Get in the car, I’ll take you there,’ says Anatoly. We leave the town in a Lada Niva, a much more suitable vehicle than our rental car, which wouldn’t have coped with the dirt road that runs up to Anatoly’s farm. Before us lies the harsh reality of Kalmykia, an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation located not far from Volgograd, the city once known as Stalingrad. Miles and miles of dusty steppe alternate with isolated villages, dunes of sand and grazing herds that apathetically invade the road.
‘I often have to travel tens of miles on my motorcycle to find a suitable area for my flock. We cannot exploit the same portion of territory every day – it would quickly become unusable,’ says Anatoly as we walk the final stretch of road that stands between us and the house in which he lives with his wife, Inna. His words perfectly sum up the complex and inexorable nature of everyday life here, marked as it is by the perpetual task of finding suitable pasture and an increasing awareness of environmental issues.
This is a daily life common to many inhabitants of this region, who are still suffering from the imprudent agricultural programmes of the 1950s Soviet regime, which focused on the massive exploitation of pastures. These reckless policies led to the almost total erosion of the Kalmyk soil and left the small republic with the unenviable moniker of the driest inhabited region on the entire European continent. Today, more than 80 per cent of the territory has desert or semi-desert characteristics, a trend unlikely to be reversed any time soon.
First of all, there’s global warming. Between 2012 and 2020, the effects of climate change led to an increase in temperature of 1.5°C in this region. Periods of extreme drought have become progressively more frequent, causing further changes to the native flora and exacerbating problems related to the infertility of soils already compromised by intensive grazing. The local government has imposed a limit on livestock numbers on each farm, but pastoralism remains a puzzle with no solution; on the one hand, it’s a leading cause of soil degradation, while on the other, it remains the leading economic activity of the region. During the Soviet years, Anatoly and Inna worked near Tsagan Aman, on the western bank of the Volga River. The economic crisis following the dissolution of the USSR led them to set up their own business close to the capital, Elista, which then meant that their children could attend the local university. Today, they export meat to the rest of Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan, and don’t regret the decision they made, despite the many difficulties they face every day.
Another issue plagues the people of Kalmykia: the unreliable water supply. Beneath the surface of the steppe there are several aquifers, but their high salinity level means the water is only fit for animal consumption. As a result, like most locals, Anatoly and Inna can’t grow vegetables. ‘We receive drinking water once a week from a tanker, but we only use it for domestic consumption,’ explains Anatoly. ‘Agriculture does not exist here. The fruit and vegetables you see at the market come from outside.’ The water shortage, worsened by the rise in average temperatures, has become increasingly worrying over the past decade and is now the main preoccupation for employees of the Institute for Research on Arid Soil. This study centre, founded to collect data to tackle desertification, constantly monitors various environmental parameters.
The building that houses the institute looks like a former suburban school. Here, we meet the director, Bogun Andrey Petrovich. He’s a large, pale man with a rather rough approach – someone who makes short work of pleasantries. ‘Global warming is putting us in a very dangerous position,’ he says straight away, showing us the most at-risk areas of the republic on a topographic map. ‘It causes thaws during winter and higher temperatures during summer, with disastrous consequences for our ecosystem.’
According to the institute’s estimates, over the past eight years, the average rainfall in Kalmykia has decreased further, with minimum values of 150–200 millimetres per year, parameters more in line with a true desert than the traditional steppe climate. ‘Soil moisture is critically low and this has a severe impact on both native plant species and forage production,’ he adds. ‘A territory that is based on farming cannot afford this. Under such conditions, it is almost impossible to get by economically. For ordinary people, it is much easier to get away from here,’ he bitterly concludes.
It’s unsurprising that the ecological difficulties faced by this ill-fated territory are also having an impact on its demography. With the lack of natural resources in the countryside, inhabitants are increasingly moving from rural villages to the cities, or even leaving the republic altogether. The figures are clear: in 2018–19, more than 4,700 people left Kalmykia, whose population reached an all-time low of 271,135 inhabitants. Only the village of Adyk, to the southeast of Elista, has bucked the trend. Unlike other remote settlements in the steppe, the birth rate here is positive and the community is seemingly very well organised. ‘Like a big family, we all contribute with our skills for the common good. It’s the only way to move forward,’ says Chongor, one of the villagers. ‘This territory does not offer many resources. It’s quite simple to go through difficult times here, but our people are united, and this is what encourages us to stay. We make do with what we have and we are happy to share it with others.’
But despite this extraordinary adaptability, life can still be very hard in Adyk. Survival is only guaranteed by a self-sufficient approach, one that has led citizens to self-finance the construction of a public purifier to improve the water supply. This has been a blessing, considering that in some areas, daily water consumption amounts to seven litres per capita.
As we head south and leave Adyk behind, the aridity of the territory and the signs of climate change are glaringly obvious. Near the town of Komsomolsky, a sandy area of 800 hectares dominates the landscape. Just a few traces of vegetation emerge from the ground, the vista faithfully mirrors the classic Western image of a desert.
We meet up with Konstantin Bembeev, deputy director of the Centre for the Restoration of Black Lands, a research institute involved in the fight against the desertification of the černozëm – the soil that’s typical of this region. Activity at the centre is mainly focused on botanical operations in the territory, but sometimes its representatives take action to propose new environmental regulations. ‘We suggested to the government the introduction of a limit of 300 head of livestock per farm,’ he tells us with some pride. In the Komsomolsky region, he explains, sand expansion has also been contained by a belt of chusgun, a shrub with limited water needs whose roots help with the growth of pasture grasses. Bembeev shows us with genuine enthusiasm the beneficial effects of the interventions carried out so far.
Further on, in the middle of the rolling dunes, he points to an abandoned building. ‘Several farms in the area have shut down due to desertification,’ he says. ‘Our goal is to rip the land from the desert to allow a productive grazing to restart. Of course, with the help of the institutions.’
In Kalmykia, the state often provides infrastructure and livestock to repopulate critical areas, asking for half of the revenues in return. This form of agreement has been borrowed from the past and is still colloquially referred to as sovchoz, a term used during the Soviet years to refer to a state-owned farm.
All of these efforts and more will be needed if this territory, which is already marked by the mistakes of the past, is to be rescued. Tax breaks from the government, the efforts of public institutions and the commitment of individual citizens may not be enough to revive the fortunes of this remote European desert, but that won’t stop its citizens from trying.