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Learning About a Buddhist State in Europe: Kalmykia
Buddhism is a religion that traces its origin to Lord Gautama Buddha, who lived about the 5th century BC. There are sufficient records available that show that after the death of Buddha, many preachers spread out to Asia and SE Asia to spread the message of Buddha. Buddhism found roots in Far East, though it vanished in India, mainly because to the Indian people Buddhism had nothing new to offer and all that the Buddha stated is available in Hindu scriptures. Buddhism however spread to Tibet and parts of Mongolia and China.
However Buddhism is not known to have spread westwards. Hence it is a bit of a surprise that a small Buddhist state exists in Europe. This state is Kalmykia and is part of Russian Federation. The people who reside in this state are referred to as the Kalmyk people and by race trace their ancestry to Mongols of Asia. The state of Kalmykia is the only theocratic Buddhist state in all Europe. Presently it has about 289,000 inhabitants, of which 90% are practicing Buddhists
A Bit of History
The Mongols were nomadic warriors and their campaigns when they subdued Western Europe are part of history. During these campaigns a small body of Mongols settled down in this area of Europe Historically the Kalmyks are known to be part of the Oirat confederation that existed during the 15th century. This state existed on the western edge of the Mongol empire.
The Oirat confederation lasted for about 200 years and then got dissolved. This state was replaced by the Dzungar Empire which established its sway over this region. Many of the original Oirats fled westwards and moved to the area around the lower Volga River.
One branch of the Oirats then moved west, into the lower Volga River and settled there. The Mongols who had moved westwards were all Buddhists and they established their own state there. In the 18th century, the Russian state grew powerful and centralized. In its new avatar it gradually ate away the independence and sovereignty of the Kalmyks in Kalmykia.
The Central government in Moscow sent German and Russian farmers to settle on the lands used by the Kalmyk’s to graze their animals. Pressure was brought to bear on the Kalmyk’s to convert to Christianity and join the army as cavalry troops.
The situation became bad and in January of 1771, between 170,000 and 200,000 of them left and moved to Dzungaria, which is now the northern half of Xinjiang Province, western China
However another 100,000 to 150,000 Kalmyks were unable to flee Russia in 1771. Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia at that time, ordered the arrest and execution of the leaders of this left-behind group. This was duly carried out. In addition orders were also passed to the Russian army to exterminate them all. The Russian army began a systematic massacre, but they failed as many escaped into the vast plains. .
The Kalmyks who remained in Russia were left with no choice but to fight. They joined Pugachev's Rebellion, also known as the Cossack Rebellion of 1773-75. Unfortunately for them, Catherine the Great crushed the rebellion. The fighting took 2 years. After peace was restored the Kalmyks were recognized in 1798 by Tsar Paul I as members of the Don Cossacks. They received many benefits and in addition many joined the Tsar’s cavalry.
Gradually, the Russian Kalmyks gave up their nomadic ways. They began to settle in towns, and quit living in yurts. In 1865, their capital city of Elista was founded. It remains the capital of the Kalmykia Republic.
Presently Kalmykia is a republic in the Russian Federation. They number under 300,000 and are predominantly Buddhist. Many Kalmyks have migrated to Moscow and about 3000 live there. The Kalmyks have a degree of religious freedom and are loyal to the regime in Moscow. They however had a tough time when Stalin was in Power. He deported en masse many Kalmyks to Siberia. They were allowed to return in 1957 after death of Stalin and have lived in this land since then. During the breakup of the Soviet Union the Kalmyk’s did not ask for a separate state and remained part of the Russian Federation. Small numbers of kalmyks are also in the USA.
The Kalmyk’s are now an integral part of Russia and the only Buddhist state in Europe, which is a distinction of great magnitude. A Buddhist state in the heart of Europe is a matter of great awe and one hopes the Kalmyks can carry out their religious practices for ever.