Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Really Short History of the Kalmyks

The Kalmyks are a Mongol Buddhist people that migrated to their current home on the north west shores of the Caspian Sea from western Mongolia in the 17th century. They practice a Lamaist form of Buddhism similar to that of Khalka Mongols, Buriats and Tibetans. Their traditional language is also related to Khalka Mongol and Buriat. They have traditionally been nomadic herdsmen devoted to raising cattle. In warfare they have been famed horsemen.

The first half of the 20th century proved quite traumatic for the Kalmyks. In 1887 they numbered over 190,000. By mid-1949 this number had been reduced to less than 78,000. The combined effects of war, famine and repression had more than halved their population. Even as late as 1989 they still had not reached their 1887 population. They sufferred their worst tragedy during World War II when the Stalin regime deported the entire population to Siberia.

In a mere two days, 28 and 29 December 1943 the NKVD forcibly exiled over 93,000 Kalmyks from their homeland to special settlements in Siberia. The Stalin regime cleared neighboring Rostov Oblast of more than 2,500 remaining Kalmyks on 25 March 1944 and Stalingrad Oblast of almost 1,200 Kalmyks on 2-4 June 1944. These deportees also ended up in Siberia. Finally, the Soviet army discharged over 4,000 Kalmyks from military service and sent them to forced labor battalions devoted to construction in the Urals. In Siberia the Soviet government employed the Kalmyks primarily in river fishing, timber felling and polishing mica furniture. Lack of food, shelter, proper winter clothing and medicine combined with unsafe working conditions led to high rates of mortality among the Kalmyk special settlers. Typhus, dysentery and especially tuberculosis and other lung ailments plagued the exiled Kalmyks. Between 1944 and 1948, the NKVD recorded more than 16,000 deaths (18% of their total population) among the Kalmyks. Only in 1957 did the Soviet government allow them to return to their traditional homeland south west of the Volga River.

The official rationale for deporting the Kalmyks was that they had collaborated with the Nazi occupation. In reality only about 5,000 Kalmyks fought with the German forces against over 20,000 Kalmyks that served in the Red Army during World War II. Like other deported nationalities native to the USSR the real reason lay in their long history of resistance to Russian and Soviet rule. The Kalmyks had been one of the many nomadic steppe tribes that had slowed down Russian expansion as late as the 18th century. In later centuries they continued to cause difficulties for Russian and Soviet rulers. Many traditional Kalmyks had fought against the Bolsheviks during the Civil War. Later the Kalmyks had strongly resisted collectivization and sought to maintain ownership over their livestock herds. Finally, the organization of a small cavalry corp under the command of the Germans served as an excuse for the Stalin regime to implement a final solution to the Kalmyk problem.

After the end of their exile and return to a newly restored Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic the Kalmyks attempted to restore their traumatized society. Much of the damage caused by the deportations, however, proved to be permanent. They lost much of their traditional culture including knowledge of the Kalmyk language among younger generations. This deterioration continued throughout the Soviet era. Renewed attempts by the Republic of Kalmykia (part of the Russian Federation) to revive the Kalmyk language and other aspects of their culture have had limited results.


Chris Conway said...

This encapsulated history of the Kalmyks is very interesting. I had never heard of them, to be honest, but since my grandparents and mother were in a Siberian gulag during WWII, I find some of your research topics to be relevant for an understanding of my family history. It sounds like the Kalmyks were almost stamped out of existence as a culture... is Kalymyk society today truly organized and coherent enough to be considered a society or culture?

J. Otto Pohl said...

Yes, I think they are coherent enough. First, they are racially distinct from their neighbors. When you are a visible minority it makes assimilation much more difficult. Second, they have their own defined territory in the Kalmyk Republic. It has some political and economic autonomy from Moscow. Territorialized nationalities are very resiliant to losing their self-identification. The Kalmyks form a slight majority in this territory. Reviving the Kalmyk language has encountered problems. But, it is by no means dead. There has been more luck in rejuvenating other aspects of their culture such as their Buddhist religion. On the other hand I just saw the 2002 census results and their population is still signficantly below what it was in 1887.

Peter Z Andreyev said...

Kalmyk society IS coherent and a organized. We have a rich culture that I as a first generation kalmyk born in the USA is starting to realize how important culture is. I realize now that as the older kalmyks pass on, there will be no one left to tell the stories about their journey to the USA with first hand knowledge. My parents were 10 amd 12 when they arrived here, and now they are getting forgetful with details of their journey. My family does not talk about this as much as they used to.
Mr. Otto, have you been to the kalmyk republic in russia?