After denying the Dalai Lama’s visa requests for years, Russia has finally relented and allowed the Buddhist spiritual leader to visit the country. He will spend most of his time in the southern republic of Kalmykia, half of whose 300,000 residents are practicing Buddhists. How did there come to be so many Buddhists living in Kalmykia, an Ireland-sized region on Europe’s eastern edge, thousands of miles from the religion’s Asian heartland?
The Kalmyks, as the republic’s residents are known, were once Mongolian nomads who lived and practiced their faith on the Central Asian steppe. A Chinese military offensive drove them westward in the 17th century, until they hit the banks of Russia’s Volga River. There, they cut a deal with the Russian tsar Peter the Great: In return for being allowed to create a small kingdom, the nomadic émigrés would defend the Russian empire’s frontier against invaders.
Catherine the Great, however, didn’t warm to the idea of an independent kingdom on her doorstep, and she forced the Buddhists to become Russian subjects. Her campaign of oppression caused the 300,000 former nomads then living on the eastern side of the Volga to depart for their ancestral homeland in Central Asia. Few of them, however, survived the trip—they encountered starvation, banditry, and armed harassment by Russians and Kazakhs. Most of the Buddhists on the Volga’s western side, however, stayed put; it was at this point they became known as the Kalmyks, from the Turkish word for “remnant.”
Despite living as Russian subjects, the Kalmyks were free to practice Buddhism, and they built dozens of temples. Their brand of Buddhism is lamaist in nature, similar to that of Tibet and Bhutan, with a strong strain of shamanism thrown in. To this day, medicine men are lauded and respected figures in Kalmyk communities.
The Kalmyks almost didn’t survive the Stalinist purges; during that period, virtually every Buddhist temple was destroyed. Stalin suspected the Kalmyks of being Nazi sympathizers—he thought the same about the Chechens—and had the Kalmyks deported to Siberia after World War II. They were not allowed to return until 1957, by which time their numbers had shrunk to just 70,000.
The fall of the Soviet Union brought about a Buddhist revival in Kalmykia, starting with the election of President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in 1993. (Kalmykia is an autonomous member of the Russian Federation.) As he initially promised, President Ilyumzhinov has funded the building of several ornate khuruls, or temples, in the capital of Elista. He has also visited the Dalai Lama at his Indian headquarters and mandated that schoolchildren study Buddhist traditions and principles. (President Ilyumzhinov also heads the World Chess Federation and spent millions on an Elista chess stadium.)
Curiously, the spiritual head of the Kalmyks is a native of Philadelphia. Erdne Ombadykow was born to Kalmyk parents and sent to study Buddhism in India as a 7-year-old. There, the Dalai Lama recognized Ombadykow as the reincarnation of Telo Tulku Rinpoche, a Buddhist saint who could supposedly revive animals from the dead. Though his wife and child live in Erie, Colo., Ombadykow currently lives in Elista, where Kalmyks revere him as a holy figure and seek his blessing. He is essentially the Buddhist equivalent of an archbishop, overseeing a flock in Europe’s only Buddhist nation.