Kalmykia, Europe’s only Buddhist republic

Kalmykia is a republic in the Russian Federation, located between the Black and the Caspian Sea. The Kalmykian republic, with some 300,000 inhabitants, is the only place in Europe where a majority of the population are Buddhists. The Kalmyks were nomads who originally arrived here from today’s Xinjiang, in the seventeenth-century, most probably in search of better pasture for their animals. [Read more: “Khotan to the Khotanese!“] In their new location the Kalmyks became nominally the subjects of the czar, and they were supposed to protect Russia’s southern borders, but in practice Kalmykia constituted its own independent khanate. The Kalmyks kept in close contact with their kinsmen in Xinjiang and also with the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

In the eighteenth-century the Russian empire asserted itself in Central Asia — settling Russian farmers here and trying to control the Kalmyks politically. In a desperate move, a large portion of the population decided to return to Xinjaing, but many were killed on the way. In the civil war which followed the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Kalmyks sided with the White armies, and this too turned out to be a terrible mistake. After the Bolshevik victory, many were forced to flee. Some Kalmyks went to the United States, others to Belgrade in Serbia where they established Europe’s first Buddhist temple in 1929.

In the 1930s the Kalmyks were forced to join collective farms, Buddhist monasteries were closed, and those who owned the largest herds of animals were labeled “enemies of the people” and deported to Siberia. In 1932 and 1933 alone some 60,000 Kalmyks died. During the Second World War, Kalmykia was invaded by the Germans. In 1943 Stalin declared the Kalmyk people collectively guilty of cooperation with the enemy and they were all deported to various locations in Siberia and Central Asia. In 1957, after the death of Stalin they were allowed to return home but often only to find that their land had been taken over by Russians. Badly planned and badly executed attempts by the Soviet authorities to irrigate the steppe turned grazing land into desert.

Today some 60 percent of the population are ethnic Kalmyks, while 30 percent are Russian. The proportion of Russians has been going down since the fall of Communism, above all since the Kalmyks have higher birthrates. Although very few Kalmyks live as nomads on the steppe, they are still practicing their religion. In 1991 the Dalai Lama visited the republic.

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