In southwestern Russia, near the Caspian Sea, is a republic, one of the smallest in Russia. It’s called Kalmykia, and you have probably never heard of it. So why on God’s Earth are you reading an article about it? Because Kalmykia is the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the most practised religion. How did that happen? To answer that we dive into the history of the Kalmyks, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union.

The Kalmyks are a formerly nomadic, Mongol people, who left northwestern China for North Caucasus, in what is today Russia, in the early 17th century. Like most Mongol people, they are predominantly Buddhist, and as the Kalmyks were part of the Russian Empire, the government attempted to convert the Kalmyks, not only to Orthodox Christianity but to Russian culture as well. Their lives were further complicated by the arrival of Russian and German settlers in their land, who with the support of the government took the most fertile land and left the Kalmyks to the barren steppes. The Kalmyks’ herds suffered, and the people became impoverished.

 

Kalmyks

The Kalmyks are a Mongolian people who have lived in Russia since the 17th century. Photo by: Victor Yastrebov

Another policy of the Russian government to rid the Kalmyks of their belief and culture was limiting contact with Tibet. The Kalmyks are Tibetan Buddhists, or lamaists as followers of this branch of Buddhism is sometimes called, and most of its clergy were trained in Tibet. The Russian Tsar eventually started appointing the religious leader of the Kalmyks, The High Lama, thus further weakening Buddhism in Kalmyk culture.

Disillusioned with Russian rule, the Kalmyks set out to return to their old homeland in Asia, but some 100-150,000 remained, and as punishment for the migration of their people, Catherine The Great abolished their, to this point, self-rule, and executed many of the Kalmyk nobles.

Life in Soviet Russia was not to be easier for the Kalmyks. Famine hit their lands and people, and because of this Mongolia offered to migrate them, but the Soviet government refused.  The Kalmyks rebelled against the Soviet Union several times, due to demongolization efforts, anti-religion policies, and particularly because Stalin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture meant they had to give up their nomadic lifestyles.

 

Buddha in Kalmykia

Buddhism is still an important part of life in Kalmykia. Photo by: Maria

 

Kalmykia was occupied by German forces during World War 2, and after the Red Army had driven them out, the Kalmyks were accused of collaborating with the Germans and were exiled to Siberia by Stalin. Thousands died, and the Kalmyks would not return until 1957. However, their homeland was not the same as when they had left. In their absence, Kalmykia had been settled by Russians and Ukrainians, and the same steppe they had used for their herds to graze was now home to industrial plants.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Kalmykia chose to remain in the Russian Federation, and a 1992 Russian law recognised that the repression of the Kalmyks and other groups qualified as genocide.

Today, almost 75% of Kalmykia’s population are Kalmyks, and around 50% of the republic’s population identifies as Buddhist, by far the largest religious denomination.