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Agvan Dorjiev, also known as Ngawang Lobzang (ngag dbang blo bzang)

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(1906) Agvan Dorjiev.jpg

Agvan Dorjiev, also known as Ngawang Lobzang (ngag dbang blo bzang) was born in 1854 in Central Transbaikalia (Buryatia), the region to the east of Lake Baikal in Siberia. He was a Buryat-Mongol, and a member of one of the Mongolian communities that was incorporated by the Russian Empire in the early eighteenth century. He grew up with parents who were devout Buddhists.

He led the life of an ordinary Buryat man and was married to Kolingtsog in Urga (Da Khuree in contemporary Ulaanbaatar) in Mongolia, where he moved when he was fourteen years old. He was educated at Atsagat Monastery, which was close to his childhood home, and he took the vow of a celibate layman from his mentor, a man known by his Tibetan name, Pelden Chopel Pelzangpo (dpal ldan chos 'phel dpal bzang po). He always had a deep interest in Buddhism starting from when he was very young.

In the winter of 1873, at the age of nineteen, Dorjiev visited Tibet with Pelden Chopel Pelzangpo, as members of the religious embassy that was to bring to Urga the Eighth Khalkha Jetsun dampa Khutuktu Ngawang Lobzang Chokyi Nyima) (khal kha rje btsun dam pa ngag dbang blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma, 1869-1924), the highest-ranking lama in Khalkha Mongolia and who had been born in Tibet. Soon after arriving in Lhasa Dorjiev enrolled in Gomang College (sgo mang gra tshang) at Drepung Monastery ('bras spungs dgon pa).

However, two years later, in response to a Tibetan policy that prohibited foreigners – Dorjiev had been born in the Russian Empire – from entering and staying in Tibet, he returned to Urga. Back in Mongolia, Dorjiev became a Buddhist monk by taking the full monastic vow from his mentor, Pelden Chopel Pelzangpo.

Afterward, he studied at Wutai Shan (五台山, ri bo rtse lnga), the Buddhist holy mountain situated in Shanxi Province in China where Mongolian Buddhists often went on pilgrimages. According to Dorjiev's autobiography, which he wrote in Tibetan, he received many tantric initiations and doctrinal instruction from his masters there including a certain Dzasak Rinpoche (rdza sa rin po che).

It has been speculated that while Dorjiev was here, he became Abbot of the Monastery of Pusa ding (菩薩頂) at Wutai Shan, although this is unlikely to have been the case. Dzasak Rinpoche also made the arrangements for Dorjiev to return to Lhasa with a man identified as Jadrel Rinpoche (bya bral rin po che), who was presumably the same person as Pelden Chopel Pelzangpo.

Dorjiev arrived in Lhasa for the second time in 1880, at the age of twenty-six. He and Jadrel Rinpoche arrived during the Monlam Chenmo (smon lam chen mo), the Great Prayer Festival in the New Year, and made generous offerings to the three great monasteries in Lhasa and Tashilhunpo (bkra shis lhun po) in Shigatse. Afterwards, he entered Gomang College with the title of Chonze (chos mdzad), the one who makes offerings to his monastery and is therefore exempt from the manual labor work required of average monks. Presumably the copious donations enabled his supervisors to disregard policy that had previously prevented him from staying in Lhasa.

In 1888, after completing his course of study at Gomang College, Dorjiev received his Geshe Lharampa (dge bshes lha ram pa) degree, the highest academic degree in the Geluk education system. Dorjiev became a Geshe Lharampa after only eight years of study, an obvious indication of his brilliance and exceptional talent. Some

scholars, however, have also pointed out that his remarkable achievements at the monastery were due just as much to the support of certain influential figures as to his distinguished academic capabilities. His tutor, the Third Purchok Jampa Gyatso (pur bu lcog 03 byams pa rgya mtsho, 1825-1901), with whom he was very close, had also become a personal tutor of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 13 thub bstan rgya mtsho, 1876-1933). This connection helped Dorjiev get appointed as one of the Dalai Lama's assistant tutors (mtshan zhabs) in debating practice around the time he got his degree. He established a close relationship with the young Dalai Lama.

Diplomacy for Tibet-Russia Rapprochement

In the late nineteenth century the political relationship between Tibet and the international community started to change dramatically. Countries like Nepal and Sikkim were coming under the control of British India, while the power of the Qing Empire was rapidly declining. During this time, Dorjiev played a remarkable role in establishing a

relationship between Russia and Tibet. He had already revealed to the Dalai Lama that he was born in Buryatia which was part of the Russian Empire, and repeatedly attempted to convince the Dalai Lama that Russia was ready to protect Tibet from Britain. Dorjiev faced strong opposition particularly from the pro-Qing faction in

Lhasa which rejected any western involvement whatsoever. However, Dorjiev was ultimately able to persuade the young Dalai Lama, who still had only limited information about international affairs, to seek out Russian support.

As a result of this, between 1898 and 1901, Dorjiev was dispatched to Russia three times under the instruction of the Dalai Lama for negotiations with the Russian imperial court in order to gain political and

military support for Tibet. At the same time, Russia, which had a rivalry with British India in Central Asia – the so-called Great Game – was becoming interested in Tibetan affairs. Tsar Nicholas II was enthroned in 1896 and his advisors advocated expanding to the Far East.

On February 28, 1898, Dorjiev, who had arrived in Russia via India and China, was granted an audience by Nicholas II in St. Petersburg. This was arranged by Prince Esper Ukhtomskyi, an orientalist and adviser to the Tsar who asserted active policies in the Far East. In this first interview, the

Tsar did not make a concrete commitment to assist Tibet; nevertheless, Dorjiev's visit attracted a certain amount of interest among political and academic figures in Russia. The Defense Minister, A. N. Kuropatkin, gave him a promising response about strengthening the Tibetan army with Russian support. The Russian Geographical Society, of which Dorjiev himself later became a member, also arranged an expedition to Tibet to be led by a lieutenant, Pyotr K. Kozlov, with Dorjiev's assistance.

Afterwards, Dorjiev also visited Paris and met with many intellectuals there. Even though this trip was unsuccessful in terms of his main objective of gaining support from France in assisting Tibet by leveraging the Russo-French

alliance, he had a lot of achievements in religious matters due to the vogue for Buddhism among intellectuals in Europe at that time. He conducted a large-scale Buddhist ceremony in Paris on June 27, 1898, which attracted a big audience including the explorer and Theosophist Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969), who lived in Paris at the time.

In 1900, the year after Dorjiev returned to Lhasa from his first trip to Russia, the Dalai Lama dispatched him again as his accredited representative to Russia in order to obtain a more definitive answer from Tsar Nicholas II. Dorjiev was able to meet with him at the imperial summer residence of

Livadia on the Black Sea on September 30. He delivered a letter and gifts from the Dalai Lama, and the Tsar also reciprocated with gifts to the Dalai Lama. Dorjiev also met ministers of the Russian Government, such as Kuropatokin, the Financial Minister S. Y. Witte, and the Foreign Minister V. M. Lamsdorf; they discussed, among other things, the possibility of setting up a Russian consulate in Tibet.

In 1901, after he returned to Lhasa for a short period of time, the Dalai Lama sent Dorjiev to Russia for a third time, together with two Tibetan officials as deputy envoys. In June of 1901, they were granted an audience with the Tsar in St. Petersburg, and Dorjiev negotiated with top officials of the Russian Government about

Russian support for Tibet. According to the Russian diplomat, I. Y. Korostovets, a draft of a Russo-Tibetan treaty was discussed confidentially by members of the government, but it was eventually rejected. Russia promised to

help Tibet only in terms of a mutual friendship between the two countries, with no mention of any active policy to defend Tibet against Britain. They were worried that a written commitment about protecting Tibet would put them in conflict with the Qing and the British Empire.

It is difficult to conclude that Dorjiev's three missions to Russia from 1898 to 1901 were successful in terms of being a diplomatic achievement for Tibet worthy of note. However, his travels and interactions with intellectuals abroad contradicts the notion that Tibet was isolated from the outside world and ignorant of world events at that time as is often supposed.

Visits to Kalmykia and Buryatia

During his three visits to Russia, Dorjiev also visited Kalmykia and Buryatia several times. In particular, after his third visit, he stayed in Russia for approximately two years and devoted himself mainly to Buddhist affairs in Kalmykia and Buryatia. As instructed by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and his teacher Purchok Jampa Gyatso, he established monasteries, ordained local monks and novices and performed tantric empowerments, all with the goal of revitalizing Buddhism in these areas. It was during one of these visits to Kalmykia that Agvan Dorjiev met a gifted

student named Ngawang Wanggyel (ngag dbang dbang rgyal) whom he brought back to Lhasa to study at Drepung. This student would later become known as Geshe Wangyal, the influential teacher who is credited with bringing Tibetan Buddhism to American in the 1950's.

Dorjiev faced some opposition from high-ranking local priests. When in Kalmykia, Shachin Lama objected to Dorjiev building two colleges of higher Buddhist studies (chos ra) because he was afraid that Dorjiev would undermine his local authority. However, Dorjiev still was able to do so because he conducted his work in Russia with the Dalai Lama's backing as well as with the authority of the Russian Tsar.

Beyond his Buddhist affairs, Dorjiev was actively involved in Buryat Nationalism and Pan-Mongolism. The area that the Buryats lived in was roughly divided into two parts, one to the west and one to the east of Lake Baikal. The people in the east, in what is known as Transbaikalia, Dorjiev's homeland, were almost all

Buddhists. However, in the west, in the Irkutsk Province, the number of Russian settlers increased from the late nineteenth century, and due largely to Tsarist Russia's assimilation policies, in a wide range of aspects including religion, culture and language, the Buryats became Russified.

This threat to Buryat society ignited the development of nationalism among Buryat intellectuals at the beginning of the twentieth century. Dorjiev and his Buryat fellows such as Bazar Baradiin (1878-1937), an eminent philologist, Tsyben Zhamtsarano (1880-1938), a professor at St. Petersburg

University, and Elbek-Dorzhi Rinchino (1888-1938), Buryat nationalist, thought that what was indispensable for the integrity of Buryat society was a new writing system, which would incorporate the Western Buryats into the common Mongolian culture. Therefore, by modifying Classical Mongol, they created a new Buryat

alphabet called Vagindra Script, which came from the Sanskrit version of Dorjiev's Tibetan name (Vag = ngag; indra = dbang), and they published works written with this new alphabet until around 1910. They created and tried to popularize the new writing system with the goal of unifying Buryats and fostering pan-

Mongolism; however, they ran into opposition from the Russian Government. The Russian Government exiled Zhamtsarano to Mongolia, and Dorjiev eventually abandoned this project, presumably due to his apprehension of going up against the Russian Government. The project ultimately ended in failure.

British Invasion in Lhasa and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's flight to Mongolia and China

The Tibet-Russia rapprochement caused serious concern to the Qing and the British. The news that Dorjiev had an audience with the Tsar in 1901 had a major impact on both governments. Because the Qing worried that Dorjiev's

mission would violate their authority over Tibet, Hu Weide (胡惟徳, 1863-1933), the Qing Minister in St. Petersburg met Dorjiev in person and demanded an explanation for the purpose of his visit to the Tsar; however, according to Chinese sources, Dorjiev prevaricated by answering that over the past few years he had

just been coming for "private meetings" with the Tsar that were outside the realm of politics. The Qing was at the time preoccupied with the occupation of Beijing by the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900 after the Boxer Rebellion.

In contrast to the Qing's response to Dorjiev's visit, British India launched an active policy toward Tibet. Until the end of the nineteenth century, British India consistently attempted to contact Tibet through the Qing, but Tibetan officials did not obey the Qing officials. Afterwards, George Curzon, who was the new Viceroy of India from 1899,

started sending letters to the Dalai Lama in order to communicate with Tibet directly. However, the Dalai Lama refused to receive his letters while Tibet's relationship with Russia was being developed by Dorjiev. Curzon considered this to be a threat to British India. On January 8, 1903, Curzon asserted that the Chinese "suzerainty" of Tibet

was merely "a constitutional fiction" and that the British Government had to dispatch an armed mission to Lhasa in order to establish a direct relationship with Tibet. As a result of this, an armed expedition led by F. E. Younghusband was sent to Tibet in the summer of 1903.

Dorjiev, who returned from Russia to Lhasa no later than the beginning of 1904, reiterated that Tibet should avoid a battle with the British expedition and should make a treaty with them because he clearly knew that Tibet's weak

military force would be no match for the well-equipped modern army of Britain. However, the majority of Tibetans still thought that they could defend their land; therefore, Dorjiev's warning was not well-received by the government and by other powerful Buddhist groups in Lhasa.

Before the British army marched into Lhasa in July 1904, the Dalai Lama fled to Urga with Dorjiev to gain Russian assistance. The Dalai Lama ultimately wanted the Russian Government to provide refuge to him. They negotiated with the Russian Government through the Russian Consul in Urga. Dorjiev himself, from

1905 to 1908, visited St. Petersburg several times to lobby for Russian support. However, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 followed by the Russian revolution of 1905 made it difficult for the Russian Government to pay attention to Tibetan issues at that time.

At this juncture, the Qing and Britain had been negotiating about the Tibetan affairs without the participation of a Tibetan representative, and they signed the Anglo-Chinese treaty on April 27, 1906, which recognized Chinese authority over Tibet. Furthermore, the rivalry between Britain and Russia over Central Asia had begun to end.

Britain and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian treaty on August 31, 1907, ending their conflict in Central Asia and specifying Chinese "suzerainty" over Tibet. This agreement put an end to the important phase in the Russo-Tibetan relationship initiated by Dorjiev's diplomacy in 1898.

In the latter half of 1906, the Dalai Lama, who realized the difficulty of getting Russian support, left Mongolia for Kumbum Monastery (sku 'bum dgon pa) in Amdo. Afterwards, in February of 1908, the Dalai Lama traveled to Wutai Shan where he stayed for several months, and the following September, he left for Beijing. Dorjiev, returning from Russia at that time, also rejoined the Dalai Lama's party.

While in Wutai Shan and Beijing, the Dalai Lama received numerous visits by various foreign diplomats. The Dalai Lama also sent Dorjiev as his envoy to negotiate with certain diplomats such as I. Y. Korostvets, the new Russian Minister, J. N. Jordan, the British Minister, W. F. T. O'Conner, who had joined the Younghusband mission in

1904, and W. W. Rockhill, an American Minister and scholar of Tibet. Since Tibet was facing a new crisis that stemmed from the Qing launching oppressive policies and trying to establish direct control in Tibet starting around 1906, the Dalai Lama was attempting to enlist foreign aid against the Qing.

Dorjiev failed to gain commitments from the foreign diplomats to provide assistance to Tibet. Even though he was unsuccessful in this regard, these meetings were valuable opportunities for Dorjiev to realize foreign attitudes toward Tibet; it is not difficult to imagine that Dorjiev helped the Dalai Lama develop an initial appreciation of

international politics and of Tibet's place within the world through all of his negotiations. Dorjiev and the Dalai Lama's hostility against Britain had already begun to cease at that time. They began to reconsider Britain as a potential supporter of Tibet against China.

In addition to these western diplomats, on November 21, 1908, Dorjiev also visited Teramoto Enga (寺本婉雅), a Japanese monk from Higashi Honganji Temple (東本願寺), who had already met the Dalai Lama three times, first at Kumbum Monastery in 1906 and then in Wutai Shan and Beijing in 1908. According to Teramoto's diary, Dorjiev strongly

recommended to him that young Japanese students should be sent to Tibet to study Buddhism. In December 1908, after the Dalai Lama had met with Emperor Guangxu (光緒帝, 1871-1908) and Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后, 1835-1908), and both had passed away, the Dalai Lama departed for Lhasa where the [Qing]] officials were rapidly expanding their influence, and Dorjiev left Beijing for St. Petersburg again.

In St. Petersburg in 1905, at the Dalai Lama's request Dorjiev negotiated with the Russian Government regarding the construction of a Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, which was approved. This project was financially supported not only by Dorjiev, the Dalai Lama and the Eighth Jetsun dampa Khutuktu, but the Buddhists in

Buryatia and Kalmyks in Russia also gave donations for the temple. For this construction, a specific committee was set up comprised of Dorjiev along with outstanding oriental scholars and politicians with whom Dorjiev had built relationships, such as Prince Esper Ukhtomsky, P. Badmaev, V. V. Radlov, S. F.

Oldenburg, F. Th. Stcherbatsky, V. L. Kotvich, N. K. Roerich, and P. Kozlov. Despite the fact that it caused opposition from right-wing extremists backed by some leaders of the Orthodox Church who opposed the construction of a "pagan's pagoda" in their sacred capital city of Russia, the construction began in 1909 and was completed in 1915. This was one of Dorjiev's more remarkable achievements.

The Demise of the Qing Empire and the Tibeto-Mongol Treaty

In February 1910, a few months after the Dalai Lama's return from Beijing to Lhasa, the Chinese army led by Zhong Ying (鍾穎), which the Qing Government dispatched in order to strengthen their control in Tibet, marched to Lhasa from Chengdu, Sichuan Province. The Dalai Lama and his entourage took flight to Darjeeling in India, where they lived in exile with the permission of the British Indian authorities from February 1910 to the summer of 1912.

During this period, while the Dalai Lama was requesting British India to support Tibet, he contacted Dorjiev in St. Petersburg in order to also seek assistance from the Russian Government. Neither Russia nor Britain, in keeping with the sprit and the letter of their treaty in 1907, were willing to make a commitment to support Tibet.

The Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命) in October 1911 and the demise of the Qing Empire in February 1912 provided the Dalai Lama an opportunity to expel the Chinese army from Tibet and to restore his authority and proclaim Tibetan independence. Dorjiev also went back to Tibet and, in the summer 1912, at

Phari Dzong (phag ri rdzong), reunited with the Dalai Lama, who was en route to Lhasa from his exile in India escorted by officials of British India. They arrived at Samding Monastery (bsam sdings dgon pa) on the

shores of Yamdrok Lake, and were together until early August, at which point Dorjiev departed for Mongolia. Before Dorjiev took leave from Samding Monastery, the Dalai Lama entrusted Dorjiev with a letter and gifts for Tsar Nicholas II. It would be their final farewell.

After he arrived at Urga at the end of 1912, Dorjiev accomplished his most remarkable diplomatic achievement for Tibet. On January 11, 1913, Dorjiev, as the chief signatory for Tibet, signed the Tibet-Mongol Treaty with Mongolia, which had already declared its independence from the Qing Dynasty in December 1911; the Jetsun dampa

Khutuktu was enthroned as Khan of Mongolia. In this treaty, Tibet and Mongolia recognized each other's independence and promised to strengthen their mutual friendship as two countries that have shared the same religion for centuries.

The news of the Tibet-Mongol Treaty not only caused objection from the new Chinese Government, the Republic of China, which asserted its territorial right over Tibet, but the British and Russian Governments were also

unhappy with this unexpected treaty. Britain had felt apprehension that the Tibet-Mongol rapprochement would allow Russia, which had a dominant position in Mongolia, to indirectly have influence over Tibet through Mongolia.

Regarding this British concern about a potential Russian conspiracy, the Russian authorities denied their involvement in this treaty and even tried to refuse to accept Dorjiev's status as an official Tibetan representative with the proper authority to sign such a treaty. It was highly important for Russia to maintain its relations with Britain on the eve of the First World War.

Regarding this highly controversial treaty, the negotiation process, to which Dorjiev was deeply committed, has not been clarified in detail; some researchers have considered Dorjiev a "special agent" or "spy" who was working for Russia and helping them with their strategy toward Inner Asia. Yet Dorjiev's diplomatic activities at times went against Russian policies, and he instead appears to have been more an agent of Tibet than Russia.

After the Tibet-Mongol Treaty was signed, Dorjiev went to St. Petersburg to participate in the first service of the new Buddhist temple on February 21, 1913. This despite the fact that the temple was not yet completed. This happened

concurrently with the celebration of the three hundredth anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. A grand opening ceremony for the temple took place on August 10, 1915. During this period, while the Tsarist Russia was caught up in the First World War, Dorjiev mainly dedicated himself to Buddhist matters in Buryatia. He was also concurrently

carrying out a large amount of propaganda to raise funds there to support the Russian Empire's war efforts together with Dashi Dorzho Itigelov (1852-1927), who was the Pandito Khambo Lama, the supreme ecclesiastical Buryat leader. The Romanov Dynasty, however, would soon face its imminent demise.

Restructuring Buddhism in Soviet Russia

With the fall of the Russian Empire in the February Revolution in 1917 and the establishment of the Bolshevik Government in the October Revolution of the same year, Russian Buddhists and Dorjiev himself was faced with a serious crisis. In the summer of 1918, Dorjiev was arrested at the railway station Urbach, not far from Saratov, on

suspicion of smuggling items and monies out of the country. He had with him offerings he had collected from Kalmykia for the additional construction of the Buddhist temple in Petrograd (renamed from St. Petersburg in 1917). The Buddhist temple was plundered by the Red Army, and in Kalmykia, the monasteries were also destroyed during the spread of the Russian civil war in 1918 and 1919.

While he was in prison, Dorjiev sought out the aid of Russian intellectuals of oriental studies, such as Th. Stcherbatsky, S. F. Oldenburg, and B. Vladimirtsov, with whom he had built close

relationships. As a result of their help, and presumably on the condition that he would collaborate with the Bolsheviks, he was soon set free. The property stolen from the Buddhist temple in Petrograd was lost, but the Red Army did withdraw from the temple precinct, and the Government promised to restore and protect the temple in response to a petition by Dorjiev in 1920.

Dorjiev apparently understood that the Buddhists in Russia would not survive long under the new regime if they did not alter many of their religious practices. In the 1920s, though he visited elsewhere, he was mainly based in Buryatia. He attempted to pursue reconciliation between Buddhism and Bolshevism with his fellow Buryatian intellectuals, such as Bazar Baradin, Tsyben Zhamtsarano and Elbek-Dorzhi Rinchino.

These leaders convened an All-Buryat Buddhist Congress twice, first in October 1922, the same year the Soviet Union was formed, and next in 1925. They discussed a wide range of changes for their communities: abolishing private property of

monks and transferring it to monastic communes; enacting the new law of the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic established in 1923 concerning the separation of church and state; calling up monks for military service; and raising age limits for entry into monastic communities; and other similar amendments.

Headed by Dorjiev, the All-Buryat Congress faced serious opposition from conservative Buddhist groups, and Dorjiev himself inevitably received strong personal criticism. However, with Lenin's death in 1924 and the following seizure of power by Stalin around 1928, all traditions were subjected to a strong anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union. In this critical phase, due largely to the efforts of Dorjiev and his compatriots to adjust Buddhism to the Socialist system, Buddhism could initially evade large-scale destruction.

Soviet Russia and Tibet

While he was working toward Buddhist reform, Dorjiev began to collaborate with the Bolsheviks on their foreign policies, for they wanted to export their revolutionary ideas to the world, including Inner Asia,

during their early years. The Bolsheviks had already annulled the 1907 treaty between Tsarist Russia and Britain – the basis for their relations in Inner Asia –because of their propagandist campaign against "imperialist partition" throughout the world. Therefore, they did not consider themselves as being bound by any obligations to Britain in Inner Asia.

As a result of this, Tibet once again became a bargaining chip for Russian diplomatic strategies toward Inner Asia and British India. The Bolsheviks began to realize that Dorjiev was a person of importance concerning Mongolian and Tibetan affairs after he was released from prison in 1918. The Bolsheviks

set up the "Tibetan Legation" on the premises of the Buddhist temple in Petrograd at the end of 1922, under the backing of the Narkomindel, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Dorjiev took up the title "Plenipotentiary" as the head of the legation. Concurrently, Dorjiev was also attempting to re-establish a cordial relationship between Russia and Tibet which had broken off with the collapse of the Romanov Dynasty. In the 1920s, with Dorjiev's support, the Bolsheviks dispatched missions to Tibet three times, in 1921/22, 1924/25 and 1927/28.

When the first mission, which mainly consisted of the Kalmyks, arrived in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama had felt the Soviet Union was untrustworthy, possibly due to his having been informed of Red Army's looting of the temple in

Petrograd. However, he ultimately sent his attendant (gsol dpon) Sharab Tepkin (20th century), a Kalmyk scholar, to accompany this mission in its return in order for him to assist Dorjiev as liaison between Tibet and the Soviet Union. Furthermore, a recently published letter to Dorjiev written by the Commander-in-Chief of the

Tibetan Army, Tsarong Dasang Damdul ([[tsha rong]zla bzang dgra 'dul]], d.1959), reveals that Tsarong also had an interest in building a relationship with the Soviet Union around the time when the second Soviet mission

arrived, despite the fact that he had been considered a strong advocator of pro-British policy. Thus Agvan Dorjiev's relationship with Tibet was not restricted to his personal ties with the Dalai Lama but included other high-ranking Tibetan officials.

In the following years, the Dalai Lama actively corresponded with Dorjiev concerning the flight of the Ninth Paṇchen Lama, Tubten Chokyi Nyima (paN chen thub bstan chos kyi nyi mab.1883 - d.1937) north from Tibet in 1923. This was the result of an escalating conflict with the Dalai Lama about the Panchen Lama's authority in the Tsang

region. Afraid that Chinese would use him for their political advantage, the Dalai Lama ordered Dorjiev to prevent the Panchen Lama from fleeing to China. Dorjiev immediately departed for Amdo and subsequently went to

Beijing to convince the Panchen Lama to stay in Mongolia and, if possible, to return to Tibet. Although he failed to catch him, and the Panchen Lama came under the protection of China in 1924, this event reveals that the Dalai Lama still trusted Dorjiev and Dorjiev still sought to carry out the Dalai Lama's orders.

The escalating anti-religious policies in Soviet Russia threatened Buddhism there from the late 1920s. In 1927, the Narkomindel dispatched the third mission to Lhasa that mainly consisted of the Kalmyks and the Buryats. While Dorjiev outwardly appeared to help the Narkomindel mission, he sent a secret letter through his agent along with a verbal message to warn the Dalai Lama about the severe oppression of Buddhist principles in Soviet Russia.

The Destruction of Buddhism in Mongolia and the Death of Dorjiev

With the seizure of power by Stalin and the launching of his collectivism project at the end of the 1920s, the Buddhist reform movement that Dorjiev initiated in Buryatia had practically come to an end. Both the reformist and the conservative factions fell under the category of the "exploiter class" and began to suffer serious persecution. Many monks actively participated in the anti-Soviet rebellions of 1930-1931, which gave the Soviet a pretext for suppressing the Buddhists in Buryat and Kalmyk as "counter-revolutionary insurgents." Sharab Tepkin, who had been sent to Russia by the Dalai Lama to serve as a liaison between the Soviets and Tibet, was arrested in 1931. The Tibet-Soviet dialogues had come to an end. During the Second Five-Year Plan (1933-37), most of the Buddhist colleges in Buryatia and Kalmykia were closed. Some of the colleges and temples were taken over but most were destroyed to the ground along with the items they housed within. The majority of the monks were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Stalin's systematic destruction of Buddhism was devastating to Dorjiev. More personally, the death of the Dalai Lama in 1933 was a catastrophe. Dorjiev had served the Dalai Lama for forty-five years by that point, and his death was the end of his career in Tibet. The following year Dorjiev was arrested in Moscow. He was released after 20 days, presumably due to an arrangement made by the Narkomindel, for whom he had worked for a long time. In September 1936, while suffering badly from rheumatic pains in Leningrad (renamed from Petrograd in 1924), he drew up a political testament designed for the Soviet government. As translated in Andreyev 2003, page 360:

I, Khambo, [[[Agvan Dorjiev]]], was officially appointed in 1901 as the plenipotentiary of Tibet at the Government of Great Russia by the Tibetan Government and Tibet's Supreme Ruler, the Dalai Lama. After the revolution of 1917 I continued my diplomatic functions at the Government of the Union of Soviet Republics.

My 40-year long political activity was directed towards establishing the best relationship between Tibet and Great Russia — the USSR; however, because of the extreme political tensions which had evolved in the recent years

in the Far East and in Europe, and consequently of Tibet's international situation, I was unable to do much for the sake of the actual national independence of the great Tibetan people, taking advantage of the cooperation of the great Soviet Union. At present, being in the declining years, I cannot think of pursuing further my state

or political activities and can only hope that the responsible and rewarding work for the promotion of truly friendly relations between Tibet and the great Soviet Union to secure the independent well-being of the Tibetan people will be entrusted to the next official representative in the USSR.

In January 1937, Dorjiev, anticipating the end of his life, left for Buryatia to spend his last days on a solitary retreat in Buryatia in his house at the medical school of the Atsagat Monastery. However, on November 13, Dorjiev was arrested for the third time and was sent to prison in Ulanude, near Atsagat, on suspicion of

several anti-Soviet crimes, such as espionage for Japan, terrorism, subversive activities and preparation of an armed rebellion. After two weeks of interrogation and imprisonment, Agvan Dorjiev was released and sent to the hospital, where he died on January 29, 1938.

Ryosuke Kobayashi is visiting scholar at Harvard-Yengching Institute and was previously a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow for Research Abroad and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University. His research interests include the history of Kham and the diplomatic activity of the Tibetan Government in the early 20th century.

Published February 2016


Agvan Dorjiev

b.1854 - d.1938


Ryosuke Kobayashi





The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso


19th Century

20th Century



Kumbum Jampa Ling

Drepung Gomang Dratsang

Samding Monastery

Ikh Khuree

Atsagat Datsan

Datsan Gunzechoinei

Wutai Shan

Name variants: Agvan Dorjieff; Dorjieff; Ngawang Lobzang; Агваан Доржиев; Агван Доржиев Wylie: ngag dbang blo bzang