Is the Russian Orthodox Church Out to Provoke Russia’s Buddhists?

March 23, 2015
Kalmykia. Photo via

Staunton, March 2 — The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, having offended many Russian liberals by its obscurantism and slavish subordination to the Kremlin and having angered many of Russia’s Muslims by its backing for missionary work among them, now appears set to offend a group it had hitherto largely ignored: Russia’s Buddhists.

This is no trivial matter: On the one hand, there are more than almost a million members of traditionally Buddhist nationalities inside the Russian Federation – the Kalmyks, the Tuvans, and the Buryats – all of which have close ties to the Dalai Lama and the larger Buddhist world.

And on the other, Buddhists despite their reputation for pacifism can when under pressure engage in violence in defense of their faith and their populations, as events in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and most recently Thailand have shown. Even within Russia, there have been cases of extreme Buddhist militancy as under the leadership of Baron Ungern during the civil war.

For these reasons, the Russian Orthodox Church has generally shied away from doing anything that might provoke the Buddhists and the Buddhist nationalities, carefully treating Buddhism as one of the country’s “four traditional faiths’ and holding itself aloof from the Russian government’s opposition to the Dalai Lama.

But now that appears to be changing, and the consequences of this change could be far more serious than their authors appreciate.

Last week, Russian Orthodox Archbishop Justinian of Elista and Kalmykia proposed making the Kalmyk Republic “one of the centers for the study of the missionary activity…of Kirill and Methodius,” even though the traditionally Buddhist Kalmyks form 57 percent of its population and ethnic Russians 30 percent.

The archbishop made his proposal at conference about the missionary work of Kirill and Methodius in the ninth century, a meeting that was held in the Kalmyk capital and timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Elista bishopric.

He said that the Khazar kaganate had had its capital in what is now Kalmykia and thus it is entirely appropriate to speak “about the special responsibility…of the region for preserving memory about the works of Sts. Kirill and Methodius among peoples populating these lands in those times.”

Following the churchman’s speech, the conference adopted a resolution which declared that “recognition of the links of contemporary Kalmykia with Sts. Kirill and Methodius will serve as a powerful stimulus for the spiritual and moral rebirth of the Elista bishopric, make possible the strengthening of cooperation between the traditional religions of the region…and promote inter-regional cooperation in the southern borderlands of the country.”

But it is likely that Justinian’s proposal will have exactly the opposite effect, exacerbating relations between the republic’s Buddhist majority and its Orthodox minority especially given Moscow’s continuing opposition to the links of Russia’s Buddhists to the Dalai Lama and increasing Buddhist activism not only in Kalmykia but in Tuva and Buryatia as well.