Names: Buryats, Kalmyks, Tuvinians
Location: Lower Volga region (Kalmyks), south-eastern USSR (Buryats, Tuvinians); also in Mongolia and China
Population: Buryats: 353,000 (USSR census 1979), 400,000 (est. 1989); Kalmyks; 147,000 (1979), 160,000 (est. 1989): Tuvinians: 166,000 (1979), 190,000 (est. 1989)
% of population: 0.25% (1979), 0.26% (est. 1989)
Religion: Buddhist, Orthodox Christianity and Shamanism (minorities)
Language: Buryat, Kalmyk (both Mongol languages), Tuvinian (Turkic), Mongolian

The Buddhist peoples of the USSR have not attracted anything like the attention paid to the much more numerous Soviet Muslims. In essence, however, the two groups share many of the same problems and aspirations. Certainly, the Buryats, Kalmyks and Tuvinians would tend to identify with the Uzbeks, Tatars and Azerbaidjanis in the key Slavic-Non Slavic ethnic divide.

History and background

The Buryats and Kalmyks are Mongol peoples sharing a common ancestry with the tribes that destroyed the first Russian state — Kievan Rus — in the thirteenth century. The Tuvinians are a Turkic people that fell under the Mongol yoke at about the same time. Buryatia had been colonized by the Russians as early as the mid-seventeenth century, about the same time as the nomadic Kalmyks settled in the Lower Volga. The Kalmyks, too, were incorporated into the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century, at which time Catherine the Great encouraged substantial German immigration to the steppes along the Lower Volga to discourage Kalmyk expansion. The Tuvinians were under Manchurian rule until briefly becoming a Russian protectorate in 1914. The building of the Trans-Siberian Railway at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries accelerated the process of Westernization and Russification. After the October Revolution and Civil War, Eastern Buryatia was occupied by Japanese and American troops and from 1920-22 formed part of the Far Eastern Republic. Tuva was proclaimed an independent people’s republic in 1921 (although, in effect a Soviet vassal state); a status it retained until being incorporated into the USSR in 1944 as an Autonomous Republic within the RSFSR. The Kalmyk Autonomous Region was established in 1923 and became an Autonomous Republic in 1935.

The leading figure in Soviet Buddhism in the post-Revolutionary years was Lama Agvan Dordzhiev, who developed the notion that Buddhist modernism was compatible with communism. However, in the 1930s with rising tension in Manchuria, Stalin accused Soviet Buddhists of collaboration and subjected them to severe repressions. In 1943, the entire Kalmyk people was deported to Central Asia and Siberia, being allowed to return only in 1957. Two Buddhist monasteries were reopened in Chita (Eastern Siberia) and Ivolginsk (Buryatia) at the end of World War II but by 1978 it was claimed that the number of lamas had decreased from 10,000 prior to the Revolution to 40. In 1950 a Buddhist Central Council of the USSR was established in Ivolginsk.

Constitution and law

All three Buddhist peoples in the Soviet Union (the Koreans are also nominally Buddhist, but appear to have few organized facilities to practise their religion) have their own Autonomous Republic which, in theory, gives each nationality the right to elect its own legislative, executive and judiciary. However, only the Tuvinians are the majority nation within its own republic (60% —36% Russians, 1979); the Kalmyks constitute 40.5% (Russians 42%) and the Buryats a mere 22.3% (Russians 70%). Each republic elects four deputies to the Council of Nationalities in the USSR Supreme Soviet. In addition Buryats are the indigenous people in the Aginski-Buryat and Ust-Ordynsky Buryat Autonomous Areas (one deputy each).

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

Until very recently the Buddhist peoples of the USSR had not been as vocal nor as militant as their Muslim compatriots, and the process of secularization and Russification appeared to be proceeding, apace, particularly in the towns. However, the visit in 1979 of the Dalai Lama to the datsan (monastery) in Ivolginsk, was witnessed, reportedly, by “thousands of believers”. The recent upsurge of nationalist activity in the Soviet Union appears to have affected thus far only the Buryats among the Buddhist peoples, there being reports of nationalist disturbances in Ulan Ude (capital of Buryatia) in August 1989. However, one suspects that the Kalmyks (who still harbour deep resentment at their treatment under Stalin) and the Tuvinians (with their links to Mongolia and recent history of, albeit nominal, independence) may assert themselves in the near future. Moreover, bearing in mind that the ecology movement in the USSR started with protests at the pollution of Lake Baikal (which is virtually surrounded by Buryat territory), environmental issues may well become the rallying factor for nationalist sentiments in Buryatia.