Status: Semi-autonomous constituent republic of the Russian Federation
Area: 76,150 sq. km.
Languages: Kalmyk, Russian
Religions: Buddhism, Christianity
Autocratic Leader's Eccentric Foible: an exorbitant interest in chess
Kalmykia came to my attention when, looking at a map of world religions one day, I noticed a seemingly misplaced smudge of color in a remote corner of Europe signifying the predominance of Buddhism. Turns out it's quite true: Buddhism is the religion of the Kalmyks, who are a branch of the Oirats, a nomadic shepherding people from the Mongolian steppe. The Kalmyks broke off from the Oirats in the 17th Century, migrating to a fertile grasslands region on the northwest coast of the Caspian Sea.
Though there has been some historical tension between the various Oirat peoples and the Mongols, they share many characteristics, including a similar appearance, language, and culture, as well as an adherence to Tibetan Buddhism. As with most ethnic groups that lived in the Soviet Union, the Kalmyks had to put up with state efforts to quash religious practice. Things have mellowed a bit since the fall of the Soviet Union, though, at least on the religious persecution front; in 2005 the Burkhan Bakshin Altan Sume opened as the largest Buddhist temple in Europe.
The republic is led by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. According to the BBC:
A Buddhist millionaire businessman, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov acquired his wealth in the economic free-for-all which followed the collapse of the USSR.
At the age of just over 30, he was elected president in 1993 after promising voters $100 each and a mobile phone for every shepherd. He also pledged to introduce what he called an "economic dictatorship" in the republic.
Soon after his election, Mr Ilyumzhinov introduced presidential rule, concentrating power in his own hands.
He called early elections in 1995 and was re-elected unopposed - this time for a seven-year term. He won re-election in 2002
Ilyumzhinov has been president of FIDE, the International Chess Organization, since 1995. His intention to build an enormous "Chess City" in Kalmykia has engendered protests among the local population, who are among the poorest people in Europe.
According to the BBC, Reporters Without Borders has described the Kalmyk authorities as "among the most repressive towards the media in the entire Russian Federation".