Since the 17thth century, Buddhists from Tuva, Kalmykia, Buryatia, and parts of Altai have been part of the vast, ethnically and religiously diverse Russian territory. These northern Buddhist people are mostly adherents of the Tibetan, Mahayana tradition that arrived in these lands in the 8th century. Buddhism became one of the officially recognized religions of Russia in 1741, by decree of the empress Elizaveta Petrovna. Between 1909 and 1913 the northernmost Buddhist temple in the world, and the largest in Europe, was constructed in Saint Petersburg. The history of the building and the lives of its current occupants are equally fascinating.
The Datsan (as Buddhist university-monasteries are called in Russia and Mongolia) is located in the Primorsky region of the city, close to one of its biggest parks, on the banks of the Bolshaia Nevka River. Stepping inside the gates of the territory, one gets the impression of stepping outside of time itself – the noise from the large surrounding roadways seems to disappear, the wind seems to blow calmer. Perhaps it is all self-suggestion born of my idea of what a Buddhist temple should be like… Though, on my first visit to this place a couple of days ago, a tall and unusually-large-for-Russia man with glasses and greasy, graying hair came up to me, introduced himself as a buddhologist and proceeded to remark upon the fact that time moves slower within the walls of the Datsan. I was not the only one to feel this way apparently. The rest of what he said, however, made little sense, and after he asked me for some spare change I decided to not take him too seriously.
There are red prayer wheels around the perimeter of the courtyard. On the walls marble plaques immortalize the names of the Datsan’s founders and important teachers. Strings of Tibetan prayer flags are wound around the trunks and branches of all the trees, though they strangely clash with the lush leafiness of the local flora. Their tangled, colorful scraps seem to long for the desolate, windy highlands of the Himalayas, to flap freely in the breeze, away from the suffocating density of the cottonwood leaves.
The founder of the Datsan was Agvan Dorzhiev, a spiritual adviser and ambassador of the 13th Dalai Lama in Russia. Dorzhiev received permission from Tsar Nicholas II to build the temple in 1909. The project was led by the architect Gavriil Baranovsky, famous for his Eliseevsky Emporium on Nevsky Prospekt. Various prominent orientalists took part in the planning and construction of the Datsan, including Nicholas Roerich, whose stained glass windows depicting important Buddhist symbols are still in the temple today. The construction of the Datsan was a political move of rapprochement between the Russian Empire and Tibet and the temple was supposed to serve in part as a cultural mission to the imperial capital. The temple was opened in 1913; the first services were dedicated to the 300-year anniversary of the Romanov dynasty and were led by the Hambo Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, famous today for the life-like state of his body since his death in 1927.
“This temple is unique; you won’t find architecture like this anywhere in Buryatia or Mongolia. It’s purely Tibetan architecture with some Buryat elements, and there are many European details – the tiles, stained glass windows, stairwells,” says lama Anton, one if the 16 students and teachers who permanently serve in the temple. The Art Nouveau details of the building and its granite walls place the Datsan at a crossroads of history and culture, like the prayer flags in the cottonwoods. Anton himself is another testament to the strange fusions found here.
Anton converted to Buddhism eleven years ago and is now in the process of receiving his university degree in Buddhism from the Datsan of Ivolga in Buryatya (one of two Buddhist higher education institutions in Russia). Anton’s education, however, happens mostly here in St. Petersburg, his hometown. He came to Buddhism out of curiosity and stayed because he found in it an ethical system he was happy to live by.
“I’ve always had an interest in Buddhism but it wasn’t religious in nature. I didn’t believe in God or the devil. I had a normal atheist family but I was just interested,” Anton explains. “I decided to do it as a hobby, to learn about all the religions. I began with Buddhism and ended there, because I found all the answers to the questions that interested me right away.” His interest for religions has continued to develop, but only the ones rooted in the traditions of specific ethnic groups. Anton firmly believes that without cultural traditions, a religion cannot exist.
|Some of Roerich's stained glass windows|
Anton laments that the resources needed to properly maintain the temple are difficult to come by. Despite the fact that the building is designated as a historical landmark, the city allocates few funds for restoration efforts. Though money was given recently to fix the roof, the majority of the repairs are financed by the Datsan members and the local Buddhist congregation.
Six magnificent glass mosaics adorn the walls – gifts from Regina, a local Buddhist artist. New benches stand everywhere and the interior is well painted and clean. There are plenty of offerings in front of the Buddha statue. True, the stained glass is aging and fractured in places and there is a heap of old construction materials behind the building. But, nevertheless, the place does not breathe of abandonment and disrepair. Despite the roughness around the edges the hundred-year-old Datsan is full of life and activity.
About half are from the Buryat diaspora alone. There are also Tuvan, Kalmyk, Altai, Chinese, Vietnamese, and some Thai Buddhists that come to the temple, as well as converted and curious Europeans. Two services are held per day and liturgy is read in both the Tibetan and Buryat languages.
Anton leads tours in the Datsan as the historical expert of the community. Now there are 3-4 tours per week of 40-60 people. In the past year the tour traffic was even heavier: as many as 7 groups of forty people each per day. Because of its unique location and connection with Itigilov, the Datsan is also an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists the world over.
After the Revolution, the Datsan suffered a fate similar to that of many other religious sites in the Soviet Union – it was pillaged in the years immediately following the uprising of 1917, then continued to be open to worshippers until the mid-1930s. Buddhism and buddhology were outlawed under Stalin in 1935; the priests and students of the Datsan were repressed. During the Second World War it served as a military radio station and continued on as a glushilka to block foreign radio transmissions into the Soviet Union until the 1970s. Then, the building was given to the zoological institute of the USSR Academy of Science. The Datsan was not returned to the faithful until 1990.
This country has not had the best reputation for religious and ethnic tolerance in recent years and so I asked Anton to weigh in. I asked him how he thought the treatment of ethnic Buddhists differed from the treatment of Muslim, Central Asian migrants in the city.
“There are few Buryats in the city and the Buryats are a less provocative people [as compared to other ethnic minorities], they’re unpretentious, and so people don’t complain about them. Anyone who is even a little familiar with Russia’s history knows that the Buryats are fully in their right to be here,” he says. The same goes for the other Buddhist ethnicities in his opinion. However, the sheer number of migrants from the Caucuses and Central Asia is much more threatening to local natives. “We’re afraid for our culture, all peoples are afraid for their culture. When [migrants] come they bring a different culture, even in terms of clothing, and it causes irritation. One shouldn’t bring one’s own rites to someone else’s monastery.”