300 km south of Volgograd, between the Black and Caspian seas, lies Elista. Dating from 1865, what makes it unique is that, in the middle of the steppes, you have a Buddhist town. There are also Russians and other ethnic groups, but your first impressions would be of being in Mongolia. Centuries ago, Oyrat people, cattle farmers, came from Central Asia looking for pastures. The Russians facilitated them in return for them helping to guard Russia’s ill-defined and remote frontier. Local people weren’t so happy and the Oyrats ultimately left, leaving a residual population west of the Volga. These people went south to present-day Kalmykia. (Kalmyks = separated ones)
They prospered and suffered under the Bolsheviks. Elista was taken by the Germans in 1942 and suffered damage. There was some collaboration with the Nazis, not universal – Stalin wasn’t happy. In Dec 1943, local people were given 2 hours’ notice before being exiled to Siberia. Many Kalmyk front-line soldiers suffered the same fate. Khrushchev reversed Stalin’s order in the 1950s. Some Kalmyks remained in Siberia, those returning often found Russian families in their houses. Soviet agriculture had damaged the land and many Kalmyk Buddhist temples had been destroyed. But things settled.
Elista today has its quota of good museums and monuments, but the Buddhist heritage predominates. There are temples, stupas and prayer wheels. Outside the town in the baking steppe is a modern Buddhist college and temple. The Dalai Lama came here. Hundreds of Buddhist flags hang on frames and lines, not on trees as that would interfere with photosynthesis and transpiration.
Nearby is Chess City where the 1998 world championships were held. Work was still in progress while matches proceeded. There is a lovely museum where I learned that Georgian women chess players are the equivalent of Kilkenny hurlers. There was the trickster posing as a master who charged people to play him. When it started to become evident that he was headed towards losing the matches, he fled to a waiting boat. Beautiful chess sets were on show, one set double as drinking glasses. There are also variants on the familiar game. I saw a Mongolian version which uses a 10 by 10 board, with 20 pieces per player – it’s complicated!
In Kalmykia there were the storytellers, people who could talk for days. Fortunately, the Russians committed their tales to paper before the tradition was lost forever.