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ETHNONYMS: Khal'mg, Western Mongols


Identification. The Kalmyks are the Western Mongols, also known as the Oirats," who in the beginning of the seventeenth century undertook migration west, eventually to roam the steppes of the Volga, Don, and Kuban rivers. Today the Kalmyks reside in the Republic of Kalmykia, located in southeast European Russia bordering on the Caspian Sea. It is one of the twenty autonomous republics within the Russian Republic. Traditionally the Kalmyk (also transcribed Qalmïq) people identified themselves by the name of one of the tribes they belonged to: Torgut, Khoshut, and Derbet. It is commonly believed that the term "khal'mg" is derived from the Turkic kalmak (to leave behind, to remain) and was used by the Turkic peoples as early as the fourteenth century to designate the Western Mongols. In fact, there is no historic or linguistic evidence to substantiate this conclusion. The term "khal'mg" did not become a self-designation until the early nineteenth century.

Location. Kalmykia is bounded by the Volgograd region in the north, the Stavropol region in the south, the Rostov-on-the-Don region in the west, and the Astrakhan region in the east. Kalmykia occupies the western part of the Caspian lowland, the Ergeni highlands, and the Kuma-Manych depression. Most of Kalmykian territory is a steppe, ranging from arid in the west to semidesert in the southeast. The Kalmyk steppe is located at approximately 45° to 48° N and 44° to 48° E. There is little surface watermostly shallow saline lakes. The climate is continental, with hot dry summers and often cold winters with little snow. The average temperature in July varies from 23° to 26° C and in January from 8° to 5° C. Average annual precipitation is 30-40 centimeters in the northwest and 17-20 centimeters in the southeast. In the south the winters are usually without snow, hence the traditional use of these lands as winter pastures for the sheep herds.

Demography. Fifty years after their arrival at the Caspian steppes in the 1630s, the Kalmyk population was 70,000 tents or about 300,000 people. The descendants of those who failed to join the majority (who departed for Zungharia in 1771) and remained in the Caspian steppes, reside today in Kalmykia. In 1939 there were 140,000 Kalmyks out of 204,000 residents of the Kalmyk ASSR. In 1979 the Kalmyks constituted 41.5 percent of the Kalmyk ASSR, or 122,000 people out of 293,000 total residents. According to the 1989 census the population of Kalmyks in the Kalmyk Republic was 146,316 out of a total population of 322,579. Throughout their history many Kalmyks settled in neighboring towns or became Cossacks. Descendants of these Kalmyks may still be found outside Kalmykia in the cities of eastern Ukraine, the Don region, in the northern Caucasus, and in Siberia. Some Kalmyks left Soviet Russia after the October Revolution of 1917 and after World War II and settled in small communities in Paris and in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the United States.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kalmyk belongs to the Mongolian branch of the Altaic Language Family, as do the Buriat and the Mongol languages. Torgut and Derbet are the two major dialects spoken by the Kalmyks. The Kalmyks used a vertical Old Mongolian script until 1648, when the Buddhist scholar Zaya-Pandita replaced it with a writing system that more adequately reflected the sounds of the Kalmyk language. The Zaya-Pandita writing system, also known as "Todo Bichig," remained in existence until 1925, when it was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet. The Roman alphabet was introduced in 1930 and again replaced by the Cyrillic in 1938, which remains in use to this day.

History and Cultural Relations

In the early seventeenth century a large group of the Oirats, predominantly of the Torgut tribe, left Zungharia and began to migrate westward. By the 1630s, having conquered some Nogays and caused others to flee, the Kalmyks occupied pastures along the Emba, Yaik (today Ural), and Volga rivers. By the end of the century, joined by the Derbet and Khoshut tribes from Zungharia, the previously loose confederation of Kalmyk tribes turned into a powerful political and military force under Ayuki Khan. The increasing superiority of the Russian military and dependence on access to Russian markets, however, led to a closer alliance with Russia and eventual recognition of Russia's suzerainty in 1724. The Kalmyks continued to lose their political and administrative autonomy, and their pastoral economy declined with the arrival of agricultural colonists and a resulting shrinkage of Kalmyk pastures. In 1771 the Kalmyks resorted to the dramatic act of moving back to Zungharia. The majority of the Kalmyks31,000 tents, or more than 120,000 peopledeparted from Russia. En route they were attacked by the Kazakhs. Only a small group survived a long and arduous journey; their descendants are still found in the Xinjiang region of China. The rest died from famine or fell victim to the hostile raids of the neighboring nomadic peoples. The 11,000 Kalmyk tents that were unable to cross the Volga because of an early thaw remained behind. The autonomy of the remaining Kalmyks was abolished by Catherine II, and throughout the nineteenth century they found themselves increasingly incorporated into the administrative and military structure of the Russian Empire. The Soviet government created by decree a Kalmyk Autonomous Region within the Russian Republic in 1920. In 1935 the status was upgraded to that of an autonomous republic. The Kalmyk ASSR existed until December 1943, when, charged with collaborating with German troops, the Kalmyks were deported to Siberia and the republic was abolished. Many Kalmyks died as a result of the deportation (compare 1939 and 1979 censuses under "Demography"). In 1957 the Kalmyks were rehabilitated and returned from Siberia. The Kalmyk ASSR was reestablished in 1958.

Tensions between the encroaching agricultural colonists and the nomadic Kalmyks had existed since the middle of the eighteenth century. After the creation of the Kalmyk ASSR, tensions between the Kalmyks and the Slavic residents of the republic (mostly Ukrainians and Russians) continued. During the fifteen years of Kalmyk exile, the Slavic population in the area increased, and the return of the Kalmyks brought a new wave of hostilities between the two groups. Today, a long-standing sense of injustice and the new rise of nationalism continue to fuel a traditional animosity.


Despite the attempts by the Russian government to settle them, the majority of the Kalmyks remained nomadic until the collectivization campaign of the 1930s. Until then the Kalmyks had no urban centers and followed the routes of the annual migration cycles. By 1939 most of the Kalmyks had been forced to join the collective farms and resided in the newly built permanent settlements or villages. A few chose to settle in the recently founded capital of the republic, Elista. At present, although the number of towns grows and their population keeps increasing, the majority of the Kalmyks continue to reside in rural areas.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Animal husbandry based on extensive pastoralism was the basis of the traditional Kalmyk economy. Herds provided for most of the needs: food, clothing, and means of transportation. Kalmyk herds consisted of horses, sheep, camels, goats, and cows. Horses and sheep constituted the backbone of the Kalmyk pastoral economy. Kalmyk horses were distinguished for their speed and endurance. They were herded in groups called adun, consisting of 100 to 200 horses. Fermented mare's milk provided the alcoholic beverages arki, arza, and khursa. Kalmyk sheep were a "fat-rump" type and provided meat, milk, pelts, and wool. Camels, goats, and cows were of relatively less significance. In the 1830s an average Kalmyk family had 60 to 150 sheep, 10 to 50 horses, 5 to 15 camels, and 10 to 30 head of cattle. Hunting traditionally served as a form of military training and a supplement to the diet. The largest game in the steppes was the saigak, a large, horned antelope. Since the eighteenth century, ever-increasing dependence on Russian markets and the subsequent turmoil in Kalmyk society has caused many Kalmyks to abandon their traditional life-style and seek employment in neighboring Russian towns, or, most commonly, at the fisheries. As in other nomadic societies, booty captured in raids constituted an important part of the Kalmyk economy. Slaves captured in raids were sold or exchanged for goods. Moscow was expected to send annual payments in cash and valuable items to the Kalmyk chiefs. In addition, the Kalmyks were paid cash for their participation in Russia's military campaigns. Although cash became more prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Kalmyk economy remained at the level of subsistence. In today's Kalmykia animal husbandry, in particular of sheep, remains the principal economic activity. With the construction of several irrigation systems, winter wheat, maize, and fodder crops became important, mainly in the western part of Kalmykia. The main industry is the processing of agricultural produce such as wool, meat, and fish.

Trade. With their arrival in the Caspian steppes, the Kalmyks became major suppliers of horses to Russia; this lasted until the middle of the eighteenth century, when trade with the Kazakhs in Orenburg became more important to the Russian government. The Kalmyks also traded their livestock with neighboring towns along the Volga. Astrakhan, a city in the estuary of the Volga, was a center of this trade, which was conducted outside the walls of the city at the place called "Kalmyk bazaar." Authorities in Moscow tried to control this trade lest the Kalmyks obtain weapons, in particular firearms. The threat of a glut in the Russian markets served as an important policy tool of the Russian government. Traditionally, most of the trade was conducted not by the Kalmyks but by the Tatars, merchants from Bukhara and Khiva, and later by the Russians. The main items of trade were and remain the products of the cattle-breeding economy. Today, Kalmykia is the major supplier of mutton and wool to the other former Soviet republics.

Division of Labor. In the past the labor force was engaged in extensive nomadism, with no labor specialization other than that provided by cattle breeding. Production was a domestic function in which each family, or perhaps khoton (a group of families), cared for its own needs. Most of the labor was performed by women. They prepared food, made clothing, and tanned hides. There were few artisans among the Kalmyks. During the years of Soviet rule the role of gender in the division of labor became less significant, and now women are employed in a variety of jobs.

Land Tenure. Unlike settled people, the main value for the nomads rested not in land but in herds. Herds were privately owned but were grazed on common pastures. Land and water were held in common. The Kalmyks practiced a meridianal type of nomadism, moving north and reaching the mid-Volga region in the spring-summer season and then returning south to seek protection from the cold weather in the reeds of the lower Volga region. The routes of annual migration, which lay near the sources of water, were carefully chosen and agreed upon by the chiefs. The arrival of the colonists in the eighteenth century cut off the Kalmyks from the best pastures along the rivers. A shrinkage of the vital pastureland eventually led to a sharp decline of the Kalmyk economy. After the collectivization of the 1930s the Kalmyks completely abandoned nomadism and became sheep farmers on the Soviet collective farms. A decision by the Soviet government toward the end of its tenure to introduce private property is likely to lead to the emergence of private herds in the near future.


The extended family (örke-bül) is a major unit of solidarity and authority. It may include as many patrilineally related nuclear families (ger-bül) as can live and work together. The patrilocal extended family includes a group of men related by patrilineal descent (lineal and collateral), the wives of these men, and the immature children of all these families. Descent is strictly agnatic. Kalmyk kinship terminology is an example of a bifurcate collateral kinship system. Although kinship ties remain strong today, they are gradually giving way to modern demands and expectations. Thus, newlyweds ideally seek to establish their own residence as soon as possible, and, more frequently, young men and women decide to leave their families to fulfill their ambitions in the Kalmyk capital or, sometimes, major former Soviet cities.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage was traditionally an important rite of passage and symbol of adulthood. Only upon marriage was a boy considered "to become a man" (kun bolva ). Monogomy was prevalent, but polygamy was practiced among the Kalmyk chiefs and the well-to-do. It was not uncommon for the younger brother to marry a deceased brother's widow. Marriage was ordinarily arranged by parents, and an astrologist (zurkhachi ) was often consulted about the compatibility of a bride. There was no elaborate property settlement. Couples were sometimes engaged as early as 6 to 7 years of age and married at the age of 16 to 18. Arranging a marriage was a long process requiring the performance of numerous elaborate customs. Lamas did not conduct the wedding ceremony. After the wedding the newlyweds settled in the khoton of the groom. Today, because of the severe housing shortage, postmarital residence is conditioned mostly by the availability of space rather than the force of tradition. Traditionally, divorce was readily accomplished at the wish of a husband. A wife seeking a divorce confronted many difficulties and could obtain freedom only after many humiliations and with the lamas' consent. Nowadays divorce is increasingly common. The age of marriage and childbearing is early or mid-20s for both men and women. Legal abortion is the principal means of birth control.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit was the khotona nomadic camp composed of several agnatically related families. An average khoton consisted of ten to twelve families, each residing in its own ger (tent). The khoton functioned as a single economic and social unit. Every nuclear family was potentially capable of taking its sheep, leaving the extended family, and joining another khoton. At present, the extended family household is the primary form of domestic unit, with a growing tendency toward nuclear families.

Inheritance. Inheritance was through the male line of descent. Property was usually divided among the sons, the eldest inheriting the largest share. A woman could inherit property temporarily until a minor male heir reached maturity.

Socialization. Friendship was a primary means of traditional socialization. After having sworn allegiance to each other, two Kalmyks became nökörs, united by a firm male bondage. Fines paid in cattle were the most common means of enforcing the law. In the nineteenth century, corporal punishment introduced by the Russian administration became the major means of discipline. Respect for parents, adults, and the aged was and continues be important.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The basic traditional nuclear household was a tent, or ger. Ten to twelve gers, most often patrilineally related, comprised a khoton, with a senior elder as a headman. The khotons were associated into larger units, the ayimaks, which were not based on kinship. Instead, the ayimaks united a number of patrilinee that shared the same grazing area. The number of tents in the ayimak varied greatly, from 100 to 1,000. At the head of the ayimak was a Kalmyk noble with the title of zayisang. The largest socioadministrative unit was the ulus, a large group of tents united by political allegiance to their ruler, the tayishi. The tayishis and the zayisangs were the ruling elite. The majority of the society were the albatu, the commoners who were ruled immediately by the khoton headmen and by a variety of other officials. Today the distinction between social groups is primarily occupational.

Social Control. Written law was known to the Kalmyks as early as the middle of the seventeenth century. But it was the common law that was most widely used well into the twentieth century. Now strong tradition and a widespread police system are the main means of social control.

Conflict. The Kalmyks, a warrior society, have a history of continuous military, political, and social conflict. Until the late eighteenth century the Kalmyks were in an almost permanent state of war with their neighbors: the Nogays, the Tatars, the Don Cossacks, the Russians, the Ukrainians, and the Kazakhs. The Kalmyks participated in Russia's largest revolts, those by Stepan Razin in 1670-1671 and by Emelian Pugachev in 1773. In the eighteenth century Russia's interference led to protracted civil wars and a severe crisis in Kalmyk society. After the Bolshevik Revolution the policies of collectivization, forceful sedentarization, and deportation to Siberia wrought a heavy toll on the Kalmyk people.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The religion of the Kalmyks is Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism, which they adopted in the late sixteenth century. As a result of the growing isolation from Tibet since the late eighteenth century, the Kalmyk lamaist hierarchy developed somewhat differently from that of the Mongols and the Oirats. The most important holiday was Tsahan Sara or "White Month," which took place around the time of the vernal equinox. The holiday marked the beginning of the New Year according to the Kalmyk lunar calendar. Until the 1917 Revolution many Kalmyks chose to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. The Soviet government made a sustained effort to eradicate religion. Today, most of the Kalmyks are atheists, and although some of the traditional holidays are celebrated, they are no longer associated with the religious ceremonies.

A pan-Mongol deity, Tsahan Avga (White Elder), was the most popular. He was believed to have resided at the shamanistic temples (obo ) located along the migratory routes of the Kalmyks. The obo, a heap of stones honoring the local spirits, often served as a site for performing various rituals, which usually ended in traditional contests of horse racing, wrestling, and arrow shooting. Superstitions, intended to deceive the evil spirits, were elaborate and extremely numerous.

Religious Practitioners. Lamaism places particular importance on the role of the lama, a monk-preceptor. The Kalmyk chief lama was appointed by the Dalai Lama. The clergy was divided into three basic groups: manji (apprentices who kept 10 precepts), getsul (novitiate monks who kept 36 rules), and gelüng (fully ordained monks who kept 253 rules). In the eighteenth century there was one gelüng for each 150 to 200 tents. The local elite supported the khurul (lamaist monastery) and donated herds and people for its upkeep. In the early nineteenth century there were about 200 khuruls, of which only 62 remained by the end of the century. Despite the laws forbidding shamanistic practices, the medicine men (emci ) remained influential.

Arts. Singing and dancing were always popular. They were commonly accompanied by a khuur, an instrument similar to a rebec with strings made out of horse gut, and by a yatkh, a type of psaltery with a separate base for each string, which the performer plucked with plectra. Oral epic poetry glorifying military feats and bravery is particularly well known. It was traditionally recited by a bard (jangarchi ), with an accompanying dombr (a two-stringed lute). In the early twentieth century these songs were collected into the Kalmyk epic Janggar.

Medicine. Hospitals and physicians are now available to the population, although medical facilites are inadequate. The limited water supply, traditionally poor hygiene, inadequate diet, and high consumption of alcohol have contributed to high infant mortality, low life expectancy, and persistence of infectious diseases, particularly tuberculosis. There was an outbreak of AIDS in Elista in 1989.

Death and Afterlife. Kalmyks traditionally believed that death occurred at the moment when the soul left the body. Accordingly, the deceased were left in the steppes to be eaten by wild animals, so as to facilitate the release of the soul from the body. For several days after the death a lama read on the departed's behalf from the Book of the Dead. The deceased was expected to be awakened by a light: it was to be an encounter with one's own self, which was at the same time the ultimate reality.


Aberle, David F. (1953). "The Kinship System of the Kalmuk Mongols." University of New Mexico Publications in Anthropology 8:3-48.

Khodarkovsky, Michael (1992). Where Two Worlds Meet: The Russian State and the Kalmyk Nomads, 1600-1771. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Ocherki Istorii Kalmytskoi ASSR (Essays on the history of the Kalmyk ASSR) (1967-1970). Vols. 1-2. Moscow: Nauka.

Pallas, Peter Simon (1771). Reise durch verschiedene Provinzen des russischen Reichs. Vol. 1. St. Petersburg: Kaiserl. Akademie der Wissenschaften. Reprint. 1967. Graz: Akademische Druck-und. Verlagsanstalt.

Rubel, Paula G. (1967). The Kalmyk Mongols: A Study in Continuity and Change. Uralic and Altaic Series, vol. 64. Bloomington: Indiana University.


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The Kalmyks, who call themselves the Khalmg, are descendants of the Oyrats people originating from western Mongolia (Jungaria). These were nomadic tribes, kindred to the Mongols in material culture, language, and religion. Today, most Kalmyks live in Kalmykia (the Republic of Kalmykia), which is one of the twenty-one nationality based republics of the Russian Federation recognized in the 1993 Russian Constitution. Kalmykia (about 29,400 square miles) is located in southeastern Russia on the northwestern shore of the Caspian Sea. Its capital, Elista, has more than 90,000 residents. Salt lakes abound in the region, but Kalmykia lacks permanent waterways. Lying in the vast depression of the north Caspian lowland, the territory consists largely of steppe and desert areas.

In 2000 roughly 314,300 people lived in Kalmykia. Its population was 45 percent Kalmyk, 38 percent Russian, 6 percent Dagestani, 3 percent Chechen, 2 percent Kazak, and 2 percent German. Representatives of the Torgut, Dorbet, and Buzawa tribes also inhabit the republic. In contrast to some of the other non-Russian languages spoken in the Russian Federation, the Kalmyk language (Kalmukian) has been classified as an "endangered language" by UNESCO due to the declining number of active speakers. Very few children learn the language, and those who do are not likely to become active users.

Another characteristic that distinguishes the Kalmyks from many non-Russian nationalities is their long and tortuous past. Due to the deficit of pasture lands and to feudal internecine dissension, the Oyrat tribes migrated westward from Chinese Turkistan to the steppes west of the mouth of the Volga River in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Between 1608 and 1609, the Oyrats pledged their allegiance to the Russian tsar. As allies, they guarded the Russian Empire's eastern frontier during the reign of Peter I (the Great), from 1682 to 1725. Under Catherine II, however, the Kalmyks' fortune changed, and they became vassals. Unhappy with this situation, about 300,000 Kalmyks living east of the Volga began to return to China, but were attacked en route by Russian, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz warriors. Another group residing west of the Volga had remained in Russia, adopting a seminomadic lifestyle and practicing Lamaist Buddhism. They became known as the Kalmyk, which in Turkish means "remnant," referring to those who stayed behind.

In 1920 the Kalmyk autonomous oblast (province) was established, which became the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in 1934. However, the Kalmyks' status shifted radically again when, in 1943, Josef Stalin dissolved the republic and deported some 170,000 Kalmyks to Siberia. He sought to punish the Kalmyk units who had fought the Russians in collaboration with the Germans. Stalin forcibly resettled a total of more than 1.5 million people, including the Volga Germans and six other nationalities of the Crimea and northern Caucasus: the Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachai, and Meskhetians. Other minorities evicted from the Black Sea coastal region included Bulgarians, Greeks, and Armenians.

Things improved for the Kalmyks when in 1956 Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced the earlier deportation as criminal and permitted about 6,000 Kalmyks to return the following year. The Kalmyk ASSR was officially reestablished in 1958. Thirty-five years later, the Russian Constitution of 1993 officially recognized the Republic of Kalmykia (Khalmg Tangch). That year, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov won the first presidential elections in the new republic. His program focused on socioeconomic improvements and the revival of Kalmyk language.

See also: constitution of 1993; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Amitai-Preiss, Reuven, and David Morgan. (2000). The Mongol Empire and Its Legacy. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Bormanshinov, Arash. (1991). The Lamas of the Kalmyk People: The Don Kalmyk Lamas. Bloomington: Indiana University, Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies.

Hammer, Darrell P. (1997). Russia Irredenta: Soviet National Policy Reappraised. Washington, DC: National Council for Soviet and East European Research.

Kappeler, Andreas. (2001). The Russian Empire: A Multi-ethnic History. New York: Longman.

Nekrich, A. M. (1978). The Punished Peoples: The Deportation and Fate of Soviet Minorities at the End of the Second World War. New York: Norton.

Warhola, James W. (1996). Politicized Ethnicity in the Russian Federation: Dilemmas of State Formation. Lewiston, ME: Edwin Mellen Press.

Johanna Granville

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