For the first time, a senior Russian religious leader states that “the Ukrainian side is right.”
by Massimo Introvigne
On October 5, 2022, the leader of Kalmyk Buddhists and the honorary representative of the Dalai Lama in the Russian Federation, Mongolia, and the CIS countries became the highest Russian religious authority to condemn Putin’s war of aggression and to openly side with Ukraine.
Telo Tulku Rinpoche (Erdne Ombadykow), the Supreme Lama of Kalmykia and the leader of some 130,000 Kalmyk Vajrayana Buddhists, said in an interview: “I think [the war] is wrong; nobody needs this war. We are all living in the 21st century, all of us want to live peacefully, each country wants to develop. I think the Ukrainian side, of course, is right—it is defending its country, its land, its truth, its constitution, its people. It is very difficult to say and accept that Russia is right. It is very hard to say so.”
The Supreme Lama criticized other Buddhist authorities who have incited Russian Buddhists to fight in Ukraine, declaring their position incompatible with genuine Buddhism. He said he had limited himself to generic appeals for peace so far not to cause a harsh reaction from the regime against Kalmyk Buddhists. After the annexation by Russia of a part of Ukraine and the mobilization, however, the Supreme Lama decided he could no longer keep silent.
He is currently in Mongolia, supporting and helping the thousands of Kalmyk Buddhists who have escaped there to avoid mobilization.
It is unclear whether he would be allowed to return to Kalmykia. The Russian authorities have promptly circulated a statement by Buddhist leaders loyal to the Kremlin supporting the war and condemning the Supreme Lama. The statement claims that the Supreme Lama holds an American passport and cannot speak for Russian Buddhists.
Buryats, Kalmyks, and other Buddhists are disproportionally represented among those who died in the Ukrainian war, as religious minorities were used as cannon fodder in the first phase of the war. Now Kalmyks, with the support of their Supreme Lama, try to put a stop to the carnage and massively escape abroad. This creates a serious problem for Putin, as it will be difficult to conceal from Kalmyks fighting in Ukraine that their spiritual leader has stated that “the Ukrainian side is right.”