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Russia's Buddhist Republic

 
 

The journey from Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) to Russia’s southern Republic of Kalmykia – a barren landscape the size of Scotland, wedged between Stavropol and Astrakhan on the coast of the Caspian Sea – is somewhat eerie. The landscape, once one of Europe’s most fertile, wouldn’t look out of place on Mars after disastrous Soviet agricultural policies earned it the dubious honor of “world’s largest man-made desert” in the 1950s.

Now, between the ramshackle crumbling wooden houses plonked into dirt, camels wander freely, comically standing next to rusting Ladas – an echo of new, partially successful attempts to raise camels on the desert terrain as a source of income.

Kalmykia is Europe’s only Buddhist Republic. The region’s people are descended from the nomads who wandered the vast Central Asian steppes under Genghis Khan’s empire. When the empire began to collapse, the Kalmykians migrated toward the Caspian Sea settling what is today called Kalmykia – Kalmyk means “remnant” in the local language.

As our marshrutka sputtered into Elista, the region’s capital, the shadows of the former Soviet Empire became apparent. The usual imposing housing blocks, with balconies on the verge of collapse, stand jaggedly in the dusty landscape with national motifs giving them some local flavor.

Recent history has been harsh for the Kalmyk people, and it continues to haunt the local monuments to both World War II and the Soviet-Afghan War. The former was particularly disastrous, with Stalin accusing the Kalmyk people of Nazi collaboration and banishing the Kalmyks to Siberia. The date was December 28, 1943 and it is still solemnly remembered by local residents who light candles each year in memory of the thousands who perished.

The Kalmyks, reduced to just 70,000, returned to their homeland following Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s “excesses,” to borrow a gross understatement.

Walking through Elista immediately conjures memories of the societies at the other side of the Caspian Sea in Central Asia, a region that feels much closer than its geography would suggest. Indeed, the capital’s modern façade is the triumph of ego over nature – more specifically, the ego of the Republic’s former dictator, Ilyumzhinov.

The millionaire Ilyumzhinov was elected president in 1993 and quickly turned the impoverished region into a tax haven, where Russian companies would register but contribute little to the local economy. Under Ilyumzhinov’s guidance, the capital came to resemble his personal ambitions.

Near the outskirts of Elista is a statue to the satirical Soviet novel The Twelve Chairs – a favorite of Ilyumzhinov – and so, naturally, monuments of the novel’s characters pepper the city. These dull in comparison with the more ambitious project shining in the dirt on the horizon – Chess City.

Like an Olympic Village, the city was intended to host international chess events – another of Ilyumzhinov’s passions. Reality was underwhelming. The buildings are now mostly empty and decrepit but the Chess Palace was surprisingly active. When you enter the brightly lit, open space life-size chess boards decorate the floors, with a bustle of guests purchasing souvenirs on the bottom floor.

Upstairs a tournament is taking place. Hundreds of Kalmykian children sit at tables, faces frowning in concentration as they write down their moves on notebooks. Parents sit nearby, looking on with interest.

Soon after he came to power, Ilyumzhinov set out to turn the region into the chess center of the world, making the study of chess a compulsory class for every student. Watching the event, one can’t help but be impressed by the passion the small tournament evokes among the spectators, many of whom are eagerly discussing opening gambits over traditional milk tea.

In spite of its troubled history and rampant corruption, Kalmykia remains one of Russia’s most culturally dynamic regions.

Bradley Jardine is a journalist and researcher from Glasgow, Scotland. He is currently based in Moscow as part of the Alfa Fellowship Program

Russia's Buddhist Republic
Kalmykian traditionalism and Lenin stand side by side.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
The lotus – a central symbol in Buddhism – decorates Elista’s central square.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
Soviet murals with national symbols adorn Elista’s central bus station.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
Buddhist prayer-wheels are ubiquitous in the region.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
The Golden Temple – the tallest outside Asia and home to the world’s largest plastic statue of Buddha.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
Asian influences are obvious in the region's traditional-style archways.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
Prayer flags decorate the fences beside a traditional-style archway in Kalmykia.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
A statue of Ostap Bender, the main character from Soviet novel The Twelve Chairs.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
Soviet housing blocks are decorated by national motifs and unusual statues such as camels.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
Camels wander the streets, a feature of new agricultural policies.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
The interior of the Chess Palace is filled with life-size chess sets and souvenir shops.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
Children take part in a chess tournament inside the Chess Palace.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
Locals stand in line waiting to spin the town’s main Mani wheel.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
Dotur, traditional Kalmyk soup made from sheep’s intestines.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
Dzhomba, traditional Kalmyk tea made from milk, butter, salt, and muskat nut powder.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
Russia's Buddhist Republic
Eternal flame and a monument to World War II.
Image Credit: Bradley Jardine
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