Tuesday 9 November
RUSSIAN STATE REFUSES TO RETURN BUDDHIST 'SACRED OBJECT'
CONFISCATED BY STALIN

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

Notwithstanding its safe return to Ulan-Ude on 20 July from a tour of the
United States lasting over a year, the Atlas of Tibetan Medicine should be
returned to Buryat believers, Khambo Lama DAMBA AYUSHEYEV told
Keston on 4 October. 'Although de jure it belongs to the Russian state, it was
prepared at the Tsugolsky Datsan in Chita - which is now in the Buddhist
Traditional Sangha - so morally it belongs to us', he said. (The Traditional
Sangha is the successor to the Soviet-era Central Spiritual Directorate of
Buddhists, of which the Khambo Lama is head.)

The more complete of the two surviving copies of a now lost seventeenth-
century original, the nineteenth-century atlas consists of a series of 76 large
plates filled with detailed illustrations of the principles of Tibetan medicine. It
became the centre of an international controversy following the night of 4-5
May 1998, when approximately 100 riot police used batons against some 50
Buddhist monks and khubaraks (students) trying to prevent its removal from
Ulan-Ude's Odigitriyevsky Cathedral, which as an anti-religious museum was
the atlas's home for much of the Soviet era and is currently a storage space for
the Museum of Buryat History. Thirty of the demonstrators were beaten, 15
briefly detained and three arrested. One of the monks was reportedly
hospitalised with injuries to his internal organs.

On 4 May 1998 President of Buryatia LEONID POTAPOV had issued official
instructions concerning the atlas's removal; these specifically permitted the
Buryat Ministry of Internal Affairs 'to use force if met with opposition´┐Ż.
Following the beatings, head of the ministry IVAN KALASHNIKOV told
Russian journalists: 'The actions of the police units were carried out strictly
within the law and did not exceed the boundaries of the necessary use of force.'
On 8 May President Potapov stated that the ministry had acted in full
compliance with Russian law and that there would be no steps taken to find out
who was responsible for the police action. He maintained that the incident was
primarily 'the consequence of acts of political provocation by some candidates
for the post of president of Buryatia': presidential elections were due to take
place in the republic on 26 June. The then minister of internal affairs of the
Russian Federation, SERGEI STEPASHIN, nevertheless ordered a special
inquiry; led by chief inspector of the ministry's main administration
ALEKSANDR SVESHNIKOV, this inquiry also concluded that the police had
'applied special measures within admissible limits'.

There was strong criticism from other quarters, however. On 7 May 1998
VIKTOR ZORKALTSEV, chairman of the Duma's committee on religion,
wrote: 'I cannot but express my indignation at such unceremonious and brutal
action by the authorities towards representatives of the clergy, including the
religious leader of Russia's Buddhists. ... Such an approach towards
representatives of the clergy, who traditionally command society's respect and
high spiritual-religious authority among believers, threatens religious harmony
and stability... and contradicts the Russian Constitution as well as the spirit and
letter of the recently adopted law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious
Organisations".' Khambo Lama of the Republic of Tuva A. SHCHERTEK
wrote that the events recalled 'Stalin's repression of 1930-40'. A press release
from the Inter-religious Council of Russia (signed by METROPOLITAN
KIRILL, Catholic ARCHBISHOP KONDRUSIEWICZ, the Khambo Lama
and others) listed the conflict over the atlas among recent examples of 'anti-
religious and antihuman forces fighting against Russian believers and trying to
sow inter-religious and interethnic hatred.'

Buryatia's Buddhists were especially outraged: a rally in Ulan Ude on 7 May
1998, attended by as many as 1,000 clergy and laity, denounced the police's use
of force. The Khambo Lama and others in the hierarchy of the Traditional
Buddhist Sangha also condemned the authorities' failure to consult them about
the atlas's temporary removal. The Khambo Lama stated that although 'all
sensible people understand that the atlas belongs to the Buddhist datsans, and
not to the Museum of [Buryat] History', the Sangha had found out only 'by
chance' in March 1998 that the museum had agreed five months earlier to send
'our sacred object' on an American tour. 'The leadership of Buryatia should
have obtained agreement for this contract from the society and the Buddhist
clergy', the Khambo Lama said.

At the khural (parliament) of the Sangha on 20 March 1998, the Khambo Lama
wrote, the abbots of the datsans of 'ethnic Buryatia' called for a petition to stop
the tour and for the atlas to become the property of the Sangha; by 7 April
30,000 signatures had been collected. On that date President Potapov issued
Decree 122, which annulled the contract and called for the question of
ownership of the atlas to be resolved. On 27 April 126 Buddhist delegates at a
special Sangha sugundy (conference) unanimously called upon Potapov to
return the atlas to them 'in accordance with his decree.' On 2 May, however, the
Buryat president cancelled Decree 122 and ordered the tour to go ahead. When
the Sangha discovered that this decision had been taken (again 'by chance'), 'we
consulted lamas and representatives of social organisations and decided to
organise a peaceful picket...in order to prevent the atlas from being secretly
removed.' He added that the problems concerning the atlas were 'in no way'
connected with the election of the president of the republic of Buryatia.

On 4 October 1999 Khambo Lama Ayusheyev further explained to Keston his
reasons for opposing the tour. Firstly, he complained, the government of
Buryatia only sent it 'for economic reasons.' (Press reports maintained that the
four museums in American would pay Buryatia 20,000 dollars, or about 12,500
pounds sterling, for the exhibit.) Secondly, 'if the atlas is taken outside Russia
there is a risk that it will not return.' (In May 1998 he said that pieces from
museums in Tsarskoye Selo, Pavlovsk and Yaroslavl should have returned to
Russia by November 1997 but were still abroad.) All the documentation
relating to the tour, he said, 'was drawn up in secret, we were bewildered as to
why.... When we staged the picket we demanded that they show us the
documents relating to the tour but they refused. It later turned out that there
was no federal guarantee from the US government in the contract.'

Writing on this point in the newspaper 'Pravda Buryatii' on 23 May 1998,
lawyer BORIS BOTOYEV maintained that he had been correct in informing
Buryatia's Ministry of Justice on 7 April that there were not sufficient
guarantees in the contract for the atlas's safety from the American side.
According to his account a fax confirming that the atlas would be included in
the federal register of the USA no later than 20 April was received from
America only on 15 April. Thus, he alleges, when Decree 122 was passed there
was an absence of convincing documents guaranteeing the atlas's return. When
this situation was rectified by the aforementioned fax, however, he announced
that there were no further legal obstacles to the tour, and President Potapov
gave it the go-ahead. However, he concluded, 'according to current Russian law
the atlas is federal property. But the Buryat people hardly parted with such a
treasure voluntarily. Rather, that resulted from the destruction of the datsans
and repression of lamas.' He points out that according to [federal] presidential
Decree 378 of 14 March 1996 ('On Measures for the Rehabilitation of Clergy
and Believers Who Were Victims of Unjustified Repression'), property
confiscated by the state must be returned to believers.

Speaking to Keston on 7 October, the chairwoman of the Buryatia
administration's Committee for the Affairs of Nationalities and Relations with
Religious Organisations VALENTINA ALEKSEYEVA maintained that the
six-month delay between the signing of the contract and its becoming public
knowledge was because 'the Sangha objected to its removal. They said it was
their property, but it turned out to be federal property. Nevertheless, the
president [of Buryatia] agreed to listen and examine the matter.' According to
Alekseyeva, there was never a decree forbidding the atlas's removal which was
later overturned: 'the president just asked to look through the contract. She
assured Keston that the contract did contain a federal guarantee on the part of
the United States. In her view, the controversy over the atlas was 'all connected
with the presidential elections.'

YEKATERINA MITYPOVA, assistant curator of the Museum of Buryat
History, told Keston that the atlas has legally been the property of the national
Ministry of Culture ever since it was taken by Ulan-Ude's anti-religious
museum in 1934 during Stalin's liquidation of the datsans. 'There is no legal
way of giving it to Buddhist believers or a monastery even if we wanted to', she
said. 'Only Moscow can decide.' She said that she had never heard of any
request for its return to believers; 'the Khambo Lama and the other lamas did
not ask for it.'

However, on 1 October MARGARITA ROMANOVNA, curator of the
Museum of Buryat History, told Keston that at a press conference 'the Khambo
Lama complained that no one had consulted him, he said that the atlas was the
rightful property of Buddhist believers, that it had been confiscated under
Stalin and should be returned.' She said that the Buddhist protests against the
US tour were not a united front: 'NIMAZHAP ILYUKHINOV of the Dharma
Centre [in Ulan-Ude] wrote to Potapov saying he welcomed the tour, as did the
head of Tsagatsky Datsan. DANZAN KHAIBZUN SAMAYEV (former abbot
of Kuntsechoinei Datsan in St Petersburg) wrote to President Yeltsin saying he
supported the tour.' (All three do not come under the auspices of the Buddhist
Traditional Sangha). The Dalai Lama, she said, attended the opening of the
exhibition in Atlanta. (According to Khambo Lama Ayusheyev, however, the
Dalai Lama's April 1998 letter of support was inspired by the head of the
private American firm organising the tour.)

Romanovna told Keston that when the Buryat government annulled the
contract on 7 April 'the federal Ministry of Justice stepped in and said that as
the US had fulfilled 100 per cent of the terms in the contract there was no
choice but to go through with it, so President Potapov then cancelled his
decree.' She was dismissive of the monks' concerns about the safety of the
exhibit: 'They had heard a lot of disinformation - that it would be sold, would
go forever. There were rumours throughout the year while it was away that it
would not be returned.' (According to the Khambo Lama, special prayers were
continually said in every datsan for the atlas's safe return while it was on the
tour.) Romanova said that the Russian side had never made any compromise:
'an agreement was reached in 1996 but it was cancelled because the Russian
side had several objections - they said that the restoration must be done in
Buryatia and that Buryat scholars were to be involved in planning the
exhibition. The US side later agreed to all these points.'

A gallery attendant at the museum pointed out to Keston the high quality of the
restoration work on the atlas, now back on display. Each plate of the atlas had
cost 2,000 dollars (about 1,250 pounds sterling) to restore, she said, and acid-
free paper and glass resistant to ultraviolet rays had been used in the mounts:
'they are guaranteed for 200 years.' 'Our museum did not receive anything for
it,' she said, 'but they would never have been preserved otherwise.'

Romanovna did not believe that either the Khambo Lama or the demonstrators
knew the degree of professionalism with which the atlas had been treated.
Although the police had 'not acted particularly well - they made a barricade
with their cars and just cleared a pathway by moving people out of the way',
she said that there had been no beatings. On the contrary, the monks had
behaved provocatively, she said: 'the Khambo Lama instructed his followers
"Lie down in front of the cars, you will be suffering for the atlas." '

On 2 October 1999 the former abbot of Kuntsechoinei Datsan in St Petersburg
Danzan Khaibzun Samayev told Keston that it was the Khambo Lama's 'crazy
idea' to create a scandal around the atlas. 'He made a scene in order to draw
attention to himself, to appear as if he is fighting for the rights of believers',
Samayev said. It was Samayev who had initiated the tour when he travelled to
America in 1993. He told Keston that he had tried to get the Khambo Lama to
'understand that in Russia Potapov is only Buryatia, whereas the exhibition is
on a federal level and involves links with the United States, so it will go ahead
- that Yeltsin would pressure him into annulling the decree.' Samayev was also
dismissive of the monks' demonstration: 'They were ordered to demonstrate.
You can't explain laws and insurance to them.'

The Khambo Lama had accused the head of the Central Directorate of
Buddhists, NIMAZHAP ILYUKHINOV, of being a 'pawn in the hands of
politicians' on the issue. On 8 October Ilyukhinov told Keston that in his view
the demonstration against the atlas's tour had been a 'provocation': 'Someone in
the state apparatus probably wants to know how many people in Buryatia
would act against federal power or other peoples, someone needs provocateurs
to check out the people's reaction.' He considered the Khambo Lama to be such
an agent provocateur: 'he is the FATHER GAPON of Russian Buddhism.' He
did not believe there to be any true religious foundation for the demonstration:
'as with Wahhabism, religious extremism does not exist, only fanaticism,
which is always political and economic.' (END)

All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright:
(c) Keston Institute 1999