Reborn Russia teems with mysteries of ancient beliefs

November 27, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Staff Writer

ULAN UDE, Russia -- There may be no place in Russia quite like this corner of southeastern Siberia.

Busily crisscrossing the main square these days is a whole blossoming array of new Russians -- not just the usual business people and traders but would-be Buddhist lamas, forest-dwelling shaman revivalists, heretical Old Believers, and Eastern-directed Buryat nationalists (who would rather not be Russians at all).

The city square is dominated by a gigantic, 40-foot-tall head of Lenin -- a head, not a bust -- but the father of Soviet communism today surveys a scene of unparalleled diversity and variety.

Passers-by, who refer to the Lenin monument simply as "The Head," give little thought anymore to the old ideal of the one-mold-fits-all Soviet man.

Like people all across Russia, the citizens of Ulan Ude are today pursuing countless faiths, fads and philosophies. They are showing Russia to be a nation of richly disparate and sometimes unusual types.

The region around the formidable Lake Baikal has been eclectic for centuries, attracting stragglers, misfits and exiles. Even in the most strait-laced of times, convention never had more than a precarious hold here.

Today buses wheeze out of Ulan Ude down a road that leads straight out of town through brown scrubland to a desolate flat plain, a bowl, actually, surrounded by mountains.

Here, where the buses stop with a sigh, wind chimes tinkle in the constant breeze. Goats bleat somewhere. And, at any moment, a procession of crimson-robed, shaven-headed lamas will file out of the brilliant white Buddhist temple, a landmark for miles around with its pointy and even more brilliant yellow roof.

This is the datsan of Ivolginsk, the center of a religious faith that is undergoing an explosion of interest among the Buryat people.

Built in 1976, the datsan was for years a carefully controlled outlet for Buddhists -- the only one in Siberia -- but now the controls have been swept away.

Dashi Nima, the lama in charge of the datsan, says new datsans are being built throughout the area, and teachers are coming in from India to instruct new lamas.

Meanwhile, pilgrims pour out to this remote site in Ivolginsk, where services are held every day.

The lamas sit at low tables, chanting in Tibetan because Buddhism first came to Siberia with Tibetan missionaries in the 1600s. Sweet incense fills the air. Above the lamas, the ceiling is festooned with bright, patchwork cloths, rising to a central skylight. Painted serpents spiral down wooden columns. A wall of golden figures is dominated by a huge Buddha.

The faithful not only attend services but visit shrines to the dead, or spin dull-red prayer wheels that are standing throughout the grounds.

Back in the 1930s there were 46 datsans in the Buryat Autonomous Republic. But they were all knocked down during Josef V. Stalin's reign of terror.

Democracy worrisome

Today's revolutionary changes, which have made possible the rebirth of an eastern religion in Russia, have brought troubles as well.

"We declared a new Russia," says Ivan Manuyev, a former Soviet army officer who is now building a Buddhist center on the western shore of Lake Baikal.

"But unfortunately, uncontrolled capitalism also brings ruin. People are fighting for property. This new capitalistic spirit doesn't mesh with our religious values. It's very difficult, very scary."

The Buddhists aren't the only ones here who survived brutal oppression under the Soviets yet find themselves unhappy with the new democrats.

Maria Moiseyevna Myasnikova belongs to a sect called the Old Believers, who split off from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1600s and have been outsiders ever since.

She lives with her family in the snug village of Saratovka, in the long and pleasant Selenga River valley, upstream from the locomotive repair yards and woolen processing mills of Ulan Ude. She keeps her 160-year-old ocher-colored wooden house tidy.

A visitor need only linger an hour or so before she hauls out her ancient, crumbling, leather-bound family Bibles, printed in antique type in an antique language, Old Slavonic.

There was a time when bringing these sacred texts out into the light of day would have earned for Mrs. Myasnikova a death sentence.

Her ancestors came to these parts in 1760. They were a strict, insular bunch. They didn't drink or smoke, they had to wear certain clothes, and they mixed as little as possible with both the Buryats and the Sibiryaks, or ordinary Russian settlers.

They kept a clean house, and they worked hard.

"My father was born in the field, because, you know, in the old times -- people were strong in those days," says Mrs. Myasnikova over a supper of salted fish, spread out on old newspapers, and hearty glasses of vodka. "His mother probably went right back to work."

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