The Kalmyks, who form the majority of the republic and for whom the region is named, descend from the Oirat Mongols that migrated from Dzungaria in 1607 and established the Kalmyk Khanate (1630–1724) before they were eventually incorporated into the Russian Empire in the context of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus.Elista, the capital of the republic, has of late, gained an international reputation for international chess competitions.

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The territory of Kalmykia is unique in that it has been the home in successive periods to many major world religions and ideologies.

Prehistoric paganism and shamanism gave way to Judaism with the Khazars.

During his era, the Kalmyk Khanate fulfilled its responsibility to protect the southern borders of Russia and conducted many military expeditions against its Turkic-speaking neighbors.

Successful military expeditions were also conducted in the Caucasus.

In addition, Kalmyk allegiance was often nominal, as the Kalmyk Khans practiced self-government, based on a set of laws they called the Great Code of the Nomads (Iki Tsaadzhin Bichig).

The Kalmyk Khanate reached its peak of military and political power under Ayuka Khan (1669–1724).

The republic is located in the southwestern part of European Russia and borders, clockwise, with Volgograd Oblast in the northwest and north, Astrakhan Oblast in the north and east, the Republic of Dagestan in the south, Stavropol Krai in the southwest, and with Rostov Oblast in the west. A small stretch of the Volga River flows through eastern Kalmykia.

Other major rivers include the Yegorlyk, the Kuma, and the Manych.

In exchange for protecting Russia's southern border, the Kalmyks were promised an annual allowance and access to the markets of Russian border settlements.

The open access to Russian markets was supposed to discourage mutual raiding on the part of the Kalmyks and of the Russians and Bashkirs, a Russian-dominated Turkic people, but this was not often the practice.

The Kalmyks expelled the Nogais who fled to the Caucasian plains and to the Crimean Khanate, areas under the control of the Ottoman Empire.