By Victoria Loginova
ULAN-UDE, Russia — After giving up his job as a programmer and leaving his native village for the datsan (temple) at Ivolga, the spiritual heart of Russian Buddhism, Chingiz Shagdurov found peace at last.
"The wisdom of the lamas showed me the way to freedom," the crimson-clad, rosary-clutching 24-year-old explained.
Buddhism is enjoying a remarkable resurgence in the Siberian republic of Buryatia, with thousands of faithful traveling each year to bow to the shrines at Ivolga, some 20 miles from the region's capital of Ulan-Ude.
The Buddhist faith now numbers nearly 1,000 lamas and a million followers in Russia, mostly in the Siberian republics of Buryatia, Altai and Tuva as well as in Kalmykia, Europe's only Buddhist republic, on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea.
The Ivolga monastery's theology college, founded in 1991 in the dying days of the Soviet Union, houses 100 young men. Mr. Shagdurov and other students are studying the ancestral faith that was established in Buryatia in the 18th century but suffered greatly under Soviet persecution.
Undaunted by grueling tests, hundreds of candidates flock to the college in the hope of being admitted to study Buddhist painting, philosophy and the Tibetan and ancient Mongol languages.
However, the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism are served here with a local twist, Buryat lamas having absorbed some of the shamanic traditions that have been popular in southern Siberia for centuries.
A bottle of vodka — which plays an integral part in shamanic rites — claims a place of honor even at the altar of the datsan's shrines, next to the effigies of Tibetan spiritual leaders.
"Vodka is an offering to the divinities. We can transform it into a golden nectar by means of a certain rite," Mr. Shagdurov said.
In accordance with the precepts of Siberian shamanism, both shamans and their faithful sprinkle vodka in hallowed places "to appease the spirits" and then take a tipple themselves.
Black tea or milk can also feature in the rites.
Local variations aside, "Buddhism is being reborn in Russia. Temples are being rebuilt, and federal authorities are lending us their support," Mr. Shagdurov said.
The young disciple, his black hair cropped short, proudly shows off a tangible sign of that support — a silver tea service, dating back to the 19th century and presented to the monastery's little museum by none other than President Vladimir Putin.
Moscow had far more sinister associations with Buddhism in Josef Stalin's time when around 50 shrines were destroyed and pillaged and more than 1,800 lamas were thrown into jail or disappeared in labor camps.
The persecution eased after World War II, and in 1946 Buddhists were allowed to build a temple on the Ivolga River.
"The Soviet authorities understood that only religion could soothe the suffering of the war," Mr. Shagdurov said.
In recent years, however, Russian authorities have barred the Dalai Lama, Buddhism's chief spiritual leader, from visiting Russia, citing complaints from China, Russia's strategic partner.
Last week, Russia refused to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to visit the southern republic of Kalmykia, where roughly half of the 300,000 residents are Buddhists. This was the third time in two years that the Tibetan spiritual leader was barred from visiting Russia. He last visited Russia's Buddhist regions in 1992 and received a transit visa in 1996.
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after a revolt against Chinese supremacy there failed, and Beijing exerts all its influence to limit his travels abroad.
But in the shrines of the Ivolga datsan, where the Dalai Lama's portrait nestles against a huge statue of an orange-clad Buddha seated on a lotus, the faithful never lose hope.
"We are going to pray real hard to one day meet the Dalai Lama," Mr. Shagdurov pledged, deploring "the weakness of the Russian state" for yielding to Chinese pressure.