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Andrei Terentev, About Buddhism in Russia

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Terbish, Baasanjav 


Andrei Terentev, a prominent Russian historian of Buddhism, talks about Buddhism in the Soviet Union and its revival in today’s Russia. He is the editor of the journal Buddhism in Russia and the Buddhist publication house Nartang. When he was asked to talk about Buddhism in the post-Soviet period he replied as follows: It is difficult to start from the post-Soviet period, because it is a continuation of Buddhism that survived in the Soviet Union. Legally speaking, Buddhism existed only in Buryatia. The Kalmyks were not given permission to set up a Buddhist community. After the Second World War, two temples were opened in Buryatia, including the Aginskiy and Ivolginskiy temples. As early as the 1960s Buddhism began to spread in places such as Moscow, Leningrad (today St Petersburg) and the Baltic states where Buddhism had not existed before. There Buddhism was known mainly among intellectuals, some of whom adopted this religion. The most well-known among them was a group run by the Buryat lama Bidii Dandaron who had disciples in all of these places. After the war, there were still some educated lamas left in Buryatia, who had been released from prison. Almost all lamas were repressed in the Soviet period, their number being around 13,000. Those lamas who survived the repression, several hundred of them remained to live in villages, and around 30 lamas managed to return to the temples when they were re-opened. However, it was forbidden to pass religious knowledge. It was only allowed to perform rituals at the temples. Buddhism existed but it could neither replenish itself nor spread its teachings. It became apparent soon that the Buddhist tradition had to be supported before all of the old lamas died. The main idea of the Soviet leadership was politically motivated in that they wanted to present the Soviet Union as a country with free religions. That is why a Buddhist religious school was allowed to open in Mongolia where Buryat lamas were sent to pursue studies. With the beginning of perestroika these young people took leading roles within the Central Spiritual Board of Buddhists of the USSR. When it became clear that people would no longer be sent to prison, or laid off from their work for their Buddhist belief, attempts to set up Buddhist communities were undertaken in many places, including Kalmykia, Tuva and Moscow, where Buddhism had existed before. In particular, in St Petersburg the local Buddhist community received the temple back that was built by Agvan Dordzhiev in 1915. The revival of Buddhism was quick. Buddhist literature appeared on book shelves and Buddhist centers appeared in many cities and towns of Central Russia where this religion had not been known before. In the traditional Buddhist regions temples were built. In the past 25 years the main temples have been either re-built or restored. The problem was not in building temples but in educating the clergy that had been destroyed in the Soviet period. It is not difficult to erect a building but it requires decades to educate qualified clergy, for a full Buddhist education takes around 20 years. In the past two decades, it was the most talented and dedicated young people who completed the full education. Dozens of young Kalmyks, Buryats and Tuvans set off for India to receive religious education. With the help of his Holiness the Dalai Lama these young people were accepted into Tibetan monasteries, but not all managed to complete their education. Having said this, today there is a new generation of educated lamas in Buryatia and Kalmykia. Apart from traditional regions, in many parts of Russia Buddhist communities sprang up that invited Buddhist teachers and translated key Buddhist texts. Many books have been translated, including the Lamrim Chenmo by Tsongkapa. The Dalai Lama’s visits to Russia in 1991 and 1992 gave impetus to the development of Tibetan Buddhism. After it became impossible for the Dalai Lama to travel to Russia any more, Russian pilgrims started to travel to India, and recently to Riga. In Riga, today we are present at one such teaching by the Dalai Lama.



Buddhism, Russia, suppression, revival

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Kalmyk Cultural Heritage Documentation Project, University of Cambridge

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Sponsored by Arcadia Fund, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.