Russia’s Buddhist republic sees the light

Russia Today, Nov 18, 2008

Elista, Kalmykia (Russia) -- Russia's republic of Kalmykia is the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the dominant religion. Temples were destroyed there during the Soviet era and Buddhism went into decline. But in a new age of tolerance, the steppe region is enjoying a religious renaissance.

<< The Golden Temple in Elista

Temples, Buddha statues and pictures of the Dalai Lama abound in Kalmykia's capital Elista.

Its Temple of Buddha Shakyamuni is the largest Buddhist temple in Europe. Visible from every part of the city, it serves as a giant centre piece around which life in the tiny capital revolves. 

Specialist painters from Tibet are painstakingly redecorating the temple’s interior - a process that could take another four years.

Across the republic, Kalmykian and Tibetan monks work side by side.

Abbot Anja Gelong says: “Buddhism is such an important part of our lives here. Everyday, anyone can come to the temple and meet with any monk to talk about anything they want.”

And come morning prayers, the temple is full. A blessing from a visiting Tibetan Lama Geshe Thinley draws a crowd of thousands. A regular visitor to Kalmykia for the past 15 years, he's impressed with the changes.

Chess fan, self-made millionaire and head of the republic since 1993, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has personally overseen Kalmykia's Buddhist renaissance.
“All Buddhist churches and temples were destroyed during the Soviet period. Fifteen years ago there were none, and now there are 67 Buddhist temples and Christian churches in Kalmykia.  I paid for most of them from my own pocket,” Ilyumzhinov said.

However, not everyone is happy. Some say the $US 8 million spent on building temples could have been better used alleviating poverty in one of Russia’s poorest regions.