I wandered along to the “Return Memorial” on a hill on the outskirts of town. It commemorates the Kalmyk people who died on the long forced journey to Siberia and afterwards in the gulags and wilds of that unknown land (see my post “Elista – Chess and Buddhism in South West Russia”).
The Lonely Planet had said that there was a “cattle car like those used to transport the Kalmyks to Siberia” close by and indeed there was. A small tree covered in prayer flags stood beside it and as I came round its end I realised that there were stairs leading into it – a small museum.
I ventured up timidly, calling out to see if anyone was inside, and stepped into the dark.
As I became accustomed to the change in light, Boris stepped out of his little room at the end of the car and said hello. He was clearly delighted to have a visitor, and a non-Russian one at that, and he talked enthusiastically for the next hour or so showing me around the car and its collection.
I understood some of what he said and tried to seek clarification on the rest but what was clear was his love for and pride in the Kalmyk people, his emotion about their history (I think he was among the deported as a small child and later managed to return here), and his joy at having someone show an interest.
The National Museum of the Republic which I had visited the day before did not seem to touch at all on the expulsion.
Later, we were joined by Vladimir Sandzhiev, another Kalmyk and a poet who had written at least two collections of poetry, some about Kalmyk history. I wanted to buy one of his books – it was in Russian so could be part of my study and it would also help me to understand better the impact of this history on the people left behind. Unfortunately (or fortunately!), he had none left to sell so at my suggestion he let me photograph his favourite poem to take with me instead.
Vladimir kindly escorted me up the hill to the monument while talking about the building of the monument, the Kalmyk history, the fact that the Kalmyk language is all but lost, and his poetry.
When I said that I would publicise their amazing little museum online, he proposed to give a recital (of what I believe is one of his poems) on video for me to upload (click here to view it). It is in Russian but, even without understanding the words, the feeling is clear.
Boris and Vladimir invited me to share their lunch and tea with them and even offered to drive me back into town and then to the station for my train that afternoon. I had some other things I needed to do so declined the offer. But I wrote in the visitor’s book (I was their first Kiwi, again!) and we parted like long lost friends with me vowing one day perhaps to return!