Historical Oddities: Kalmykia, Russia’s Buddhist Republic

Buddhism is commonly seen as an eastern religion, mostly prevalent in Asia and without much grounding in Europe. However, there is one region in Europe that is majority Buddhist and has been for centuries. This is the Russian federal subject of Kalmykia. Kalmykia is located in southeast Europe northwest of the Caspian Sea near the Volga River. The people, the Kalmyks, are descended from Mongols who settled in the area and have continued practicing Buddhism up to the present day.

The origins of the Kalmyks are in the collapse of the Mongol Empire after the fall of the Yuan dynasty in China. The Oirats, one of the successor states of the Mongol Empire in Siberia, formed an alliance of tribes in eastern Kazakhstan and western Mongolia to resist the expansion of Ming China. The Oirats were one of the more successful efforts by the Mongols to resist Chinese expansion northward, and remained independent up until the 1600s. However, some of the nomadic tribes broke off from the Oirats in eastern Kazakhstan along the Irtysh River and migrated west. The nomads that reached across the Urals settled in the Volga River valley. These tribes united as Russia in the north and Crimea in the south began expansion into the Siberian interior and formed the Kalmyk Khanate in 1630.

The Kalmyk Khanate frequented clashed with the neighboring Russians as they raided Russian settlements and Cossack and others raided Kalmyk settlements. The Kalmyk Khanate reached its height during the reign of Ayuka Khan in the late 1600s. Under Ayuka Khan, the Kalmyk Khanate expanded the reach of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism in the lower Volga region and reached an agreement with Russia to protect their southern borders. In 1690, the Dalai Lama granted Ayuka Khan with a seal and a title. After Ayuka Khan’s death in 1724, however, the Kalmyk Khanate went into decline. Russia continued to encroach upon the borders of the khanate and imposed a vassal state upon the khanate that required them to contribute cavalry regiments to the Russian army. In 1771, Catherine the Great abolished the Kalmyk Khanate after Ubashi Khan led a mass migration of Kalmyks back east to their ancestral homeland.

After the abolition of the khanate, the Kalmyks who remained in the Volga River region began to settle down and form permanent settlements. They also contributed regiments to the Russian army in later wars including the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War. The city of Elista, later to become the capital of Kalmykia, was founded in 1865.

The fall of the Russian Empire was a tumultuous period for Kalmykia as it was for the rest of Russia. Many Kalmyks joined the White Army to support the Tsar and oppose the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. After the Red Army started to gain ground in the region, many of the Kalmyks who joined the White Army fled the country. The majority fled to Belgrade, where they constructed a Buddhist temple in the city. In the Soviet Union, Kalmykia initially became an Autonomous Socialist Republic, but the Communist leaders persecuted the Buddhist religion and imposed the collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s. In World War II, the Germans occupied Elista, and Stalin and the Soviet authorities accused the Kalmyks of cooperating with the Germans. The Soviets deported the entire Kalmyk population to Siberia in 1943 and dispersed them. They were only allowed by Khrushchev to return to Kalmykia in 1957, when the Autonomous Republic was restored. Because of Soviet agricultural projects, the area underwent a large amount of desertification. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kalmykia kept its status as an Autonomous Republic within Russia, which it retains up to the present.

Currently, the Republic of Kalmykia has a population of nearly 300,000 people. The administrative region encompasses much of the lower Volga region between the Volga and Kuma Rivers, including a small section of the shore of the Caspian Sea. Kalmykia’s capital is in Elista, where a Buddhist temple was built in 2005. Gelugpa Buddhism remains the largest religion in Kalmykia today with a plurality of 37.6%, and both presidents of the Republic since the end of the Soviet Union have been Buddhist. Kalmykia is the only Buddhist region on the European continent, and one of the few regions outside of Asia with a large Buddhist population.

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