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Pilgrims, Fieldworkers, and Secret Agents: Buryat Buddhologists and the History of an Eurasian Imaginary by Anya Bernstein

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ABSTRACT: This article looks at the pre-Revolutionary history of Buryat's engagement with greater Eurasia, drawing on the legacies of the long under appreciated Russian Buddhological school and exploring the intellectual and political context of its emergence in the late nineteenth century. Exploring the role of Russian Orientalists and political figures such as the Orientalists V.P. Vasil’ev and Prince E.E. Ukhtomskii, and taking a close look at the fieldwork of the first Russian-trained indigenous Buryat Buddhologists G.Ts. Tsybikov and B.B. Baradiin, I demonstrate that this ultimately Eurasianist school of Buddhology was borne out of conflicting sentiments towards Russia’s cosmopolitanism, statehood, and imperial destiny in Asia, as well as representations of indigenous peoples of southern Siberia. As a conclusion, I map the emergent forms of what I call ‘Asian Eurasianism’, linking it to contemporary cultural debates in Buryatia. I suggest that the term offers us a better way to understand the many ways by which many non-Russians position themselves in relation to the vast Eurasian continent.
Keywords:Russia, Buryatia, Eurasia, Tibet, Russian Orientalism, Buddhism,transnational religion, cultural politics, travel literature, history of anthropology


Since the end of the Soviet Union, Buryats have been renewing their long-standing Buddhist faith, generating considerable interest in the renewal of transnational, post-Soviet ties across North and South Asia. In contrast to many scholars who have seen Buryats purely as ‘native’, ‘indigenous’, or even as a‘fourth worldpeople, many Buryats have long viewed themselves as cosmopolitans, considering the long history of Buryat Buddhist pilgrimages to Mongolia and Tibet to be one of the most prominent markers of southern Siberia’s transnational histories and identities.[1] As this attitude suggests, many Buryats view their Buddhist tradition as an integral part of their heritage; the discussion of this tradition therefore plays a key role in understanding contemporary Buryat cultural politics.

Today, Buryats express competing statements about a Eurasian future. Some view themselves as a truly cosmopolitan people spanning three major Eurasian states (Russia, Mongolia, and China) and extending its transnational religious practices into two more (Tibet and India); others express more restricted understanding of their home territory within the Russian Federation.

What might such a Eurasian future entail? From its early beginnings as a brainchild of Russian émigré intellectuals, to Lev Gumilev’s poetic theories of ‘passionarity’ (Russian passionarnost’), to its contemporary political incarnations in Russia and post-Soviet states, ‘Eurasia’is an extremely multivocal notion today. At first sight, the wordEurasia’ refers to a geographical location, encompassing Europe and Asia. However the complex of ideas to which it refers havetheir roots in an early twentieth-century quest to find Russia’s unique character among the world’s peoples, which often incorporated a preoccupation with Russia’s messianic role in the history of mankind. Politically speaking, in contemporary Russia it generally means ‘anti-Western’, in Kazakhstan and Tatarstan it means ‘Western-friendly’, and in Turkey it can mean either (Kotkin2007:497).

However, beyond its narrow political meanings, ‘Eurasia’ has also been employed as an intellectual paradigm to encourage historical research going beyond the notion of nation-state (Ram 2001; Von Hagen 2004). In this essay, I join with Von Hagen and others by using the term ‘Eurasia’ not in the sense of the twentieth-century philosophical and contemporary political movements, but as a tool to analyse powerful and emergent geo-imaginary formations, such as those now being asserted in and beyond Buryatia. The goal is not only to uncover how varied communities of Buryats have understood their place vis-à-vis the imperial centre, but also to demonstrate the profound efforts to recentre Eurasian spaces at the end of the Soviet era.

Buryats have visited Tibet not only as modern pilgrims but also as some of the earliest scholars, such as G.Ts. Tsybikov and B.B. Baradiin, whose acclaimed early twentieth-century monographs firmly linked Buryatia to the Tibetan religious universe. Active debates continue today. Should Buryat Buddhism be understood as adhering to a ‘Tibetan’ model, one most recently advanced through pilgrimages by monks and well-funded lay persons to Tibetan monasteries in India? Or, as nationalists argue, should it downplay its international ties to assert itself as a truly independentBuryatreligion? Over the last decade, the official head of Buryat Buddhists, Khambo Lama Damba Aiusheev, has repeatedly expressed his dislike for the proliferation of Tibetan and other Asian Buddhistmissionaries’ in the republic, arguing that Buryat Buddhism is fully ‘autocephalous’. That is to say, it should be allowed to develop independently of the influence of other traditions. This is also Moscow’s view on the matter,which has been highly discouraging of Buryats’ international connections with Putin’s 2000 National Security Policy calling for ‘counteracting the negative influence of foreign religious organizations and missions’ (Ukaz Presidenta RF 2000).[2] In contrast, other major Buddhist leaders have expressed incredulity towards the legitimacy of such notions as independentBuryat Buddhism’ or even‘Mongolian Buddhism’, considering both traditions indivisible from larger transnational Tibetan Buddhism with the Dalai Lama as its only leader.

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In order to understand the new cultural and political orientations in a Eurasia current and future, evidenced by Buddhist transnationalism, I suggest that we look at the earlier pathways that lie at the core of current debates. This article looks at the pre-revolutionary history of Buryats’ engagement with greater Eurasia, drawing on the legacies of the long under appreciated Russian Buddhological school and exploring the intellectual and political context of its emergence in the late nineteenth century. Exploring the role of Russian Orientalists and political figures such as V.P. Vasil’ev and Prince E.E.Ukhtomskii, and taking a close look at the fieldwork of the first Russian-trained indigenous Buryat Buddhologists G.Ts. Tsybikov and B.B. Baradiin, I demonstrate that the latter tradition was borne out of conflicting sentiments towards Russia’s own cosmopolitanism, statehood, imperial destiny in Asia, as well as representations of indigenous peoples of southern Siberia. As a conclusion, I map the emergent forms of what I call ‘Asian Eurasianism’,linking it to contemporary cultural debates in Buryatia, which are crucial for understanding the ways in which many non-Russians position themselves in relation to the vast Eurasian continent.


Edward Said’s foundational work once defined Orientalism as a particular set of cultural assumptions about the ‘Orient’ adopted by the ‘West’, necessarily linked to an imperialist agenda (Said 1991). Scholars of other Orientalisms have produced extensive critiques of the universality of his thesis: it has been argued that German Indology was not linked to immediate imperialist interests while Japan was both a subject and an object of Orientalism without ever being colonised (Minear 1998; Pollock 1993).[3]

Scholars of Russia have often quoted the case of Russian ‘Asianism’ – an imperial ideology that privileged Russia’s Asiatic identity as opposed to the European one – as a peculiar kind of identification, whereby the ‘Orient’ was both of the empire and foreign to it (Schimmelpenninck van der Oye 2001; Bassin 1999). Asianism, which exerted significant influence in Russian intellectual, artistic, and political circles at the turn of the twentieth century, and its later offshoot, Eurasianism, proposed an alternative solution to the endless debates between Slavophiles and Westernisers[4] by positing an inherent spiritual, geographical, racial,and political affinity of Russia with Asia.

Especially interesting in this regard is the late nineteenth-century branch of Russian Orientalism, known as Russian Buddhology, privileging fieldwork over the study of texts, and the training of native scholars. In what follows I demonstrate that due to Russia’s own strong ethnographic situation, a certain line of Russian Buddhologists came to be among the first to use the classical methods of ethnographic field research,much earlier than internationally better-known practitioners such as Boas or Malinowski. By using native scholars as researchers of their own traditions, Russian Buddhology established its own kind of ethnographic ‘authority’, unprecedented in previous academic research.

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Due to the significant presence of ethnic Buddhist subjects within the Russian empire, Russia found itself in a unique position for Buddhist studies. Stimulated by a growing rivalry with Great Britain for influence in Inner Asia, a powerful academic tradition of Orientalist Buddhist studies, represented by such scholars as F.I. Shcherbatsky, O.O. Rosenberg, I.P. Minaev, and S.F. Ol’denburg, had already emerged by the mid nineteenth century. Similarly to its European counterparts, early Russian Buddhology was mostly text-oriented, since, after Tibet notoriously sealed its borders to all foreigners with the exception of Asian Buddhist pilgrims in 1792, this area became inaccessible for scholarship.[5] As Russian scholars accumulated more knowledge about its subject populations, by the late nineteenth century the rumours of Buryats and Kalmyks being in regular contact with ‘mysterious’ and ‘remote’ Tibet generated enormous academic interest. Russian Buddhologists thus revolutionised the discipline in the sense that they turned their attention to the form of Buddhism known as Lamaism, practiced in several regions of the Russian empire, including those inhabited by Kalmyks and Buryats.[6]

Lamaism originated in Tibet in the seventh century as Tibetans adopted Buddha’s teaching from Indian Buddhist pundits, spread to Mongolia in the sixteenth century, and finally started to take root among Russian Buryats in the early eighteenth century.[7] The establishment of the border in 1727 between the Russian empire and Qing China is considered a beginning of the formation of Buryats as a separate ethnic group out of several large Mongol clans. According to Buryat chronicles, Buddhism was quite insignificant until the arrival in 1712of 150 Tibetan and Mongolian lamas, who established themselves among theSelenga and Khori clans (Pozdneev 1887: 170). Most standard accounts of the establishment of Buddhism in the Transbaikal quote the fact that, trying to weaken the influence of Mongols and Manchus in the region, in 1741 Empress Elizabeth established 11 monasteries in Buryatia with 150 ‘stafflamas, issuing a decree that recognised Buddhism in Buryatia as independent from its Mongolian counterpart (Galdanova 1997:92; Galdanovaetal. 1983:17–18).

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It was Count Sava Raguzinskii, a diplomat who played the key role in the establishment of the Sino-Russian border, who took the first steps to legalise Buddhism in the Transbaikal, as part of an attempt to control the flow of Buddhist lamas into Russia’s territory (Pozdneev1887:170). In 1728,Raguzinskii decreed that ‘foreign lamas, subjects of other states, are not to be admitted to the tribute-paying natives, and are to make use only of those lamas who stayed here after the separation, so that the property of Russian subjects does not go to the foreigners’(Pozdneev c. 1888; Ukhtomskii 1904: 8). By saying that Mongol lamas who came into Russia with the Khalkha noblemen and their people could stay, but no more new lamas from Mongolia or Tibet could enter, Raguzinskii made the first attempt to cut off Buryats from the greater Tibetan Buddhist world, a trend that was subsequently pursued throughout the next two centuries.[8] Despite all of these efforts, the borders remained extremely porous through to the 1920s, with Tibetan and Mongolian lamas entering all areas relatively easily and numerous Buryat pilgrims undertaking trips to Tibet and Mongolia alike.

The date of 1741 is, nonetheless, significant in that it is considered and still celebrated as the date of the official recognition of Buddhism in Russia.[9] Despite the fact that recognising Buddhism in the Transbaikal was probably not a project to which Empress Elizabeth intentionally gave much thought, she became an iconic figure for Buryat Buddhists.[10] Later Buryat lamas sacralised their relationship with the tsars by declaring both Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great to be reincarnations of the Buddhist goddess White Tara, first for the official recognition of Buddhism in the empire in 1741 and second for granting it fully legal status and, most importantly, establishing the institute of Bandido Khambo Lamas in 1764.[11] The institute of the Khambo Lamas and its peculiar relationship with the Russian government, which had the power to approve or reject these ecclesiastical leaders, has been and remains of great significance for Buryat Buddhism.

By the time Russian scholars became interested in studying Buddhism, it was already well established among Transbaikal Buryats, providing them with an unprecedented access to a living Buddhist tradition. In fact, it was so well established that instead of the 150 lamas and 11 monasteries approved by the Empress Elizabeth in 1741, in 1845, among Khori Buryats (one of the several major Buryat clans) alone there were 5,545 lamas and 34 monasteries. This became cause for serious concern for the Eastern Siberia administration (Pozdneev1887:173). Thus, the study of Buddhists within the empire started to acquire immediate political relevance.

‘If we were more familiar with the religion of our alien (inorodnye) subjects,we could have avoided the many difficulties we have encountered’, wrote Russian Orientalist V.P. Vasil’ev on the subject of the rapid spread of Buddhism in Siberia (Vasil’ev 1873: 3). He also wrote the following in his review of the ground-breaking book on Buddhist monasteries by another famous Orientalist, Pozdneevn expert on the Mongolian world, published in the Journal of the Ministry of Popular Education in 1888:

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Although we,in Russia, do not have special Buddhist provinces, given our confusion between cosmopolitanism and statehood, the Buddhist question becomes even more urgent. Influenced by cosmopolitanism and not knowing how to over-come even the mere shamanism of the Chuvash,Tungus, and other inorodtsy, we are even more defeated when it comes to Lamaism … In front of the very eyes of our administration, our Buryats, who were still shamanists when they became our subjects, came over, as if in silent protest against their masters, to the religion professed by their fellow tribesmen in a neighbouring country, subjected to a foreign authority. Before our eyes, Buryats started to influence our Kalmyks who previously lived in isolation … Now they send them huge bundles of sacred books. While we were convinced that with one more generation, the Kalmyks would turn into Russians, instead they (who, in the beginning of this century,finally dropped their braids and the Mongolian costume) have turned even further away from us(Vasil’ev 1888 in Ermakova 1998:85–6).

For Vasil’ev, full citizenship is inextricably related to Russification, which involves both conversion of ‘aliens’ (inorodtsy) and the denouncing of specific ‘alien’ cultural customs (such as, in this case, braids and Mongolian dress). Tostop being an ‘inorodets’[lit. ‘person of a different kin’, a foreigner], one had toconvert, which would enable him to start paying taxes instead of tribute (iasak) and thus acquire full rights of citizenship and participation in the Russian society. The ‘defeat’ refers to the failure to convert Siberian peoples, often bemoaned in the nineteenth century.

In this passage, Vasil’ev also exhibits a classical colonial approach that ethnographic knowledge could be used to rule colonial subjects more efficiently. Writing about colonial ethnography in India, Nicholas Dirks noted that ‘by the late nineteenth century, ethnological knowledge became privileged more than any other form of imperial understanding’(Dirks2001:44). Good colonial rulers are the ones who ‘knew’ India, exemplified by the character in Kipling’s classic novel Kim, Colonel Creighton, who is both head of the Ethnological Survey and the master spy for the Great Game. Despite this ‘imperial empiricism’, Dirks notices, there was still a sense that India would ultimately remain inscrutable:‘The more one knows about natives, the less can one say what they will or won’t do’ (Kipling in Dirks 2001: 44). Similarly, Vasil’ev distances himself from his subjects by framing them in terms of an ultimate alterity, which can only be over-come through assimilation or mimesis of Russian culture.

If Vasil’ev’s and Pozdneev’s tone reminds one of Kipling’s Colonel Creighton on the Russian side of the Great Game, the ideas of another Orientalist thinker, Prince E.E. Ukhtomskii, strike one as perhaps more uniquely Russian.Sometimes a poet, sometimes a government bureaucrat influential in Nicholas II’s thinking on Asian foreign policy, Ukhtomskii was chiefly known as the publisher of the widely read and cited newspaper Peterburgskie vedomosti. He was a lover of Buddhist philosophy and an amateur antiquarian whose collection went on to become the basis of the Hermitage’s East Asian collection. One might see Ukhtomskii as simply a ‘sympathetic’ kind of Orientalist a kin to theosophists whom he admired, were it not for the fact that his ideology was categorically imperialist, albeit of a mystical kind. A proponent of Russia’s role as a ‘natural leader’ in Asia as opposed to the ‘crude’ and ‘mercantile’ imperialism of the British, supposedly incapable of relating to the spiritual traditions of their subjects, Ukhtomskii argued that Russian Orthodoxy possessed deep spiritual affinities with Buddhism, which would allow Russia’s expansion into Asia simply to happen as a ‘natural fusion’. He was strongly opposed to resorting to military means to conquer Asia. In fact, conquest altogether was not truly necessary: ‘Russia in reality conquers nothing in the East, since all the alien races visibly absorbed by her are related to us by blood, intradition, inthought. We are only tightening the bonds between us and that which in reality was always ours.’‘In Asia we have not, nor can have, any bounds, except the boundless sea breaking on her shores’(Ukhtomskii1900:444).[12]

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Ukhtomskii argued that Buryats were strategically crucial to Russian foreign policy in Asia: ‘Trans-Baikalia is the key to the heart of Asia, the vanguard of Russian civilisation on the frontier of the “Yellow Orient”’ (Grünwedel1900:ix). Due to Ukhtomskii’s efforts, two ethnic Buryats became especially influential in St Petersburg: Agvan Dorzhiev, a Buryat lama who studied in Lhasa for many years and later became prominent as the adviser to the 13th Dalai Lama and an intermediary between the Russian court and Tibet, and Petr Badmaev,a doctor of Tibetan medicine who had access to the Romanov court.[13] Badmaev, whose unprecedented conversion to Christianity opened many doors for him, was crucial for the development of Russian Buddhology in that he brought Buryats into the spotlight of Russian politics and science, having initially sponsored two Buryat students, Gombozhab Tsybikov and Bazar Baradiin, to come to St Petersburg. Later these two Buryat scholars went to study at St Petersburg University under Russia’s three internationally renowned Buddhologists: A.M.Pozdneev, S.F.Ol’denburg and F.I.Scherbatsky. Both Buryat scholars undertook successful two- and three-year long field expeditions to Tibet disguised as Buddhist pilgrims, bringing back extensive field notes, maps, and some of the first photographs of Tibet.[14]


Gombozhab Tsybikov in Central Tibet

Gombozhab Tsybikov is sometimes called the ‘Buryat Lomonosov’, for he came from a poor nomadic Buryat family. An extremely rare accomplishment for a Buryatat that time,he graduated from Chita gimnaziia and later went on to study medicine at Tomsk University. Badmaev, who happened to pass by Tomsk, met Tsybikov there and convinced him to quit medicine and come to St Petersburg to major in Oriental studies and diplomacy, promising him financial help and essentially recruiting him for his future schemes. When Tsybikov refused to convert to Christianity, however, Badmaev discontinued his stipend, and Tsybikov continued his education with support from home in Buryatia. Subsequently, Tsybikov’s supervisor Pozdneev recommended him to the Russian Geographic Society, which sponsored his expedition to Tibet. The field trip took three years, from 1899 to 1902. In Tibet, Tsybikov played a double or even triple role–he was a pilgrim travelling with a group of fellow Buryat pilgrims, a dedicated fieldworker taking extreme risks clandestinely using his photographic camera and thermometer to collect data and scribbling field notes between the lines of Buddhist sacred volumes, and a Russian secret agent whose goal was to expand geographical knowledge and gather as much information as he could about the political and socio-economic situation in Tibet. However, he was also a Buryat nationalist, a member of the Buryat nascent intelligentsia who would later use his position to advance the Buryat cause in the post-revolutionary times.

Tsybikov’s travelogue immediately impresses the reader with its rather dry and austere tone, without a hint of the sensationalism that so often accompanies accounts of Tibet. Given how romantically Tsybikov is viewed by many Buryat Buddhists today,his treatment of religion is surprisingly positivist. In the spirit of socialist disposition, he goes to great lengths in describing poverty and extreme social stratification in Tibet, proceeding to treat religion as a kind of ideology serving the interests of the ruling class and showing how class interests are indirectly expressed through religion. Some other prominent themes in his writing are the corruption of Buddhist monasticism, which was to become an important issue in the Buryat Buddhist reform movement. At the time, diplomas of the highest master of Buddhist philosophy (Tib.lharamba) so valued in Amdo, Mongolia, and Buryatia could be bought for a few coins in central Tibet. The main concern during the lharamba defence is to provide a lavish feast for the senior monks (Tsybikov 1981:179–80). Tsybikov’s brief audiences with the 13th Dalai Lama and the 6th Panchen Lama are so absurdly ceremonious that their description acquires an almost comic quality. In Kumbum monastery, drunkenness, promiscuity, and tobacco smoking are widespread, while many supposedly learned monks never learn how to read (Tsybikov 1981: 48). The true religion of Tibet, Tsybikov asserts, is money, interspersing his narrative with colourful examples of religious ‘business’ all over Tibet.

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Scepticism about religion, however, does not diminish the scholarly significance of Tsybikov’s monograph. Besides being one of the first academically trained Orientalists to produce informed ethnographic descriptions of Buddhism practiced in Tibet, he also expanded the Western tradition of Tibetan studies beyond the exclusive focus on Buddhism, ancient history, and the arts. His analysis of socio-economic and political structures, and his assessment of the negative role of religion and of élites, as well as his general thrust towards ‘de-romanticisation’ of Tibet added complexity to the simplistic myth of ‘old Tibet’ that persists to this day.[15] In addition, his remarkable overland journey on camels and yaks, which started in Chita and passed through Mongolian grasslands, the Gobi desert,Tsaidam swamps, and high Himalayan passes to end in Lhasa,is one of the very scarce sources we have on Buryat pilgrimage routes from Siberia to Lhasa. The evidence of these nineteenth-century routes contributes to our understanding of modern day transnational Buddhism in Asia.

Bazar Baradiin in Eastern Tibet (Amdo)

The success of Tsybikov’s expedition inspired Russian Orientalists to send the next Buryat scholar to explore Tibet. At this time,a new committee for the exploration of Central Asia was formed, directly subordinate to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This time, a special programme of training was created for the young Buryat scholar, Bazar Baradiin, for whom the Orientalists Ol’denburg and Scherbatsky created a special four-year study plan: during the first three years they took the responsibility to teach him Sanskrit, Buddhist philosophy, and history. During the fourth year, Baradiin was to undertake a field trip to the two great Amdo monasteries Labrang and Kumbum (also visited by Tsybikov on his way to Lhasa) and then a second trip to Central Tibet. Buryats are perfect for the study of Tibet, Ol’denburg writes in 1903, since they can become ‘real pundits’(Ermakova1998:102). ‘We are late!’ wrote Ukhtomskii in his famous polemical piece in 1904, ‘The English are about to invade the kingdom of the Dalai Lama.’‘If only we could understand the situation of the split Mongolia and establish a relationship with Tibet through our lamas...there would be a Russian emperor in Beijing instead of a Manchu one’(Ukhtomskii 1904:3–4). Thus, when Baradiin set out for Tibet with a group of fellow pilgrims,the‘ Great Game’ was still going on in the Russian mind.[16]

Baradiin never reached Lhasa, spending a year at the Labrang monastery in Amdo.[17] Unlike Tsybikov’s account, his writing is characterised by a more sympathetic view of Buddhist religious practices and livelier and less schematic portraits of Buddhist practitioners. Although still travelling as a Buddhist pilgrim, unlike Tsybikov, he never had to take extreme precautions to hide(Amdo was not closed to outsiders as was Central Tibet), which enabled him to interact more freely with local Buddhist leaders, scholars, and regular folk, providing a better glimpse of the local mindset. While Tsybikov’s travelogue,following the conventions established by Pozdneev in his monograph on Buddhism in Mongolia, if judged from the position of contemporary social science was purely descriptive, Baradiin presents a more structured and focused attempt to analyse the institution of Buddhist monasticism.

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In his brief report to the Russian Geographic Society published in 1908, and his full diary (not published until 2002), Baradiin weaves a fascinating ethnography of the Labrang monastery as well as the description of the pilgrimage routes commonly travelled by Buryat pilgrims (Baradiin 1908; 2002). Although Tibetan Buddhist studies produced an impressive amount of scholarly literature,surprisingly few ethnographic studies of monasticism exist to this day.As late as1985, anthropologist Melvyn Goldstein lamented this gap in Buddhist studies,quoting only four works dealing with this issue (all from the 1960s to 1980). Thus, Goldstein writes, ‘Surprisingly little is known about the manner in which that philosophy [of the Buddha) was put into practice, that is to say, about how Buddhist monks actually live and work and how the monastic system functions’(Goldstein&Tsarong 1985:14).[18]

It is specifically this problem that Baradiin sets out to tackle in his works. First, Baradiin defines the state of contemporary Buddhology, establishing the separation between the study of the textual tradition and the ‘study of life of Buddhists themselves’. Second, he argues that the study of the living Buddhist tradition has been lagging behind due to the fact that only travellers and explorers (but not scholars) thought it worthwhile paying attention to (Baradiin1926:109). While, like Tsybikov’s, his tone is quite neutral and scholarly, sometimes his liberal views become known to the reader, such as in his treatment of the Tibetan institute of reincarnation. While impressive in his very contemporary take on it – Baradiin relates the origin of the institute of incarnate lamas to the rights of inheritance of private property by monks – he considers it a violation of what he imagines ancient Indian monasticism used to be, lamenting the fact that this custom has now started to penetrate Buryatia (Baradiin 1908:142–3). His most innovative contribution to Buddhist studies, however, is his typology of contemporary Tibetan Buddhist monasteries based on first-hand ethnographic fieldwork (Baradiin 1926). He divides all the monasteries he has explored during his trips to Buryatia, Tibet, and Mongolia into two large groups: scholastic (shkol’nyi) and anchoritic or hermitic (otshel’nicheskii) types. In turn,he divides scholastic monasteries into the ones with academic instruction or departments ( fakul’tety) and without them, while anchoritic monasteries comprise those where monks live in groups as well as singular cells in the mountains for individual hermits. Baradiin also elaborates a classificatory scheme of Buddhist monks based on their personal trajectories, goals, types of monastic vows,ethnicity, social status, age, skills, and occupation.

A number of traits make his pioneering research methods similar to those of early ethnography. At the beginning of the monograph, Baradiin offers theoretical justification for why the monastery should be the focus of the field Buddhist studies, arguing that monasteries, temples, and artifacts within them present a kind of ‘ideal museums’ while observation of monastery life and interacting with ‘the living people’, the monks, can provide the fieldworker with something that no libraries, museums, or armchair research could ever do (Baradiin 1926:110). Having arrived in the field with a strict research plan elaborated in advance, Baradiin quickly abandons it in favour of what we now call participant-observation:

My three-day loitering from house to house and chatting about all kinds of matters gave unexpected results: I am now firmly convinced that this is the only way, in addition to knowing the local language, through which one can really begin to understand the life of an unknown society. I now abandoned my previous system of collecting data according to a preconceived plan(Baradiin2002:45)

His stress on the importance of the local language is also innovative for that time: until very recently Tibetologists were not well-trained in spoken Tibetan, which differs considerably from its written form.


When describing contemporary Khalkha Mongols whom he encountered on his way to Labrang, Baradiin demonstrates the beginnings of relativist thinking: while criticising Mongols for their complete dependence on the whim of nature due to nomadism and what he perceived as their practice of ‘wild’ herding, he does not advocate that they become an agricultural or industrial nation.[19] Like most of his contemporaries, Baradiin adhered to nineteenth-century social evolutionism (the belief that social development was an inevitable and determined process), claiming that sooner or later Mongols would have to deal with European culture, when‘their free steppes will face a choice:either the death of a weak savage or the life of a cultured human being’. However, he goes on to say that in order to become ‘cultured’, they do not need to adopt specifically European economic ways, but to improve and perfect their own system (nomadic herding in this case). ‘An agriculturalist can be a savage, and a herdsman – a cultured person and vice versa.’ ‘Unfortunately’, he laments, ‘this seemingly simple truth is still not recognised by many’ (Baradiin 1908: 125). This view challenges the then reigning evolutionary paradigm of ordering cultures along the ladder of human cultural development, suggesting a relativistic methodology of treating cultures on their own terms.[20]

Another important contribution is that Baradiin was probably the first scholar to emphasise that Tibetan monasteries functioned as multinational communities with various ethnic groups living together, thus evidencing the Inner Asian Buddhist cosmopolitanism. In his words, Amdo served as a bridge for the spread of Buddhism from Tibet to Mongolia. Out of 3,000 monks in Labrang, the majority of whom were Tangut, there were about 500 Mongols of various ethnic groups, including 100 Buryats, several Tungus, and 30 Chinese (Baradiin 1908:132, 140).[21] Similarly to medieval European universities, monks in Tibetan monasteries were grouped by nation (Dreyfus 2003: 348). Baradiin, who stayed in the monastery with his fellow Buryats, provides unique insider descriptions of the functioning of the kantsen system [regional house, Tib.khang tshan, Russian zemliachestvo] and the Buryat kantsen specifically. He notices that the monas-teries often develop what he calls ‘middle dialects’ – a kind of lingua franca mixing diverse Mongolian and Tibetan dialects. The fact that Tibetan monasteries at the turn of the twentieth century were not homogenous entities, and that even Tibetans there often came from many different areas which barely had a common language, is crucial for understanding contemporary Tibetan monasteries as convergence sites for transnational religious networks. Baradiin’s account helps us understand today’s Tibetan monasteries in India where many Buryats go for pilgrimage and religious training, not only as a postsocialist development but as an extension of this ancient multicultural tradition. Just as before,contemporary monasteries connect monks of various nationalities by notions of divine authority, the continuity of tradition, and the transmission of Buddhist teachings.


As our material thus far has demonstrated, Russian Buddhology, or Buddhist studies in Russia,was understood as a special fieldwork branch of the Orientalist school, and was borne out of the conflicting ideas of ‘Asianists’ seeing the ‘Orient’ as part of the shared political imaginary and a classic colonialist concern for understanding the Empire’s alien subjects. Both were united in their concern for foreign policy and expansion in Asia and, paired with the efforts of academic Orientalists of the St Petersburg school, produced the first fieldworkers in the study of Buddhism. Although ‘Asianists’ like Ukhtomskii writing about ‘luminous expanses’ of Asia were influential in producing these Buryat scholars, the views they expressed were more in line with the mainstream social science with its positivist-evolutionary paradigms. The success of Buryat fieldwork Buddhologists within the Russian academic Orientalism also established a particular new form of authority in ethnographic studies of Buddhism: an authority that is validated by previous scientific studies, personal experience of fieldwork, and fieldworker being a ‘native’. While the first two criteria correspond to what James Clifford (1988: 22–32) identified as a particular mode of ‘ethnographic authority’ in the British anthropology of the 1920s,the importance of identity and, thus, subjectivity of the fieldworker emerged as a particular feature of the Russian historical context.


Clifford notes that it was the ethnographer who obtained the status of the best interpreter of native life, despite the fact that the traveller, the missionary, and the administrator sometimes had better knowledge of the field, language, and research contacts (Clifford 1988: 27–30). He attributes this to specific socio-historical processes and epistemological shifts happening in the countries where anthropology was developing. If the predominant mode of modern fieldwork authority in the above traditions is signaled as ‘you are there because I was there’in early Russian Buddhology, this formula is enhanced by the more striking ‘I know it because I am one of them’. The writings of Tsybikov and Baradiin cannot yet be called ‘anthropology’, for they do not provide the oretical and comparative generalizations (although Baradiin attempted this more than Tsybikov). But if the new style of representation known as ‘ethnography’ is defined as a ‘synthetic cultural description based on participant observation’, we can consider Tsybikov and Baradiin as proto-ethnographers, who appeared some 20 years before Malinowski first made his field method famous. A year before Tsybikov set out for Tibet, the 1898 Torres Straits Expedition from Cambridge broke new ground in that it was the first expedition that sent academically trained scientists to the field to collect ethnographic data. Unlike Tsybikov and Baradiin, who were trained in Buddhology – that is, their training corresponded to the subject matter of the expedition–Torres Straits fieldworkers were natural scientists. Around the same time, the Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897–1902) employed Russian exiles-turned-ethnographers who were initially without formal training. Thus the elimination of the division of labour in Baradiin’s and Tsybikov’s research between the collector of data, who is academically trained in the subject of the investigation, and the interpreter of data demonstrates that the Tsarist Russian Empire had produced some neglected cases among the predecessors of contemporary academic anthropology.


After their return from Tibet, both scholars were engaged in teaching and research, with Baradiin at the Department of Oriental Languages in St Petersburgand Tsybikov as the chair in Mongol Philology at the newly created Orientalist Institute of Vladivostok, headed by Pozdneev. While Tsybikov limited himself mostly to scholarly pursuits, Baradiin also wrote prose and poetry and translated Russian literary classics into Buryat. It is around 1917 that both Buddhologist sraced into the whirlwind of Russian and Buryat revolutionary politics in eastern Siberia. After the February 1917 Revolution, which established the Provisional Government in place of the Tsar, Tsybikov quickly arrived in Buryatia from Vladivostok and joined Baradiin and Buryat intellectuals Zhamtsarano, Bogdanov, Rinchino, and others to form the Buryat National Committee(Burnatskom) which supported the Provisional Government and promotednational autonomy. After the victory of the Soviets in Siberia, Burnatskom was eventually declared ‘bourgeois nationalist’ and attacked as‘anti-Soviet’.

While asking for more freedom for Buddhism, Buryat intellectuals did not,however, aspire to go back to the pre-revolutionary situation. Instead, they moved on from Burnatskom to create a drive for reform (known simply as the‘reform movement’, obnovlencheskoye dvizhenie) that was unprecedented in Buryat Buddhism and, in fact, in Tibetan Buddhism at the time. Baradiin and his close friend, Buryat scholar Zhamtsarano, were the most active members while Tsybikov, perhaps disillusioned by the defeat of Burnatskom, again devoted himself to scholarly pursuits. Agvan Dorzhiev,on the otherhand, actively participated on the side of the reformists (obnovlentsy). The reform movement advocated complete restructuring of the administrative system of Buddhism, these paration of church and state, the establishment of free elections of clergy, thee limination of excess wealth from monasteries, the adherence of monks to the rules of Vinaya, the Buddhist canonic scripture regulating the life of the monastic community, and the introduction of a system of examinations for various Buddhist degrees. They also called for the improvement of Tibetan medicine in accordance with modern medicine, the opening of secular schools at monasteries, the use of contemporary European literature on Buddhism, the nationalisation of Buddhist sermons, and for the abolishment of the cult of incarnate lamas and oracles.


Baradiin especially stressed the importance of harmonising European science with traditional monastic education, opposing ‘vulgar and superstitious Lamaism’ to the ‘pureIndian Buddhism and insisting on viewing Buddhism not as a religion but as an ethical philosophy with Buddha not as god but as an ingenious thinker and philosopher (Gerasimova 1964: 160–62). If these ideas sound familiar today, it is because, in searching for a way to reconcile his beloved Buryat culture with his progressive views and the contemporary political situation in Russia, Baradiin turned to the ideas of European Buddhologists who also had a nostalgic vision of early Buddhism as a rational, and sometimes even atheist, religion.

While Buryat Buddhism was never able to implement these reforms, half a century later they were successfully implemented by the 14th Dalai Lama in his exiled community, and many lay Westerners today are used to thinking of Buddhism in precisely this way. An eager moderniser, Baradiin not only rejected certain ‘backward’ aspects of Tibetan society as unsuitable for Buryatia, but also aspired to improve them [backwards aspects] in Tibet itself. As late as 1927,Baradiin made plans to be sent to Tibet with a Buryat expedition, for research, but also on an educational mission to improve sanitary conditions and introduce certain consumer goods, such as samples for farming, yeast, and typewriters with Tibetan script for Tibetans (Andreyev 2003: 333). Despite the reformists’ seeming orientation to the ‘West’, however, their ideas resembled early twentieth-century Russian Eurasianism in that, most importantly, they promoted BuryatsMongolian heritage (language, religion, folklore) while being convinced that Buryats were on a special mission to combine the best in European/Russian and Mongolian culture. Of the three, Dorzhiev was the only one whose political programme included a version of pan-Mongolism, which Rupen called pan-Buddhism, promoting the idea of a Tibeto-Mongolian theocratic state headed by the Dalai Lama (Rupen 1956: 390). All three of them – Tsybikov, Baradiin, and Dorzhiev – tried to collaborate with the Soviet government, but eventually all were accused of ‘bourgeois nationalism’. Tsybikov was lucky to die what has been described as a natural death in 1930. Baradiin was shot in 1937, and Dorzhiev died in a prison hospital in 1937 after being convicted for treason and counter-revolutionary activity.


The politics of the Russian imperial government towards Buddhism in Siberia was contradictory in the sense that, on the one hand, it tried to separate Siberian peoples from their links in greater Asia, and on the other hand, used these links to advance its own imperial agenda in the east. This need for exploration and expansion created a new generation of European educated native scholars, who would later take an active part in advocating reforms in Buryat Buddhism according to contemporary liberal standards.

Today, while little known in scholarly circles outside of Russian,t he names of Tsybikov and Baradiin have acquired almost mythical status in Buryatia proper as national heroes. A monument to Tsybikov has been erected in Aginskoe and a project of a collective stela with bas-reliefs to major Buryat leaders, which would include Baradiin, has been proposed for Ulan-Ude. While their names are famous, until recently, their works did not have wide distribution,so most people knew about them either by word of mouth or by the titles of their books. That said, Tsybikov, who was definitely more acceptable to Soviet authorities, possibly because he was so critical of religion, is much better known to the general public (both Buryat and Russian) than Baradiin. While both gained wide acclaim on the wave of the national revival, the titles of their works are some what misleading, as both Tsybikov and Baradiin come over as pious Buddhist pilgrims, rather than as academic scholars or intelligence gatherers. Upon familiarisation with the texts themselves, some Buryats, especially Buddhist believers, express disappointment and dismay. Talking about Tsybikov’s book, one young educated Buryat wrote in a post to a popular Buryat chatsite:

Honestly, I was disappointed by this book. Upon reading it, I saw an ordinary spy who did not hide his animosity towards Tibet and its spirituality and sacraments. So as a regular spy, he got this little medal around his neck, as a loyal lapdog of the tsarist administration [he is referring to the medal Tsybikov received from the Russian Geographic Society]. Personally,I prefer the writings of Bazar Baradiin– he is really the one who respects himself and his traditions.[22]
Buryatia 109.jpg

Equating respect towards the sacredness of Tibet with respect towards one’s (Buryat) self and Buryat traditions, this comment positions Tibet as an important aspect of Buryat culture.

However, the place of Tibet in the contemporary Buryat imagination is not uncontested. Understanding the productive power of the writings informing these events today is a useful springboard for understanding how ancient pathways and intellectual traditions are instrumental in shaping new alliances ahead: in some ways, contemporary debates in Buryatia mirror some of the important contradictions encountered by late nineteenth-century Russian Asianists and their political successors, the Eurasianists. On the other hand, if Asianists such as Ukhtomskii used Buryats to illustrate their points about Russia’s affinity with Asia and, ultimately, their mystical imperialist ideology, contemporary Buryats have quite different stakes in the issue.

While the reforms of Tsybikov and Baradiin proposed almost a century ago still enthuse contemporary liberal Buryat intelligentsia, Khambo Lama Aiusheev has a definitively negative perception of the early Buryat reformists as people who ‘wanted to destroy the Buddhist church’. Many educated Buryat Buddhists view Aiusheev as spiritually corrupt and ignorant of the ‘realBuddhist faith represented by Tibet; others, however, think of his position as a carefully calculated one, aimed at stabilizing relations with Moscow, as well as maintaining friendly relations with the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian majority in the Republic. Yet others see him as rightfully nationalist.Although the Khambo Lama vehemently opposes any foreign influence on ‘indigenous’ Buryat Buddhism (recently, he went as far as to publicly claim that ‘Buryats did not receive Buddhism from Tibet’; Makhachkeev 2008), his position does not easily fall into a standard nationalist framework (in the sense of having a separatist potential), for he is extremely loyal to the Russian government, embodied by Putin. In fact, the current Khambo Lama backs a politics of integration of Buryat Buddhism with Russia, which is generally viewed as started by Empress Elizabeth.

During the summer of 2008, Aiusheev expressed his annoyance at the two unrelated ‘dissident’ Buryat groups who campaigned, respectively, against the dissolution of the Aga Buryat autonomous district and for the government finally to grant the Dalai Lama a Russian visa. Speaking in front of a group of scholars who gathered for a Buddhological discussion at the Ivolginsk monastery(where I was also present) regarding the reason why he did not support the ‘dissenters’, Khambo Lama said that his spiritual title obliges him to support the politics of the Russian government ‘no matter what’. ‘And you know why?’he asked in one of his trademark rhetorical questions. ‘Because Putin is the reincarnation of the White Tara. And I am not going to go against the White Tara. I am not stupid.’(Interestingly, Medvedev was already president at this time).

Here I propose to use the term Eurasianism not in the limited, early twentieth-century sense of the Russian political and intellectual movement, but in terms of a certain cultural orientation that can be used to rethink relations between different parts of the Eurasian space. Eurasia, it has recently been suggested, is much more than the subject of Russian Eurasianism, including its classical (Trubetskoi), neo- (Gumilev), and contemporary (Dugin) versions, but rather an unstable but productive discursive and epistemological category also used by ordinary non-Russians to conceptualize their geographical and cultural locations(Ram 2001; Von Hagen 2004).

Buryatia 38.jpg

In the post-Soviet period, most Buryats tend to favour their own version of ‘Asianism’, reclaiming with pride their belonging to a larger Asian Buddhist civilization. And yet for many Buryats, despite geographically being located in Asia and being well-aware of their oft-invoked ‘Asian phenotype’, ‘Asiaremains as exotic and mystical as it does for many Russians, and both invoke it whenever irrational qualities need to be accounted for. Here we can trace the distinctions between the more extreme ‘Asianist’ view (expressed by views that foreground Buryat Buddhism’s derivation from Tibetan Buddhism), and the view of the current Buddhist leader Khambo Lama Aiusheev and his numerous followers. Aiusheev’s understanding could be considered a version of what we might call‘Asian Eurasianism’ in the sense that, in separating Buryats from their Tibetan and Mongolian heritage and linking them to Russia, it is ‘Asia’ that is at stake here, not ‘Europe’. Here I suggest that, contrary to Russia’s preoccupations with defining itself against Europe, which resulted in the development of the Eurasianist ideology, BuryatAsian Eurasianism’ is invoking ‘Russia’ to define itself against ‘Asia’. While the extra Asian inflection may seem unnecessary to some, this is one political label that many Buryats can get behind.

While nationalist in its desire to create an ‘indigenous’ Buryat Buddhism, the official Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia headed by Aiusheev expresses an Asian Eurasian cultural orientation in that he does not view Buryats as uniquely a part of Asian civilisation (the latter is the view of the pro-Tibetan opposition, such as the followers of ex-Khambo Lama Budaev and some secular nationalist intellectuals). In a way, he opposes them to the rest of Asia, stressing the benefits of their ‘blending’ with Russia. Such a view, it has been pointed out, is useful to reconcile ideas about Buryatsdistinctive identity with the fact of their existencewithin the Russian Federation (and to ascertain loyalty to the centre) (Humphrey2002). In this we can see similarities to the early twentieth-century classical Russian Eurasianists who saw Russia as a ‘bridge’ between Europe and Asia, for this discourse also references Buryatsuniqueness, thus redefining the ideas of Eurasian centre and periphery.

There is something different, however, about the Buddhist Traditional Sangha’s orientation, which lets me think that ‘Asian Eurasianism’ might be an appropriate explanatory term the better to understand contemporary Buryat cultural politics. While the Buryat Sangha certainly has had to struggle with the same issues of asserting cultural difference while being within the Federation,there is another major issue at stake here, which has to do with Buryats’ positionin a larger Buddhist world, and specifically, a Mongol-Tibetan world. What I suggest here is that many Buryat Buddhists are using Asian Eurasianism to define themselves ‘against’ Tibet (and the Buddhist world in general),because the issue of their exclusion/inclusion in ‘Asia’ is as vital here as that of ‘Europe’ has been for Russia over the centuries.

Buryatsrelation to Mongolia is an uneasy one. As in the times of Baradiin,on the one hand, Mongols are looked down as being ‘primitive’ and ‘crude’, but on the other are admired for being independent, knowing their language, and most importantly for being unquestionably ‘Mongol’.[23] Tales of victimhood, however, abound, as it is often claimed that in the 1990s Buryats again (as in revolutionary times) took some of the leading posts in Mongolia, this time at the cost of having to hide their origins in order not to be discriminated against (see Bulag 1998 for the detailed discussion of this issue).

Buryatia 150.jpg

Yet, I would contend, it is still the relationship with the Tibetan world that polarises Buryat Buddhism the most today. Buryatia is the centre of the small but influential Tibetan emigration into Russia, where many Tibetan lamas initially came at the invitation of the Sangha to teach at the Ivolginsk monastery, but later dropped out and started practising privately, opening small temples and monasteries that pop up all over Ulan-Ude. Khambo Lama finds such activities deeply offensive (his term for these temples is ‘kiosks’): ‘We, Buryats, went to Tibet to study and on pilgrimage but we never opened our monasteries there. Why do they think they have the right to do it here?’ Of his opponents like Budaev,he says that it is a shame that they have forsaken their own nation in order to ‘sweep the streets in Lhasa’. In turn, for Tibetans (and many Mongols), Buryats’ association with Russia is confusing and implies that they are not fully Asian. Tsybikov and Baradiin report that Buryats have been fighting against being called ‘Russians’ in Lhasa but today this trend still persists among Tibetan émigrés in India. The Tibetan for Buryat is ‘urusu sokpo’ [Tib.u ru su sog po, Russian Mongol], butmost just say ‘urusu’[ Russian ]. On more than one occasion, I was bewildered to have been asked by Tibetans in Dharamsala what was actually the difference between ‘Buryats’ and ‘Russians’. The fact that their Asianness is denied by their co-religionists, especially Tibetans with whom they already have a problematic relation, must have deeply affected Buryat self-perception.

Buryats’ relationship to Tibet has always been one of marginality and, after the Soviet repressions, many Tibetans (and Western Buddhists in the Tibetan tradition) look down upon Buryat Buddhism as ‘inauthentic’, claiming that what Buddhists call ‘transmission’ has been lost. Like all Buddhists, Tibetans base claims to authority largely on lineage, claiming that Buddhism taught in Tibet and by Tibetan lamas abroad could be traced backwards in an unbroken line to the eleventh century, when the founders of the major Tibetan schools travelled to India to receive the dharma from the great Indian masters, who were themselves direct recipients of teachings that could be traced back to the Buddha himself (Lopez 1997: 24). In the Buryat case, from this standpoint, current Soviet-educated lamas cannot possibly have authentic transmission, because the lineage has been broken and can only be restored through Tibetan teachers coming to Buryatia from India, or Buryat monks going to India to study with masters who do have the proper transmission.[24]

In attempting to repair these tensions,Aiusheev and the Buddhist Traditional Sangha claim Buryat Buddhism’s uniqueness in being a ‘bridge’ between ‘Asian’ and ‘EuropeanBuddhism. While beinga ‘bridge’ is typical of the general Buryat identification discourse and not unique to the Khambo Lama, the Buddhist leader cleverly utilises it to stress his point that Buryat Buddhism’s existence within Russia resulted in a unique indigenous Buddhist civilisation, which is historically and presently ‘autocephalous’ and distinct from its ‘purely’ Asian counterparts.

Buryatia 28.jpg

As we have seen though, these configurations are fluid and prone to change.If an orientation to Russia (as ‘West’)vs Mongolia/Tibet (as ‘East’) was the defining factor in the reformist/conservative split in Buryat Buddhism after the Revolution of 1917, paradoxically, the distinctions between ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’ in Buddhism in terms of their orientation to ‘West’ vs ‘East’have reversed. While conservative elements represented by the Traditional Sangha now look more to Russia, the more progressive and liberal Buddhists tend to look towards contemporary Tibet, more specifically Tibetan diaspora and the liberalideology embraced by its leader, the 14th Dalai Lama. Knowing the specific orientations and pathways taken by Buryat pilgrims and scholars a hundred year sago, as well as today, as they identified with broadly configured religious communities, is key for understanding new geopolitical forms of consciousness as long-held Eurasian ties are now being revived in the wake of Soviet rule.


  1. Since 2001 I have been going between Buryatia and India along the routes followed by contemporary Buryat pilgrims. This paper, based on both fieldwork and archival and library research, provides historical background for my forthcoming Ph.D. dissertation,focusing specifically on contemporary cultural politics of Buryat Buddhism.
  2. After 1992, the Dalai Lama was repeatedly refused permission to visit Buryatia, while he was granted the visa to visit Kalmykia in 2004.
  3. See also Bakic-Hayden 1995 for a description of ‘nesting’ Orientalisms in the Ottoman-ruled Balkans.
  4. Slavophiles and Westernisers were two influential groups of intellectuals who held opposing views regarding the nature of Russian civilisation. Slavophiles contended that Russia’s civilisation was unique and defined by Russian Orthodoxy, autocracy and the peasant community. Westernisers believed that Russia needed to follow Western Europe as away to modernisation.
  5. The Buryat and Kalmyk Buddhists were also banned from entering Tibet due to being Russian subjects. The pilgrimages did not stop, but pilgrims had to pose as Khalkha Mongols.The British also found a way to penetrate Tibet by training Indians in surveying techniques and actively employing them in the Himalayan areas: see Waller 1990.
  6. I would like to acknowledge my debt to Tatiana Ermakova’s incisive and thorough analysis of Russian Buddhology, “Buddiiskii mir glazami rossiiskikh issledovatelei XIX- pervoi treti XX veka.” Her research has greatly enhanced my understanding of this topic, and hence the development of the arguments I present below.
  7. According to most accounts, while close association of the Mongols with Tibetan Buddhist establishment had begun in the thirteenth century, it was consolidated and expanded only in the sixteenth century.
  8. For a detailed analysis of primary sources on imperial Russian politics towards Buddhism in the Transbaikal, see K.M.Gerasimova (Gerasimova 1957).
  9. One of the major events in the Buddhist revival of the early 1990s was the lavish celebration of ’250 years of Buddhism in Russia’in1991.
  10. I thank historian Nikolai Tsyrempilov for pointing out to me that she only seized power in late November 1741 as a result of the Palace Revolution. With no previous experience, Empress Elizabeth found herself the head of a great empire, and it is not clear then how she could have familiarised herself with the situation in the Transbaikal in less than a month. The famous decree supposedly signed by the Empress has never been discovered in the archives,so there are doubts if it ever existed.
  11. All the subsequent Russian Emperors, whether male or female, were considered rein-carnations of the White TaraRussian Buddhists ’twist on the Emperors’ appellation of ‘White Tsars’, which was common for both Mongol and Turkic peoples in Russia and neighboring areas.
  12. See also David Schimmelpennick Van der Oye for the analysis of Ukhtomskii’s Asianism (Schimmelpenninck, 2001:pp.41–62).
  13. For more on Dorzhiev, see Snelling 1993 and Dorzhiev’s own autobiography,Dorzhiev 1994.
  14. The trend of using Buryats as agents in Tibet continued in Soviet times: see Andreyev 2003.
  15. The myth of old Tibet as a land of carefree peasants led by enlightened and compassionate religious leaders promoted not only by Western Tibetophiles but also by Tibetans-in-exile who tend to romanticise their own past, began to be questioned only recently and still provokes much controversy, having been called the ‘denial of history’(Shakya,1999:xxviii).
  16. See Andreyev 2003 for the detailed historical context of Russia’s and, later, the Soviet Union’s relation to Tibet.
  17. Baradiin was supposed to join the 13th Dalai Lama, who fled to Urga before the British invasion of Tibet in 1904, on his journey back to Lhasa. The Dalai Lama, extended his stay in Mongolia; Baradiin went to Labrang alone.
  18. This problem has been rectified by the publication in 2003 of a masterly ethnographic study of Tibetan monasticism by George Dreyfus, where he also mentions this gap while reviewing the historiography of the issue(Dreyfus 2003:343).
  19. By ‘wild’ herding (proizvol’noe skotovodstvo) he meant non-regulated, purely customary Mongolian herding as opposed to the more scientific approach to dairy and meat production and pasture allotment, which he advocated in Buryatia. I thank my anonymous reviewer for sharing this information.
  20. Boas’s programmatic 1896 article ‘The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology’ was already published by that time, but we have no direct evidence whether Baradiin could have been influenced by it.
  21. Baradiin’s report Puteshestvie v Lavran, presented to the Russian Geographic Societyin 1908, was republished as an appendix in Ermakova 1998. All citations and page numbers are from Appendix 5 in Ermakova 1998:117–51.
  22. Discussion thread from the ‘Sait buriatskogo naroda’, thread entitled ‘On the Famous Buryats and Kalmyks in the Recent History of the Mongols’. Accessed 9 January 2007 at (Mytranslation.)
  23. As my anonymous reviewer rightly pointed out,this dynamic is different for Buryats in Mongolia or Shenekhen in China.
  24. A number of fascinating new genealogies have been developed in recent years by the Sangha to overcome this view, which, however, goes beyond the scope of this paper (I discuss this at length in my dissertation).


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The short version of this article was originally presented at the annual SOYUZS ymposium 2006, ‘Locating “Eurasia” in Post-Socialist Studies: The Geopolitics of Naming’, Princeton University. My very special thanks go to Bruce Grant for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this piece.


New York University, USA