The Republic of Kalmykia is a constituent republic of the Russian Federation situated south of the Volga on the north-western shores of the Caspian Sea. It shares its south-eastern border with Dagestan.
Kalmyks account for about 53% of the population. The rest are mostly ethnic Russians.
The Kalmyk people are descended from nomadic Mongol herdsmen who travelled westwards in the 16th and 17th centuries in search of pasture land, eventually settling around the Volga river. After an oath of allegiance to the tsar they were granted a khanate in exchange for services in guarding Russia's eastern frontier land.
Ethnic Kalmyks are traditionally Buddhist
Their fortunes were less favourable in the 18th century and many set off eastwards again. The word Kalmyk is derived from the Turkish for remnant and refers to those who remained.
The Kalmyks live in the only Buddhist nation in Europe and revere the Dalai Lama, who visited the republic in 2004.
In 1943 Stalin accused the Kalmyks of collaboration with the Nazis and deported them en masse to Siberia where around half of them died. They were only allowed to return home in 1957 after Khrushchev came to power in the Kremlin.
Now one of Europe's poorest and most underdeveloped regions with a crumbling infrastructure, Kalmykia was once a land of fertile if fragile steppe whose black soil was cherished by the herdsmen.
Soviet times changed all that. The land was ploughed and intensive grazing became the norm. Much of the steppe has now turned to desert.
Livestock raising remains the main economic activity and there is also some fishing and arable farming.
Territory: Kalmykia Status: Semi-autonomous region of Russia
- Population: 289,464 (2000)
- Area: 76,150 sq km (29,400 sq miles)
- Capital: Elista
- Status: Republic within Russian Federation
- Main ethnic groups: Kalmyks, Russians
- Languages: Kalmyk, Russian
- Religions: Buddhism, Christianity
- Resources: Agriculture, wool, caviar
Head of the republic: Alexei Orlov
Alexei Orlov became president of Kalmykia in October 2010, succeeding eccentric millionaire Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who had ruled the region virtually unchallenged since 1993.
Mr Ilyumzhinov has said he would not seek another term when his mandate ran out on 24 October, in line with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's policy of reshuffling regional leaders. He later declined an offer by Mr Orlov to head the region's cabinet of ministers.
In line with the usual Russian process for choosing regional governors, Mr Orlov - an ethnic Kalmyk - was proposed by President Medvedev and approved by the Kalmyk parliament.
Born in 1961, Mr Orlov worked as a trade union official under Soviet rule, later becoming a businessman. In 1995, he was appointed the Russian president's permanent representative in Kalmykia, and is a member of the governing United Russia party.
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was elected president at the age of just over 30 after promising voters $100 each, and pledging to introduce what he called an "economic dictatorship" in the republic.
During his authoritarian 17-year rule, Mr Iyumzhinov was frequently accused of diverting the republic's resources for his own use as well as of human rights abuses and of suppressing media freedom - accusations he denied.
Months before resigning, he courted controversy by claimed claiming in a TV interview that he had been abducted by aliens and taken aboard their spaceship back in 1997.
President of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) since 1995, Mr Ilyumzhinov was enthusiastic about attracting international tournaments to Kalmykia. His flamboyant plans to build an extravagant Chess City in the republic led to protests by its impoverished citizens.
Kalmykia's local state radio and TV broadcasters are affiliated to the All-Russia State TV and Radio Company, VGTRK. Russia's main state-owned and private radio and TV networks, including NTV, Channel One and Centre TV, are relayed in the territory. The private press and broadcasters have to contend with a limited advertising market.
The Kalmyk press is virtually unanimous in its support for President Ilyumzhinov. An opposition paper, Sovetskaya Kalmykia, is printed in neighbouring Volgograd Region. The paper's founding editor, Larisa Yudina, was murdered in 1998.
Media rights group Reporters Without Borders has said the Kalmyk authorities "are among the most repressive towards the media in the entire Russian Federation".
- Izvestiya Kalmykii - private daily
- Sovetskaya Kalmykia - opposition
- Khalm Unn - state-run, Kalmyk-language
- Elistinskaya Panorama - twice-weekly, official organ of Elista city administration
- Delovaya Kalmykia - business weekly
- GTRK Kalmykia TV - state-run, operates two networks, programmes in Russian and Kalmyk
- GTRK Radio Kalmykia - state-run, programmes in Russian and Kalmyk
- Radio URA - private FM station in Elista, programmes in Russian