Filming in Russia: Kalmykia

A country as immense and muticultural as Russia inevitably strikes you with unique places like Kalmykia, the only nation and region in Europe, completely dominated by Buddhism.

Filming in Kalmykia: Geography and Climate

Kalmykia or the Kalmyk Republic is located in southern Russia, close to the Caspian Sea. It's roughly the size of Southern Carolina and borders Russia's Dagestan, Stavropol, Rostov and Astrakhan regions.

The republic mostly is located in the steppe, along with some desert and semi-desert areas. This makes the climate very continental with hot, dry summers and moderate winters. The summer (July) average is 23-25˚C (73-77˚F), and the January averages are between -7 and -9˚C (15-18˚F), and sometimes as cold as -30˚C (-22˚F). 

Filming in Kalmykia: Nature

Despite the steppe location, Kalmykia has an extreme biodiversity. The Black Earth natural reserve has a lot of Saiga, an endangered species of antelope. In the past few years, there has been a massive extinction of these animals. Kalmykia is the only place in Europe with a preserved saiga population.

Another animal one doesn't expect to be a big part of life in Russia is camel. Herds of domestic two-humped camels can be found across the steppe. Their wool, milk and meat are an important part of the Kalmyk culture. 

Also, over 20 species of birds in Kalmykia are considered endangered.

Filming in Kalmykia: History and Culture

Before the 13th century, the present-day Kalmykia was home to many nomadic tribes and the center of a powerful empire, the Khazar Khaganate. Then, the Mongols invaded the area. 

Kalmyks belong to Oirats, West Mongolic tribes. They started to settle in the area in about 17th century. They formed a state named the Kalmyk Khanate and lived peacefully with the neighboring Russia, protecting its southern borders. It changed in the late 18th century, when Emperess Catherine the Great dissolved the Kalmyk country. Governmental functions started to shift to Russia.

As a part of Soviet Union, Kalmykia took part in the Second World War. A large part of its territory was occupied by the Nazis in 1942-1943. Using alleged collaboration of the Kalmyk people with the Nazis as an excuse, Stalin deported up to 100,000 Kalmyks from their homeland. A bit less than half of them died.

One of the most fascinating things about Kalmykia is their religion. Like the Buryat people in eastern Siberia, The Kalmyks have been adhering to Gelug, a Tibetan branch of Buddhism, for the past few hundred years. Most people are religious, and datsans and pagodas shape the landscapes of Kalmyk cities.

Filming in Kalmykia: Population and Cities

Kalmykia has over 200,000 residents, most of which is concentrated in urban areas. The capital Elista is the biggest city with just over 100,000 people.

Filming in Kalmykia: How to Get

One flight in three days links the capital Elista with Moscow. Elista is easily accessible by land from big cities of the Russian South: Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar and Volgograd.

Filming in Kalmykia: Interesting Facts

  • One of the biggest Buddhist temples in Europe, Burkhan Bakshin Altan Sume (The Golden Abode of Buddha Shakyamuni) is located in Elista, Kalmykia;
  • Kalmyk cuisine is heavily dominated by meat, like most Central Asian cuisines. A local specialty is dishes from camel meat;
  • Russian lexicographer Vladimir Dahl describes a case during the 18th-century Northern War when Sweden horses were so terrified of Kalmyk camel cavalry that they fled the battlefield;
  • Former president of Kalmykia Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has been the head of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) since 1995. He is known for constructing a huge Chess City near Elista and speaking openly about his encounter with aliens;
  • Kalmykia has fewer trees than any other region in Russia.
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Elista. Golden Abode of Buddha Shakyamuni temple

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Elista. Three Lotus fountain

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Three Lotus fountain
Photo by Irina Borsuchenko / Shutterstock.com

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Bell in a Buddhist temple
Photo by Arctic Phoenix / Shutterstock.com

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Elista. Decoration of a Buddhist temple

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Elista. Newspaper office

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Elista. City administration

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Hotel Elista

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Elista. Lenin Square

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Kalmyk folk ensemble on a holiday

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Elista. Lion statue

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Kalmyk musicians in traditional outfit

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Elista. Man with a camel
Photo by Irina Borsuchenko / Shutterstock.com

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Saiga antelopes in Black Earth (Chernye Zemli) reserve

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Cattle at a watering hole in the steppe

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Elista. Golden Abode of Buddha Shakyamuni temple

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Elista. Three Lotus fountain

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Three Lotus fountain
Photo by Irina Borsuchenko / Shutterstock.com

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Bell in a Buddhist temple
Photo by Arctic Phoenix / Shutterstock.com

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Elista. Decoration of a Buddhist temple

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Elista. Newspaper office

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Elista. City administration

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Hotel Elista

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Elista. Lenin Square

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Kalmyk folk ensemble on a holiday

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Elista. Lion statue

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Kalmyk musicians in traditional outfit

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Elista. Man with a camel
Photo by Irina Borsuchenko / Shutterstock.com

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Saiga antelopes in Black Earth (Chernye Zemli) reserve

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Cattle at a watering hole in the steppe