The Kalmyks were a tribal group of nomadic herdsmen of Western Mongolian descent and Tibet Buddhist religious affiliation. The Kalmyks migrated into the Volga region starting in 1632 (Rubel, 13). Their main occupation was the maintenance of massive herds of sheep, cattle, horses and camels. In 1664, the tribe became a Khanate, though its loose tribal organization and nomadic lifestyle made it a somewhat nontraditional Khanate (Khodarkovsky, 15).
As contact with the Russian empire became more frequent, the Kalmyks became dependent on Russian markets. The Kalmyks were often contracted into Russian military campaigns; the Russian empire approached its relationship with the Kalmyks in a similar way as with the Cossacks (Khodarkovsky, 29). Tensions with the Russian empire began to develop in the 1740s because of increasing Russian and German intrusion under Catherine II, as well as Russian exploitation of Kalmyk herds and soldiers.
Sunderland suggests that while Catherine viewed the relationship with Kalmyks as one based on service to the empire, the Kalmyks came to view it as one of slavery (Sunderland, 56). Eventually, the encroachment was enough to cause a large group of Kalmyks to migrate back to their ancestral lands of Jungaria. However, because the Volga had not frozen by the time of the journey, only those Kalmyks on the east bank were able to leave, approximately 150,000. Catherine attempted to force the Qing emperor to return the fleeing Kalmyks, but ultimately failed (Khodarkovsky, 235). Those that stayed in the Volga region were subjected to increasing Russian administrative involvement, leading some to join in the Pugachev rebellion in 1773 (Rubel, 15). The Volga Kalmyks also became increasingly sedentary, though Russian administrators at first did not advocate the wholesale settlement of the Kalmyks because of their utility as border guards (Sunderland, 63).
During the Russian Revolution of 1917, most Kalmyks remained loyal to the tsar and joined the White Army. After the revolution, the group became an autonomous republic, but continued to suffer harsh cultural persecution. During World War II, the Kalmyks were accused of collaboration with the German Army, which passed through its territory during its retreat. In retaliation for this supposed collaboration, the Kalmyk republic, along with 7 other ethnic groups, was dissolved and deported to Siberia upon Stalin’s order in 1943 (Rubel, 16). NKVD statistics estimate that 19% of the Kalymk population died on the journey (Grin, 1). They were eventually allowed to return to the Volga region in 1958, after Stalin’s death.
- Francois Grin, “Kalmykia: From Oblivion to Reassertion?” European Centre for Minority Issues, Oct 2000, <http://www.ecmi.de/download/working_paper_10.pdf>
- Michael Khodarkovsky, Where Two Worlds Met: The Russian State and the Kalmyk Nomads,1600-1771 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 15.
- Paula G. Rubel, The Kalmyk Mongols: A Study in Continuity and Change (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1967), 13.
- “Timeline: Kalmykia” World History at KMLA, 23 Feb 2005. <http://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/russia/tlkalmykia.html>
- Willard Sunderland, Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 56.