The European Desert

Sand and aridity in the Republic of Kalmykia

A lunar landscape buffeted by the winds, kilometres of steppe and sand as far as the eye can see, isolated villages and abandoned service stations. The most arid corner of Russia and the European continent is a mere thousand kilometres from Moscow.
The Autonomous Republic of Kalmykia is a slice of land facing the Caspian Sea and populated largely by Tibetan Buddhists where the consequences of Soviet rule are still visible today. Chief among these is the desertification that, although aggravated by global warming, is largely a result of the intensive agriculture implemented in the years following the death of Stalin. This ill-considered approach was applied in various areas of the USSR without taking into account the local environmental characteristics.
In Kalmykia even by the end of the 1990s more than a tenth of the entire area (around 770 thousand hectares) was covered in infertile sand, while more than 80% of the territory was already undergoing desertification. Today the situation is even more serious: the increasing periods of drought and high temperatures are endangering not only the already precarious balance between man and the environment but also the region’s entire biodiversity.