One thing that sets Kalmykia apart from its neighbors is that it is the only Buddhist state in Europe. The Kalmyk people, of nomadic Mongols, originated in Central Asia as borderland nomads in Chinese Turkestan, the homeland they call Jungaria. Their ancestors controlled a vast area known as Grand Tartary or the Kalmyk Empire, stretching from the Great Wall of China to the River Don, and from the Himalayas to Siberia.
Following a particularly bloody offensive by the Chinese emperor, who suspected that they might ally themselves with the Russians against him, they reached as far as the desert steppes of southeast Europe in the 17th century, and settled around their capital in Astrakhan on the Volga delta. A century later, growing disillusioned with increasing Russian interference, the Kalmyks decided to return to Jungaria in Xinjiang province in China) - a small number survived the hazardous journey home and are now called Oirats, while some others did not manage to cross the Volga to join the return to Asia.
The Kalmyk people then aligned themselves with Russian rule, first under the tsars, and later under the communists. They gradually created fixed settlements with houses and temples, instead of their transportable round felt yurts, this process lasting until well after the Russian Revolution. Forced collectivisation was a social, economic and cultural disaster, unsuited to the Kalmyk temperament and the dry treeless landscape. During the Second World War Stalin, suspicious of their loyalty due to their dissatisfaction with their conditions, deported the whole Kalmyk nation without notice to Siberia in cattle trucks in midwinter. Half of their number perished during the journey and in the following years of exile, a genocide unknown to the outside world to this day.
Due to their widespread dispersal in Siberia their language and culture suffered possibly irreversible decline. Khrushchev finally allowed their return in 1957, when they found their homes, jobs and land occupied by imported Russians and Ukrainians, who remained. In the following years bad planning of agriculture and irrigation projects resulted in widespead desertification, and economically unviable industrial plants were constructed. With the collapse of the soviet regime the economy also disintegrated, causing widespread social hardship and increasing depopulation of rural areas lacking in resources and facilities.
Kalmykia is currently ruled by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov who is widely regarded as heading a corrupt regime that has proved itself incapable of developing the country. His preoccupation is playing chess and he spends his time flying around the world as president of the game's world federation, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs. He spent millions building a now-crumbling 'City Chess', whose main occupants are now the players in his football team, on which he lavishes three times as much as on the republic's education budget.
There is also a small Kalmyk minority living within eastern Kyrgyzstan, especially in villages in the Karakol region. These Kalmyks are those who remained when the bulk of the nation moved westwards in the early 16th century. The Kalmyk language and their traditions are dying out rapidly due to small numbers, and majority pressures. Most are now Muslims, not Buddhists, and there is no public display of Kalmyk culture.