Kalmykia: wild aesthetics of the Buddhist calm

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Main facts:

  • Administrative center: Elista

  • Federal District: South Russia

  • Language(s): Russian, Kalmyk

  • Population: 272 647

  • Timezone: UTC+3

  • Main religion: Buddhism

Top 10 attractions:

Sights map of Kalmykia Republic

Travel around Kalmykia

Have you ever been in places where trees don't grow at all? Where does the free wind blow day and night, spreading the aromas of herbs and the chirping of thousands of birds around the neighborhood? Where the endless fields of tulips are replaced by sand dunes and breathtaking expanses? To see all this, you do not need to go to the edge of the world, have difficulty hiking or spend a lot of money - you just have to go on a trip to Kalmykia.

This land is unique in its kind. In the vast territory, which exceeds the size of Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, lives only about 270,000 people, and half of them live in the capital city of Elista. The main part of the land surface here is represented by endless plains, which create a unique feeling of "flatness" - there is literally nothing to hold onto the human eye here. No matter where you look, tens of kilometers around you will see the same flat topography, covered with low grass ... But it may seem deserted only at first glance. Just muffle the engine and get out of the car, and you will hear the bird's singing from all sides: the voices of millions of birds are ringing over the steppe day and night. Hares and foxes scurry about in the grass, gophers and other rodents peek out of the ground, and partridges, cranes, and other birds soar into the air. Huge herds of cows and sheep graze in endless pastures, in the size of which Kalmykia takes the 1st place among all regions of Russia. Most of the people here is engaged in animal husbandry for generations and have a very fairly traditional way of life. Historically, they were nomads who moved with their families and herds across the expanses several times a year. Only in the 20th century, they were fixed at permanent places by government intervention, but many families still live separately and far from human settlements. Here and there in the steppe you can meet a farm, where the Kalmyk with his family spends most of his life and herding his herds. Many of them love the steppe and feel a historical and spiritual relationship with it, but it is very harsh to live in these lands.

The climate here is sharply continental, which means rather abrupt changes in temperature even during the day. In winter it can be very cold (up to -30 °C) and windy: because of the flat terrain, the strong wind blows constantly here and not stopping for a minute! As a result, the soil and the air very quickly cool down. In summer, the daytime temperature at +30 °C can quickly change to +10 °C with the sunset, and immediately after sunrise, quickly return to the previous level. At the same time, in summer Kalmykia is the hottest subject of Russia, along with the Astrakhan region (the absolute maximum here is above +45 °C). In winter, the steppes freeze in severe frost, and in the summer they literally burn out under the hot sun and constant hot dry winds.

That is why the most comfortable and beautiful time to visit Kalmykia (for the sake of which many Kalmyks are ready to live here all year round) is April-June. In the middle of spring, the steppes begin to be covered with a thick grass cover with whole fields of blooming wild tulips. Delving deeper into the steppe, tulips literally turn the land into blooming paradise, which the spring sun warms with its rays. It is especially beautiful to observe them near the shores of Lake Manych-Gudilo - the largest water reservoir in southern Russia, which is of relict origin and stretched for a hundred miles along the steppe. Thousands of bright flowers bloom along its high banks, among which there are rare tulips of various colors, red poppies and a huge number of wild flowers. The air becomes filled with hundreds of soft and gentle aromas, and the rustling of thick grass under the warm wind creates a unique feeling of joyful freedom. The flowering of tulips continues for a very short time (literally one or two weeks), therefore it is considered a great success to catch it. But once you see such beauty, you will want to come back here again and again. As well as you will want to pass through the endless hilly ridges, studded with myriads of flowers, enjoy the enveloping silence and tranquility, get acquainted closer with the large fluffy sheep, which by that time acquire young offspring. Young lambs running along the hilly steppes and small lakes following their parents - this idyllic landscape makes an indelible impression!

The same flat desert terrain became the key factor in the fact that sedentary settlements were almost never in the territory of modern Kalmykia. Most of the peoples who once lived in these lands (Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Pechenegs, Cumans and many others) never lingered here for a long time and were in constant movement to find the best pastures for their livestock, as well as military raids on neighboring states. In these places, the Khazar Khaganate existed for the longest time, which controlled the entire territory of the Transcaucasus, the Crimea and the Volga-Don interfluve, fought with the Arabs and Russians, and eventually collapsed at the end of the 10th century. The next two centuries, the local steppes completely belonged to rare independent settlers and nomads from Asia, and were re-united only with the arrival of the Tatar-Mongols. The Golden Horde largely dealt with political and military "issues" with the Caspian states, the Moscow principality, the Volga Bulgaria and other large states, and the Kalmyk steppes still remained empty and uninhabited territory in which rare nomads herded their countless herds. Indeed, these places have witnessed many historical events, the emergence and collapse of the great states of the past, but did not preserve any traces of that time. Only the wind still blows over the steppe...

With the collapse of the Golden Horde, for many decades the local places once again remained wild and uninhabited, despite the actively developing Russian cities on the Volga and in the Caucasus region. In the 17th century, Kalmyks finally appeared on the horizon, or rather, their long-time ancestors, Western Mongols (the Oirats), who came from Dzungaria and fled from there because of political feuds and civil strife in search of freedom and new pastures for their livestock. They began to settle in the wild places between the Don and the Volga and founded the Kalmyk Khanate here, from which the history of the Republic of Kalmykia begins. Keeping the traditional nomadic way of life, the Kalmyks began to establish trade relations with the Russians and other peoples in these places, and in 1609 they took the oath of allegiance to the Russian Tsar. They were also excellent riders, thanks to which they became a strong pillar of the Russian state on the southern frontiers. Kalmyks repeatedly fought with the Cossacks and the Russians against the Tatars (the siege of Kazan), the Turks (the siege of Azov) and the Crimean Khanate. There is a legend according to which it was the Kalmyks who first entered Paris in 1812, which is reflected in many historical documents and works of art that can be seen also in the National Museum of Kalmykia in Elista.

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In the 18th century, during the advancement of the Russians to the south and the Caucasus, thousands of peasants and Don Cossacks, who occupied pastures for agriculture, began to be relocated to the Kalmyk steppes. Over time, the Kalmyks began to feel less independent and increasingly disadvantaged, and as a result, the idea arose of ​​returning the people to their historic homeland in Dzungaria, which, after being conquered by the Chinese Qing dynasty, was no longer hostile to the Kalmyk Khanate. Preparation for this “great outcome” lasted for several years, and in 1771 more than 180,000 Kalmyks moved to Central Asia. This campaign proved disastrous for the already small Kalmyk people: only about 20,000 people reached Dzungaria with huge deprivation and loss of almost all their livestock, the rest either died during the outcome, either captured or killed by enemies on the way. Those few of the Kalmyks who refused to participate in this campaign remained in the empty steppes, but in the end lost their independence - Catherine II disbanded the Kalmyk Khanate, which was now included in the Astrakhan province, and the Kalmyks was actually ruled by it during the 18-19 centuries. The huge desert territories of the steppes were supposed to be gradually developed, therefore the state actively built paths across the steppe, creating small peasant settlements alongside them. Thus arose all the large settlements in Kalmykia, including the current capital of the region, Elista. But it is important to note here that mainly Russians and Ukrainians settled in these settlements; the Kalmyks themselves, up to the beginning of the 20th century, remained a nomadic people and in every possible way tried to isolate themselves from settled life.

After the royal power was destroyed in 1917-1918, "White Guard" troops quickly swept through the steppes of Kalmykia; they did not stay here for long and Kalmyks did not give much support to them (neither to the Russian peasants who inhabited their pastures). In 1918, the Kalmyks entered the USSR and were subject to all resolutions of the Bolshevik regime: collectivization, dispossession and anti-religious activities. As a result, most of the Buddhist khuruls were destroyed, the accumulated wealth and knowledge in the academies were seized, and the major herders lost their main wealth - livestocks. Over the next 30 years, Kalmyks were actively involved in Soviet life and assimilation with the Russians, but for most Kalmyks it was preferable to remain faithful to their folk traditions and Buddhist faith. This may have partly played its role during the Great Patriotic War, when in 1943 the Kalmyk people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia, following their "comrades in misfortune" - the peoples of the Caucasus. This became another (after the great outcome) national disaster: so few Kalmyk people (130,000 people before the war) were almost completely deported to the cold of Siberia without their stock, during which about half of the people died. In memory of these terrible events, the "Exodus and Return" monument was erected in Elista. Deportation automatically led to the liquidation of the region, the territory of which was divided between the neighboring regions of Astrakhan, Stavropol, Rostov, and Volgograd.