Kalmykia is a republic in the Russian Federation, located just north of the Caucasus and south of the Volga river, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The Kalmykian republic has just under 300,000 inhabitants and it is the only place in Europe where a majority of the population are practicing Buddhists. The Kalmyks were nomads who arrived here from Dzungaria, in today’s Xinjiang, in the seventeenth-century, most probably in search of better pasture for their animals. [Box: Khotan to the Khotanese!] Their language is closely related to the language still spoken by the Oirat people in China. 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 khanate. The Kalmyks always 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 Dzungaria, 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. When the Bolsheviks won, many Kalmyks were forced to flee. Some went to Belgrade in Serbia where they established Europe’s first Buddhist temple in 1929 and others went to the United States.
In the 1930s the Kalmyks were forced to join collective farms, Buddhist monasteries were closed, and those who owned the largest herds 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 but would often find that their land had been taken 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 of the Kalmyk Republic 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 far higher birthrates. There are still Kalmyks who live as nomads on the steppe. In 1991 the Dalai Lama visited the republic.