Human Journey

Cultural Revival in Europe’s Only Buddhist Region

The Enduring Voices Project strives to preserve endangered languages by identifying language hotspots—the places on our planet with the most unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages—and documenting the languages and cultures within them.

By K. David Harrison of the Enduring Voices Project

During the past week the Enduring Voices team visited the Republic of Kalmykia, an obscure corner in European Russia, on the Caspian Sea.

The Kalmyk people are of Mongol origin, having migrated to Europe from Mongolia at the turn of the 17th century. They experienced genocide and deportation in the 1940s under Stalin, and have struggled to keep their culture alive. They are former nomads, with an economy still partly based on horse, sheep, and camel herding.

Garya Lidzheyev, a Kalmyk photographer, travels the world to photograph Buddhist traditions, thus contributing to the revival of Buddhist practice in his native Kalmykia. Photo by Chris Rainier


Though the language, related to Mongolian, is endangered, we found evidence of a strong cultural revitalization among the younger generation, expressed in song, dance, poetry, and renewed use of the language. We met Kalmyks aged 9 to 91 who were determined to keep their language and culture alive by all means, whether learning ancient epic hero tales, dancing, reviving Buddhist practice, or using modern technology like texting and social media.

The Kalmyk community in New Jersey has also managed to keep the language and culture alive in the U.S., after emigrating in the 1950s. The Enduring Voices team will be working with leading Kalmyk cultural activists to help promote the language and raise awareness about this rich culture.

Kalmyk children practice traditional dance, helping keep their historic culture alive. Photo by Chris Rainier


Learn More

See Photos and Videos From Previous Expeditions

Explore a Map of Endangered Language Hotspots

Listen to Rare Languages in the Talking Dictionaries

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • Ramya

    Nice effort by Enduring voices team. I’m interested to know more about Kalmyk community.

  • Isabel Lima

    Congratulations for your great cultural work!

  • […] Cultural Revival in Europe’s Only Buddhist Region ( […]

  • Tim Upham

    Vladimir Lenin was a mixture of Kalmyk, Chuvash, Jewish, German, and Swedish. It was theorized that he was killed by Stalin, then Stalin deported the Kalmyks. Returning this heritage, would not just be returning the heritage of Lenin — he was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, and spoke Russian as a first language — but returning a heritage of the Russian steppes. “Khanganav” — “Thank You” in Kalmyk. I wonder if Lenin knew that?

  • […] The Kalmyk people are of Mongol origin, having migrated to Europe from Mongolia at the turn of the 17th century. They experienced genocide and deportation in the 1940s under Stalin, and have struggled to keep their culture alive…” To read more, click here. […]

  • […] returned from Kalmykia, Russia, home to Europe’s only indigenous Buddhist people, where he documented Kalmyk music, storytelling, and a strong language revitalization movement among Kalmyk […]

  • […] Cultural Revival in Europe’s Only Buddhist Region ( 0.000000 0.000000 Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Buddhism, Kalmyk, Kids, Movie, New Jersey, New York, people, Resource, Timeline, Vimeo and tagged Asia, genghis khan, Kalmyk, Kalmyk people, Mongol, mongolia, New York City, Sarah Lawrence College. Bookmark the permalink. ← The WildArt Mongolia Expedition […]

  • rose

    Thank you, but I would like you to take up the challege of trying to find speakers of threaten languages on Fifth Avenue (AKA the one percent, e.g. billionaires, multimillionaires etc.). I bet a trillion dollars that especially because of India’s economy, megadiversity, and more tolerant than average ethnic politics and policies over the centuries, there are a few billionaires who are coming from threatened (although certainly not from critically or severely endangered) cultures and not coming forward about it. Think about it, there are some are harder to get areas who have retained at least most of their ancient systems in the world such as Taiwan or Iceland that are represented on the Forbes’ list of billionaires. Such an Enduring Voices project would definitely show people that this problem is true at every rank and everywhere – not just in the outback areas of the world like the Amazon rainforests.

  • John Toettcher

    I met David a few times when I was working at the Tyvan State University a decade ago. After that I worked at the Kalmyk State University for a couple of years. I helped students spending their summers updating an old Kalmyk/English dictionary. That had been originally compiled in Kalmyk/German by a Swedish officer from Courland taken prisoner at the battle of Poltava and exiled to a place where there were Kalmyks. Soon after original publication it was translated into several other European languages, including English. A photocopy of this was made available by the Kalmyk Institute for Research in the Humanities of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In order to upodate the selection of words included we also used a modern Kalmyk/Russian dictionary, with the co-operation of the aged compiler. We discovered that its section dealing with words starting with the letter ‘t’ had been omitted – apparently the dictionary was so little used that even the compiler didn’t know. The results of our work, including videos, computer discs with the doc. files, print-outs, and multiple recordings of all the words made in the few Kalmyk-speaking villages, were presented to the Rector of the university.

  • kapila kalinga

    very interesting.i will write abot this in sinhala.thanks.All the best!

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