By Greenall, Robert | Russian Life, September 1995 | Go to article overview
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Greenall, Robert, Russian Life

Where East really meets West

In late spring, early risers in the Caspian sea port of Lagan in Russia's Kalmyk Republic have a chance for a truly rare experience. At 5:30 a.m. every morning on the seashore they can see the flowering of the lotus, the legendary narcotic plant and Buddhist symbol.

The lotus' presence in this otherwise arid land, vast expanses of semi-desert steppe sandwiched between the lower reaches of the Volga and the Caucasus mountains, is not accidental. Kalmyks are the world's most westerly Buddhists, who settled here, on what is geographically speaking the territory of Europe, in the 1600s, after centuries of nomadic life.

Kalmyks are originally from the west of Mongolia, and are small and powerful, both individually and as a race. They number about 140,000, and unlike most of Russia's indigenous peoples, who remain scattered in rural communities, they have almost reclaimed their republic's tiny capital Elista from the ubiquitous Russians.

Perhaps their strength lies in their dismal history. Aside from enduring Civil War pogroms and religious persecutions in the 1930s (the entire Buddhist priesthood was liquidated by Stalin), Kalmykia was close enough to the Caucasus to be occupied by the Nazis, and small enough for the entire nation to be deported by Stalin for its supposed 'treachery' during the war. Along with Chechens, Ingushis and Balkarians they were effectively scapegoats for the Soviet Union's failure to stem the German advance.

Every Kalmyk over the age of 55 remembers the bleak December of 1943, when NKVD troops came and bundled whole families into trains for Siberia, giving them just an hour to pack their bags. Only the fittest survived this ordeal, and every family had its own tragedies.

"I'd never seen frozen corpses carried away by the cartload," remembers Lyudmila, the only survivor of a family of nine and now attendant at Elista's tiny museum. "Our climate is mild, and Kalmyks are used to their food. In the steppe they eat meat and drink Kalmyk tea (a milky, oily concoction, sometimes with salt added). Instead they fed us poor quality shchi and borshch, watered down. That's how Stalin dealt with us."

Even Kalmyks fighting at the front were deported. National poet David Kugultinov was one of these: "I was an officer, and I was called back from the army into exile 'for belonging to the Kalmyk nation,'" he explains. "What was I, who had fought against the fascists who were annihilating the Jews for belonging to the Jewish nation, supposed to think?"

Kugultinov wrote a letter of complaint to Stalin, for which he received ten years hard labor in the far north.

Kalmyks returned in 1957, after rehabilitation by Khrushchev. No trace remained now of their temples, their yurts (traditional tents), indeed of their life in general. Most were forced to conform to a grey Soviet lifestyle, living in 5-story khrushchovy, the notorious box-like houses of the 1950s. But they kept their faith - even during the exile people had held onto their Buddhas and other religious artifacts, and continued to pray at home.

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