Here is an impressive, remarkable work indeed. Remarkable, firstly, by its broad and complex topic, Buddhism in Russia, which requires competence in Buddhist studies and Russian language, and which has hardly been dealt with as such by Western scientists. In this respect, the books by Heather Stoddard 1985 and John Snelling 1993, devoted to the elusive figure of the lama Agvan Dorzhiev, appear to be exceptions (cf. Heather Stoddard, Le mendiant de l’Amdo [The Amdo’s Beggar], Nanterre: Société d’ethnographie, 1985, strangely missing in the bibliographical footnotes, yet very rich; John Snelling, Buddhism in Russia: The Story of Agvan Dorzhiev: Lhasa’s Emissary to the Tsar, Longmead, UK: Element Books, 1993, mentioned p. 85.). Significantly, one finds no entry ‘Russia’ in most Dictionaries or Encyclopedias of Buddhism. May be still more remarkable is the comprehensive approach that the editor, Dany Savelli, has applied. Initially motivated by such a striking general lack of interest for Russia’s relations to Asia, she decided to focus on Buddhism as a peculiarly sensitive and revealing aspect of this question and solicited papers from international specialists, mainly from France and Russia. Her own ambition was to “think together” Russia and Buddhism, to investigate the question of the very “presence of Buddhism in Russia” (to the exclusion of strictly Buddhological questions). This perspective inspired the Editor’s introduction and organisation in chapters, provides the whole volume with a strong consistency: It combines suggestively overviews and case studies, state policy and local situations, history of ideas and biographies of uncommon personalities.
The volume consists of an illuminating, all-embracing introduction by Dany Savelli (“Penser le bouddhisme en Russie [Thinking Buddhism in Russia],” pp. 9-86) and twenty-one specialised articles on different aspects of Buddhist presence in Russia (from 10 to 20 pages each), most of those written in Russian being translated by D. Savelli herself. Well-conceived and copiously documented, the introduction provides the reader with a scholarly and at the same time humanist overview of the political and intellectual presence of Buddhism in Russia. D. Savelli recounts the inclusion of Buddhist populations into the Russian Empire since the eighteenth century (the Transbaikalian Buryats, the Kalmyks, and more recently the Tuva). The authorities, who on the whole inclined to let them practice their religion, had however to take specific measures concerning the building of monasteries as well as the rights and duties of the monks. By the end of the nineteenth century, the interest for Buddhism increased when Russia entered a competition for influence in Tibet and neighbouring regions with the United Kingdom, which became known as the Great Game. Buddhism became involved also in political affairs within Russia through the activities of a few influent characters, as shown with other detailed information in dedicated chapters. While most Kalmyks opposed the Bolshevik revolution, some members of the Buddhist clergy in Buryatia adopted a reformist attitude aimed to conciliate Buddhism and communism; their efforts were nonetheless wiped out by Stalin’s general repression starting from the late 1920s. After the war, just for form’s sake two monasteries were re-opened among the Buryats (Ivolga in 1945, Aga in 1946). Today’s Russia comprises nearly one million adepts of Buddhism, which was acknowledged as one of the country’s traditional religions in 1997.
Simultaneously and in parallel, D. Savelli produces an in-depth analysis of the Russian élites’ attitudes towards Buddhism. This unknown religion along with the image of Tibet as a closed, forbidden country has exerted a deep fascination among intellectuals, which generated several, more or less merging or diverging, political and mystical trends. The one embodied by Prince Ukhtomskii was probably the most influential in the long run, insofar as it disseminated the idea that, contrary to West Europeans, Russians share something ‘natural’ with Asiatic peoples, which gave the White Tsar legitimacy to become the head of the emerging pan-Buddhism. This paved the way for Russia to pursue colonisation eastwards and for Russian pro-Buddhist trends to propagate the myth that the hidden country of Shambhala could be Russia itself. The Soviet regime did not put an end to this fascination, as shown by the exceptional destiny of another elusive character, the painter and mystical leader Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947), who emigrated to New York as early as 1918: He never disappeared from the stage in the USSR and has his name used to designate a successful Buddhist movement in present-day Russia (p. 73).
The arrangement of contributions in seven parts with verbs as titles, original and suggestive, aptly reflects the multifaceted ‘presence of Buddhism’ through relevant intellectual categories that echo the main questions raised in the introduction. The first part is called ‘knowing’. V. Lysenko’s chapter (“La philosophie bouddhique en Russie: brève histoire de l’approche et des méthodes d’étude de la fin du xixe siècle aux années 1940 [Buddhist Philosophy in Russia: A Short History of the Approach and Methods of Study from the Late Nineteenth Century to 1940],” pp. 89-114) relates the history of Buddhist philosophy in Russia from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1940s. Several schools developed, the most consequential for Buddhist studies in Russia being the one founded by philologist Shcherbatskii, whose scientific heritage was stopped in the 1930s. In a chapter on Leo Tolstoy (“Lev Tolstoj et le bouddhisme [Leo Tolstoy and Buddhism],” 115-32), Sergej Serebrjanyj explains how the great novelist’s sympathy for Buddhism as a non-violent religion was at the same time sincere and superficial. The second part, called ‘linking together’ comprises three contributions devoted to various aspects of the complex personality and manifold activity of Agvan Dorzhiev. Tat’jana Šaumjan (“Agvan Doržiev: les missions tibétaines auprès du tsar (1900-1901) [Agvan Dorzhiev: The Tibetan Missions to the Tsar (1900-01)],” 135-52) examines the diplomatic activity of this famous lama. Born in Buryatia in 1853/4, he joined a pilgrims’ caravan in 1872 to go to Tibet and, there, received a religious education in monasteries. He became a regular visitor to the Dalai Lama, and was sent as his emissary to the Tsar. The author’s thorough investigation makes clear how clever and ambitious he was, and also how impossible it is to decide whether he acted as a Russian agent, a supporter of Tibet, or a Buryat nationalist ― echoing D. Savelli’s remark that a mere spy’s motivation would never account for all that he did (p. 58). Another part of A. Dorzhiev’s activities consisted in the foundation of a temple in Saint Petersburg from 1909 to 1915, with inner decoration by Roerich, as related by Aleksandr Andreev (“La maison du Bouddha dans le nord de la Russie (Histoire du peuple bouddhique de Saint-Pétersbourg) [The House of Buddha in Northern Russia (History of the Buddhic People of Saint Petersburg)],” 153-77). This temple was destined not only to Asiatic Buddhists, but also to Russian intellectuals and foreigners living in the city. Closed down and converted to other ends from the late 1930s onwards, it returned to Buddhists after 1990. Besides, A. Dorzhiev was also active among the Kalmyks: He strove to stimulate Buddhist education among them in 1906-1907 (Dordžieva Galina, “Le lharamba Agvan Dordžiev et le clergé kalmouk [Lharamba Agvan Dordzhiev and the Kalmuk Clergy],” 179-84).
‘Healing’ defines the third part, focused on the Buryat family Badmaev. The first two chapters examine the controversial personality of Petr Badmaev (1851-1920). He was known first as a ‘Tibetan doctor’, although not he but his brother was trained as such ― one among other reasons that make writing his biography difficult, Tat’jana Grekova explains (“Pëtr Badmaev (1851-1920), ‘médecin tibétain’ converti à l’orthodoxie [Petr Badmaev, a ‘Tibetan Physician’ Converted to Orthodoxy],” 187-200). But he enjoyed success in medical practice, making use of concrete elements such as pulse (instead of incantations and divination as did the mystics). The Tsar’s protection (probably due to his healing as Rasputin’s right-hand man) preserved him when his other activity turned out badly. As a matter of fact, he was also active as an entrepreneur in Transbaikalia and Mongolia (Kuz’min Jurij, “Pëtr Badmaev, entrepreneur en Transbaïkalie et en Mongolie [Petr Badmaev, en Entrepreneur in Transbaikalia and Mongolia],” 201-12). Convinced that the Trans-Siberian Railway would foster the economic development in this area, he launched a breeding farm, a journal and other innovations. However, the latter and trading were probably not his only activities there, which provoked suspicion, though with limited consequences for him. Albeit he went bankrupted in 1897, he could go on promoting economic development in Transbaikalia. As to Nikolai Badmaev (1879-1939), his nephew, he was the ‘Tibetan doctor’ of the Kremlin rulers. M. Gorky helped him organise a research centre on oriental medicine. He was shot in 1939 as member of a pan-Mongol bourgeois organisation, but more probably, according Tat’jana Grekova’s hypothesis (“Nikolaj Badmaev (1879-1939), ‘médecin tibétain’ des dirigeants du Kremlin [Nikolai Badmaev (1879-1939), the ‘Tibetan Physician’ of the Kremlin Leaders],” 213-22), because he refused to work for a secret toxicological and bacteriological laboratory in the aim of provoking death undetectably.
‘Dreaming’ introduces the fourth part. The aim of Marlène Laruelle (“La place du bouddhisme dans les discours nationalistes russes du xixe siècle [The Place of Buddhism in Nineteenth-Century Russian Nationalist Discourses],” 225-42) is to define the place of Buddhism in Russian nationalist discourses of the nineteenth century, which denied both the West and the East. Buddhism appeared to be an occasion to think about national identity and a possible destiny for Russia, and Lhassa replaced Moscow as the ‘third Rome’ in a messianic perspective. However, the author writes in conclusion, this was no more than dreaming of exoticism. To go beyond the dream, N. Roerich undertook a series of journeys in Tibet, India, and Mongolia in the 1920s, in order to foster contacts between Western and Asian Buddhists from a both religious and political viewpoint (Rosov Vladimir, “La mission bouddhique de Nikolaj Roerich au Tibet [Nikolai Roerich’ Buddhich Mission to Tibet],” 243-63). He was supported by American and English institutions, but still in relations with the soviets, so that the Tibetan authorities finally opposed his visit to Tibet. The fifth part, ‘writing’ and ‘painting’ comprises four chapters, respectively devoted to the writer N. Leskov, who advocated Buddhism for being tolerant and compassionate (Ozerova Natalija, “Bouddhisme et tolérance religieuse dans l’œuvre de Nikolaj Leskov [Buddhism and Religious Tolerance in Nikolai Leskov’s Work],” 267-74); to the painter V. Vereshchagin, known for his ethnographical realism (Bertrand Frédéric, “Le peintre Vasilij Vereshchagin, l’Himalaya et le bouddhisme tibétain [Painter Vasilii Vereshchagin, the Himalaya, and Tibetan Buddhism],” 275-85); to the futuristic poet V. Khlebnikov, who proposed a mathematical system to explain the universe, presumably close to tantric Buddhism (Lanne Jean-Claude, “Velimir Khlebnikov et le bouddhisme [Velimir Khlebnikov and Buddhism],” 287-97); and to an analysis of The Return of the Buddha, a fantastic novel intertwining Buddhism and the Soviet revolution in Inner Asia by Vsevolod Ivanov (Savelli Dany, “Une lecture du Retour du Bouddha de Vsevolod Ivanov ou le fantastique à la jonction du bouddhisme et de la révolution [A Reading of The Buddha’s Return by Vsevolod Ivanov, or the Fantastic at the Junction of Buddhism and Revolution],” 299-318).
The sixth part consists of specialised studies on the regions of Russia with a Buddhist tradition. Natalija Žukovskaia (“Le bouddhisme en Bouriatie: passé et présent [Buddhism in Buryatia: Past and Present],” 321-38) describes the past and present situation of Buddhism in Buryatia; L. Belka (339-52), that of the Buryat monastery of Aga, where Buddhism enjoys a revival nowadays. The chapter by El’za Bakaeva (“Le bouddhisme en Kalmoukie [Buddhism in Kalmukia],” 353-9) is a very sound overview of the much less known history and concrete situation of Buddhism in Kalmykia. Marina Monguš (381-400) recounts its history and renewal in Tuva, and Vladimir Dacyšen (401-11) the situation of the sangha during the Russian protectorate on this country (1911-1921). The last two chapters concern the movement Karma-Kagyü founded by the Danish lama Ole Nydhal in 1972. He visited Moscow first in 1989 and from 1992 onwards he organised meetings and centres in Elista and elsewhere. Ksenja Pimenova (“Formes recomposées de traditions et d’innovations dans le bouddhisme Karma-Kagyü: le cas du centre de Moscou [Reconstructed Forms of Traditions and Innovations in Karma-Kagyü Buddhism: The Case of the Moscow Centre],” 415-33) analyses the case of the Moscow centre, visited in our days mainly by young educated peoples, whose participation remains individualistic. According to the interview of A. Koibagarov by Eugène Giovanelli (“L’activité du lama danois Ole Nydahl en Russie (entretien avec Aleksandr Kojbagarov) [The Activity of the Danish Lama Ole Nydahl in Russia (an Interview with Alexandr Koibagarov)],” 435-47), Ole Nydhal remains a very charismatic character; he promotes a culture-free, friendly and democratic ideal. His movement is present in several important cities of the country.
In addition to a lot of rare information and refined analyses, this book also contains a series of old photographs, many of which come from various archive collections and, to my knowledge, were hitherto unpublished: let me only mention the extraordinary one showing the assembling of Buddha Maitreya’s big statue from the Aga Monastery in 1941 (p. 44), or that of Agvan Dorzhiev going out of the Peterhof Palace after paying a visit to the Tsar in 1901 (p. 140). The global perspective makes all of them relevant to the understanding of the place of Buddhism not only in Russia, but also in the recent history of the global world. More importantly perhaps, it helps understand the uneasiness resented by many Russians because of their country’s situation between the West and the East, particularly thanks to the subtle manner interactions between politics, religion, art and literature ― as well as the trends of opinion they gave raise to ― are highlighted. Moreover, very well written and edited (there are very few misprints: e.g., Klemec for Klemenc p. 238, ogons for ongons p. 270), rich in precious illustrations, this book is to be highly recommended.