AN OVERVIEW OF THE TIBETAN AND RUSSIAN CONTACTS
The historical, cultural and spiritual contacts and connection between the peoples of Tibet and Russia was established in the 17th century, when the Tibetan Buddhism began to spread to Russia’s region of Volga and Lake Baikal areas, where Mongol tribes of Oirats (at present: Kalmyks) and Buryats migrated to and settled down there. (Reference 1)
Moreover, the Imperial Russia was the first European country that had diplomatic contact with independent Tibet under the leadership of the great 13th Dalai Lama. (ref. 2) And the first Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Europe, named Kuntse Choeling Datsang, was built in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg in 1909-1915, with the major financial contribution from the 13th Dalai Lama. (3) Avang Dorjiev ( Nawang Lobsang Dorjee), a Buryat monk, who studied in Drepung monastery and later became Tsanshab (debate partner) and the Emissary of the 13th Dalai Lama to Russian Emperor Nicholas-II, played a significant role in building contacts between Lhasa and St. Petersburg. (4) The contact between two countries was broken when the communists came to power in Russia. Moreover, the then Tibetan ruling circle did not develop further diplomatic contacts with foreign countries, that more out of unwitting neglect than design.
Soviet Stand on Tibet
When China occupied Tibet, Soviet Union’s policy was that Tibet is “an integral part of China.” But the Soviet stance on Tibet gradually changed as a result of its deteriorating relations with Beijing in 1960s and 1970s. The strained relations between Moscow and Beijing were reflected in a resurgence of Soviet interest on and support for Tibetan issue in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (5) In 1979 the Soviets, for the first time, described the Chinese activities in Tibet in 1950s as the “aggression”. (6) The Soviet Union condemned Beijing’s great power chauvinism in Tibet. In May 1980 L.V. Scherbankov, an official in Soviet Foreign Ministry, stated that the Soviet Union was “ready to help any nation struggling for independence and justice”. And he further said that the Tibetan exiles had not yet asked for the assistance. (7) Whatever the facts and reasons may had been, the Tibetan-in-exile then did not appear to have been shrewd enough to take the advantage of the prevailing international political situation and play a realpolitik in the global context.
Culture Contacts Restored
In 1979 His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama visited Soviet Union for the first time and it was followed by other visits in 1982, 1986 and in July 1991. In September 1982 the first experimental batch of three young Tibetans, serving in Tibetan Administration, was sent to Soviet Union to pursue higher education under the scholarship of Soviet Ministry of Higher Education.
After the collapse of Soviet Union in November 1991, the three traditional Buddhist Republics ( Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva) in Russian Federation had invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1992 and they requested Him to help in the revival of their traditional Buddhist cultural heritage. Russia is the only European country where the Buddhism is officially recognized as one of the state religions along with Russian Orthodox Church, Islam and Judaism. (8)
Office of Tibet in Moscow
On March 10, 1993 the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) opened its official agency in Moscow, which was legally registered at Justice Ministry of Russian Federation on June 16, 1993, in the name of Tibet Culture and Information Center. And about 25 Tibetan monks from Tibetan monasteries in India were sent to Russian Federation for rendering spiritual service. Further, about 60 young students from the traditional Buddhist Republics were given scholarship by CTA for studying in various Tibetan monasteries and educational institutions based in India.
Political and moral Support
For the first time, in support of and solidarity with Tibetan people, the support groups, registered as ‘Friends of Tibet Society’, were founded in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and in the capital of three traditional Buddhist Republics (Elista, Kyizil & Ulan Ude) in the mid-1990s. These TSGs had participated in all International TSGs Conferences.
The Russian Parliament’s Committees on Human Rights and Religious Affairs jointly invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to their Parliament (Duma), where His Holiness gave a talk on human rights and freedom on May 19, 1994. Further, Tibet issue was raised three times in Russian parliament (Duma) and a Motion on the situation in Tibet was moved by the Radical Party in Duma on October 26, 1995.The resolution was supported by 103 members of Parliament (Duma). However, Moscow’s interest in and support for Tibet issue began to vanish with a re-marriage of Moscow and Beijing in early 2000s.
Moscow-Beijing Normalization and Cooperation
In 1996, during Yeltsin’s upheaval period, a new international grouping called the Shanghai Five (9) was formed and it was led by Moscow and Beijing. Later it was transformed into Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) (10) in 2001, when President Putin began to challenge the NATO’s eastward “expansion”, which was taken as a new challenge to both the post-Soviet space and China. In the same year, the Treaty of Good-Neighborlines and Friendly Cooperation between China and Russia, which is a 20-year strategic treaty, was signed on July 16, 2001 by the leaders of the two international powers, Jiang Zemin and Vladimir Putin. (11) The treaty highlights the commitment to ensure the “national unity and territorial integrity” in the two countries.( see: Article 4 of the treaty)
Sino-Russian Partnership and its implication on Tibet’s case
As the most populous country in the world, China is an obviously tempting export market for Russian oil and gas energy. President Putin’s June 2012 visit to China is his first since resuming the Russian presidency on May 7, 2012. Putin and Hu Jintao issued a joint pledge to deepen bilateral ties and signed almost 20 cooperation deals on June 5, 2012. “China is Russia’s strategic partner. We enjoy mutually beneficial, mutually trusting, open cooperation in all fields”, said Putin in Beijing during his visit to China. (12) Russia and China pledged a strategic 21st-century partnership and warned the West not to try to dominate the post-Cold War world. Under the prevailing situation, Moscow’s stand on Tibet affairs is clearly understandable. There is no need of explanation here. Moreover, the current government seems to view the Tibetan issue in the context of Chechenya, unfortunately.
Tibetan Buddhist culture and Tibetan medicine as “Soft power” of our foreign policy
The new version of the foreign policy concept introduces the term “soft power”, which has gained popularity in the West since its appearance in the early 1990s. The Europe and USA understand “soft power” as an attractive socio-political model that can be applied in other countries. Can Tibetan Buddhist culture and Tibetan medicine become a soft political power and diplomatic tool?
The interest in Tibetan Buddhist cultural heritage and Tibetan medicine has been growing in Russia, particularly among the intellectuals. There are over 100 Buddhist Datsangs in three traditional Buddhist Republics and Dharma centers in several major cities of Russian Federation, with whom we strive to maintain constant contacts. In Moscow, for example, all four major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism (Nyingma, Kargyud, Sakya and Gelug and also including Bhonism) have established their centers, which are functioning actively.
Several Tibetan monks and ex-monks are serving in Russian Federation as spiritual teachers and consultants. In addition, Tibetan Lamas and religious teachers from India, Nepal, Europe and USA have been visiting here almost every year. Since 2009 over thousand Russian pilgrims attend His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings for Russian Buddhists in India every year. Several dozens of books by His Holiness have been translated and published in Russian. His Holiness public teachings were translated into Russian and transmitted from our office website with kind help of Moscow-based Save Tibet Foundation. The traditional Buddhists in three Republic highly regard His Holiness the Dalai Lama as their supreme spiritual leader.
There is a growing interest in Tibetan medicine in Russia, Ukraine and other central Asian countries. Tibetan medical clinics run by Tibetan Amchis are functioning in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev (Ukraine), Ulan Ude and Elista. Our Mentsee-khang has been deputing Amchis to Russia and Kazakhstan.
At the given situation, the diplomacy through culture or public diplomacy have been the tool that we have been employing and pursuing in this turbulent region.
Interestingly, the news report appears that there exists but a manageable Russian-Chinese rivalry in Central Asia, which could be much more severe. China is quietly ousting Moscow from its traditional sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space by boosting ambitious multi-million investment and development projects in the Central Asian Republics and, thus, turning into their ‘big brother’. (14) But Russia thinks that the former-Soviet Republics are their sphere of influence. The two countries, while supposedly close friends and allies, in fact, are quite rivals, economically and militarily. (15 ) A member of Russian Parliament told me : “Moscow views China as the most dangerous neighbour”. And there remained deep mistrust. There are surprises in the Strategy 2020 reform report prepared by experts for President Putin. (16) The report sees China as a major challenge to Russian development, pushing Russia out of its traditional markets and reducing its political weight. (17) In Moscow’s foreign policy think tanks, China is praised as a potential ally against the United States. China is an ally not of choice, but of necessity. (18) Russia and China need each other to balance the international influence of the United States.
In the era of global uncertainty and unpredictable, and the rapid changes, today’s ally could turn to tomorrow’s foe, as it had been witnessed in the Sino-Soviet relations in early 1950s (honeymoon) and in late 1960s (divorce and war). Moscow is located as the bridge between the East and West and it has a big potentiality. Moscow’s interest on and support for Tibet issue depends much upon the development of its relations with United States and China. The real support for Tibet from the great powers will come out only when China becomes the super powerful in the world. The dragon seems rising in the international arena. The thing that shoots up will ultimately fall down. That is the laws of gravity. END
1. Dr. A. Terentyev, A Brief History of Buddhism in Russia, St. Petersburg, 1998
2. Dr. T. Shauman, Tibet:The Great Game and Tsarist Russia, Oxford University Press, 2000. Russia and Tibet: A Collection of Documents from the Archives of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire, Oriental Literature Press, Moscow 2005 (in Russian)
3. A.I. Andreyev, Russia and Tibet: A History of Tsarist, Soviet and Post-Soviet Policy, St. Petersburg 2006. (in Russian) Also by the same author, The Saint-Petersburg Datsan, “Datsan Kuntsechoeling”.
4. N.S. Kuleshov, Russia’s Tibet File, Library of Tibet Works and Archives, Dharamsala, Indraprastha Press (CBT) New Delhi, 1996
5. M.S. Kapitsa, People’s Republic of China: Three Decades – Three Policies, Moscow 1979 (in Russian)
6. G.V. Astafeva, Foreign Policy and International Relations of PRC, Moscow 1974 (in Russian)
7. “Russia Ready to Back Tibetan Cause”, The Times of India, New Delhi, May 1, 1980, Tibetan Review, September 2002
8. Russia Today, Moscow, www.rt.com I.R. Garri, From Tibet to Russia: The Role of Buryats to the Diffusion of Tibetan Buddhism to Russia, Ulan Ude, 2010
9. Members of Shanghai Five are: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan
10. Members of SCO are: Shanghai Five plus Uzbekistan
11. Sino-Russian Relations Since 1991, http://en.wikipedia.org (the free encyclopedia)
12. Russia Today, June 6, 2012, www.rt.com/news
14. Michael Stuermer, Putin and the Rise of Russia, Phonix, 2009
15. Tim Wall in the editorial of The Moscow News, October 11-13, 2011.
16. Fyodor Kukyanov, Review of perception of China ?, Russia Today, March 22, 2012
17. Fyodor Kukyanov, Uncertain World: Russia-China: Change of Course ?, Rianovosti, March 26, 2012
18. Michael Stuermer, Putin and the Rise of Russia, Phoenix 2009
This paper was submitted by Dr. Ngawang Rabgyal, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s representative in Russia, at the Tibet Policy Institute conference on International Efforts by Central Tibetan Administration in Dharmshala on 18 April 2014.