In Russia's Ural Mountains, a small group of Buddhists led by a veteran of the USSR's Afghanistan war has spent the past 21 years establishing a monastery on an isolated mountaintop. But it sits on land claimed by a company belonging to one of Russia's most powerful oligarchs. After years of delays, a date has now been set for the complex's removal. RFE/RL's Amos Chapple visited the monastery for the inside story.
A 7-kilometre forest trail leads up to the monastery on the summit of Mount Kachkanar, which rises 888 metres above sea level. This “Om mane padne hum” Sanskrit mantra near the end of the trail indicates the Buddhist monastery is close. After a heavy snowfall, the hike can take up to seven hours.
The monastery is named Shad Tchup Ling, meaning “place of practice and realisation”. Mikhail Sannikov, a soldier turned Buddhist monk, founded the monastery in 1995. The 55-year-old abbot saw heavy action as a commander in the Soviet Army during the 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan. Sannikov, who now goes by the title Lama Dokshit, says he left the army in 1987 a damaged man after being wounded in separate encounters by “two bullets, a knife, and a piece of shrapnel”. The fighting haunted him for years afterward. “Sometimes it would come up during the ordinary things in life — I'd be watching an action movie and start counting how many bullets [the character] has left. It was hard to sleep at night.”
After leaving the army, Sannikov took menial jobs and hunted for “some kind of purpose”. In 1989 he wound up in Russia's Buryatia region, where he studied Buddhism for six years. At the time of his studies, Sannikov says, Buddhism was almost exclusively practiced in the east of the country. "I thought it was strange; we have good people in central Russia, too. My teacher said, 'Well, go there, then.'" Sannikov says that after his teacher drew a silhouette of a mountain, “my task was clear”.
What started as a wooden shack has grown into a complex featuring a Buddha statue, living quarters and communal kitchen, and sauna. The six-metre fiberglass Buddha statue was completed in the summer of 2016. Eight people live full-time in the monastery, with several regulars coming and going. Sannikov says anyone can live in the monastery “as long as they're good people”. Rules are set in stone: no alcohol, drugs, or rough language; group meditation runs daily from 7-8 a.m.; and five hours of work per day is expected. Then there are the local tourists. The monastery is visited by thousands of adventurers, most of them Russians, each year.
“Today, the church in Russia is just a business,” says Boleslav Vavilov. “A lot of young people are looking for another spiritual path.” The 27-year-old has made several long-term visits to the monastery, taking time away from his job as a massage therapist when he can.
Yulia Gasheva is one of three women living in the monastery. The 30-year-old works as a hotel receptionist in the “real world” but says she prefers life in the monastery, where she puts in non-stop 16-hour days serving up mostly simple dishes of buckwheat and pasta. “There's a peace here that I just never find in normal life.”
The peace is occasionally broken by the rumble and boom of this quarry. What Sannikov failed to realise was the wealth of metal ore that lay beneath the wind-whipped mountaintop. The quarry is one of several near the monastery belonging to Evraz, a multinational mining company. Workers extract iron and vanadium, a mineral used to strengthen steel. Evraz is co-owned by Roman Abramovich, an oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The company employs around 6,000 people in the region. As one of its mines is being wound down, Evraz says it needs to scoop out the iron-heavy land under the monastery to remain profitable.
Public authorities were scheduled to move in and raze the monastery complex on March 1 but the plan has been temporarily delayed: the image of a Buddha being removed to make way for business interests could prove awkward. Evraz says it is prepared to assist with moving the monastery to another location, but the Kachkanar Buddhists say the site and the buildings they have raised on it are sacred. “You can't just move a stupa.”
Official requests to remove the monastery have been ignored by Sannikov, as have two fines issued by the local authorities. Public opinion is split on whether the monastery should be allowed to remain on the mountaintop. A petition to save the monastery drew thousands of signatures and was publicly backed by Russian music icon Boris Grebenshchikov. Some locals of Kachkanar, however, say the monastery is standing in the way of the future of the town itself. Lyudmila Lapteva, the editor in chief of Kachkanar's Chetverg newspaper, told RFE/RL, "This town was built expressly to mine those minerals. If Evraz can't keep mining here, then this town is going to cease to exist."Despite the looming threat of demolition, the Kachkanar Buddhists continue to build up the complex. Sannikov hopes eventually to open a school of Buddhism on the site.
A version of this article first appeared on Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty — on the front lines in the fight for media freedom.
More from Photography
One final look at the spectacular street art of the past
7 street photographers share the stories behind their strangest shots
The weird and wonderful wellness palaces of the USSR
Retracing the Bolshevik’s journey back to Russia to lead the revolution