Prayers Vs. Realpolitik

For Russia's million or so Buddhists, it was to be an occasion of a lifetime. Their revered spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was set to visit on Sept. 9. Then came a shocker. For reasons not fully clear, the Russian Foreign Ministry reversed earlier assurances and, last week, told His Holiness to stay home. With that, the country's Buddhists found themselves back on the losing side of yet another fierce Russian tug of war between politics and religion.

That they've survived at all is just shy of a miracle. At the start of the Bolshevik regime, there were about 15,000 Buddhist monks in Russia; by 1940, after Stalin's terror, almost none were left. Today, temples can be found from St. Petersburg to the Far East, and monasteries are bursting with recruits. Their thriving community is led by a growing coalition of intellectual converts, as well as politicians and religious figures from three traditionally Buddhist provinces, Buryatiya and Tuva in Siberia and Kalmykia in the Caucusus--Europe's only Buddhist political entity. They include one of Russia's most famous rock musicians, Boris Grebenshchikov, as well as the film director Sergei Soloviev--a sort of Russian answer to U.S. film actor and Buddhist activist Richard Gere, who happens to be a friend. The Buddhists' political heavyweight is Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the superrich and eccentric president of the desert republic of Kalmykia, whose people, the Kalmyks, have been Buddhist since their conquest by the Mongols.

Unlike most other religions in Russia, today's Buddhists needn't worry about bad vibes from the Orthodox Church. "We have fewer problems because our believers are inconspicuous," says Andrei Terentyev, editor of a Buddhist journal and a former translator for the Dalai Lama. Most Buddhists still live in their traditional homelands; local public officials tend also to be Buddhist, and there is little push to export their religion to other regions of Russia. All this, he adds, puts the Buddhists in stark contrast to Roman Catholics or Protestants, who seem more dangerous competitors to the Orthodox Church.

Still, that hasn't opened the doors for the Dalai Lama. In the end, it seems, realpolitik triumphed over prayer wheels--again. In April, Russian authorities canceled permission for a pro-Tibet demonstration outside the Chinese Embassy in Moscow that had been held for six years straight. Last year, when the Dalai Lama earlier applied to visit Russia, Moscow's Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected him. Then, as now, Beijing was the silent, obstructing force. Russia and China share a long, sensitive border and decades of geopolitical baggage. In recent years the Chinese have viewed the Russians as a useful counterbalance to U.S. dominance, while the Russians have viewed China primarily as a crucial market for Russian goods, especially weapons.

In Ivolginsk, the spiritual center of Russia's Buddhists, people were angered by Moscow's decision. "Russia is a vast and powerful country," said monk Buda Badmayev. "To listen to the wishes of one's neighbor over the wishes of one's own people is a crime." As the believers of many other faiths have discovered, though, in Russia the state continues to trump the church.