Building a temple inside: Life for the Kalmyks in Moscow

Story: Marina Obrazkova
Photos and video: Vladimir Stakheev

Moscow has never been short of churches. Before the 1917 revolution, there was even a special expression, "forty forties", used to describe the number of churches in the city (meaning 40 times 40, that is 1,600, or just "a lot").

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These days, Moscow has Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches, as well as mosques and synagogues. Almost all Muscovites and visitors to the city can find a place of worship for themselves, with the exception of Buddhists. Members of this religion, one of the world's main three faiths, do not yet have a place of worship in Moscow 

Ayuka, 25, is a Kalmyk. He came to Moscow in 2006 from Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, one of Russia's Buddhist centers. 

Although Ayuka has not found a Buddhist temple that he could go to in Moscow, he continued to ‘build a temple inside his soul’ and to study the Buddhist teachings by himself. In the process, he has managed to get some of his Moscow friends interested in it too.

Modern Kalmyks are Russian citizens. The Republic of Kalmykia is a constituent part of the Russian Federation, situated in the southeast of the country. However, there was a time when this was not so: The roots of the Kalmyk people go back to Asia, to West Mongol cattle-breeding tribes. It was only in the first half of the 17th century that local princes swore allegiance to the Russian tsar and settled in the steppes of the Lower Volga region.

After the 1917 revolution, a Steppe Region of the Kalmyk People was formed. Eighteen years later, it was transformed into the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, a full-fledged part of the Soviet Union. Kalmyks survived the Nazi occupation during World War II, followed by Soviet reprisals and deportation to Siberia under Stalin – an exile that lasted 13 years. Kalmyks were allowed to return to their native land only in 1957. 

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kalmykia became a republic inside the Russian Federation. In the 2000s, Kalmyks, together with many other residents of the not very economically developed south of the country, began to move to Moscow. According to official statistics, there are some 3,000 ethnic Kalmyks currently living in Moscow. 

With them, Kalmyks have brought their language, cuisine, and religion - the Tibetan Buddhist sect known as the Gelugpa. As for their traditional livelihoods - nomadic cattle breeding and hunting – those had to be left behind in the Kalmyk steppes. In Moscow, you can meet Kalmyks in all walks of life. One of them, former Kalmyk leader Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is even the president of the World Chess Federation.  


Ayuka moved to Moscow together with his parents. He and his brother came to the capital to enter university, to study law and economics respectively. Ayuka's parents gave up their jobs and their house in Kalmykia and, without any regrets, followed their children.

To begin with, we moved from one rented room or flat to another. 
In the end, we managed to get used to living here, to settle in. 

Elista, where Ayuka is from, is not a big city; compared to Moscow, it could be described as tiny. At first, Ayuka found many things in Moscow surprising, but he quickly got used to them: "To begin with, we moved from one rented room or flat to another. Our parents worked really hard to make our life here comfortable. Our university friends helped us to get to know the city, showed us around. In the end, we managed to get used to living here, to settle in. Through friends, me and my brother found a job with a bookmaking firm, where we work as analysts."

In Moscow, Ayuka has friends from different ethnic groups and religions, including Buddhists from other Russian regions: "I was very keen to find out how Buddhists live in other parts of Russia, how they study Buddhist philosophy."

Russian Buddhism has its own historic peculiarities: "Before Soviet times, Kalmyks were allowed to take part in rituals (services, prayers, walks around temples) but they were not taught the philosophy of the Buddhist teaching. The restrictions were [put] in place for fear of distorting canonical Buddhism. 

However, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, it was decided to pass on the teaching to all those who wanted to learn it. There were many temples built in Kalmykia, and Russian Buddhists got an opportunity for religious development."

"Buddhism, first and foremost, is an ethic of non-violence, a philosophy of interdependence". 

Ayuka's Moscow friends take a keen interest in his religion. However, judging by the questions he is often asked, few are aware of what Buddhism is really about. When he was at university, there were only five Kalmyks in Ayuka's year and a lot of Russians. He would patiently explain the essence of his religion to all those interested to listen: "Buddhism, first and foremost, is an ethic of non-violence, a philosophy of interdependence. We are all linked through the laws of karma, our differences are secondary. All people want to be happy and do not want to suffer, in that we are all united." 

Not even having a temple to go to, Ayuka continued to observe Buddhist traditions. Together with his Buryat friends, he celebrated Buddhist holidays, prayed and meditated.

The essence of the Buddhist journey is to work on oneself, the work is about always striving to become a better and kinder person 

Ayuka first heard of the Moscow Buddhist Center of Lama Tsonkapa in the fall of 2012. Since then, he has been coming here often and, together with fellow Moscow Buddhists, taking part in the traditional ceremonies. "Our rituals take place twice a month. Also, I attend teaching cycles that are delivered in the spring and in the fall," he says. 

In the summer of 2013, Ayuka spent time in a Buddhist retreat at Lake Baikal. The retreat is open to everyone and is free too, all you have to do is to buy the tickets and to take some money for living expenses. It is a small sum to pay for a serious spiritual experience. "The main goal of the Baikal retreat is self-improvement,” says Ayuka. “The essence of the Buddhist journey is to work on oneself, the work is about always striving to become a better and kinder person. We spent a lot of time talking about it. After lectures, people spent time in individual practices and meditations." 

Throughout his eight years in Moscow, Ayuka has never been to a Russian Orthodox church, not even out of curiosity.

But he has met quite a few Russian Orthodox believers among people who come to listen to lectures on Buddhist philosophy. According to Ayuka, even a deeply religious person can survive without having a place of worship to go to if he has one inside, while the opposite is not always true.

Story: Marina Obrazkova
Photos and video: Vladimir Stakheev
Produced by Russia Beyond the Headlines in 2014