Kalmyk (alternatively "Kalmuck," "Kalmuk," or "Kalmyki") is the name given to western Mongolian people and later adopted by those Oirats who migrated from Central Asia in the seventeenth century. Today they form a majority in the autonomous Republic of Kalmykia on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Through emigration, Kalmyk communities have been established in the United States, France, Germany and the Czech Republic.
The Kalmyks are the European branch of the Oirats whose ancient grazing lands are now located in Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and the People's Republic of China. After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368, the Oirats emerged as a formidable foe against the Eastern Mongols, the Ming Chinese and their successor, the Manchu, in a nearly 400 year military struggle for domination and control over both Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia. The struggle ended in 1757 with the extermination of the Oirats in Dzungaria, the last of the Mongolian groups to resist vassalage to China (Grousset, 1970: 502-541).
The massacre was ordered by the Qianlong Emperor who felt betrayed by Prince Amursana, a Khoit-Oirat nobleman who submitted to Manchu authority on the condition that he be named Khan. Only after the death of Dawa Achi in 1759, the last Dzungar ruler, did the Qianlong Emperor declare an end to the Dzungar campaigns.
At the start of this 400-year era, the West Mongolian people designated themselves as Dörben Oirat ("Alliance of Four"). The alliance was comprised primarily of four major Western Mongolian tribes: Khoshut, Choros, Torghut and Dörbet. Collectively, the Dörben Oirat sought to position themselves as an alternative to the Mongols who were the patrilineal heirs to the legacy of Genghis Khan.
In furtherance of its military objectives, the Dörben Oirat frequently incorporated neighboring tribes or splinter groups of them so that there was a great deal of fluctuation in the composition of the alliance with larger tribes dominating or absorbing the smaller ones. Smaller tribes belonging to the confederation include the Khoits, Zachachin, Bayids and Mangits. Turkic tribes in the region, such as the Urianhai, Telenguet and the Shors, also frequently allied themselves with the Dörben Oirat.
Together, these tribes roamed the grassy plains of western Inner Asia, between Lake Balkhash in present-day eastern Kazakhstan and Lake Baikal in present-day Russia, north of central Mongolia, where they freely pitched their yurt (gher) and kept their herds of cattle, flock of sheep, horses, donkeys and camels.
The ancient forebearers of the Oirats include the Keraits, Naimans, Merkits and the original Oirats, all Turko-Mongol tribes that roamed western Inner Asia prior to their conquest by Genghis Khan. Paul Pelliot translated the name "Torghut" as garde de jour. He wrote that the Torghuts owed their name either to the memory of the guard of Genghis Khan or, as descendants of the Keraits, to the old garde de jour which existed among the Keraits, as we know from the Secret History of the Mongols, before it was taken over by Genghis Khan (Pelliot, 1930:30).
Until the mid-17th century, when bestowance of the title of Khan was transferred to the Dalai Lama, all Mongol tribes recognized this claim and the political prestige attached to it. Although the Oirats could not assert this claim prior to the mid-17th century, they did in fact have a close connection to Genghis Khan by virtue of the fact that Genghis Khan's brother, Khasar, was in command of the Khoshut tribe.
In response to the Western Mongol's self-designation as the "Dörben Oirat", the Eastern Mongols began to refer to themselves as the "Döchin Mongols" (Forty Mongols), expressed otherwise as "Döchin Dörben Khoyar" (The Forty and the Four). This means that the Eastern Mongols claimed to have forty tümen (a cavalry unit of 10,000 horseman) to the four tümen maintained by the Dörben Oirat. Simply put, it's another way for them to clearly separate themselves from the Oirats (Khodarkovsky, 1992:7). Ironically, by the early 1690s, the Dzungar (successor state to the Dörben Oirat) attacks against the Eastern Mongols were so persistent and ferocious, the Eastern Mongol princes voluntarily led their people and Outer Mongolia into submission to the Manchu state.
Until recently, the Oirats (including the Kalmyks) have not recognized themselves as Mongols. Nor have they considered themselves Western Mongols. Nevertheless, the close relationship among all Mongolian-speaking peoples, principally the Kalmyks, Oirats, Khalkhas and Buriats, is evident from the well-established fact that they all:
It is also noted that they share similar sub-tribal names as well, e.g., Kereit, Taichiut, Merkit and Chonos.
A recent publication of genetic studies of the Kalmyks seem to support their Mongol origins as well. The Kalmyks, unlike other Eurasian peoples from the steppes of Siberia, have not substantially mixed with Russian and other Eastern European peoples:
The Kalmyks' ability to maintain a mostly homogenous existence sharply contrasts with the Russian admixture with other similar people, "as there is evidence for Russian admixture with Yakuts," for example. Thus far, genetic analysis of the Kalmyks supports their Mongol roots that also shows that entire families of Kalmyks moved to Volga region and not simply males as is generally the case with most nomadic tribal groups.
The name "Kalmyk" is a word of Turkic origin that means "remnant" or "to remain." Turkish tribes may have used this name as early as the thirteenth century. Arab geographer Ibn al-Wardi is documented as the first person to use the term in referring to the Oirats sometime in the fourteenth century (Khodarkovsky, 1992:5 citing Bretschneider, 1910:2:167). The khojas of Khasgaria applied the name to Oirats in the fifteenth century (Grousset, 1970:506). Russian written sources mentioned the name "Kolmak Tatars" as early as 1530, and cartographer Sebastian Muenster (1488-1552) circumscribed the territory of the "Kalmuchi" on a map in his Cosmographia, which was published in 1544. The Oirats themselves, however, did not accept the name as their own.
Many attempts have been made to trace the etymology of the name, from the legendary Orientalist Peter Simon Pallas to present day scholars. Some have speculated that the name was given to the Oirats in an earlier period when they chose to remain in the Altai region while their Turkic neighbors migrated westward. Others believe the name may reflect the fact that the Kalmyks were the only Buddhists living in a predominantly Muslim region. Still others contend the name was given to those groups that did not return to their ancient homeland in 1771.
The Kalmyks live primarily in the Republic of Kalmykia, a federal subject of Russia. Kalmykia is located in the southeast European part of Russia, between the Volga and the Don Rivers. It has borders with the Republic of Dagestan in the south; the Stavropol Krai in the southwest; and the Rostov Oblast and the Volgograd Oblast in the west and the northwest, respectively. Its eastern border is the Astrakhan Oblast. The southeast border is the Caspian Sea.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a large number of Kalmyks, primarily the young, moved from Kalmykia to larger cities in Russia, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg and the United States. The move was precipitated by the desire of these Kalmyks to pursue better educational and economic opportunities. This movement continues today.
The Kalmyks are the only inhabitants of Europe whose national religion is Buddhism. They embraced Buddhism in the early part of the 17th century and belong to the Tibetan Buddhist sect known as the Gelugpa (Virtuous Way). The Gelugpa are commonly referred to as the Yellow Hat sect. The religion is derived from the Indian Mahayana form of Buddhism. In the West, it is commonly referred to as Lamaism, from the name of the Tibetan monks, the lamas ("heavy with wisdom"). Prior to their conversion, the Kalmyks practiced shamanism.
Historically, Kalmyk clergy received their training either on the steppe or in Tibet. The pupils who received their religious training on the steppe joined Kalmyk monasteries, which were active centers of learning. Many of these monasteries operated out of felt tents, which accompanied the Kalmyk tribes as they migrated. The Oirats maintained tent monasteries throughout present-day eastern Kazakhstan and along the migratory route they took across southern Siberia to the Volga. They also maintained tent monasteries around Lake Issyk Kul in present-day Kyrgyzstan.
The Oirats also built stone monasteries in the regions of eastern Kazakhstan. For instance, the remains of stone Buddhist monasteries have been found at Almalik and at Kyzyl-Kent (See image to the right). In addition, there was a great Buddhist monastery in Semipalatinsk (seven palaces), which derives its name from that seven-halled Buddhist temple. Further, remains of Buddhist monasteries have been found at Ablaiket near Ust Kamenogorsk and at Talgar, near Almaty, and at Sumbe in the Narynkol region, bordering China.
Upon completion of training, Kalmyk clergy dispensed not only spiritual guidance but also medical advice. As clergyman, the Kalmyk lamas enjoyed great political clout among the nobility and held a strong influence over the general tribal population. For many commoners, the only path to literacy and prestige was to join the Kalmyk monastic system.
As a matter of policy, the Tsarist government and the Russian Orthodox Church sought to gradually absorb and convert any subject of another creed or nationality. The aim of the policy was to eliminate foreign influence and to firmly entrench newly annexed areas. The baptized indigenous population would then become loyal to the Russian empire and would agree to be governed by Russian officials.
The Kalmyks migrated to territory annexed by the Tsarist government and were subject to this policy as long as they remained in this territory. At first, the policies contributed to the conversion of the Kalmyk nobility. One of the earliest converts were the children of Donduk-Ombo, the sixth Khan of the Kalmyks who reigned between 1737 and 1741, and his Circassian-born wife (See Dondukov family). Another important convert was Baksaday-Dorji, the grandson of Ayuka Khan who adopted the Christian name, Peter Taishin. Each conversion was motivated by political ambition to become the Kalmyk Khan. Kalmyk Tayishis, by contrast, were given salaries and towns and settlements were established for them and their ulus (Khodarkovsky, 1992:39).
Later on, the Tsarist government policy of encouraging Russian and German settlements along the Volga indirectly pressured Kalmyks to convert for economic reasons. The settlers took the most fertile land along the river, leaving barren lands for the Kalmyks to graze their herds. The resulting reduction of herds led to impoverishment for Kalmyk Tayishis, some of whom led their ulus to Christianity to obtain economic benefits.
To discourage the monastic lifestyle, the government required the building of permanent structures at government determined construction sites while imposing Russian architects (Pozdneev, 1914). This policy resulted in the suspension of Lamaist canonical regulations governing monastery construction and in Kalmyk temples resembling Russian Orthodox churches. For example, the Khoshutovsky Khurul is modeled after the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Other policies the Tsarist government implemented sought to gradually weaken the influence of the lamas. For instance, the government severely limited Kalmyk contact with Tibet. In addition, the Tsar began appointing the Šajin Lama (title of the High Lama of the Kalmyks). Further, the economic crises that resulted from settler encroachment forced many monasteries and temples to close and lamas to adopt a secularized lifestyle. The success of this policy is borne out by the decrease in the number of Kalmyk monasteries in the Volga region during the 19th century (Loewenthal, 1952 citing Riasanovsky, 1929).
|Table – Number of Kalmyk Monasteries in the Volga Region|
|early 19th century||200|
Like the Tsarist government, the Communist regime was aware of the influence the Kalmyk clergy held over the general population. In the 1920s and the 1930s, the Soviet government implemented policies to eliminate religion through control and suppression. Towards that end, Kalmyk khuruls (temples) and monasteries were destroyed and property confiscated; the clergy and many believers were harassed, killed, or sent to labor camps; religious artifacts and books were destroyed; and young men were prohibited from religious training.
By 1940 all Kalmyk Buddhist temples were either closed or destroyed and the clergy systematically oppressed. Dr. Loewenthal writes that the policies were so thoroughly enforced the Kalmyk clergy and Buddhism were not mentioned in the work by B. Dzhimbinov, "Sovetskaia Kalmykiia," published in 1940. In 1944, the Soviet government exiled all Kalmyks not fighting in the Soviet army to Central Asia and Siberia, accusing them of collaborating with the German Army. Upon rehabilitation in 1957, the Kalmyks were permitted to return home from exile, but all attempts by them to restore their religion and to build a temple failed.
By the 1980s, the Soviet campaign against religion was so successful that a majority of the Kalmyks had never received any formal spiritual guidance. By the late 1980s, however, the Soviet government reversed course and implemented policies favoring the liberalization of religion. As a result, the first Buddhist community was organized in 1988. By 1995, there were 21 Buddhist temples, 17 places of worship for various Christian denominations, and 1 mosque in the Republic of Kalmykia (Grin, 2000:7).
On December 27, 2005 a new khurul opened in Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia. The khurul was named "Burkhan Bakshin Altan Sume". It is the largest Buddhist temple in Europe. The government of the Republic of Kalmykia sought to build a magnificent temple of a monumental scale in hopes of creating an international learning center for Buddhist scholars and students from all over the world. More significantly, the temple is a monument to the Kalmyk people who died in exile between 1944 and 1957.
According to Robert G. Gordon, Jr., editor of the Ethnologue: Languages of the World, the Kalmyk-Oirat language belongs to the eastern branch of the Mongolian language division. Gordon further classifies Kalmyk-Oirat under the Oirat-Khalkha group, since he contends that Kalmyk-Oirat is related to Khalkha Mongolian – the national language of Mongolia.
Other linguists, such as Nicholas N. Poppe, have classified the Kalmyk-Oirat language group as belonging to the western branch of the Mongolian language division, since the language group developed separately and is distinct. Moreover, Poppe contends that, although there is little phonetic and morphological difference, Kalmyk and Oirat are two distinct languages. The major distinction is in their lexicons. The Kalmyk language, for example, has adopted many words of Russian and Tatar origin. Consequently, mainly on lexiconal grounds, Kalmyk is classified as a distinct language (Poppe 1970).
By population, the major dialects of Kalmyk are Torghut, Dörbet and Buzava (Bormanshinov 1990). Minor dialects include Khoshut and Olöt. The Kalmyk dialects vary somewhat, but the differences are insignificant. Generally, the Russian Language less influenced the dialects of the pastoral nomadic Kalmyk tribes of the Volga region.
In contrast, the Dörbets (and later on, Torghuts) who migrated from the Volga region to the Sal’sk District of the Don region took the name Buzava (or Don Kalmyks). The Buzava dialect developed from their close interaction with Russians. In 1798 the Tsarist government recognized the Buzava as Don Cossacks, both militarily and administratively. As a result of their integration into the Don Host, the Buzava dialect incorporated many words of Russian origin. (Anon. 1914: 653-660)
During World War II, all Kalmyks not fighting in the Soviet Army were forcibly exiled to Siberia and Central Asia, where they were dispersed and not permitted to speak the Kalmyk language in public places. As a result, the Kalmyk language was not formally taught to the younger generation of Kalmyks.
Upon return from exile in 1957, the Kalmyks spoke and published primarily in Russian. Consequently, the younger generation of Kalmyks primarily speak Russian and not their own native language. This is a subject of popular concern. In recent years, attempts have been made by the Kalmyk government to revive the Kalmyk language. As such, some laws have been passed regarding the usage of Kalmyk on shop signs; for example, on entrance doors, the words 'Entrance' and 'Push-Pull' appear in Kalmyk.
The attempt to re-establish the Kalmyk language has suffered setbacks, however. Recently, the Russian Broadcasting Corporation cut broadcast time allocated to Kalmyk language programs on radio and television, choosing instead to purchase pre-produced programs, such as English language productions. This measure was undertaken to reduce production costs.
In the 17th century, Zaya Pandita, a Lamist monk belonging to the Khoshut tribe, devised a script called Todo Bichig (clear script). The script, which is based on the classical vertical Mongol script, phonetically captured the Oirat language. In the later part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, todo bichig fell into disuse until the Kalmyks abandoned it in 1923 and introduced the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. But soon afterwards, around 1930, Kalmyk language scholars introduced a modified Latin alphabet, which did not last long.
The Dörben Oirat was a political entity formed by the four major Oirat tribes. They re-established their traditional pastoral nomadic lifestyle sometime during the end of the Yuan Dynasty. The Oirats formed this alliance to defend themselves against the Eastern Mongols and also to pursue the greater objective of reunifying Mongolia under their helm.
During its existence, the alliance was decentralized, informal and unstable. For instance, the Dörben Oirat did not have a central location from which it was governed, and it was not governed by a central figure for most of its existence. Further, the four Oirats did not establish a single military or even a unified monastic system. Lastly, it was not until 1640 that the Oirats adopted uniform customary laws.
As pastoral nomadists, the Oirats were organized at the tribal level where each tribe was ruled by a noyon (prince) who also functioned as the Chief Tayishi (Chieftain). The Chief Tayishi governed with the support of lessor noyons who were also called Tayisihi. These minor noyons controlled divisions of the tribe (ulus) and were politically and economically independent of the Chief Tayishi. The Chief Tayishi sought to influence and, in some cases, dominate the Chief Tayishis of the other tribes, causing inter-tribal rivalry, dissension and periodic skirmishes.
Under the leadership of Esen, Chief Tayishi of the Choros tribe, the Dörben Oirat unified Mongolia for a short period. After Esen's death in 1455, the political union of the Dörben Oirat dissolved quickly, resulting in two decades of Oirat-Eastern Mongol conflict. The deadlock ended during the reign of Dayan Khan, a five-year old boy in whose name the loyal Eastern Mongol forces rallied. Dayan Khan took advantage of Oirat disunity and weakness and expelled them from eastern Mongolia. In doing so, he regained control of the Mongol homeland and restored the hegemony of the Eastern Mongols.
After the death of Dayan in 1543, the Oirats and the Eastern Mongols resumed their conflict. The Oirat forces thrust eastward, but Dayan's youngest son, Geresandza, was given command of the Eastern Mongol forces and drove the Oirats to Ubsa Nor in northwest Mongolia. In 1552, after the Oirats once again challenged the Eastern Mongols, Altan Khan swept up from Inner Mongolia with Tümed and Ordos cavalry units, pushing elements of various Oirat tribes from Karakorum to the Kobdo region in northwest Mongolia, reuniting most of Mongolia in the process (Grousset, 1970:510).
The Oirats would later regroup south of the Altai Mountains in Dzungaria. But Geresandza's grandson, Sholui Ubashi Khong Tayiji, pushed the Oirats further northwest, along the steppes of the Ob and Irtysh Rivers. Afterwards, he established a Khalkha Khanate under the name, Altan Khan, in the Oirat heartland of Dzungaria.
In spite of the setbacks, the Oirats would continue their campaigns against the Altan Khanate, trying to unseat Sholui Ubashi Khong Tayiji from Dzungaria. The continuous, back-and-forth nature of the struggle, which generally defined this period, is captured in the Oirat epic song "The Rout of Mongolian Sholui Ubashi Khong Tayiji," recounting the Oirat victory over the First Khan of the Altan Khanate in 1587.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the First Altan Khan drove the Oirats westward to present-day eastern Kazakhstan. The Torghuts became the westernmost Oirat tribe, encamped in the Tarabagatai region and along the northern stretches of the Irtysh, Ishim and Tobol Rivers. Further west, the Kazakhs – a Turco-Mongol Muslim people – prevented the Torghuts from sending its trading caravans to the Muslim towns and villages located along the Syr Darya river. As a result, the Torghuts established a trading relationship with the newly established outposts of the Tsarist government whose expansion into and exploration of Siberia was motivated primarily by the desire to profit from trade with Asia.
The Khoshuts, by contrast, were the easternmost Oirat tribe, encamped near the Lake Zaisan area and the Semipalatinsk region along the lower portions of the Irtysh river where they built several steppe monasteries. The Khoshuts were adjacent to the Eastern Mongol khanates of Altan Khan and Dzasagtu Khan. Both Khanates prevented the Khoshuts and the other Oirat tribes from trading with Chinese border towns. The Khoshuts were ruled by Baibagas Khan and Güshi Khan who were the first of the Oirat leaders to convert to the Gelugpa sect.
Locked in between both tribes were the Choros, Dörbets and Khoits (collectively "Dzungars"), who were slowly rebuilding the base of power they enjoyed under the Dörben Oirat. The Choros were the dominant Oirat tribe of that era. Their chieftain, Khara Khula attempted to follow Esen Khan in unifying the Oirat tribes to challenge the Eastern Mongols and their Manchu patrons for domination and control over Mongolia.
Under the dynamic leadership of Khara Khula, the Dzungars stopped the expansion of the First Altan Khan and began planning the resurrection of the Dörben Oirat under the Dzungar banner. In furtherance of such plans, Khara Khula designed and built a capital city called "Kubak-sari," on the Imil river near the modern city of Chuguchak. During his attempt to build a nation, Khara Khula encouraged diplomacy, commerce and farming. He also sought to acquire modern weaponry and build small industry, such as metal works, to supply his military.
The attempted unification of the Oirats caused dissension among the tribes and their Chief Tayishis who were independent minded but also highly regarded leaders themselves. This dissension reputedly caused Kho Orluk to move the Torghut tribe and elements of the Dörbet tribe westward to the Volga region where his descendants formed the Kalmyk Khanate. In the east, Güshi Khan took part of the Khoshut tribe to the Tsaidam and Koko Nor regions in the Tibetan plateau where he formed the Khoshut Khanate to protect Tibet and the Gelugpa sect from both internal and external enemies. Khara Khula and his descendants, by contrast, formed the Dzungar Empire to fight the Eastern Mongols and their Manchu patrons for domination and control of Mongolia.
Many theories have been advanced to explain the reasons for the migration. One generally accepted theory is that there may have been discontent among the Oirat tribes, which arose from the attempt by Khara Khula, Tayishi of the Dzungars, to centralize political and military control over the tribes under his leadership. Some scholars, however, believe that the Torghuts simply sought uncontested pastures as their territory was being increasingly encroached upon by the Russians from the north, the Kazakhs from the south and the Dzungars from the east. The encroachments resulted in overcrowding of people and livestock, thereby severely diminished the food supply. Lastly, a third theory suggests that the Torghuts grew weary of the militant struggle between the Oirats and the Altan Khanate.
Upon arrival to the lower Volga region in 1630, the Oirats encamped on land that was once part of the Astrakhan Khanate, but was now claimed by the Tsarist government. The region was mostly uninhabited, from south of Saratov to the Russian garrison at Astrakhan and on both the east and the west banks of the Volga River. The Tsarist government was not ready to colonize the area and was in no position to prevent the Oirats from encamping in the region. But it had a direct political interest in insuring that the Oirats would not become allies with its Turkic-speaking neighbors.
The Oirats quickly consolidated their position by expelling the majority of the native inhabitants, the Nogai Horde. Large groups of Nogais fled eastward to the northern Caucasian plain and to the Crimean Khanate, territories then under Ottoman Turkish rule. Smaller groups of Nogais sought the protection of the Russian garrison at Astrakhan. The remaining nomadic tribes became vassals of the Oirats.
At first, an uneasy relationship existed between the Russians and the Oirats. Mutual raiding by the Oirats of Russian settlements and by the Cossacks and the Bashkirs (Muslim vassals of the Russians) of Oirat encampments was commonplace. Numerous oaths and treaties were signed to ensure Oirat loyalty and military assistance. Although the Oirats became subjects of the Tsar, such allegiance by the Oirats was deemed to be nominal.
In reality, the Oirats governed themselves pursuant to a document known as the Great Code of the Nomads (Iki Tsaadzhin Bichig). The Code was promulgated in 1640 by them, their brethren in Dzungaria and some of the Eastern Mongols who all gathered near the Tarbagatai Mountains in Dzungaria to resolve their differences and to unite under the banner of the Gelugpa sect. Although the goal of unification was not met, the summit leaders did ratify the Code, which regulated all aspects of nomadic life.
In securing their position, the Oirats became a borderland power, often allying themselves with the Tsarist government against the neighboring Muslim population. During the era of Ayuka Khan, the Oirats rose to political and military prominence as the Tsarist government sought the increased use Oirat cavalry in support of its military campaigns against the Muslim powers in the south, such as Persia, the Ottoman Empire, the Nogays and the Kuban Tatars and Crimean Khanate. Ayuka Khan also waged wars against the Kazakhs, subjugated the Mangyshlak Turkmens, and made multiple expeditions against the highlanders of the North Caucasus. These campaigns highlighted the strategic importance of the Kalmyk Khanate which functioned as a buffer zone, separating Russia and the Muslim world, as Russia fought wars in Europe to establish itself as a European power.
To encourage the release of Oirat cavalrymen in support of its military campaigns, the Tsarist government increasingly relied on the provision of monetary payments and dry goods to the Oirat Khan and the Oirat nobility. In that respect, the Tsarist government treated the Oirats as it did the Cossacks. The provision of monetary payments and dry goods, however, did not stop the mutual raiding, and, in some instances, both sides failed to fulfill its promises (Halkovic, 1985:41-54).
Another significant incentive the Tsarist government provided to the Oirats was tariff-free access to the markets of Russian border towns, where the Oirats were permitted to barter their herds and the items they obtained from Asia and their Muslim neighbors in exchange for Russian goods. Trade also occurred with neighboring Turkic tribes under Russian control, such as the Tatars and the Bashkirs. Intermarriage became common with such tribes. This trading arrangement provided substantial benefits, monetary and otherwise, to the Oirat tayishis, noyons and zaisangs.
Fred Adelman described this era as the Frontier Period, lasting from the advent of the Torghut under Kho Orluk in 1630 to the end of the great khanate of Kho Orluk’s descendant, Ayuka Khan, in 1724, a phase accompanied by little discernible acculturative change (Adelman, 1960:14-15):
During the era of Ayuka Khan, the Kalmyk Khanate reached its peak of military and political power. The Khanate experienced economic prosperity from free trade with Russian border towns, China, Tibet and with their Muslim neighbors. During this era, Ayuka Khan also kept close contacts with his Oirat kinsmen in Dzungaria, as well as the Dalai Lama in Tibet.
Historically, the West Mongolian tribes identified themselves by their respective tribal names. Probably, in the 15th century, the four major West Mongolian tribes formed an alliance, adopting "Dörben Oirat" as their collective name. After the alliance dissolved, the West Mongolian tribes were simply called "Oirat." In the early 17th century, a second great Oirat State emerged, called the Dzungar Empire. While the Dzungars (initially Choros, Dörbet and Khoit tribes) were establishing their empire in Western Inner Asia, the Khoshuts were establishing the Khoshut Khanate in Tibet, protecting the Gelugpa sect from its enemies, and the Torghuts formed the Kalmyk Khanate in the lower Volga region.
Sometime after encamping, the Oirats began to identify themselves as "Kalmyk." This named was supposedly given to them by their Muslim neighbors and later used by the Russians to describe them. The Oirats used this name in their dealings with outsiders, viz., their Russian and Muslim neighbors. But, they continued to refer to themselves by their tribal, clan, or other internal affiliations.
The name Kalmyk, however, wasn't immediately accepted by all of the Oirat tribes in the lower Volga region. As late as 1761, the Khoshut and Dzungars (refugees from the Manchu Empire) referred to themselves and the Torghuts exclusively as Oirats. The Torghuts, by contrast, used the name Kalmyk for themselves as well as the Khoshut and Dzungars. (Khodarkovsky, 1992:8)
Generally, European scholars have identified all West Mongolians collectively as Kalmyks, regardless of their location (Ramstedt, 1935: v-vi). Such scholars (e.g. Sebastian Muenster) have relied on Muslim sources who traditionally used the word Kalmyk to describe the West Mongolians in a derogatory manner. But the West Mongolians of China and Mongolia have regarded that name as a term of abuse (Haslund, 1935:214-215). Instead, they use the name Oirat or the go by their respective tribal names, e.g., Khoshut, Dörbet, Choros, Torghut, Khoit, Bayid, Mingat, etc. (Anuchin, 1914:57).
Over time, the descendants of the Oirat migrants in the lower Volga region embraced the name Kalmyk, irrespective of their locations, viz., Astrakhan, the Don Cossack region, Orenburg, Stavropol, the Terek and the Urals. Another generally accepted name is Ulan Zalata or the "red buttoned ones" (Adelman, 1960:6).
In the winter of 1770-1771, Ubashi Khan, the great-grandson Ayuka Khan and the last Kalmyk Khan, decided to return his people to their ancestral homeland, Dzungaria, then firmly under control of the Manchu Empire. The Dalai Lama was contacted to request his blessing and to set the date of departure. After consulting the astrological chart, the Dalai Lama set the return date, but at the moment of departure, the weakening of the ice on the Volga River permitted only those Kalmyks who roamed on the left or eastern bank to leave. Those on the right bank were forced to stay behind.
Under Ubashi Khan’s leadership, approximately 200,000 Kalmyks began the journey from their pastures on the left bank of the Volga River to Dzungaria. Approximately five-sixths of the Torghut tribe followed Ubashi Khan. Most of the Khoshuts, Choros and Khoits also accompanied the Torghuts on their journey to Dzungaria. The Dörbet tribe, by contrast, elected not to go at all.
Ubashi Khan chose the quickest route, which took them directly across the Central Asian desert, through the territories of their Kazakh and Kyrgyz enemies. Along the way, many Kalmyks were killed in ambushes or captured and enslaved. Some groups got lost never to heard from again or even returned to Russia. Most of the Kalmyk livestock either perished or was seized. Consequently, many died of starvation or of thirst. After several grueling months of travel, only one-third of the original group reached Dzungaria where the officials and troops of the Manchu Empire awaited them.
After failing to stop the flight, Catherine the Great abolished the Kalmyk Khanate, transferring all governmental powers to the Governor of Astrakhan. The title of Khan was abolished. The highest native governing office remaining was the Vice-Khan who also was recognized by the government as the highest ranking Kalmyk prince. By appointing the Vice-Khan, the Tsarist government was now permanently the decisive force in Kalmyk government and affairs.
Despite their great loss in population, the Torghuts still remained the numerically superior and dominating Kalmyk tribe. The other Kalmyk tribes in Russia included Dörbets and Khoshuts. Elements of the Choros and Khoits tribes also were present but were too few in number to retain their ulus (divisions of a tribe) as independent administrative units. As a result, they were absorbed by the ulus of the larger tribes.
The factors that caused the 1771 exodus continued to trouble the remaining Kalmyks. In the wake of the exodus, the Torghuts joined the Cossack rebellion of Yemelyan Pugachev in hopes that he would restore the independence of the Kalmyks. After the Pugachev rebellion was defeated, Catherine the Great transferred the office of the Vice-Khan from the Torghut tribe to the Dörbet tribe, whose princes supposedly remained loyal to the government during the rebellion. Thus, the Torghuts were removed from their role as the hereditary leaders of the Kalmyk people. The Khoshuts could not challenge this political arrangement due to their smaller population size.
The disruptions to Kalmyk society caused by the exodus and the Torghut participation in the Pugachev rebellion precipitated a major realignment in Kalmyk tribal structure. The government divided the Kalmyks into three administrative units attached, according to their respective locations, to the district governments of Astrakhan, Stavropol and the Don and appointed a special Russian official bearing the title of "Guardian of the Kalmyk People" for purposes of administration. The government also resettled some small groups of Kalmyks along the Ural, Terek and Kuma rivers and in Siberia.
The redistricting divided the now dominant Dörbet tribe into three separate administrative units. Those in the western Kalmyk steppe were attached to the Astrakhan district government. They were called Baga (Lessor) Dörbet. By contrast, the Dörbets who moved to the northern part of the Stavropol province were called Ike (Greater) Dörbet even though their population was smaller. Finally, the Kalmyks of the Don became known as Buzava. Although they were composed of elements of all the Kalmyk tribes, the Buzava claimed descent primarily from the Dörbet tribe. Their name is derived from two tributaries of the Don River: Busgai and Busuluk. In 1798, Tsar Paul I recognized the Don Kalmyks as Don Cossacks. As such, they received the same rights and benefits as their Russian counterparts in exchange for providing national military services (Bajanowa, 1976:68-71).
Over time, the Kalmyks gradually created fixed settlements with houses and temples, in place of transportable round felt yurts. In 1865, Elista, the future capital of the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was founded. This process lasted until well after the Russian Revolution.
After the Bolsheviks took control, various political and ethnic groups opposed to Communism organized a loose political and military coalition called the "White Movement." A volunteer army (called the "White Army") was raised to fight the Red Army, the military arm of the Bolshevik government. Initially, this army was composed primarily of volunteers and Tsarist supporters but were later joined by the Cossacks (including Don Kalmyks), many of whom resisted the Bolshevik policy of de-Cossackization.
The second revolution split the Kalmyk people into opposing camps. Many were dissatisfied with the Tsarist government for its historic role in promoting the colonization of the Kalmyk steppe and in encouraging the russification of the Kalmyk people. But others also felt hostility towards Bolshevism for two reasons: (1) the loyalty of the Kalmyk people to their traditional leaders (i.e., nobility and clergy) – sources of anti-Communism – was deeply ingrained; and (2) the Bolshevik exploitation of the conflict between the Kalmyks and the local Russian peasants who seized Kalmyk land and livestock (Loewenthal, 1952:4).
The Astrakhan Kalmyk nobility, led by Prince Dmitri Tundutov of the Baga Dörbets and Prince Sereb-Djab Tiumen of the Khoshuts, expressed their anti-Bolshevik sentiments by seeking to integrate the Astrakhan Kalmyks into the military units of the Astrakhan Cossacks. But before a general mobilization of Kalmyk horsemen could occur, the Red Army seized power in Astrakhan and in the Kalmyk steppe thereby preventing the mobilization from occurring.
After the capture of Astrakhan, the Bolsheviks engaged in savage reprisals against the Kalmyk people, especially against Buddhist temples and the Buddhist clergy (Arbakov, 1958:30-36). Eventually the Bolsheviks would draft as many as 18,000 Kalmyk horsemen in the Red Army to prevent them from joining the White Army (Borisov, 1926:84). This objective, however, failed to prevent many Red Army Kalmyk horsemen from defecting to the White side.
The majority of the Don Kalmyks also sided with the White Movement to preserve their Cossack lifestyle and proud traditions. As Don Cossacks, the Don Kalmyks first fought under White army General Anton Denikin and then under his successor, General Pyotr Wrangel. Because the Don Cossack Host to which they belonged was the main center of the White Movement and of Cossack resistance, the battles were fought primarily on Cossack lands and was very disastorous for the Don Cossacks as villages and entire regions changed hands repeatedly in a fratricidal conflict in which both sides committed terrible atrocities. The Don Cossacks, including the Don Kalmyks, experienced particularly heavy military and civilian losses, either from the fighting itself or from starvation and disease induced by the war. One historian contended that the Bolsheviks were guilty of the mass extermination of the Don Cossack people, killing an estimated 70 percent (or 700,000 persons) of the Don Cossack population (Heller and Nekrich, 1988:87).
By October 1920 the Red Army smashed General Wrangel's resistance in the Crimea, forcing the evacuation of some 150,000 White army soldiers and their families to Constantinople, Turkey. A small group of Don Kalmyks managed to escape on the British and French vessels. The chaos at the Russian port city of Novorossisk was described by Major H.N.H. Williamson of the British Military Mission to the Don Cossacks as follows:
From there, this group resettled in Europe, primarily in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and France where its leaders remained active in the White movement. In 1922, several hundred Don Kalmyks returned home under a general amnesty. Some returnees, including Prince Dmitri Tundutov, were imprisoned and then executed soon after their return.
In October 1935, the Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast was reorganized into the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The chief occupations of the Republic were cattle breeding, agriculture, including the growing of cotton and fishing. There was no industry.
In the 1930s, Stalin ordered the closure of all Buddhist monasteries and libraries, burning temples and religious texts in the process. The Buddhist clergy was either shot or condemned to long terms of confinement in the labor camps in Siberia where they all perished.
In June 1941 the German army invaded the Soviet Union, taking control of the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. In December 1942, however, the Red Army liberated the Republic from German control. On 28th of December 1943, the Soviet government accused the Kalmyks of collaborating with the Germans and deported the entire population, including Kalmyk Red Army soldiers, to various locations in Central Asia and Siberia. Within 24 hours the population transfer occurred at night during winter without notice in unheated cattle cars. Between one-third and one-half of the Kalmyk population perished in transit from exposure or during the following years of exile from starvation and exposure. Deprived of any rights, the Kalmyk community ceased to exist, thus completing the ethnic cleansing of the Kalmyk people.
The Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was quickly dissolved. Its territory was divided and transferred to the adjacent regions, viz., the Astrakhan and Stalingrad Oblasts and Stavropol Krai. To completely obliterate any traces of the Kalmyk people, the Soviet authorities changed the names of towns and villages from Kalmyk names to Russian names. For example, Elista became Stepnoi.
In the following years bad planning of agricultural and irrigation projects resulted in widespread desertification. In addition, industrial plants were constructed without an analysis of the economic viability of such plants.
In 1992, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kalmykia chose to remain an autonomous republic of the successor government, the Russian Federation. The dissolution, however, facilitated the collapse of the economy at both the national and the local level, causing widespread economic and social hardship. The resulting upheaval caused many young Kalmyks to leave Kalmykia, especially in the rural areas, for economic opportunities in and outside the Russian Federation.