Kalmyks are nomads (nowadays more at heart than in practice) and their history is that of migration – forced and voluntary. They descend from the Oirats, the western branch of Mongolians who embraced Buddhism in the early 17th century and soon after resolved to look for pastures green in the west.
In the last massive nomadic migration in the history of Eurasia, the Oirats traversed thousands of kilometres and ended up on the banks of the Volga, which at that time marked the border of the emerging Russian empire. Moscow initially welcomed the newcomers, allowing them to retain their way of life in return for guarding the border. But in the 18th century, the Oirats came under pressure from Russian and German settlers encroaching on their lands. One winter’s night in 1771 they made their second escape – back to Mongolia. But the ice on the Volga was not strong enough for those on the western bank to cross the river, so 20,000 out of 160,000 families stayed. The flight turned into a disaster, with two-thirds of the people killed by enemies on the way.
Those who remained on the Volga lived quietly and not entirely unhappily until the 1920s, when the Bolsheviks destroyed all khuruls, arrested most monks and expropriated the cattle. No surprise that during the short-lived German occupation in 1942 some Kalmyks joined Hitler’s army. At the same time, thousands of others fought on the Soviet side.
Stalin’s reprisal was terrible. On 28 December 1943 all Kalmyks, including party members and policemen, were put in unheated cattle cars and sent to Siberia. When in 1957 Nikita Khrushchev allowed them to return, less than half the prewar population of 93,000 could make it home. The others perished in Gulag camps.
In 1993 the Kalmyks elected their first president – 31-year-old multimillionaire Kirsan Ilyumzhinov – who presided over the republic until 2010 and left his mark through his two chief fascinations: chess and a predilection for the fictional trickster Ostap Bender. This conflux of chess, fiction and the reality of Kalmyk history lends the steppe republic a rather bizarre edge. The 14th Dalai Lama has visited several times despite Moscow’s reluctance to spoil relations with China. Boring it is not.