In the ebb and flow of religious history, reform movements are often needed, especially perhaps in modern times, as they help religious communities better understand and adapt to changing times. Sometimes, however, they are blithely accommodating, even obsequious to reigning powers, rendering well-meaning souls cowardly in their desire to become aware and accepted in the halls of self-righteousness. The allure of academic stature and media attention is often the culprit for the scholarly body.
But I recently came across a case that just takes the cake. It involves a reformist Buddhist movement in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century in its efforts to understand and adapt to the new Soviet regime after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
Given the small size of the Buddhist population in the Russian Empire and its remoteness from major centers of power, the Bolsheviks initially paid little attention to Buddhists, seeing them primarily as backward colonized peoples who should be thankful for. their emancipation from Tsarism. Representing only half a million people, Buddhists were present among three distinct groups of people at the start of Soviet rule: among the Buryats-Mongols living near Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia (Buriatia), among the Kalmkys in the region of the Volga north of the Caspian Sea (Kalmykia), and among the Tuvians, who occupied a border region with China (Tuva), annexed to the Russian Empire only in 1914. Buddhism first put the Marxists – Leninists in a dilemma. On the one hand, Buddhism seemed to offer valuables through a Soviet lens: an egalitarian ethic and even a revolutionary attitude as its origins were linked to a revolt against the Hindu caste system. And in its Theravada form, Buddhism could even be considered atheist. Yet the Buddha’s caste revolt, as Soviet theorists ultimately argued, was overwhelming spiritual in nature and paid little attention to the material basis of existence. What is more, the idea of reincarnation, from a historical perspective, has occurred to them too often to serve the interests of the ruling classes, promising the rewards below in another life for passive and godly behavior in the present; Buddhism encourages “social passivity and. . . away from the concrete historical situation ”, as the Great Soviet Encyclopedia reprimand.
But I digress, so let’s get back to the reform movement. In 1926, a congress of Soviet Buddhists was organized in Buryatia, during which Buddhists and Communists seemed to agree on many questions, notably with regard to the question of “nationality”. Delegates to the rally even sent a telegram to the Dalai Lama, telling him that the new administration bodes well for Buddhists. (Russian Buddhists owe their existence to the Mongol missionaries who brought them Tibetan forms of Buddhism in the 17th century.) The commonalities between Communism and Buddhism expressed in Congress were the product of the reform movement, sometimes referred to as neo-Buddhism or Buddhist modernism, and largely the original idea of Khambo Lama Agvan Dordzhiev (1853-1938), formerly a study partner with the Dalai Lama, who in 1909 had obtained permission from the Tsar to establish a Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, the first Buddhist structure in Europe. Concerned about the survival of Buddhism under the new Soviet regime and keen to achieve a modus vivendi with it, Dordzhiev went to great lengths to find similarities between the two ideologies, claiming that Buddhism, as understood, was in fact compatible with it. Marxist atheism. Some of Dordzhiev’s followers went further, arguing that Lenin was in fact a manifestation of the Buddha, who should be considered the true founder of communism. These modernizing Buddhists also spread the belief that Russia was identical to the legendary Messianic kingdom of Shambala, which Tibetan Buddhism claims destroys all false beliefs and ushers in a period of Buddhist prosperity and harmony.
Some Marxist scholars were initially flattered by the comparisons, but most were simply bewildered and ultimately few came out. As the Soviets organized themselves and Stalin consolidated power and began his collectivization policies in the late 1920s, all ideological rapprochement faded and blatant antagonism and repression arose. At that time, the infamous League of Godless Activists (which some reformist Buddhists first tried to join!) “Buddhist atheism has nothing to do with militant atheism based on Marxist assessment of the laws of nature and of society “, such as the Soviet atheist magazine Impious to put it bluntly in September 1930. Buddhist rulers or lamas, too, came under scrutiny and came to be seen as “feudal lords”, inherently reactionary, interested and hostile to socialist progress . In 1928, heavy taxes began to be imposed on the monasteries and many lamas were arrested, imprisoned and deported. During Stalin’s reign, Dordzhiev himself was exiled to Leningrad (formerly Saint Petersburg), was arrested there in 1937, and then died in prison in Ulan-Ude in the Far East of the Soviet Union, probably tortured before. Several other lamas associated with the Leningrad Buddhist Temple were also arrested and shot in the 1930s, and the temple was ransacked.
Then things got really bad, as most of Russian Buddhism was simply wiped out at root and branch in the 1930s and 1940s, either through persecution, harsh collectivization measures, or deportation – a fate that is came across the Buddhist Kalmyck in the Volga region.
I will have more to say about Soviet-era Buddhists (and other religious communities under the USSR) in a new book project, tentatively titled “Unholy Wars: Secularist Violence in Modern History”. But for now let me just note that hosting, well, sometimes doesn’t pay off. It may earn you a hat trick from the powers that be, but as these Buddhist modernizers have learned, it can also set you up to become a historical curiosity.