I’m well-travelled, I read a lot and I take a keen interest in the non-mainstream, yet until recently I had no idea that Europe had a Buddhist nation. The Republic of Kalmykia is that nation. It is an autonomous region in Russia, the size of Scotland and has a population of 290,000 people. It is located near Ukraine (to its west), Georgia (to its south) and the Caspian Sea (to its west).
You may wonder why it’s Buddhist. It is not because nation recently discovered the wonders of mindfulness, Deepak Chopra and yoga, but rather a Buddhist tribe, the Oirat, of Mongols swept the region in the early 1600s and never returned to Asia. Indeed, the word Kalmykia means “to remain” or “remnant”. The region is filled with Buddhist temples, statues of the Buddha and the Dalai Lama visits often (see pictures).
The Kalmyks also played a crucial role in the creation of the Soviet Union. Or I should say two men with Kalmyk heritage played crucial roles: Lenin, who seized power during the 1917 Russian Revolution, and Kornilov, who opposed him.
The fate of Kalmyks since then has not been so auspicious. Stalin accused the population of siding with the Nazis during the Second World War (the Nazi forced conscription when they briefly occupied the region). He set about eradicating and dispersing the Kalmyks. It took Khrushchev in the 1950s to recognise this horror, and he went about re-establishing the Kalmyks in their homeland.
Perhaps the most colourful chapter in the modern history of Kalmykia was the rein of President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov between 1993 and 2010 (see picture). He obsessed about chess. He made it compulsory in all primary schools, set up Chess City (think Olympic Village but for chess) and was involved in various scandals related to redirecting government money to chess initiatives(!).
But that was one of the more conventional things he did. He developed a philosophy of “ethnoplanetary thinking” which he elaborated as:
“Irrespective of what I tell people, I give them instructions on a subconscious level, a code. I do the same thing when I communicate with Russian citizens from other regions. I am creating around the republic a kind of extra-sensory field, and it helps us a lot in our projects.”
In 2010, in an interview he said that he had been abducted by aliens and taken abroad their spaceship in 1997. Soon after this he “resigned” on the orders of Russian President Medvedev. He was replaced by Alexei Orlov – a less eccentric leader. He has overseen a massive improvement in (non-chess) infrastructure which was sorely needed.