ULAN-UDE, Russia, Feb. 28 (AFP) - The flags were out in Ulan-Ude for Buddhistlunar New Year -- it was the last weekend of February -- and the city was agogat the visit of the Humbo Lama, a Tibetan spiritual leader.

The holy man's presence was good cause to celebrate because Ulan-Ude, capital ofBuryatia, a 500-mile-long Russian republic between LakeBaikal and the Mongolian border, has a reputation as a wild, unvisited place.

Yet the 350,000-strong Buryats, the largest ethnic minority in Siberia andoverwhelmingly Buddhist, have experienced a spectacular revival in the decade since the fall of the Soviet Union, said Gennady Ivanov. Buddhism's revival part of the general revival of religious faith in Russia since official Soviet atheism ended.

Ivanov, an ethnic Mongolian with a Russian name, was busy amid the white and basaltministries of Ulan-Ude's Soviet-style city centre erecting a platform fromwhich the republic's president, Leonid Potapov, was due to deliver a rousing NewYear address.

"Until Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika, we were outcasts in our own land,forced to hide our religion and to practise only in secret, punished if we keptto the faith," Ivanov said.

"Now we look our Russian brothers and sisters in the eye because, like them, wecan once again savour the taste of old freedoms. We have won, we have overcome,"he added with the defiant look of Ghengis Khan, whose mother is said to havecome from Buryatia.

Yet the fine mesh of Buryatia's opposing faiths, the Buddhist and the Bolshevik,was also evident in the architecture of Ulan-Ude's main square itself. Across from the makeshift platform, and sitting upon a crumbling stone block, was what is said to be the biggest head of Lenin in the world. It was the size of anasteroid.

Iconic, bodiless, the huge statue made sense only in the nightmare perspectiveof the Soviet past.

However, Potapov seemed artfully to blend the two traditions in a presidentialaddress that oscillated between a kind of Tantric stillness and calm, and theSoviet sense of a long march into the glorious future. "Our people greet the new year, the new century, the new millennium, with highhopes of a better life and strong economy," Potapov told a crowd largely made upof fur-hatted Mongol moneychangers.

But for many of them, clutching grimy ruble notes and stamping up and down tokeep warm in the market square, economy began at home -- not in politicians'speeches -- and hard cash was the only bankable religion.

In the Gostinny Dvor, or "merchants yard," the variety of goods offered for salewas astounding, but even more astounding was the variety of those doing theoffering.

Not only were there Buryats and Russians, but also Ukrainians, Belarussians, Armenians,Afghans, Serbs, Croats, Romanians, Lithuanians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Gypsies,Koreans, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis and Uzbeks.

There were Mongols hawking sheepskins and Chinese vending Buddhist lunarcalendars, as well as Vietnamese selling shirts and leather jackets to one ofthe more unlikely minorities in Siberia, the ethnic Tutsis of Rwanda.

"We came to see the beautiful Lake Baikal, and because we have Russian friendswho told us of the rich mix of people and culture in Ulan-Ude," Fidel Kagame,operations manager for the Kigali-based Goldman import-export agents, told AFP.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, Buddhism was an officially recognised religion andthere were 47 Buddhist monasteries, or "datsans," and 150 templesflourishing in Buryatia right up to the 1920s. During that post-revolutionary decade, Buddhism in Buryatia had taken steps toally itself with Moscow, declaring its philosophy to be a forerunner ofCommunism, but the strategy did not work.

By 1939, all the datsans were gone and Stalin, the Soviet strongman, had sent thousands of lamas(Buddhist priests) to the Gulag, though in recognition of wartime support fromreligious groups, he did allow a few monasteries to be rebuilt after World War II, including one atBuryatia's Buddhist headquarters in Ivolginsk.

Today, Buddhism is again practiced openly by the masses here. Once again, it has been designated an official and traditional Russian faith by Moscow, along with Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and "Christianity," a loosely defined term interpreted variously in different parts of the vast Russian nation, sometimes to exclude unwanted Protestant sects.

A crowd of pilgrims gathered under the tilted eaves of th monastery's templethat levitated in bright yellow, to hear the chief priest Bayir murmur the "Ommani padme hum" chant of Tibetan Buddhism, the form of the religion widely adhered to across much of north-central Asia way beyond the political boundaries of today's Chinese-controlled Tibet.

The porch of the temple was carved with Buddhist icons: the deer of Benares, theWheel of the Law.

Inside, an oil painting of the Dalai Lama, who has visited Ivolginsk five times, stared out from an explosion of colour.