April, he similarly defended Kalmykia's policy of state aid to the Buddhist community. "As the president said, this is repentance for those crimes committed against them during [Stalin's] cultural revolution."
According to Telo Tulku Rinpoche, Buddhism is not a state religion in Kalmykia. "In Russia the government and churches are separate, so it doesn't unite us that much." Every time there is an inauguration or government function, however, the Buddhists always have priority, he told Forum 18, "because we are a Buddhist republic." Telo Tulku Rinpoche doubted that there was a subject such as "Buddhist Culture" in Kalmykia's state schools. While there might be talk of introducing it on an optional basis, insisted Burninov, "we don't have specialists, and we can't violate the principles of our law – a school must be secular." According to the Kalmyk government website, however, "the basics of traditional religions are taught in a historical-informational context" within an optional subject called Native Regional History.
On 1 April, Forum 18 found that young members of Elista's "Lord's Love" evangelical church had varied experience of school lessons in Buddhism. One confirmed that Native Regional History included an element about Buddhist holidays and rituals, but said that it was not particularly serious. "We all got full marks." Another recalled that Buddhism had been part of a compulsory subject which also incorporated the history of Kalmykia and the national epic, "Dzhangar". More pointedly, he also said that, along with other state employees, his football trainer father had been forced to take part in a picket in October 2002 in support of the Dalai Lama visiting Kalmykia. President Ilyumzhinov heads the organisational committee to invite the Dalai Lama to Russia.
Forum 18 found little concern about the degree of state support for Buddhism, even among the young evangelicals, who said that they had not previously been aware of it. Since President Ilyumzhinov was one of Russia's top ten richest citizens and made large donations to the Buddhist community, everyone thought that he had financed the revival, they said, and even recounted with some pride that Syakyusn-syume was deemed to be one of the biggest Buddhist temples in Europe. An Elista taxi driver boasted to Forum 18 that there was now a temple in every region of Kalmykia, which had made everyone, even non-believers, "very glad". Nobody complained that state funds were being spent on khurul construction, he insisted.
31 March 2003
While the Catholic Church's fortunes in Russia may have risen from their low point last September, when two Catholic priests were denied entry to the country in as many days, they have not yet turned decisively for the better during the first three months of 2003. Saratov-based Bishop Clemens Pickel, who is German, was granted a residency permit in January, but Bishop Jerzy Mazur of Irkutsk, who is Polish, is still being barred entry to Russia. St Petersburg-based Fr Bronislaw Czaplicki was refused an extension to his residency permit and was told to leave Russia by 12 March, though he retains the right to return to Russia on an ordinary visa. Asked by Forum 18 News Service what he thought about the fact that no Catholic clergy had been expelled for some time, chancellor of the Moscow-based diocese Fr Igor Kovalevsky remarked: "I don't think anything about it. It doesn't mean that there won't be any tomorrow."
24 March 2003
Long-running attempts by Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders to consolidate their positions with state assistance have entered a new phase with the creation of a public-parliamentary commission "In Support of Traditional Spiritual and Moral Values in Russia". Unveiling the project at the Duma (parliament) on 18 March, People's Deputy Valeri Galchenko termed it a cross-party initiative in conjunction with the Interreligious Council, a consultative body founded in January 1999 which embraces representatives of Russia's so-called traditional confessions: Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. The new commission plans to propose draft laws to parliament and lobby the government in support of "traditional spiritual and moral values".
20 March 2003
Nine months before Russia's parliamentary elections, there are already signs that some political figures will seek to use religious leaders and institutions to help boost their popularity. At a 28 February conference devoted to the stance of Russia's so-called traditional religious confessions (Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism) towards December's parliamentary elections and the likely influence of voters' religious convictions on the results, Eurasia party leader Aleksandr Dugin maintained that the number of people responding positively to a clear confessional adherence by political leaders has more than doubled over the past four years. A Federation Council representative argued that if a political candidate is convincingly seen to appear morally upright and in favour of the spiritual values of one of Russia's so-called traditional confessions, that candidate is more likely to receive support from the voting majority who perceive themselves as adhering to that confession, regardless of whether its leadership has given that politician explicit endorsement.