A Travellerspoint blog

Russia

Kazan: Legendary city of Genghis Khan's Golden Horde

Traveling in Tatarstan along the Volga River in Russia............................Ramdas Iyer, 2013

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As the train was getting cold, our conductor was shoveling coal into the furnace that kept our carriage warm. Since this coach was cut off to be picked up by another train, a coal furnace was provided for each carriage. This was a non-elite passenger train that connected Yekaterinburg to Kazan, the capital of Tartarstan. My fellow passengers was a young family of Tartar Muslims coming home to Kazan for the winter holidays from the oil fields Of Northern Siberia. Traveling on the Trans-Mongolian and the Transiberian, I was living the modern version of Genghis Khan and his assault of Europe in the year 1252.
The Mongol Empire emerged from the unification of nomadic tribes in the Mongolia homeland under the leadership of Genghis Khan, who was proclaimed ruler of all Mongols in 1206. The Mongol Empire which existed during the 13th and 14th centuries, was the largest contiguous land empire in history. Originating in the steppes of Central Asia, the Mongol Empire eventually stretched from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northwards into Siberia, eastwards and southwards into the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, and the Iranian plateau, and westwards as far as the Levant and Arabia.
By the time of the great Kublai Khan's death ( grandson of Genghis, Emperor of Mongolia and China under the banner of the Yuan Dynasty ) in 1294, the Mongol Empire had fractured into four separate Khanates or empires, each pursuing its own separate interests and objectives: the Golden Horde Khanate in the northwest; the Chagatai Khanate in the west; the Ilkhanate in the southwest; and the Yuan dynasty based in modern-day Beijing.
The history of the Mongol Empire has always fascinated me and in my travels I have seen many of their conquered lands and read about the history of different Khanates: Khiva( Uzbekistan and Khoresm), Ilkhanate (Iran, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan), Mamaluk( Egypt and Turkey) and the Chagtai Khanates( Kazakhstan, and Russian Steppes of Central Asia).
This article is about Kazan, the focus of my journey that belonged to the Golden Horde Khanate. It was ruled by Juchi Khan, son of Genghis and expanded by his son Batu Khan. At its peak the Golden Horde’s territory extended from the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Europe to the steppes of Siberia( See Map). On the south, the Horde’s lands bordered on the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, and the Iranian territories of the Mongol dynasty known as the Il-Khans.
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That December morning of 2013 was quite chilly on arrival at the Kazan station, a very ornate building built in 1896. I soon arrived at my hotel on the grand boulevard Kremlivskya, a walking distance to the World Heritage Kremlin which I had primarily come to visit. The population of Kazan is equally divided between mild practitioners of Sunni Islam and orthodox Christianity. The old city has some beautiful churches including the Cathedral of Peter and Paul, which is one of its most valuable architectural monuments. Built on an elevated site it is built on the Russian Baroque style of the 17th century. I caught my first site of the mighty Volga river from its steps in its frozen splendor just a few miles away.

Having arrived around 4:00 AM on that cold winter morning , my anticipation and excitement kept me from falling asleep. Leaving my hotel at day break, I took a quick look around the Kremlin and was excited at the prospect of spending more time visiting the palaces, mosque and churches inside. The Kremlin dominates the city. Built on an ancient site near the Volga, the Kazan Kremlin dates from the Muslim period of the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate. Archeological excavations on the territory of Kazan Kremlin provided evidence that the first fortress of Kazan was founded at the turn of 9th-10th centuries by Volga Bulgars. In 1438 Kazan became the capital of Khanate of Kazan, in 1552 the city was conquered by Ivan IV and became a significant and integral part of the Russian state.
The Tartars (or Tatars) controlled the trade routes between Scandinavia and the Caspian Sea and extracted tributes from Russian rulers and other Christian enclaves that was in their vicinity. Tired of Muslim aggression and the demands for tributes over the Eastern Orthodox Empire, Ivan the Terrible amassed an army of 150,000 soldiers and launched an attack that would permanently weaken the Islamic/Mongol-Turkic dominance of the Volga region. Muslims were massacred, converted or exiled to Siberia. This ethnic cleansing was one of the most severe in Russia only to be paled in comparison by the deeds of Stalin in the 1930s.
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The Kazan Kremlin was built after the siege of Kazan on the ruins of the former Bulgar/Mongol castle. Ivan built many churches in Kazan and it became the Christian See of the Volga Land. Today, the only surviving Tartar fortress in Russia the Kazan Kremlin consists of an outstanding group of historic buildings dating from the 16th to 19th centuries, integrating remains of earlier structures of the 10th to 16th centuries. The site and its key monuments represent an outstanding example of a synthesis of Tartar and Russian influences in architecture, integrating different cultures (Bulgar, Golden Horde, Tatar, Italian, and Russian), as well as showing the impact of Islam and Christianity.

Lyudmila, an English tutor in the University of Kazan moonlights as a guide. She arrived at my hotel around 8:00 AM and we were off to explore the city by foot. Within 1/2 a kilometer I came across a campus of ornate buildings with post modern Soviet buildings ringing its outer perimeter. I had arrived at the well known Kazan University, that began over 210 years ago. Lenin and Tolstoy attended classes while scientific research yielded new discoveries such as Ruthenium, popular methods for petroleum extraction and above all the science of magnetic resonance. Since Lyudmila had access to the buildings I chose to visit all the historic buildings from 200 years ago. This was not a part of my tour and it turned out to be very enriching. Moments such as these are only possible when traveling alone. The administration building had a museum showing the dresses of royalty, military personnel and professors over the years. They had curated a fine collection of scientific and literary dioramas showing the University's achievements. Despite visiting several prestigious schools in the USA, I had not seen something even close.

The Chemistry department was thrilled to note that I was a Chemical Engineer and gave me several publications in Russian, to take back with me. The University administrator personally showed me the halls where lectures, sometimes attended by the Tsars and nobility, were conducted. I even got to sit in the classrooms of Tolstoy and Lenin(expelled from the University of Kazan for revolutionary activities).
Another mile from the University was the historic Kazansky street with a large pedestrian shopping street that one would encounter in western Europe. This part of Kazan had been destroyed and rebuilt to showcase this city that has a future. There were many Tatar restaurants serving spicy lamb, dumplings and all kinds of Turkic foods that reminded me of my time in Kashgar in Xinxiang Province. We had a delicious meal costing no more than $5 for the two of us. I visited the magnificent Cathedral of Epiphany of Our Lord, the seat of the Russian Orthodox church. However, it became the gymnasium of the Universe of Kazan University in the 1950s during the peak of the revolution.

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It seems to me that many ideological philosophies such as Communism and fundamental Islam have one thing in common. A penchant for destruction of civilization and preventing the evolution into arts, architecture and the sciences. In Russia, China and now in the Middle East, the silent victims of such creeds are some of the historic monuments once built by great conquerors and rulers whom the world remembers as game changers. I have shed many a tear for the number of monasteries burnt in Tibet, Buddha images desecrated in Xinjiang and Shaanxi provinces and magnificent churches reassigned to the common man for mundane purposes as in the Soviet Union and above all the execution and debasement of scientists and scholars everywhere. This does not include many Shamanic and Tribal cultures whict stood against their oppressors.

The Mongols under Genghiz Khan destroyed 500 years of learning in Central Asia in the 14th century, the Uzbeks under Timor cleaned up where the Mongols left. The raids into India, first by the Afghans then by Turks and the Mongol-Turkic Mughals destroyed many parts of an ancient land from the 12th to the 19th centuries. The Greeks and the Spartans and the Romans and the Persians were no better. The Jews were persecuted as long as there has been history. Yet despite all these wanton destruction, now in the 21 st century, we have still not learned from our past mistakes and crimes. Yet mankind has a penchant to survive these calamities with grit, guile and perseverance to allow someone like me to visit and review our past history in all these previously ravaged areas from China to Russia to Central Asia to the Middle-East and India.

With such thoughts in my mind I walked along the banks of a tributary of the Volga that cuts Kazan city into two; the old Islamic section and the European section. My first stop was the Islamic center established in the 1700s to understand the severity of Islam followed there. Islam in Russia has been clobbered into submission and at this point it is in synch with other religions of that nation. I fanned through the neighborhood of beautiful old houses, some in poor repair while many were being rebuilt to the specifications of their original splendor. When compared to the European side, it felt like being in the bad sections of Istanbul. After sampling some street foods I took a local bus to visit the banks of the mighty Volga; Europe's longest River. Its banks have played a major role in history including being the home to 11 of Russia's largest cities located in its watershed. This river was home to the Proto-Indo Europeans- land to the early Aryans; Iranians, Scythians, Parthians, Kushans , Mongol-Turkic tribes, Huns and the later settlers like the Tatars and other Turko- Finnic Tribes.
The Volga in winter has an ice thickness of 8 to 12inches. Every winter, a highway is cut across the river to avoid a longer route to gain access to bridges. This was a common sight I saw all over Russia especially on Lake Baikal were trucks of all kinds were seen navigating through frozen lakes with large surface areas
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Reserving most of the following day for the Kremlin (Russian for fortress), I set off to see the magnificent fortress, only 500 meters from my hotel. Built on an ancient site, the Kazan Kremlin dates from the Muslim period of the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate (13-15th centuries)

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From the 10th to 13th centuries Kazan was a pre-Mongol Bulgar town. For the uninitiated reader, the Bulgars were a semi-nomadic warrior tribe from present day Kazakhstan steppes. They are a group such as the Aryans, Scythians and Huns who left the eastern Steppes of Siberia and moved westward around the 7th century AD( due to Chinese aggression). The Bulgars eventually split into two groups; one moved along the Volga river( Volga Bulgaria) while the other took refuge along the Danube river ( today's Bulgaria). The Kazan Kremlin hill consisted then of a fortified trading settlement surrounded by moats, embankments, and a stockade. A stone fortress was built in the 12th century and the town developed as an outpost on the northern border of Volga Bulgaria. They practiced a pagan religion with strong influences from Christianity and Islam .
The fortress was demolished on the instructions of the Mongols in the 13th century. A citadel was then built as the seat of the Prince of Kazan, including the town's administrative and religious institutions. By the first half of the 15th century, the town had become the capital of the Muslim Tatar Principality of Bulgaria, with administrative, military, and trading functions.
Having survived repeated destruction first by the Mongols in the 13th century, and the Tsarist Russia in the 15th century Kazan's modern desecration came at the hands of Stalin in 1922. The ensemble of historic buildings lost many of its compositional dominants, which were pulled down on by the communist fanatics-the belfries of the Annunciation and Savior- Transfiguration Cathedrals, the church of Cyprian and Justinia, the Savior-Transfiguration Monastery complex, the dome of Bishop's House, and the domes of the Annunciation Cathedral. The Kremlin however retained its status as a centre of Soviet state power and as garrison.

Well maintained, this masterpiece of Russian architecture is yet another achievement by Postnik Yakovlev most famous as one of the architects and builders of Saint Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow (built between 1555 and 1560). According to legend, Ivan the Terrible blinded Yakovlev so that he could never build anything so beautiful again. However, this is probably a myth, as Yakovlev, in cooperation with another master, Ivan ShirIai, designed the walls of the Kazan Kremlin and the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Kazan in 1561 and 1562, just after the completion of St. Basil's.
Spending time inside one of the many beautiful churches, especially the Church of Annunciation, I could not help but realize that I was also walking over the fallen remains of the Khanate's army. Eight Christian churches were built over the remains of thousands of Muslim warriors by Ivan the Terrible..Many unearthed tombstones are displayed inside the Kremlin. Visiting places such as Kazan, one tends to reflect on imperialism and its effects the world over. The Museum of Islamic Culture and The History of Statehood of Tatarstan within its confines helped me understand the gradual reemergence of Tatarstan in the 450 years past the wake of its destruction.
After forcibly converted or relocated to Siberia in the 1500s, the Tatars got their first foothold under Imperial Russia when they were given increased rights as citizens in the 1700s during the liberal reign of Catherine the Great. By the 1860s a Tatar language newspaper was circulated in Kazan and other Muslim areas of Russia.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917, during when Russia was in a civil war, forced the Tatars to join the Bolsheviks. Under the new Soviet rule the state of Tatarstan was ruled under TSSR ( Tatar Socialist Republic), where they were repressed again due to religion conflicting with communism. With the ultimate fall of USSR, Tatarstan liberated itself as an independent entity in 1990. But not wanting to face the problems of Chechnya in the Caucuses region which came under the weight of Russian aggression under Putin, Tatarstan decided to be an autonomous region within Russia and in 1994 became the Republic of Tatarstan.

The spiritual mosque of the Tatars, Qol Sharif, which was razed to the ground by the armies of Ivan the terrible was rebuilt in 1996, mostly funded by Saudi Arabia and UAE. Today it is the largest mosque in Europe located adjacent to the historic Church of the Annunciation, inside the Kremlin. Tatarstan is an unusual example of a Russian region where the majority of the population is Muslim, but where interethnic and interfaith strife is rare. According to the latest census, 52.9 percent of Tatarstan's 3.8 million inhabitants are predominantly Muslim Tatars; 39.5 percent are predominantly Orthodox Christian Russians.
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On Kazan, Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert and professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, believes "
"This is a brand of Europeanized Islam, westernized Islam, that is Islamic yet functions in a Western society. As part of the ongoing engagement of the Muslim world, there could be benefits there.".
In conclusion, I must confess my fascination with the history of the Eastern and Western Steppes region with my readers. It is one of the most neglected portions in history text books of western learning, but in my opinion one that has shaped mankind. This history starts with Genghis Khan and the Chinese states, Mongolia, Indo-Europeans, Turkic peoples, Scythians , Parthians, Huns and Kushans It also includes the history of the Silk Road, Ottoman Empire and that of Persia until the conquest of Asia Minor by Alexander.

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After witnessing ancient sites as a companion to reading written history, I boarded my train to Moscow 500 miles to the west. Staying a walking distance from the Red Square on the old Arbat street, my first foray was to see St.Basil's church built by Postnik Yakovlev who also rebuilt the Kazan Kremlin.

The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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References:
UNESCO web site
Wikipedia
Foriegn Affairs" Russia's Muslim Reality"- Vasily Rudich
https://www.usnwc.edu/NikolasGvosdev

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS FROM MY KAZAN EXPERIENCE
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:03 Archived in Russia Tagged kremlin church the of golden university russia state khan kazan ivan horde volga mongols tatarstan tartar tatar terrible bolgars ukazan genghiz tartarstan qol sharif annunciation chagtai Comments (2)

Trans-Siberian Journeys: The Buryat of Ulan Ude, Siberia

Visiting the modern descendents of Mongol and Siberian Tribes

sunny -25 °F

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After my goodbyes to Ulan Bator, Mongolia I embarked on the Trans Mongolian to hook up with the Trans-Siberian train that would arrive from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude, Siberian Russia. The train ride was an adventure in itself since it was a local train heated by hot water with the conductor shoveling coal into the furnace of each compartment. Most of the travelers were ethnic Mongolian Buryat who were either living in Mongolia or in Russian Mongolia. Since Mongolia was under the Soviet sphere, families were spread between the two lands.
The rickety train was packed with heavy set people and I was in the company of 3 Vodka drinking Buryat women with additional visitors coming into the third class coach to share sausage and Vodka with a very popular lady travellng with me who spoke good English. One of the women was selling soaps and toiletries from South Korea to her other buddies probably from the seized bounty of her customs officer son who came to wish her good bye at the border. The first Buryat tradition I learnt on this trip was to dip ones ring finger in Vodka and spray it in three directions to say cheers and as a thanks. It was Vodka shower all night.
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The trains going from China to Mongolia have to change track gauges. The complete retrofit of each coach, wherein the entire coach is lifted hydraulically 10 feet from the ground and the wheels removed and replaced with a new set. This transforms the narrow gauge Chinese Railroad to the broad Gauge Mongolian/Russian Railroads ; an unforgettable experience that merits an entire article on its own.
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This exchange happened in the border town of Zamyn-Üüd/Erenhot at temperatures sinking to -20 F. The Mongolian customs and immigration officers collected all our passports and returned them two hours later after the train’s tracks were changed over and the entire train relocated to the Trans-Siberian tracks of Ernhot. On the Russian side customs and immigration were managed efficiently by smartly dressed female officers who used electronic scanners to get the job done instantaneously; this was helpful since we could disembark and wait and stroll about for the Trans-siberian Train to arrive from Vladivostok an hour later. The Russian side looked like the first world after traveling through Mongolia. The Station was clean, there were pay toilets with attendants (since I did not have rubles the Slavic lady kindly winked me in) and small food items sold were being hawked by Babushka clad women from the border town of Naushki; mainly Periogies and homemade sausages. My heavyset Buriyat friends purchased them for me.
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I have been interested in native peoples for a long time and was always aware that Stalin had destroyed the Shamanistic cultures of Mongolia. Colin Thubron’s “Siberia” which I was reading on Kindle en route was informative. From Shamans to Stalin’s Gulags to modern research labs of the Soviet Union this book exposed the tumultous history of Siberia. If one sees old pictures of the ancient Sioux and the Dakota Plains Indians, one can see the similarity of cultures that was spread to the North America by the natives of Siberia through the Bering Strait. Ironically the Russians ended the Shamanistic culture around 1930 while we had eliminated it much earlier.

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The Buryat people are descended from various Siberian and Mongolic peoples that inhabited the Lake Baikal Region. It is believed that , Jochi, eldest son of Genghis Khan, marched north to subjugate the Buryats in 1207. The territory of current Buryat Republic was part of the Mongolic Xianbei state (93-234), Rouran Khaganate( Turkic –Mongol /330-555), Mongol Empire (Genghis Khan and his descendants/1206-1368) and Northern Yuan (1368-1691) until 1691. Yuan Dynasty was the Chinese Dynasty whose famous emperor Kublai Khan another Mongolian welcomed Marco Polo into his court and saw his grandmother convert to Christianity. My travels through these areas revealed the superiority of medieval Mongolians in the areas of warfare, craftsmanship and statecraft.
The Buryats lived along the Angara River near modern day Irkutsk and its tributaries in the 1500s. When the Tsarist Russians expanded into Transbaikalia (eastern Siberia) in 1609 in search of fur and minerals, the Cossacks( Outcast /bandit horsemen of the Steppes who challenged the rule of Tsars but were subsequently used by the Tsars to explore and brutalize new colonies) found only a small core of tribal groups speaking a Mongol dialect called Buryat and paying tribute to the Mongolian Khalkhas- descendents of Genghis Khan. The ancestors of most modern Buryats were speaking a variety of Turkic-Tungusic dialects at that time. Eventually with the help of Buryat translators the territory and several local peoples like Samoyed, Kan and Kalymk were formally annexed to the Russian state by treaties in 1689 and 1727.

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After Buryatia was incorporated into Russia, it was exposed to two traditions – Buddhist and Christian. Buryats west of Lake Baikal and Olkhon (Irkut Buryats), are more "russified", and they soon abandoned nomadism for agriculture, whereas the eastern (Transbaikal) Buryats are closer to the Khalkha(Mongols), may live in yurts and are mostly Buddhists. In 1741, the Tibetan branch of Buddhism was recognized as one of the official religions in Russia, and the first Buryat datsan (Buddhist monastery) was built. This article mainly. deals with the Buddhist Buryats east of Lake Baikal, where Ulan Ude is located.
The arrival of the Trans-Siberian train was received with great joy since our rail coach had been removed from the main track and shunted to a siding. We were attached and we were off to Ulan Ude.
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On a cold Siberian evening, I was received by my guide and I was off to another new adventure tried only twice before in Tajikistan; Homestay. I was taken to a soviet style block apartment where I stayed with a fine couple Sergei and Elena. Sergei was a truck mechanic who has lately been driving a tourist taxi between Ulan Ude and Lake Baikal. Elena was a speech therapist in a local school.They had packed off their 8 year old son to Grandmas to house me in their kid’s room which was also the living room of the apartment. Since they receive foriegn guests such as I , the room was clean, warm and adequate despite the Russian looking Mickey Mouse and Donald Ducks that adorned the room. After a hot shower , dinner and small talk I slept soundly after a noisy train ride with 3 women.

The next morning we were off to visit the oldest Buddhist monastery in Buritya built in 1945, The Ivoginski Datsan. Located 30 km outside the city, the tranquility and spirituality found there was a truly Asian experience 3500 miles east of Moscow. The locals were dressed in traditional Buryat costumes and were excited to see an Indian, a symbolic progenitor of Buddhism from India. A group of 16 pilgrims traveling from various parts of Buritya was very excited to see me and to be photographed with me. After seeing the complex I met some of them in the compound, who through my interpreter expressed their desire to invite me for lunch and asking me to give a congratulatory speech on the auspicious occasion of Sagaalgan, their New Year ’s Day. Since I’ve never experienced anything like this I readily agreed. Toasts after toasts with Vodka were followed by their leader respecting me by adorning me with a silken scarf. I spoke about our great countries, our people bounded by similar religion and values even though I was not quite sure where the similarity began. I was like a living representative of Buddha that afternoon. Steamed dumplings were brought to my table while everyone videotaped and photographed me like I had just emerged after 500 years of mediation. It was certainly Nirvana to me!

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Setting Buddha aside, I wish to report that Ulan Ude has the largest Lenin’s head in the World. Every year the locals build beautiful ice sculptures and caves in front of the plaza with Lenin staring down rather benevolently these days. That evening I bought some local Vodka and partied with my local hosts.
The next day my program consisted of visiting an Old Believers village. Old Believers are descendants of a group that rejected Russian Orthodox Church reforms enacted in 1654 to reconcile differences between Russian and Greek Orthodox texts. They broke away from the Orthodox Church because it objected to changes in Russian Orthodox traditions, such as ceremonies, icon painting, and book writing. Shortly after the schism, the Old Believers were persecuted; some were imprisoned and others were burned alive. Many Old Believers fled to remote villages in northern Russia or to Siberian wastelands and established tiny settlements.
Since I am focusing on the Burayats, I will try to elaborate about this amazing community in a future article. It was the Burayats who helped the hungry Europeans who fled from all over Poland, Baltic States and European Russia. Siberia was a waste land of no interest at that time. The two communities lived not too far from each other and even to this day the relationship has been synergistic.

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The second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was a time of growth for the Buryat Buddhist church (48 datsans in Buryatia in 1914). Because of their skills in horsemanship and mounted combat, many were enlisted into the Tsar's Amur Cossacks brigade. During the Russian Civil War most of the Buryats sided with the White forces against the Bolshevik Red army of Lenin. After the Revolution, most of the lamas became loyal to the Soviet power. In 1925, a battle against religion and church in Buryatia began during Stalin’s period. Datsans were gradually closed down and the activity of the church was curtailed. Consequently, in the late 1930s the Buddhist church ceased to exist and thousands of cultural treasures were destroyed.
In 1923, the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was formed and included Baikal province with Russian population. The Buryats rebelled against the communist rule and collectivization of their herds in 1929. The rebellion was quickly crushed by the Red Army with loss of 35,000 Buryats.[ The Buryat refugees fled to Mongolia and resettled there. Fearing Buryat nationalism, Joseph Stalin had more than 10,000 Buryats killed. Moreover, Stalinist purge of Buryats spread into Mongolia, known as the incident of Lhumbee.

Later that afternoon after visiting yet another Buddhist monastery, I visited a nearby spirit shrine built on a hill where Shamans over the millennium had offered their prayers to the elements. It was a powerful moment. En route I climbed onto a snowy bluff to see the panoramic view of the Selenga river valley, a 900 mile river that feeds into Lake Baikal. As a part of my “Homestay” program put together by Monkey Shrine Tour Operators of Beijing ( but run by Aussies and Belgians), I spent a few hours with a farmer and his wife. Sergei and Lyudmila were wonderful hosts who were well in their 70s. She was the local school Librarian and a part time seamstress. He served in the army and drove a milk truck for several years.
She made us tea and some sweet bread with berry jams that her husband had canned in summer. It was a traditional home showing the lifestyle of a traditional Buryat family. They had several grandchildren in town that dropped by and played video games in a very old computer. The reader must understand that visitors like me have added to their comfort level. I played a “board” game with the family and the game tokens were vertebras of goats. The house was very traditional with the 75 year old man chopping wood to feed the furnace on a regular basis.

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I concluded the wonderful visit to Ulan Ude by spending a lovely and fortunate evening at sunset on Mount Lysaya which offers a spectacular view of the city. On the ground where Buryat tribes once held their pagan Sabbaths, there now stands the Rimpoche Baghsha Buddhist Center. Here for Sagaalgan, Festival of the white month, harbinger of spring and the Buryat New year a magic ritual of an evening bonfire “Dugzhuba” was held. It is a ritual of purification from bad thoughts and diseases. Believers and their family members after wiping their bodies with pieces of fabric or paper, pieces of dough take them to Dugzhuba and burn in the fire to get rid of past year's disease, problems, sins, and offenses and to gather inspiration to perform good deeds in the coming year.

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With great thoughts, happy moments, improved knowledge and new friendships I left this wonderful land to reach the western reaches of Lake Baikal by train later that night. The End
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:04 Archived in Russia Tagged buddhism trans-siberian trans-mongolian siberia ulan mongol ude buryat salgaalgan Comments (4)

Suzdal- A spectacular Russian town in winter's splendor

Tracing the history of eastern Russia from the Vikings to Vladamir(Putin) by Ramdas Iyer

sunny 23 °F

I am often asked the question “What is your favorite place that you’ve visited?” It is almost akin to inquiring about the ranking of my affection for our children. My answer is to always deflect the question back by asking for more details especially with respect to seasons and their impact on sea sides, mountain-scapes, cultural experiences, historical locales and sweeping landscapes.
In that vein I believe that my favorite historical winterscape is Suzdal, the quaint city of medieval Russia. Dating back to 990 AD, Suzdal is one of the oldest towns in Russia and the 'jewel' of Russia's famous Golden Ring of ancient villages. In its heyday, Suzdal's Kremlin and monasteries held untold riches and its leaders fought with the princes of Moscow to make Suzdal the most important principality in Ancient Rus.

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Until my recent visit to post Soviet Russia (my first trip was in 1989)I only had a very faint knowledge of Russian history. Since I am fascinated by it, I will attempt to give you a primer for the understanding of ancient Russian history
The ancestors of the Russians were the Slavic tribes, whose original home is thought to have been the wooded areas along the Pripyat River( near Chernobyl). Relatively little is known about East Slavs prior to approximately the 9th century AD. Upon reading on this subject I was amazed at the influence of Vikings for the populating and subjugation of the area of what we call Ukraine, Russia and Belarus today. The Scandinavian Varingians also known as Vikings or Norsemen engaging in trade, piracy, and mercenary activities, roamed the river systems and portages of areas north of the Black sea( See map). According to Norse legends and Kievan Primary Chronicle(850-1110) the first settlement was near present day Novgorod in 882 AD under the leadership of Rurik, a legendary ancestor to proud Russians today. These settlers were called Rus and the state they established by subjugating the eastern Slavs between the 9th and 12th centuries was known as the Kievan Rus. It was ruled by Rurik’s descendents from present day Kiev.( Hence Russia’s constant problem with Ukraine whose capital is Kiev, home to Mother Russia).

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The Kievan Rus controlled the Volga trade route connecting the Baltic to the Caspian Sea, and the Dnieper trade route leading to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Those were the critically important trade links at that time, connecting Dark Age Europe with wealthy and developed Arab Caliphates and the Byzantine Empire.. Attracted by the riches of Constantinople, the Varangian Rus' initiated a number of Rus'-Byzantine Wars, some of which resulted in advantageous trade treaties. At least from the early 10th century many Varangians served as mercenaries in the Byzantine Army, comprising the elite Varangian Guard (the personal bodyguards of Byzantine Emperors). During the first decade of Vladimir's reign( the man who converted to Christianity and founded the Russian Orthodox Church), pagan reaction set in. Perun was chosen as the supreme deity of the Slavic pantheon and his idol was placed on the hill by the royal palace. Although Vladimir seems to have gone further than other Scandinavian kings (even human sacrifices were reported in Kiev), his religious reform failed. By the late 980s he had found it necessary to adopt monotheism from abroad.

The Primary Chronicle reports that, in the year 986, Vladimir met with representatives from several religions. The result is amusingly described in the following apocryphal anecdote. Upon the meeting with Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga, Vladimir found their religion unsuitable due to its requirement to circumcise and taboos against alcoholic beverages and pork; supposedly, Vladimir said on that occasion: "Drinking is the joy of the Rus', we can't go without it." He also consulted with Jewish envoys (who may or may not have been Khazars), questioned them about their religion but ultimately rejected it, saying that their loss of Jerusalem was evidence of their having been abandoned by God.

In the year 987, as the result of a consultation with his knights Vladimir sent envoys to study the religions of the various neighboring nations whose representatives had been urging him to embrace their respective faiths. Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga the envoys reported there is no joy among them; only sorrow and a great stench. In the gloomy churches of the Germans his emissaries saw no beauty; but at Hagia Sophia, where the full festival ritual of the Byzantine Church was set in motion to impress them, they found their ideal: "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported, "nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it."

Eventually most of them, both in Byzantium and in Eastern Europe, were converted from paganism to Orthodox Christianity, culminating in the Christianization of Kievan Rus' in 988. The Ottoman Emperors until their decline in the 18th century continued to use Christians as their bodyguards. From amongst that elite group rose Sinan, the famous Christian architect of the Blue Mosque and 100 other buildings. My travels from Istanbul to the Black Sea, to Ukraine and to Kazan and Nizhniy Novgorod on the Volga over the past two decades have helped me understand the rich history of the Kievan Rus.

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After a thrilling journey on the Trans-Siberian railroad and visiting many Siberian towns in February 2013 , I arrived in Moscow. I had always wanted to visit the Golden Ring cities of Sergiev Posad, Suzdal, Vladimir and Rostov. Being the premier tour circuit of Russia , I was disappointed to find a lack of organized tours in February, in the thick of winter. Involving great expense, I hired a taxi to take me to all the three locations in two days.
My ride from Moscow took me through the 1980 Olympic arena, the impressive alley of Cosmonauts and finally through the ICBM alley protecting Moscow during the cold war, consisting of silos holding the RS-36( SS-18 Satan), which only opened recently for road passage. From the impressive and tear inducing solemnity of the great Sergiev Posad Monastery( photo blog sent earlier), I reached Suzdal at dusk. Suzdal is situated on a sharp bend in the Kamenka River. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the turrets of 40 odd churches in a post card like setting with people travelling by horse drawn sleds on snow covered and unpaved roads. The town was set in the country side with sweeping vistas of snow-fields, which would turn to golden meadows in summer, as can be seen in Google images.

I quickly donned all my winter layers and headed for an extremely slippery walk towards the World heritage Kremlin. All along there were kids sliding, sleighing, skating and slipping on snowy mounds with a brilliant back drop of the famous Church of the Nativity circa 1022 AD. Being a Friday evening there were weekenders from Moscow, 220 Km away, enjoying themselves. Tipple included. I walked until the golden hues of the sun kissed all the monuments before darkness set in around 9:00 PM.

As I was settling down for some dinner I was invited by a group of ten Muscovites to their table. They were childhood friends; lawyers, cooks, teachers, gays (banned by the state by Putin recently; we talked about it) and a broken hearted immigration officer whose former girlfriend was paying more attention to me than him!.I found the Russians to be very philosophical and the educated ones were very spiritually inclined; often clinging on to solace providers like Sri Sri Ravishanker of the Art of Living. Not wanting to sound cliché ,our wonderful gathering for over 4 hours ended up in drunken bawdiness much to my disappointment. Vodka is the bane of Russia.

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The next bright morning I set about visiting the ancient Kremlin Complex. Right across the street was the weekend market with over 50 vendors selling pickled gherkins, woolen sweaters, hats, handicrafts, and church paraphernalia. My pictures should illustrate the beauty of the town, markets that surround the monuments. The ancient cathedral of the Assumption was constructed in the Kremlin by the craftsmen of Prince Vladimir Monomahk of Kiev at the end of the 11th century. It was at the same period that the first Suzdalian monastery of St. Demetrius was founded to the west of the Kremlin. To the east of the Kremlin the posad inhabited by craftsmen and traders began to grow. The posad was also fortified with ramparts and walls. All the main parts of the old town (the Kremlin, the posad, the monasteries) are well preserved in Suzdal. Suzdal is one of those rare towns in Russia, which could preserve their old lay-out.
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I particularly enjoyed my visit to an outdoor museum holding a collection of ancient wooden churches, houses, wind-mills, barns and assorted structures. It brought sweet memories of a trip made to Soviet Rumania in 1989. While very disappointed with Bucharest the most redeeming features was a similar collection of Rumanian/Romani houses and structures in a vast outdoor park. The Soviets to their credit preserved a lot of historic structures including conducting massive archeological works all over central Asia.

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The flourishing of art and culture in the North-Eastern Russia at the beginning of the 13th century was interrupted by the Mongol-Tartar invasion. In winter of 1238 Suzdal was seized and burnt down by the tartars ( Descendents of Genghiz Khan who controlled the eastern part of todays’s Russia until Peter the Great conquered them in 1698). Tatarstan, whose capital ,Kazan is a great city on the Volga was also home to Lenin. My visit to Kazan was also a highlight of my recent trip.
One of the greatest experiences I had was listening to an all male choir inside the 13th century frescoed church inside the World Heritage St. Eusthemius Monastery. I also had a wonderful lunch inside the monastery café.

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:39 Archived in Russia Tagged winter church in of world sites heritage russia russian nativity rus stave suzdal vladimir kievan kremile vatangians Comments (3)

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