The ancestors of the Kalmyks, the Oirats, migrated from the steppes of southern Siberia on the banks of the Irtysh River to the Lower Volga region. Various reasons have been given for the move, but the generally accepted answer is that the Kalmyks sought abundant pastures for their herds. They reached the lower Volga region in or about 1630. That land, however, was not uncontested pastures, but rather the homeland of the Nogai Horde, a confederation of Turkic-speaking nomadic tribes. The Kalmyks expelled the Nogais who fled to the Caucasian plains and to the Crimean Khanate, areas under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Some Nogai groups sought the protection of the Russian garrison at Astrakhan. The remaining nomadic Turkic tribes became vassals of Kalmyk Khan.
The Kalmyks settled in the wide open steppes from Saratov in the north to Astrakhan on the Volga delta in the south and to the Terek River in the southwest. They also encamped on both sides of the Volga River, from the Don River in the west to the Ural River in the east. Although these territories were recently annexed by Russia, it was in no position to settle the area with Russian colonists. This area under Kalmyk control would eventually be called the Kalmyk Khanate.
Within 25 years of settling in the lower Volga region, the Kalmyks became subjects of the Tsar. 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 tribe, but this was not often the practice. 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). 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. The Khanate experienced economic prosperity from free trade with Russian border towns, China, Tibet and with their Muslim neighbors. During this era, the Kalmyks also kept close contacts with their Oirat kinsmen in Dzungaria, as well as the Dalai Lama in Tibet.
Imposition of Russian rule
Towards the end of the Ayuka Khan era, the Tsarist government implemented policies that gradually chipped away at the autonomy of the Kalmyk Khanate. These policies, for instance, encouraged the establishment of Russian and German settlements on pastures the Kalmyks roamed in the lower Volga region. The settlers took over land used by Kalmyks to feed their livestock and, in some cases, forced Kalmyks into servitude. The Russian Orthodox church, by contrast, pressured many Kalmyks to adopt Orthodoxy. The Tsarist government imposed a council on the Kalmyk Khan, diluting his authority, while continuing to expect the Kalmyk Khan to provide cavalry units to fight on behalf of Russia. By the mid-17th century, Kalmyks were increasingly disillusioned with Russian encroachment and interference in its internal affairs.
Ubashi Khan, the great-grandson Ayuka Khan and the last Kalmyk Khan, decided to return his people to their ancestral homeland, Dzungaria. Under his leadership, approximately 200,000 Kalmyks migrated directly across the Central Asian desert. Along the way, many Kalmyks were killed in ambushes or captured and enslaved by their Kazakh and Kyrgyz enemies. Many also died of starvation or thirst. After several grueling months of travel, only 96,000 Kalmyks reached the Manchu Empire's western outposts Xinjiang near the Balkhash Lake.
After failing to stop the flight, Catherine the Great abolished the Kalmyk Khanate, transferring all governmental powers to the Governor of Astrakhan. The Kalmyks who remained in Russian territory continued to fight in Russian wars, e.g., the Napoleonic Wars (1812 - 1815), the Crimean War (1853-1856) and Ottoman wars. They gradually created fixed settlements with houses and temples, instead of their transportable round felt yurts. In 1865, Elista, the future capital of the Kalmyk SSR, was built. This settlement process lasted until well after the Russian Revolution.
Russian Revolution and collectivisation
After the Communist October Revolution in 1917, many Kalmyks joined the White Russian army during the Russian Civil War, especially under Generals Wrangel and Denikin. The Soviet authorities severely punished the Kalmyks who remained, executing 10,000.
On 4 November 1920, Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast was created. The Bolshevik regime executed about 10,000 Kalmyks at this time.
In 1931, Stalin ordered the collectivization, closed the Buddhist monasteries, and burned the Kalmyks' religious texts. He deported all monks and all herdsmen owning more than 500 sheep to Siberia. The forced collectivization (as well as the dry, treeless landscape) was unsuited to the Kalmyk temperament and was a social, economic, and cultural disaster. About 60,000 Kalmyks died during the great famine of 1932 to 1933.
On 22 October 1935, the region was elevated to republic status Kalmyk Autonomous Republic within the RSFSR.
Kalmyk diaspora I
Before the Red Army broke through to the Crimean Peninsula towards the end of 1920, a large group of Kalmyks fled from Russia with the remnants of General Denikin's White Army to Turkey. The majority chose to resettle in Belgrade, Serbia. Smaller groups resettled in Sofia, Bulgaria; Prague, Czechoslovakia; and Paris and Lyon, France. The Kalmyk political refugees in Belgrade built a Buddhist temple there in 1929.
World War II
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), Goebbels invited several prominent Kalmyks from Belgrade, Paris, and Prague to Berlin. He wanted them to help with a propaganda campaign. The Nazis wished to win the Kalmyks to the German side against the Russians. No Kalmyks were sent to concentration camps. Goebbels turned this nucleus into a committee to free the Kalmyks from the Communist regime, by helping them print a Kalmyk language newspaper and broadcast radio news in Kalmyk directly toward Kalmykia.
When the Nazi 16th Motorized Infantry Division under General Henrici took Kalmykia early in 1942, three members of this committee were with them. Some of the Belgrade Kalmyks also participated in this invasion. They had joined the German army after the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia in April 1941. The German army was greeted with butter and milk, the traditional Kalmykian offering to welcome guests. They were seen as liberators from Stalin?s oppressive rule. The Germans offered to dismantle the collectives and divide and privatize the land.
They allowed the Kalmyks to practice Buddhism again. In response, the Kalmyks dug up the religious texts they had buried for safekeeping and built a makeshift temporary temple. In November and December 1942, however, the Red Army retook Kalmykia and destroyed everything the people had rebuilt.
Meanwhile, about 5,000 men accepted an offer to join the Nazi military, forming the Kalmykian Voluntary Cavalry Corps. Only a few women and children accompanied them. The Kalmyk troops fought with the Nazi army behind the lines, especially around the Azov Sea.
Kalmyk diaspora II
In December 1943, the Kalmyk SSR was abolished and 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 punishment for the disloyalty of part of the Kalmyks, Josef Stalin ordered the deportation of the whole remaining Kalmyk population. The population transfer occurred at night during winter without notice to various locations in Central Asia and in Siberia. Kalmyk Red Army soldiers were recalled. They all were transported in unheated cattle cars. Approximately one-third of the Kalmyks perished during the journey and in the following years of exile. Deprived of their civil rights, the Kalmyk community ceased to exist, thus completing the ethnic cleansing of the Kalmyk people.
Due to their widespread dispersal in Siberia their language and culture suffered possibly irreversible decline. Khrushchev finally allowed their return in 1957, when they found their homes, jobs and land occupied by imported Russians and Ukrainians, who remained. On 9 January 1957, Kalmykia again became an autonomous oblast, and on 29 July 1958, an autonomous republic within the Russian SFSR.
In the following years bad planning of agricultural and irrigation projects resulted in widespread desertification, and economically unviable industrial plants were constructed. With the collapse of the Soviet regime the economy also disintegrated, causing widespread social hardship and increasing depopulation of rural areas lacking in resources and facilities.
After dissolution of the USSR, Kalmykia kept the status of an autonomous republic within the newly formed Russian Federation (effective 31 March 1992).