Kalmyks are a Mongolian Buddhist people originally from Central Asia that migrated to the Volga-Caspian Sea region in the 17th century to escape wars in their former home, western Mongolia. Despite efforts to settle them, they remained largely nomadic, living in tents, until the collectivization campaign in the 1930s, when many became sheep farmers on collectives. Although many now live in towns most remain in rural areas.

Kalmyks, also known as the Oirots, have traditionally made a living by raising animals. Their horses were regarded as strong and having a lot of endurance and provided them with milk for the alcoholic “arki”. Sheep provided them with meat, milk, leather and wool. Camels, goats and cows were also raised. In the old days they used to conduct livestock raids and people that were captured were sold as slaves.

In the 1600s, the Kalmyks formed an alliance with Peter the Great and were given a homeland in the southern near-desert steppe. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, much of the Kalmyk population was dispersed or extinguished by Russian authorities and over time their nomadic lifestyle was altered and finally largely disappeared. In recent years many Kalmyks have migrated out of their republic in search of jobs.

There are about 150,000 Kalmyk. They make 45 percent of Kalmyk Republic, northwest of the Caspian Sea. It is the only Buddhist republic in Europe. Traditionally nomads and herders, Kalmyks were also excellent warriors. The Kalmyk cavalry participated in the wars of Russia with Napoleon. By the way, there is a version that the famous Russian “Hurray!” Came precisely from the Kalmyk war cry “Uralan!”. In Tsarist times, some Kalmyks were baptized as Orthodox Christians. in The Soviet era they were taught scientific atheism. Only in the 1990s have the Kalmyks returned to the religion of their ancestors: Tibetan Buddhism. Today, Kalmyk is known as a place where chess and Buddhism are is king and queen and steppe traditions remain alive.

History of the Kalmyks

Kalmyks were originally part of Oirat tribe that lived in an area that extended from Siberia and western China. They migrated westward in the 1630s and settled near the Volga River. By 1680 there were 300,000 of them settled in 70,000 tents and they were a powerful political and military force. They fought continuously with their neighbors: Nogays, Tatars, Cossacks, Russians, Ukrainians and Kazakhs. They formed an alliance with Peter the Great and were given a homeland in the southern near-desert steppe,

By the late 1700s their power had declined and large number of them decided to migrate back to where they came from. They suffered incredible hardship during the journey, many were killed by Kazakhs and only a few made it. The Kalmyks that remained behind had their autonomy taken away and wasn’t restored until the Soviet Union was established.

In the 1940s, the Kalmyk were accused of collaborating with the Germans and were deported under Stalin to Siberia in 1942 and their republics was abolished. Many died . Most were allowed to return in 1957. The Kalmyk ASSR was reestablished in 1958. While they were away the number of Russians and Ukrainians in Kalmyk ASSR increased and there have been tensions between them and Kalmyks.

Kalmyk Buddhism

As is the case with almost all of Russia's Buddhists, the Kalmyks are members of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, whose leader is the Dalai Lama. The Kalmyks converted to Buddhism in the late 16th century. Traditional Pre-Buddhist beliefs such as worship of the Tsahan Avga (White Elder) were merged with Buddhism. In the old days after someone died his body was left on the steppe to be devoured by wild animals. These days many Kalmyks are atheist.

Russia is home to about 1 million Buddhists. Most are Buryats or Kalmyks who observe the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism was tolerated in the early Soviet era because it was not viewed as a threat until Stalin decided in the 1930s to close down 50 monasteries and 250 temples and executed thousands of monks and lamas. After World War II two monasteries were opened. Buddhism was allowed to open up further under Gorbachev’s glasnost.

There are a few temples in Kalmyk. In November 2004, thousands Buddhist pilgrims came to Khurui Monastery in Arshan in the Republic of Kalmykia to see the Dalai Lama. It was his first visit to Russia in many years after being denied entrance to Russia because of Moscow’s warming relations with Beijing.

Kalmyk Life and Culture

Traditionally the main Kalmyk social unit was the “khoton”, a nomadic group made up of several related families, each with its own yurt. Men were traditionally engaged in herding while women did most the work to keep the household going. Marriage marked the transition from youth to adulthood, with arranged marriages being the norm. Sometimes couples were engaged at the ages of 6 or 7 but not married until they were 16 or 17 after fulfilling a number of obligations. These days the basic social units are extended or nuclear families living in houses or apartments. Couples get married in their 20s.

The Kalmyks are found of singing and dancing, Their traditional music was often accompanied by a “khuur”, a stringed instrument with horse gut strings. Bards recalled tales of great battles accompanied by the khuur and other string instruments.

Like the Bashkirs, the Kalmyks have traditionally had a reputation for being skilled horsemen and today are regarded as skilled motorcyclists. For many years some of the world's best motorball (a soccer-like game played on motorcycles) were Kalmyks.


Kalmykia (west of Astrakhan) is bizarre republic west of the Caspian Sea traditionally occupied by the Buddhist Kalmyks. Bounded by the Volgograd region in to the north and about the size of South Carolina, it is covered mostly by arid steppe and occupies the western part of the Caspian lowlands. There is little surface water and the climate is hot in in the summer and cold in the winter.

The only Buddhist republic in Europe and Russia, it is among the poorest republics in Russia. In the early 2000s, the average monthly income was less than $20. At that time some state farm workers went five years without getting paid and herds of animals were depleted by hungry people who subsisted on water and bread and meat they could steal. This situation was a shame because the republic has a fair amount of oil.

Kalmykia, the former Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Kalmyk ASSR) is located on the northwestern shore of the Caspian Sea and has an area of 75,900 square kilometers and a population of about 350,000 (in 1995). The republic was established in 1920 as an autonomous oblast. The Kalmyk ASSR was established in 1935, dissolved in 1943, then reconstituted in 1958. The republic officially changed its name to Kalmykia in February 1992. In 1989 the republic's population was 45 percent Kalmyk, 38 percent Russian, 6 percent Dagestani peoples, 3 percent Chechen, 2 percent Kazak, and 2 percent German. The Kalmyk economy is based on the raising of livestock, particularly sheep, and the population is mainly rural. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The capital and largest city of Kalmykia is Elista, which has about 100,000 people. It is a typically, drab and poor Russian-style city except for one thing: Chess City, a $30 million project with a suburban-style subdivision, amusement park and postmodern castle with turrets, flags, glass and candy-colored eaves and a five-story yurt covered in mirrors and surrounded by a lawn with sculptures of Mongolian-looking shepherds and warriors and chess pieces.

Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov

Kalmykia was ruled from 1993 to 2010 by Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, a chess-mad president who raped the republic of its wealth, leaving the people poor and deprived while he jetted around the world meeting people like Sadam Hussein and Pope John Paul II, and investing money in strange amusement parks and sponsoring multimillion dollar chess matches as president of the World Chess Federation.

As president of the World Chess Federation, Ilyumzhinov tried to revolutionize the game by making it into a spectator sport with pretty girls in skimpy outfits, fast-paced matches and lucrative television rights. He condensed the usual two-year championship into a three-week tournament, sped up the games with a game clock and offered big prize money and staged chess events in Las Vegas and Dubai. Chess superstar Gary Kasparov called Ilyumzhinov’s changes “the end of chess as we know it” and established an alternative organization and tournament.

Ilyumzhinov himself was a child prodigy in chess and became the chess champion of Kalmyk when he was nine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, while still in his 20s, he made millions running a series of banks and developed a fondness for collecting Rolls Royces. At the age of 31 he was elected President of Kalmykia. As President he has been accused of embezzling funds, and ordering the 1998 murder of a newspaper editor.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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