Tibetan Buddhists in the making of Buriat-Mongolian Nation in Russian empire and early Soviet Russia, 1900-1922

Project: Research project

Project Description

It has been long since Carlton Hayes (1926) compared nationalism with religion for its ‘deep and compelling emotion’ that is ‘essentially religious’. Indeed, numerous thinkers ponder over the nature of the striking similarities between religion, ethnicity and nationalism for both are the ways of framing of social relations and segmentation in complex societies. Today’s theorists of nationalism still debate over the ways religions have influenced and even shaped nation-building in different world regions in the age of modernity. Yet it is still too early to strike the balance as researchers face lack of empirical evidences to underpin existing theories, from Calhoun’s ‘congregational self-rule’ to Smith’s ‘religion as iconic representation of nation’. And it is natural that there may not be one satisfactory working model for multiple forms of interaction between two phenomena. In traditional Asian societies both those that endured European colonization and those never experienced colonialism, nationalism as a modernist concept was never a mere reflection of original European or American models. It gained specificity and unique configuration by being brought to Procrustean bed of their worldview. However, the ways these cultures appropriated modern political ideas are closely bound with and even determined by European colonialism.
The case with the Buryats, an ethnic minority of Eastern Siberia, which embraced Tibetan Buddhism just on the eve of the Russian conquest and annexation of their territories in the 17th c. can serve a good example of how religion can serve as a ‘diacritical marker’ for later nationalist sentiments or an alternative to the idea of secular nationalism. It is an established fact that the Buryat nationalist movement was one of the most influential historical phenomena of Central Eurasia of the early 20th c. So far researchers tended to view it solely in terms of response to Russian colonialism inspired by European modernist ideas. Robert Rupen (1962), Dittmar Schorkowitz (2001) or Vera Tolz (2015) explained the rise of nationalist sentiments among the Buryats with the effects of Russian secular education, response to resettlement policy and confiscation of land and the influence of Russian regionalists (oblastniki). These explanations fail to address the role of Buddhism in formation of the Buryat ethnicity and ideology of nationalism and pan-Mongolism which, as numerous documents show, was very prominent. The ways and extent the Buddhist institutional infrastructure and religious identity contributed to nationalist discourse are heavily underestimated and need special attention. It is especially important in the light of recent studies of a few attempts to use Buddhist ideas and clericals in state-building projects during Civil war in East Siberia (Ungern von Sternberg, Agvan Dorzhiev, Grigory Semyonov’s Neyse Gegen theocracy, Balagat theocracy).
This project will examine how Tibetan Buddhism as a complex of institutes (network of monasteries, parochial structure, central spiritual administration, book-printing, religious literature, etc) facilitated the rise of the Buryat nationalism in the late 19th – early 20th c. The project will cover the period from 1905, the year of the First Russian Revolution to the end of Civil war in Russian Siberia in 1922. This time was crucial for molding of the Buryat national movement, and I will address the poorly studied issues of what place Buddhism occupied in the nationalist discourse of the Buryat intelligentsia, what was the nature of interactions between secular nationalists and Buddhist clergy and how Buddhist ideas of statehood or theocracy challenged or in some cases even substituted the concepts of political autonomy, pan-Mongolism or Buryat independent state.
This grant will allow me to research archives in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan, Irkutsk, Chita, Ulan-Ude and Ulaanbaatar and select document in Russian, Tibetan and Mongolian that reflect these interactions. My previous projects that concerned the issues of spread and institutionalization of Buddhism among the Buryats in Russian empire gave me a chance to make initial evaluation of existing important archives pertaining the topic. They include protocols of all-Buryat and Buddhist congresses held from 1905 to 1917, Buddhist political pamphlets and leaflets, works and papers of influential Buddhist leaders and secular nationalists. I would anticipate having a paper on important aspects of the Buryat secular nationalism and Tibetan Buddhism in draft form by the end of the project period. In longer period I plan to write a monograph on the history of Tibetan Buddhism in late Russian empire and early Soviet Union, before and after the revolutions and Civil war which will sum up my previous research and the results of this project. I would anticipate completion of a draft of this book by 2019.
Another perspective direction of the project will be comparative analysis of the role Islam and Buddhism have played in the history of indigenous national movements in Central Asia and East Siberia. This analysis may become a part of larger project which I plan to launch in collaboration with my colleagues from HPRS, KLLC and DSA after completion of his project.
Effective start/end date5/1/174/30/18


  • Buriat
  • Buddhism
  • nationalism
  • religion
  • Russian empire
  • Soviet Union