Kalmykia: Reviving the Dusty Plain

Article excerpt

We are standing on what was once the vast, smooth floor of the Caspian Sea. Today, not a drop of water glistens within sight. The parched semi-desert plain, flat as a pancake, extends in all directions. There is not a single tree or telephone pole to be seen. My eyes strain, looking into the distance, searching in vain for anything other than land meeting sky. I have never looked so far for so long.

The Republic of Kalmykia is wedged between the diminished Caspian Sea and the regions of Stavropol, Rostov, and Astrakhan. My husband Igor, A Russian nature photographer, and I are a two-day drive in our Russian army jeep from fire Bryansk Forest in western Russia, where we live. I have wanted to visit Kalmykia since working on a project for the World Wildlife Fund in Moscow to save the threatened saiga antelope.

We set up camp in an area known as the "Black Lands" in eastern Kalmykia. We want to find out if anyone or anything calls this seemingly inhospitable spit of land home. A big blank spot on any map of Russia, the Black Lands are named for the dark hue caused by both the frequently snow-free winter landscape and by the grasses scorched by blazing summer heat.

On this warm day in late April, the grassy plain is just turning olive-green, punctuated with red tracts of bare sand and clay. Luminous white tufts of feather-grass sway in the slight breeze. The sweet, pungent smell of wormwood a silvery-green, low-lying herb--drifts to my nostrils. A loud chirping sound draws my attention to a scurrying colony of pygmy ground squirrels nearby. Their cause for worry is the long-legged buzzard circling overhead. Scanning the boundless horizon, my eyes come to rest on a five-foot mound of reddish clay. This dwelling, built by a Kalmyk shepherd decades ago, has dissolved into its constituent parts--sheep manure, clay, and straw. Finding no higher perch, a rare steppe eagle has constructed its nest of twigs mid grasses on the mound, lining it with the fur of some unfortunate animal.

KALMYKS ARE DESCENDANTS OF THE MONGOLIAN Oirat people, who left their homeland of Dzhungaria, now in the Xinjiang province of China, in the early 17th century. Traveling more than 2,500 miles, they sought out richer pastures for grazing their livestock, and many of them settled in the Caspian lowlands of the North Caucasus Plain--modern day Kalmykia. In 1771, having heard that the Chinese were attempting to destroy the Oirat people, most Kalmyks left the region to return home and aid their people, but few survived the journey, killed either by their enemies (Kazakhs and Bashkirs) en route or on their return trip. Those who stayed earned the name "Kalmyk" in Russian, which comes from the Turkish word lot "those that remained."

Nomadic Kalmyks moved their herds of horses, sheep, cattle, and camels--along with their families--to new pastures as the seasons changed and as scarce water became available. They lived in portable tents called yurts, made of felt pulled over wooden frames. The Black Lands of Kalmykia were a favorite winter grazing ground, as snow was generally swept away by fierce winds, revealing sufficient vegetation to sustain life through the winter. Sheep and cattle provided all of life's basic necessities. Fur and hides were fashioned into clothing. Sheep dung was packed with clay and straw--a mixture called kizyak--to build shelters for their livestock. Dried patties of sheep dung were burned in the winter for warmth and cooking.

Like other ethnic Mongols, the Kalmyks were traditionally Lamaist Buddhists. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Kalmykia's 100 Buddhist temples were destroyed and the Russian language was instituted in schools (the Kalmyk language derives from Mongolian). Collectivization forced Kalmyk shepherds to change their nomadic ways. The state appropriated their livestock and forced them to work in the collective farms.

In the 1940s, Stalin nearly wiped out the ethnic group. …