Why Can’t the Dalai Lama visit Russia?

Posted July 12th, 2011 at 8:32 pm (UTC+0)

The Dalai Lama is subject of veneration of Russa's 1.3 million Buddhist. But Russia's government has denied him a visa since 2004. Photo Credit: Japhet Weeks

In temple after temple in Buryatia, the capital of Buddhism in Russia, one color photo invariably holds a position of honor, often surrounded by garlands of flowers.

The photo is of the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism since 1950.

The vast majority of Russia’s estimated 1.3 million Buddhists follow Tibetan Buddhism. Despite the rupture of the Soviet era, this religious preference is a direct a legacy of work performed Tibetan and Mongolian missionaries who came to Buryatia and Tuva four centuries ago.

Today, followers of Tibetan Buddhism, from Nepal to Mongolia to Colorado, revere the Dalai Lama as the latest reincarnation of a long line of spiritual leaders who have chosen to be reborn in order to enlighten others.

In 1979, the current Dalai Lama made his first visit to the Soviet Union. In 1990, the year after the Nobel Committee awarded him Peace Prize, the Soviet Union awarded him one of its own top awards – The Order of Peoples’ Friendship. Coming at a time when economic ties with China were minimal, this gesture was a low cost way of trying to maintain the fiction of religious freedom in the Soviet Union.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, warm relations continued. In 1994, the Dalai Lama gave an address to Russia’s Duma, parliament. In later years, he received rapturous receptions on visits to Russia’s three heavily Buddhist republics – Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva. There, on Russia’s southern edge, he inaugurated temples and monasteries.

Buddhism is resurgent in Russia's three border republics with large Mongolian populations: Kalmykia, Tuva and Buryatia. Officials in all three republics have petitioned Russia's Foreign Ministry to give a visa to the Dalai Lama. Map credit: Japhet Weeks

But as Moscow’s trade with China became increasingly important, Russian visas slowed and, after 2004, stopped. China’s objections to the Dalai Lama center around his role as head of Tibet’s “Government-in-Exile,” a group that advocates independence for Tibet, currently an autonomous region of China.

But Russia’s Buddhist population is steadily expanding. And visa requests for the Dalai Lama keep coming.

In May 2010, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a speech to Russian lawmakers: “Russia is ready to help settle the conflict between China and the Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama. We know that the Chinese leadership is deeply committed to the Dalai Lama dissociating himself from any kind of political activity and separatist tendencies in regard to one or another territory in China.”

Russia’s mediation offer seemed to have vanished into thin air.

Then, two months ago, as the Dalai Lama was approaching the end of his 75th year, he formally resigned his political post as head of Tibet’s “government-in-exile.”

Today, he officially exerts only a religious role as the head of Tibetan Buddhism worldwide.

On a five day visit to Buryatia in early July, I got the same, unflinching view from Buddhists: we want the Dalai Lama to come and visit us.

Buddhist Nun Tenzin Choidrin prays next to a portrait of the Dalai Lama in Buryatia Republic, Russia. Photo: Japhet Weeks

At one prayer hall, a nun, Tenzin Choidrin, her head shaved and her heavyset frame swathed in magenta robes, said that a price cannot be put on the role of the Dalai Lama for the rebirth of Buddhism in Russia. His visit, she said, would be like water, which is needed by parched, sunbaked soil.

Now, when things are calm, would be a good time for Russia to stand up to China, and to follow the wishes of its Buddhist minority.

One only has to look at Russia’s tense relations with its Muslim minority to see how indifference can lead to alienation, radicalization and secessionism. Just on Saturday, in the latest killing in a slowly grinding cultural war, Islamic militants in Dagestan, Russia shot dead a school principal who refused to allow female students to wear headscarves.

Here on Russia’s Buddhist edge, Mongolian separatism is now on the back burner, after flaring up in the 1990s.

The Kremlin is highly reluctant to irritate Beijing. China’s population is 10 times bigger than Russia’s. By the end of this decade, China’s economy is to be 10 times bigger than Russia’s.

But now may be the time for Moscow to embark on proactive diplomacy.

Priests praying and beating a drum at a new Buddhist temple in a suburb of Ulan Ude, capital of Buyatia Republic, Russia. Photo: Japhet Weeks

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

23 responses to “Why Can’t the Dalai Lama visit Russia?”

  1. Gennady says:

    Certainly the Dalai Lam will not visit.
    The reason is simple – Russia’s FSB minded establishment.
    No wonder that Russian lawmakers turned deaf ear to Russia’s FM Sergei Lavrov.
    FSB strongly reveres its bloody forerunners (VChK-OGPU-KGB), which persecuted millions of believers, demolished hundreds of churches and temples, in cold blood shot dozens of innocent priests.
    Even Patriarch of All Russia was a KGB agent.
    Rebirth of churches nowadays looks absolutely artificial and insincere, the same as FSB favorite PM Putin clumsily crosses his chest at a church service.
    But in the longer run multiethnic multiconfessional Russia will overcome the hurdle with leaders of contemporary mentality.

    • free bird says:

      are some sort of ‘brain-washed’ communist’, or your are payed to comment here? Some of you guys commenting on this wet sound very much “cloned”.

      • Gennady says:

        “Free Bird” is free from any logic, from contemporary Russia’s history, from gloomy
        “Free Bird” labels people, it means (s)he is wrong.
        “Free Bird” doesn’t know the difference/similiaruty between hard-lined communists and
        “Free Bird”, are you from Nashi or other Kremlin lavishly financed organizations,
        aren’t you?
        It is published over the Runet that 500$ (15000 рублей) are paid for anybody every
        month for proKremlin’s posts being made in Russian. By the way, how much do
        they pay for such posts in English?

        • Gennady says:

          Free Bird admits that (s)he posts just for passing spare time and for having fun.
          As the host of the blog has already pointed Free Bird, and I repeat as well, that Free Bird has once again missed the plot of the discussion.
          The topic is of basic human rights, of gross mismanagement of the largest country, of overwhelming incompetence, of plundering its natural resources, of stagnating its economy, and the phantom of its collapse already looming.
          And the country has the largest stockpile of A- and H-bombs, as well as other top-secret weapons of mass destruction.
          Free Bird calls all who disagrees with the tragedy of his own homeland going to happen as “frustration”and “difficult to live with themselves”.
          This will not be one more Titanic tragedy but much more.
          I’m sure when all I’ve mentioned explodes
          your life-long vacation will certainly be disrupted.

  2. Pyotr says:

    I will try to speculate the Russia’s logic. There is a multibillion deal with China to build a gas and oil pipe on one side of the scales and a million of buddists on the other. Now tell me when did Russia do anything in favour of its own citizens? The territory growth even if it costs millions of lives of its own people or peoples we were conquering, the wealth of its ruling class no matter what it costs to ordinary people – these were the priorities of Russian rulers from the mongolian conquest till now. So the conclusion on which side of the scale will overbalance is very simple to make.

  3. Alexey says:

    Well, I might say that European principles of democracy and citizen human right are able to be used only in a states of lesser size. Everyone knows that the principles that are used in private entrepreneurship cannot transferred directly to a cross-continental corporation. And vise verse. Life in Russia, in China, in USA even in EU would never be that idillic as in good old separate European states, which don’t exist any more. Size matters.
    On the other hand different cultures create different mental structures. Russia would never be able to be some kind of Switzerland because of size. Some other values and principles should be used, those which do fit a bigger size state, but even among bigger size principles there is a variety to choose from.
    There is nothing evil in FSB, KGB, Putin, Orthodox fake church, the evil is in Russians themselves. The strongest evil of all is that people do expect that there is someone over there who is responsible for everything happening to us. There is no “me”, no “you”, no personal responsibility domain in our own minds. When we start easily thinking and saying about what do “I” do, what do “I” expect from “you”, then the system may become more humanistic. “We” ourselves neglect humanism by using “we” and “those” in “our” mental constructs instead of more simple, direct and humanistic “me”, “I”, “you”.

    • Gennady says:

      When you are in ranks and files of FSB, certainly “is nothing evil in FSB, KGB, Putin”, certainly “Life in Russia… would never be that idyllic…”
      -when it comes to basic human rights as of right for contemporary health care
      and education, self expression, freedom of speech, rule of law,
      When you are in ranks and files of FSB, certainly “the evil is in Russians themselves”
      -because they exploded bombs in apartment houses all over Russia and failed just once in Ryazan,
      – because they put polonium to Litvinenko’s tea,
      – because they shot dead dozens journalists, Politkovskaya included, without any
      hope for justice done,
      – because they built and managed Gulag camps,
      – because they purged dozens millions citizens into graves,
      – because they killed academician Vavilov and many more prominent scientists in
      genetics and cybernetics and destroyed Russian science for ages,
      – because they stagnated Russian economy, and stole national treasures,
      – because they extort bribes at any place
      the list is endless

    • Pyotr says:

      Alexey, you are right size matters! And for that matter shouldn’t Russians devide Russia into a pair of dozens Russian and non-Russian states? I see that is the only way we can improve our mentality as a nation. Russians must let go all peoples who want to escape russian influence. Russian states must compete among each other in science, industry, trade. We will be good neighbours, not jailbirds in adjacent cells as we are now. No more monopoly to power of Moscow! Big size always means the growth of bureaucracy, no responsibility of statesmen, stagnation, corruption and a totalitarian way of managing.
      I only don’t agree with you that there was no evil in murderous organisations like KGB and so on. Criminals, murderers, swindlers no matter whether they are a part of the state or not must be judged and punished.

  4. Natalya says:

    Russian government just doesn’t like diversity period.: one party, one religion, one nationality, one president for years and centuries to come – all this makes me sick.

    • ragozzi says:

      well, if it makes you so sick, go live in America, they love diversity there….

      • Natalya says:

        I am already here in America, thanks for the advice though

        • ragozzi says:

          Good. Do not come back. Enjoy your freedom.

          • Jg says:

            one spiritural leader who cannot have his place can be called freedom?

          • Hurr says:

            Ragozzi, good job on perfectly fitting the stereotype that Natalya conjured up. The stupid, the intolerant, the monolithic simple-minded. One party, right? One religion, right? One attitude, right? One way of thinking, right? “Love it or leave it…” Stupid nationalists like you can be found in every country, sadly.

  5. Too bad! says:

    Too bad! If not United States and Russia, then who will stand up to the Chinese! Russia should join NATO and NATO, Russia, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and other countries should liberate Tibet, East Turkestan and Southern Mongolia!

  6. Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov says:

    Let’s all agree, can we, with our good old slogan that we never accepted for ourselves:

    Let it be Russian, Chinese, Yankee, Brazilian or Australian etc. Every people has the natural right to national, cultural, religious self-determination, doesn’t it?

  7. ragozzi says:

    You just have to let the government finish what they’re doing, that’s all. All of you Russia-haters, you will see in about 20 years, Russia will be the best place to live on this planet.

    • Gennady says:

      it looks as you have just hatched out, because you are so exalted.

      Baby, this site for grown-ups. Toddlers post in other place.

  8. Jg says:

    certainly at the moment, Russian will not risk the benefit from China for just the 1.3 million’s so called religion. while to be honest in the later life no one can garantee anything.

  9. Mikhail says:

    Long live imperialism!
    It is empire and not democracy which allows one to lead his private life when he chooses so.
    But the emperor and his clique… How rarely they are clever and enlightened!

  10. Tessa says:

    “Despite the rupture of the Soviet era, this is a direct a legacy of work performed Tibetan and Mongolian missionaries who came to Buryatia and Tuva four centuries ago.”

    Does that sentence make sense?


    RUSSIA and CHINA ties are stronger from the days of China’s invasion in India’s North eastern ARUNACHAL PRADESH state after DALAILAMA had entererd into India.At that time though INDIA has strong relationship with former USSR than USA during cold war but USSR never tried to send any force in support of INDIA at that war as CHINA is the communist country.In those days former USSR and China supported North Vietnam against its battle against USA army in South Vietnam until PARIS AGREEMENT between North and South Vietnam.In recent times after 1998 as India supported autonomy of TIbet instead of Freedom of TIbet,Sikkim was accepted as India’s state in China’s official map.As Russia and China are members of SHANGHAI COOPERTION ORGANISATION(SCO) and BRICS,it is natural for Russia to support China which is stronger than Russia.

  12. Wangchuk says:

    It’s ironic that HH the Dalai Lama was allowed to visit Russia when it was the USSR but not allowed to visit Russia now that it’s purportedly democratic. The USSR engineered attacks on Buddhist monasteries & monks in Mongolia in the 1920s & 1930s, but now Mongolia is fully independent & Buddhist monks in Russia are allowed freedom of religion.

    But Tibetan Buddhist monks in Tibet have no freedom of religion. Yet despite decades of oppression & communist Chinese propaganda, in July 2011 over 5,000 Tibetans, including lay people, monks & nuns, in Kham (Eastern Tibet) held a huge religious ceremony to honor the Dalai Lama and a huge portrait of him was enthroned. The local Chinese authorities told the monks not to do this ceremeny but the monks ignored them & put in strict conditions that all people attending this ceremony must wear Tibetan dress & only speak Tibet, no Chinese should be spoken, even by any govt officials that attend. These brave Tibetans risked arrest & imprisonment to show their devotion to the Dalai Lama. This shows that the devotion to the Dalai Lama by Tibetans has not diminished despite 60 years of Chinese occupation.

    China wants to dominate the world as the next superpower. Russia can help counter Chinese hegemony by showing that it will not kowtow to China. Russian Buddhists want to see the Dalai Lama & the Russian Govt should permit the Dalai Lama another visit.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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