Primarily known as a monolithic society, Russia boasts more than 200 various religious institutions and confessions. And if Buddhism is not something you would think of at first reference, in fact, it is one of the four national religions present in the world’s largest country. Enjoying a long tradition, today, it has about one million followers. Historically, it was mainly developed on the territories of Altaisky and Zabaikalsky Krays and Republics of Kalmykia, Tyva, and Buryatia. But if the Altai Buddhism was heavily influenced by local Shamanism and Orthodoxy, the one in Buryatia followed the canonical teachings inherited from neighboring Mongolia. Such religious adherence, together with the newly formed sense of national identity, found its reflection in the Buryat temple or datsan, that ultimately became national pride of all times.
Generally, a datsan is a Buddhist religious temple to be found throughout Siberia, Mongolia, and Tibet. As a religious institution, it has seen several changes throughout its existence in Russia, as the political situation changed, too. Thus, the number of such temples was officially regulated in 1741. It was a time when the authorities from Saint Petersburg gave attention to Buddhism for the first time. By the way, the first datsan in the European part of Russia was also erected in Saint-Petersburg, and today it has around 19 active lamas who perform the religious services on an everyday basis.
A dark spot in the history of Russian Buddhism though took place after the October Revolution. There were massive repressions against the Buddhists. Lamas were arrested, exiled, and blamed to be spies. The situation has changed significantly after the World War II. Thus, the Central Spiritual Governance for USSR Buddhists was established in 1946. Still today, you can evidence one of the most prominent landmarks of those times – the Ivolginsky Datsan, near Ulan-Ude.
As mentioned above, this datsan has a long history. Being established at times of Stalin, when the erection of such a cult architecture was not common, the fact of its existence itself is hence already surprising. Today, the Ivolginsky datsan presents a massive complex out of 10 datsan and dugan buildings (dugan is a religious monument that depicts one of the deities symbolizing the Buddha’s body). The territory also includes the university, greenhouse, medical block, roes’ aviary, and private premises. A true architectural landmark, this place is of interest not only for the pilgrims but also for anyone who is interested in the culture and history of the Tibetan-Mongolian Buddhism in Russia.
As a small-numbered nation who lead a nomadic life back in past times, the Buryats often experienced hardships throughout their lives. Geographically caught somewhere in between Russia and Mongolia, these willed people never gave up. Due to immense perseverance and natural ability to withstand adversity, the descendants of Genghis Khan’s bellicose nature at all times went through the difficulties with dignity. Although almost being deprived of the language during the invasion of the Russian Empire, the Buryats always adhered to their faith. For this reason, the datsan as a tangible embodiment of a religious belief inevitably remained a special place for every Buryat person. Hence, to better understand the culture and identity of this small nation, you should try to visit a Buryat temple, national pride of all times.
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