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Europe's Buddhist dictatorship

In the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, south and east of Moscow, close to the Caspian Sea, the only peoples left in Europe after the Genghis Khan's migrations.

[elista] A sweet blanket of smoke from hundreds of incense sticks fills the temple from the red carpets to the green cassette ceiling covered with Tibetan characters. Three purple-clad monks sit with a bowed neck under the huge golden Buddha statue. Under the statue is the portrait of the Dalai Lama, covered with flowers.

The monks' shaved heads rock back and forth as they recite a tone-less prayer, and their hands rotate rhythmically on the small prayer drum, which sends a rain of hypnosis-like blow over people sitting together on the low floor benches.

Not everyone in the congregation is equally bewitched by the ceremony. A little girl with black braids takes a nap until she is discreetly poked in the side of her mother.

It is just over eight on Saturday morning in a small Tibetan temple on the Russian steppes. We are in Kalmykia, a Buddhist republic in the Russian Federation, and the only Buddhist republic in Europe. The country almost unknown to the West lies far north in Kakasus, on the European side of the Ural Mountains and Volga, with borders south to Chechnya and coast east to the Caspian Sea.

It is only 15 years since the Soviet Union collapsed and this temple could reopen, having been closed since Stalin's time.

Attempts were made to crush the Buddhist heritage of the Kalmyk under the Common Soviet. . .

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