Reborn Russia teems with mysteries of ancient beliefs

ULAN UDE, RUSSIA — 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."

But Stalin didn't like the Old Believers. Local Communists stalked through their villages, ripping icons off walls and tearing Bibles apart. Teachers snatched crosses off children's necks. But then, at night, most of these same Communists went out into the forest with their families and prayed.

Mrs. Myasnikova, 53, knows the stories well. Her father was one of the icon-smashers by day. He hid their own icons and Bibles under stones, deep in the Siberian forest.

She has worked on a collective farm for 34 years. The golden light of a long summer evening seems to glint off her burnished cheeks and inextinguishable smile. Like her forebears, she's a -- conservative woman, and she has no use for the reform government in Moscow.


"I'm for the Communists, I am," she says. "There was discipline in those days.

"Do you know what the problem is in this country?" she suddenly asks. "Nobody is afraid of anything anymore."

In the beginning

Long before the Buddhist missionaries came here from Tibet, before the Cossacks and Old Believers pushed out from Russia, before the revolutionary exiles were sent out from St. Petersburg, before the 19th-century Polish prisoners came here and built the great brick Catholic church in Irkutsk -- there were Buryats.

They were a fierce and unsubdued people, closely related to the nearby Mongolians. They believed in forest and river spirits, spirits of the air and water.

There were shamans among the Buryats, who lived on the edges and in the forests, who would put themselves into trances and thereby reach the spirits, seeking intercession for the sick or the unlucky.


The shamanism that developed around Baikal -- a place of eerie beauty, of high mountains and shocking storms -- was the same sort of belief that the people who were to become American Indians carried with them when they left Siberia to cross into Alaska.

Stalin came after them, too.

Fifty years ago, the Soviets killed the shamans, tore down their bark huts, laughed at their superstitions. But before the memories could die completely, the Soviet system itself had expired.

Today, shamanism is undergoing a remarkable revival throughout Siberia, but especially here among the Buryats.

It represents a heartfelt turning-away -- from the pain and physical degradation wrought under 70 years of Soviet power.

The Soviets were fond of such phrases as "scientific socialism" and "objective reality." Shamanism is a repudiation of all that.


"Reality isn't only the physical," says Irina Urbanaeva, a sociologist and a Buryat nationalist. "It has a very complex structure for the Buryat people. We've suffered under this 20th-century illusion of rationality. We need to re-establish our ancient values. The reality a Westerner lives in is quite different from that of an Easterner.

"Shaman culture is the original ecological culture, a tradition that kept people at peace -- between themselves and between them and nature. The colonization and moral assimilation that the Russians imposed on us were a catastrophe for the Buryat people."

Last summer, for the first time since the advent of communism 75 years ago, a shaman festival called the Great Dailkhan was held. It took place on the sacred island of Olkhon in Lake Baikal -- and it was convened to do something about the drought that had afflicted eastern Siberia.

Ms. Urbanaeva, who helped plan the festival, and others who were present described what happened.

In the afternoon, more than 100 men gathered on a grassy slope on Olkhon, the golden field a counterpoint to the blue of Baikal -- the blue of the lake, and of the mountains on the distant eastern shore, and of the sky.

To the west, across the narrow Maloe More, or Little Sea, is a sharp ridge with five bald faces. The taiga, or dense Siberian woodland, crosses the top of each face and runs down each intervening valley, like a dark green shawl drawn tight. This ridge hid the gathering storm clouds.


Thunderous results

The old men who remembered the rituals prayed to three different gods, all said to live on Olkhon. The light grew unsteady, flowing bright, then dark, then bright again. Lake and sky shimmered. The dark clouds scudded over the ridge, and the storm broke.

A storm on Baikal is a pulse-racing, other-worldly experience. In one direction the sky is dark, the lake light. In another, just the reverse. Somewhere in between, they merge. The distant hills, out of the storm's way, seem to flicker.

Thunder echoes all around, over and over again, thrown off Olkhon and dozens of smaller islands, rocking over the granite-gray waters of the lake.

The men brought a sheep forward, and then another, and later it was said that the first lightning flashed just as the sacrificial blood was spilled.

And then it rained.