(Re)building Buddhism in a Siberian City: Religious Giving, Materiality and Agency in Post-Soviet Ulan-Ude

This dissertation in social anthropology is based on one year long ethnographic fieldwork in the city of Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, Russian Federation. It was conducted between the summers of 2015 and 2016. Buryatia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious region, where over half the population are ethnic Russians, who mostly identify as Orthodox Christians, and less than half Buryats, a Mongol ethnic group, who mostly adhere to Buddhism and/or shamanism. As part of a research group working on Buddhist temple economies in Asian cities, the dissertation explores the intersection of religion and economic matters in an urban context.

While Vajrayana Buddhism has been practiced in the region since at least the 17th century, the severe Soviet repressions against religion in the 1930s resulted in the destruction of Buddhist institutional structure as well as religious architecture. Religious specialists were either killed, imprisoned, or forced to lead a lay life, and religion was mostly „privatised“ for the following decades. It is only since the 1990s that Buddhism has undergone a „revival“, whereby it has regained its public presence and prominence, and this dissertation looks at its particulars in the urban context. It tracks not just the ways in which the urban context affects contemporary Buddhist practices, but also how Buddhism changes the urban space as well as the imaginings and experiences of the city.

These changes are largely enabled by one of the core Buddhist practices: religious giving. The author argues that religious giving in this context is a complex practice, involving not just a search for merit or prestige, which has often been discussed in the literature on the topic, but also transformative power and a reinforcement of agency. Moreover, it is suggested that various practices of religious giving are significant not just among the laity in its support for the sangha, but also vice versa: from the sangha to the laity. In exploring this topic, the study thus also looks more generally at the role of the sangha in Buryatia today.

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