Friday, July 16, 2021

Kalmyks, Only Buddhist Nation in Europe, Differ from Neighbors Both Internally and Externally

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 10 – Kalmyks seldom get much attention from the broader world despite being the only Buddhist nation in Europe. There are at least two major reasons for that. On the one hand, they are far more Russianized that the Muslim nations around them; and on the other, their conflicts are within the republic rather than between it and Moscow.

            Vadim Tepavlov, a professor at the Moscow Institute of Russian History and head of the Center for the History of the Peoples of Russia and Inter-Ethnic Relations, calls attention to these two distinctions in the course of a conversation with Marybek Vachagayev of Radio Liberty’s North Caucasus Service (

            “The Kalmyks,” the Russian scholar points out, “are a Mongolian language people. The closest relatives of the Kalmyks are the Mongols and also the Buryats. But history has evolved so that the Kalmyks are an enclave and a fragment of the Mongolian language world which has turned out to be very far from these peoples.”

            Indeed, the Buryats are “the only people of Europe who profess Buddhism.”

            Some people mistakenly lump the Kalmyks together with the Buryats as if they are one people because of the similarities of their languages and religious faith. But these are “different peoples” who are no more one nation than are the Russians, Bulgarians and Ukrainians. “The Buryats and Kalmyks are related but absolutely different peoples.” (stress supplied)

            Stalin deported the Kalmyks during World War II, an action which had a far greater impact on the Kalmyks than on many others. Most important, it cost most their language. That left most of them Russian speaking and reinforced the feelings of Russians that the Kalmyks despite their religion are close to them in contrast to the North Caucasians who didn’t.

            That has meant that unlike the North Caucasians who still are very much opposed to Russian rule, the Kalmyks have integrated into Russian culture and political life. Consequently, while most of the conflicts elsewhere in the North Caucasus are between the indigenous nations and Russia, in Kalmykia, they are among Kalmyks or between them and the Nogays whom the Kalmyks displaced earlier.

Tensions within Kalmyk society, although often been high, have rarely been between the Kalmyks and Russians. That may change, however, as a result of Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to insert outsiders in key positions in the republic. Kalmyks object to them because they are outsiders not because they are Russians ( and

Also pushing the Russianized Kalmyks into conflict with Russia are disputes over the possibility of building a North Caucasus canal between the Caspian and Black Seas, a canal that would give the Kalmyks a path to the outside world and one that is controversial in large part because of that outcome ( and

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