Buddhism in Modern Russian Culture


A review of The Buddhist World in Modern Russian Culture (1873-1919): Literature and Visual Arts, by Adele Di Ruocco.

Academic writing at its best should be innovative, informative, and interesting to read. In her dissertation, The Buddhist World in Modern Russian Culture (1873-1919): Literature and Visual Arts, Adele Di Ruocco has achieved all three of these aims. This work traces the lineages of Buddhism as a values system and worldview in Russian intellectual life in the late imperial period. It draws on academic approaches to literature, visual culture, and religious studies, and has broad intellectual appeal across these and other disciplines.

The opening chapter succinctly introduces the goal of the dissertation: “to investigate why and how Buddhism informed the aesthetic and philosophical inquires of certain modern Russian writers and artists especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (p. 1). Di Ruocco positions her work against two predominant trends—those organized around the concepts of Orientalism and of the occult—in the extant scholarship on Buddhism in Russia. Instead, the dissertation’s central organizing trope is “the journey”: travel to, movement within, and exchange with the Buddhist world writ large. The journeys around which Di Ruocco organizes the analysis are diverse in their orientations and interests. Some journeys were real, others metaphorical; whether a world tour or an interchange of ideas, these varied journeys resulted in ideational exchange with the Buddhist worldview.

Chapter 1 discusses how travels in Asia influenced intellectual and creative outputs in Russia around the turn of the twentieth century. The poet Konstantin Balmont returned from his eastern journey to translate Ashvagosha’s The Life of the Buddha; Nikolai Przhevalskii’s expeditions were reflective of a societal interest in scientific discovery, although he personally held a negative view of Buddhism as a religious tradition; and Anton Chekhov’s exploration of Sakhalin Island and his eastern travels were reflected in Orientalist themes in multiple writings, while he also cultivated these preoccupations through his friendships with Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Bunin. Aleksei Remizov relied directly on the travels of others to infuse his work on folklore and myth.

Di Ruocco next turns to the presence of the Buddha in Russian visual arts and literature in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The Buddha’s appearance in the art of Boris Anisfeld, Evgenii Zamiatin’s novel We, and Iurii Annenkov’s portrait of Maxim Gorky are indicative of the multiple media in which the Buddha was found. In certain representations, Buddhist and Christian elements were co-present, and these depictions reflect a wider intellectual discussion regarding the syncretism of Buddhism and Christianity that was ongoing in late Imperial Russia. The transference of religious myths suggests that ideas, not just individuals, undertook an “imaginary journey” from east to west (p. 101). The analysis in this chapter centers on the story of Prince Josaphat’s conversion to Christianity, elements of which closely align with the life of the Buddha. This conversion story was incorporated into the works of Leo Tolstoy in his Confession, and into the poet Dmitrii Merezhovskii’s verses and essays. Di Ruocco writes that these influences “exemplify how religious myths migrated from one culture to another, helping to popularize certain motifs, such as the figure of the Buddha” (p. 128). Another path through which the Buddha entered Russian intellectual circles was the translation of Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia—the Russian translation of the book included annotations from Buddhist sources to supplement Arnold’s text.

The third chapter returns to the notion of the journey as real experience. Nicholas II, at the time heir to the Russian throne, traveled to Asia on a Grand Tour in 1890 and 1891. The tour was widely covered in the Russian media and resulted in a rich and varied collection of objects that subsequently formed part of the Imperial Buddhist Collections, displayed at the Winter Palace beginning in 1893. This was one of a series of exhibitions aimed at increasing public awareness of foreign cultures. The tsarevich’s confidant, Prince Esper Ukhtomskii, accompanied Nicholas on the Grand Tour and also gathered an impressive collection of eastern objects, as did the explorer Petr Kozlov and Aleksandr Vereshchagin, an officer in the Russian Army and brother of the artist, Vasilii. These exhibits, along with the art of the latter Vereshchagin and the form of Tibetan medicine practiced by Petr Badmaev, increased the Russian public’s exposure to Buddhist images and practices.

Yet, the reaction to Buddhism by the general public was not uniformly positive. The idea of the Yellow Peril, articulated by Kaiser Wilhelm II, was widely endorsed in the Russian press in 1904 as the situation in the Far East deteriorated. The result, Di Ruocco observes, was the dissemination of “Buddhist ideas into modern Russian culture, albeit in negative terms” (p. 206). The Yellow Peril came to be associated with Buddhism in some intellectual circles and was viewed as a threat to the Christian order: Vladimir Solov’ev, for example, criticized Buddhism for its inherent contradiction. Another instance of skepticism revolved around debates on the building of a Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg.

The dissertation’s final two chapters link Buddhism in Russia to wider intellectual currents in Western Europe. Chapter 5 traces the manifestations of Buddhism in France and the exposure of Russian intellectuals living and traveling there to the religion. Di Ruocco discusses in detail an 1898 Buddhist ceremony led by the Buriat lama Agvan Dorzhiev at the Musée Guimet. The service was described by the poet Innokentii Annenskii in “The Buddhist Mass in Paris,” which invoked the color yellow in reference to the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism to which Dorzhiev belonged. Also of note is the influence of Buddhist exhibitions held in the French capital on subsequent displays organized in Russia, including the First Buddhist Exhibition held in Petrograd in 1919.

The penultimate chapter considers the idea of Nirvana, its frequent equation with a nihilistic worldview and the broader resonance of this view as, according to Di Ruocco, “symptomatic of western angst” (p. 303). For many Russian intellectuals, Nirvana meant nothingness. Leo Tolstoy, for example, affirmed this position in his correspondence with Afanasii Fet. This position was influenced in the main by the works of German philosophers, including most prominently Arthur Schopenhauer. This perspective on Nirvana also influenced the visual arts: Kazimir Malevich came to embrace nothingness in his series of white canvasses painted in 1917 and 1918.

In sum, Di Ruocco’s work brings together the lineaments of Buddhist thought in the intellectual life of late Imperial Russia. The dissertation should be positioned with respect to recent work that has reconstructed intellectual milieus in time and space—I am thinking most notably of that of Edith Clowes (Russia on the Edge: Imagined Geographies and Post-Soviet Identity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011). Di Ruocco has achieved something comparable by tracing the varied influences coming from the Buddhist world—the figure of the Buddha and the concept of Nirvana—to position Russian intellectual thought at a moment in time before the rupture wrought by the Soviet short century.

Edward C. Holland
Postdoctoral Fellow
The Havighurst Center
Miami University

Primary Sources 

Special Buddhist Collections at the Russian Ethnographic Museum
St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences
St. Petersburg Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography
Petr Kozlov Memorial Museum-Apartment
Musée national des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris

Dissertation Information

University of Southern California. 2011. 397 pp. Primary Advisor: John E. Bowlt.

Image: “Buddha with Pomegranates,” by Boris Anisfeld. [Boris Anisfeld Research Project Website]

1 comment
  1. Thanks for the informative review. I am particularly interested in the conversion story of Prince Josephat – as noted, there are so many cross-overs in the formative stories of Christianity and Buddhism, and I didn’t know about this one. Also useful is the information re the Imperial collections. As an art historian, I am always pleased to come across more sources re collection development. The introduction of Buddhism in the West is also a topic of great interest as its reception has very much coloured subsequent interpretation of Buddhist imagery – this thesis certainly sounds like it adds significantly to our knowledge in this field

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