Persecution of folk religion in Altai
by Vladimir Rozanskij

Russian security services have targeted Ak Tyan or “White Faith”, a religious group at odds with local Buddhists. Neo-paganism is raising fears of possible extremism. Local youth are  increasingly fascinated by ancient religious beliefs.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Some ancient religious beliefs in southern Siberia continue to be persecuted by local authorities and Russia’s security services, this according to a programme aired on Radio Liberty (радио свобода) last Saturday.

The programme was centred on folk religions in the Altai, a Republic of the Russian Federation that borders with Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, where Buddhism is also practiced.

In 2018, the Ongudayskiy District Court labelled the unregistered Karakol Initiative Group as an extremist organisation. The ruling singled out certain religious practices, which many ethnic Altai consider the “faith of the forebears”, including Ak Tyan or “White Faith”.

Since then, Ak Tyan (Aktyanite) spiritual leaders and followers have been under investigation for proselytising and the spread of extremist materials, and more charges are expected.

The radio programme looked at the persecution of White Faith members, who accuse the local leadership of selling themselves to the international Buddhist Nipponzan-Myōhōji-Daisanga (Order of the Lotus Sutra) movement.

Altai Buddhists are allegedly backed by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB[*]) against the protests of “White Faith” believers, a situation echoed on social media and various street actions.

The Lotus Sutra leader, Japanese monk Junsei Terasawa, has been banned from entering Russia since the Second Chechen War (1999–2009) over alleged contacts with Chechen separatists.

Buddhists argue that Ak Tyan is simply a variant of Buddhism, based on ethnographic theories about Burkhanism as “folk Buddhism”.

In addition to Junsei's followers, more traditional Buddhism is present in the Altai region, such as the Karma Kagyu School, and other groups not unwelcome to the authorities.

Altai is a place of contact and contamination between various cultural and religious traditions that developed during the first and second of the great Turkic polities, the Kyrgyz and the Uyghur khanates, following the empire of Genghis Khan.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dzungar ( Zunghar) people founded a powerful nomadic empire in the region, subjugated in the 1750s by China after a bloody war.

Eventually, the heirs to these khanates came under the rule of the Russian Empire, which referred to them as Altai peoples by the 19th century.

The Dzungar were Buddhists, which historians say was forcibly imposed on local shamanists, which is why Buddhism is seen locally as the religion of the invaders.

In the post-Communist religious revival, everything has been called into question; many “new believers” have begun visiting hard-to-get places, dubbed the armpits of the Altai, where ancient pagans celebrated their rites and defended themselves against wars and epidemics.

Buddhism and paganism are not alone. A Manichaean version of Christianity has also spread around here, which some claim was the original religion of Genghis Khan himself.

Despite the persecutions, the Ak Tyan of Karakol are destined to survive; in all probability, their radicalism will be increase, precisely thanks to the oppression that gives the new shamans proof of their greater purity.

The “rebirth of paganism” in Asia, pride of the Altai peoples, exerts great fascination among local youth.

[*] Main successor agency to the Committee for State Security of the Soviet Union, better known by the initials KGB.