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ALTERNATE NAMES: Khal'mg ( Qal'mg)
LOCATION: Russia (Republic of Kalmykia in the southwest)
POPULATION: 518,500 total, 174,000 in Russia
RELIGION: Tibetan sect of Mahayana Buddhism (Lamaism)


The ancestors of the Kalmyks were originally members of the Oirat (Oyirad) people, a West Mongolian ethnic conglomerate living as nomadic pastoralists in the Dzungarian steppes of the Inner Asian heartland between the Altai and T'ien Shan Mountains. Dzungaria (Djungaria), in Sinkian (Xinjiang) Province of China, is the original homeland of a people known in the West as the Kalmyks (also spelled Kalmucks and Kalmuks), and in Central Asia, particularly among the closely related Mongolian nationalities, as Idjil Monggol (the Volga Mongols), Öröd (Oirats), or DörwnÖröd (Four Oirat [Allies]). The latter are Torgűd, Dörböd, Khoshud (Qoshud), and Khöd (Qöd) or Qoyid. The fourth member of this Oirat confederation has been variously referred to as Qöd (Qoyid), Ölod, Dzungar or Djungar, or Tsoros.

The self-appellation of the Kalmyks is Khal'mg (Qal'mg). Their Turkic-speaking neighboring peoples and tribes called them qalmaq, r galmuq, from which the Russian spelling Kalmyk has been derived. This name must have come into use at the end of the 16th or the beginning of the 17th century, when the Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and other Turkic peoples first came into direct contact with the vanguard of the ancestors of the Kalmyks, the Oirats (Oyirad). The name Kalmyk is not used in Central or Inner Asia. The Chinese historian Chí-yü Wu reports that "throughout the entire Ch'ing Dynasty, in spite of the close relations between the Court and the Oirats, the name Kalmuk never made its appearance in any of either the official or personal works of the period and was not known until very recently, when some of the Western sources began to be used by Chinese scholars."

The ancestors of the Kalmyks initially came into direct contact with the Russians at about the same time. As a result of intertribal internecine dissension, as well as socio-economic and other factors, many of the component tribes of the Oirat confederation (Torigűd, Dörböd, Khoshud) abandoned their ancestral nomadic encampments in Dzungaria and moved westward, finally occupying the steppes between the Ural and Lower Volga Rivers of South Russia in the 1620s. Other Oirat splinter groups joined them afterwards in the then-existing Kalmyk Khanate, and the entire group became known as the Kalmyks.

Under the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-96), Russia became a great European power. It was the policy of the imperial Russian authorities to limit the power and sovereignty of the Kalmyk khans and the Kalmyk fear of eventually being forced to convert to Christianity made them and their nobility discontented and agitated. In January 1771 approximately 169,000 people fled Russia to Dzungaria to avoid being completely subjugated to imperial Russian domination. They left behind, on the west bank of the Volga, one-fifth of their kinsmen, who were unable to join them because that winter was unusually warm and the river did not freeze over, thereby making it impassable. The flight of the vast majority of the Kalmyks proved disastrous. Only a fraction reached Dzungaria in July 1771 after suffering great losses in human lives, livestock, and property. They became Chinese subjects, while those who remained behind were integrated into Great Russia. The Russians consolidated their rule over the Kalmyks and created three administrative divisions that were attached to the regional governments of Astrakhan, Stavropol, and Don. In the Civil War of 1917-20, most of the Kalmyks adopted a hostile attitude toward the atheist Bolsheviks and sided with the anti-Communist Russian armies. The defeat of these armies in 1920 led some of the Kalmyks to flee Russia. They dispersed into Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, France, and Czechoslovakia. The remaining Kalmyks in the Astrakhan steppe, like other non-Russian nationalities, were allowed to form their own autonomous oblast' (region) in November 1920. In October 1935, this region was elevated to the status of a republic and became the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (KASSR) with its capital at Elista. During World War II, the Kalmyks were drafted into the Red Army like all other peoples of the USSR. After the German invasion of the Kalmyk Republic in 1942 and their subsequent expulsion, the Kalmyks were unjustifiably accused of collaborating with the German army. The Soviets took punitive measures with regard to the Kalmyks, not bothering much about the validity of the rumors. They dissolved the Kalmyk Republic, and on 27 December 1943, deported the Kalmyks to Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. After the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party (1957), at the beginning of the year of the "liquidation of the cult of personality" (i.e., de-Stalinization), the Kalmyks were permitted to return to their former homeland, which on 29 July 1958 again became the KASSR. In 1991 the republic, now one of the 16 autonomous republics within the Russian Federation, changed its name to Kalmykia. It is headed by a popularly elected president for a term of seven years.


The population figures of the Kalmyk people in Russia for the period 1897-1989 present an interesting topic for demographic research. The official census figures of the Kalmyk population in Russia are: 1897, 190,648; 1926, 129,321; 1929, 134,866; 1959, 106,066 (only 64,822 in the KASSR); 1970, 137,194 (of whom 110,264 lived in their native land); 1979, 146,631 (of whom 122,167 lived in the KASSR); and 1989, 174,528 (of whom 146,275 resided in their native republic). In addition, there were 121,531 Russians and 54,773 inhabitants representing 41 different nationalities (i.e., 176,304 non-Kalmyks.) Thus, the total population of Kalmykia comprised 322,579, of whom there were 158,020 males and 164,559 females, and 147,176 urban and 175,403 rural inhabitants. Some 89.9% considered Kalmyk their mother tongue. The significant decreases in population figures between 1897 and 1926 and between 1939 and 1959 are striking. A comparison of the 1897 and 1926 census figures shows that the Kalmyks decreased in number from 190,648 to 134,866. These tremendous human losses should be attributed to the tragic events of the Civil War of 1917-1920 in Russia, the ensuing flight of a sizeable number of people to Turkey and points beyond, malnutrition, and terrible famine in the Volga region in the early 1920s. According to the censuses of 1939 and 1959, the number of Kalmyks declined in 20 years by 28,800, or 21%, if all of these figures are at all trustworthy. There were 91,972 inhabitants in the capital city of Elista (called Steponi between 1944 and 1957) in 1990. The Kalmyk diaspora is made up of about 1,000 Kalmyks residing in the United States, who immigrated in 1951-52 and during the 1960s from various European countries, and between 700 and 750 in Europe, mostly in France, with small numbers in Germany and Bulgaria. A few Kalmyks can be found in Canada, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.

The Republic of Kalmykia is situated in the southwestern part of the Russian Federation, on the west bank of the lower Volga and the northwestern shore of the Caspian Sea. It extends approximately from 41°45' to 47°30' e. and from 48°20' to 44°50' n. The geographic center is at 45°30' e. and 46°30' n. Kalmykia borders on the Rostov-on-Don region in the west, the Astrakhan region in the east, the Volgograd region in the north, and the Stavropol krai (territory) and the Republic of Daghestan in the south. It is comprised essentially of a dry steppe or of the vast semidesert flat lowland of the northern Caspian Depression. The climate is markedly continental, with hot and dry summers and very cold winters but with little snow. The average temperature in July fluctuates between 23° and 26°c (73.6° to 78.8°f) and in January from minus 8° to minus 5°c (18° to 23°F).


Kalmyk is a West Mongolian language, closely affiliated with Khalkha (Qalqa) Mongolian (spoken in Mongolia), various Mongolian dialects spoken in the Sinkiang (Hsin-chiang) Uighur Autonomous Region of China, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, and in the Buriat Republic in Russia. They all constitute the Mongolian language group, an important division of the Altaic family of languages. Kalmyk is spoken by the overwhelming majority (89.9%) of the population of Kalmykia and by the older generation of the Sart Kalmyks numbering 3,000 to 4,000 and dwelling in the area of Przhevalsk, near Lake Issyk Kul, in the northeastern part of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. The younger generation is now almost completely assimilated and speaks Turkic Kyrgyz. The Kalmyk language is divided into three dialects-Torgűd, Döböd dialect, and Buzâwa. The latter is quite close to Torgűd and is spoken by the Don Kalmyks, who before the 1920s resided in the Sal'sk District of the Don Cossack region. The Dörböd dialect, spoken by the Dörböd of Astrakhan (Lesser Dörböd) and Stavropol (Greater Dörböd) Provinces, varies in some rather insignificant ways from the Torgűd and Buzâwa dialects. A few of the characteristic features of the Kalmyk language are as follows: (1) two distinctive inventories of single (short) and geminate (long) vowel phonemes; (2) vocalic harmony, a common feature of the Altaic languages (i.e., in one and the same stem, only front or back vowels may occur, with I occurring in stems with any vowels); (3) the absence of any gender categories; (4) ten cases for the declension of nouns, nominal postpositions, pronouns, participles, etc., as well as a singular/plural distinction; (5) verbs having the categories of mood, tense, person, number, voice, and aspect; (6) lack of agreement in gender, case, and number between adjectives and nouns.

Until 1648, the Kalmyks and their kindred Oirates (Oyirad) used the old vertical Mongolian script. In 1648, the learned monk-scholar Zaya Pandiata (1599-662) invented the so-called "clear script" (todo bichig), an improved and phonetically more precise Mongolian script. It came somewhat closer to the actual pronunciation but was never a phonetic one, and thus remained always quite apart from the colloquial Kalmyk language.

The Zaya Pandiata script fell into disuse and was replaced in 1924 by the Cyrillic alphabet, popularly referred to as the Russian alphabet. This was abandoned in 1931, however, when the modified Latin alphabet was introduced in many non-Russian republics and regions, only to be replaced in 1938 once again by the Cyrillic alphabet. The latter has been in use up to this day.

Kalmyk is especially rich in kinship and livestock terminology, forms of polite address with respect to nobility and the secular clergy, and terms of respect when addressing elderly and senior people. The firstborn child is called uugn and the youngest one is otxn. An ordinary person's photo or picture is zurg but that of the ecclesiastic's is günra. To die or pass away is ükx önggrx, but taal or burxn bolx for lamas and high secular clergy. To arrive or sit solemnly as applied to princes and high lamas is zalrx; otherwise, it is irx. Domestic animals such as horses, sheep, goats, cattle, and camels have different names depending on their age, sex, color and, if applicable, whether or not they are castrated. Thus, a one year-old lamb is xurgn or tölg, a sheep aged two years is zusg xön, a ram aged three years is gunn irg, a female sheep aged four years or older is xön, a ram of the same age is xuc, but a castrated one of the same age is irg.


The Kalmyk people can justifiably boast of one of the richest oral traditions not only among the Mongolian-speaking peoples but also among Asian peoples as a whole. From time immemorial this tradition has preserved rich and diverse specimens of folklore with loving care. Myths are the most archaic among the specimens of oral literature. Their oldest layer can be traced to the heroic tales and the heroic epic Janggar, which states that there are three levels of outer space: the Upper universe (Tenggrin gazr) inhabited by dragons, celestial beings, and gigantic birds; the Middle universe (Zambtiv), whose inhabitants are the epic heroes, demons, and ordinary mortals; and the Lower universe, which is the realm of various mythological creatures such as gigantic serpents, ghosts of the waters, mountains, and so on.

Legends did not originally differ from the myths either in content or form. The oldest legends reflected mythological and werewolf-like views of the phenomena of nature and primitive society. Quite a few folk legends tell about the origins and the ancestors of the tribes and clans-e.g., a well-known legend about the origin of the Dörböd princes of the Tsoros clan or another tale of Tundutov, the forefather of the Dörböd princes.

The paremiological folklore represented by the proverbs, proverbial phrases, and riddles is especially rich and widespread; these forms clearly reflect the succinct folk wisdom. Benedictions (yöräl), glorifications (magtal), damnations (kharal), incantations (tarni), and songs relate to the ancient forms of oral folk poetry. Benedictions are usually rhythmic in nature and are uttered on all kinds of occasions,-for example, weddings, the birth of a child, when greeting guests at the table, in proposing a toast to someone's health, or success, as congratulations, and so on. Damnation (kharal) is the complete antithesis to benediction (yöräl) because it means misfortune, harm, or disaster to someone else. Glorifications (magtal) were an odic form exalting the heroic deeds of epic and war heroes. Incantations (tarni) were primarily spoken by women in order to pursue a determinate object producing a particular effect.

The genres of Kalmyk songs are diverse-heroic, historic, ritual, lullaby, drinking, satirical, songs of praise, and so on. They are either short (axr dun) or long and drawn-out (ut dun). The latter are considered the oldest in the song repertoire of the Mongolian peoples. The folktale is an especially rich and popular genre of Kalmyk oral tradition, and there are four such genres: fairy tales, heroic tales, animal tales, and everyday (morals and manners) tales.

The heroic epic Janggar's is the best-known specimen of Kalmyk and Oirate oral literature. It bears the name of the main hero who is surrounded and supported by a dozen of his closest and most trusted heroes. They courageously fight foreign and alien enemies at Janggar's side. Each of these heroes is endowed with a specific distinctive attribute. The events in this epic tale take place in the imaginary land of Bumba, a land of boundless happiness and prosperity, of eternal youth and immortality, a land where winter is unknown. Hero worship is an underlying element of this epic.


The Kalmyks were faithful and fervent Buddhists, following the faith of their forebears. If Kalmykia is classified as a part of Europe, then the Kalmyks would be considered the only Buddhist ethnic group inhabiting Europe. They belong to the Tibetan "Yellow Hat" or Gelugpa (Virtuous Way) sect of the Mahâyâna or Northern branch of Buddhism, which is also commonly referred to as Lamaism. It still contains an admixture of indigenous beliefs and shamanistic practices. The Kalmyks were converted from their earlier shamanistic beliefs to Tibetan Buddhism shortly before they reached the Lower Volga area in the early 17th century. Until the exodus in 1771, they were able to maintain direct contacts with Tibetan religious centers, thus enabling the importation of sacred Tibetan texts, religious images and thankas, church plates, and other articles. Many monks went to Tibet and Mongolia for advanced education at the lamaseries. The Dalai Lamas have always been recognized by the Kalmyks and other Mongolian-speaking peoples as the highest spiritual and religious authority.

During the existence of the Soviet Union, religion in the Kalmyk Autonomous Republic was completely suppressed. All Buddhist temples were either closed or destroyed. The last elected religious head of the Kalmyk people, Lama Lubsan Sharab Tepkin (born in 1875), was arrested in 1931, tried, condemned, and exiled to the region of Tashkent in present-day Uzbekistan for a period of 10 years. The date of his death and the place of his burial are unknown. The first sign of the revival of Buddhism in Kalmykia can be dated to January 1989, when the first (albeit small) khurul (Kalmyk Buddhist temple) began to function in Elista. In June of that year the first group of 10 Kalmyk boys was selected and sent to Ulan Bator in Mongolia to study Buddhist scriptures and prayers at the local Buddhist academy. In 1991 a Buddhist temple was opened in Buryatia in Siberia, and among its 60 pupils were several Kalmayks. On 5 October 1996 the first large-scale multistoried temple was opened and consecrated. Many other temples have been built throughout Kalmykia, totaling over 20. The Kalmyks in the United States have four functioning temples-three in Howell, New Jersey, and one in Philadelphia.


All holidays celebrated by the Kalmyks are non-secular (i.e., strictly religious) and based on the lunar calendar. As a rule, being Buddhists, the Kalmyks do not observe Christmas, Easter, or other Christian and non-Christian holidays. Six major Buddhist holidays are celebrated and are marked by giving gifts to the temples and money and food for the lamas.


In the days when doctors or hospitals were not available, Kalmyk women gave birth to their children in their traditional nomadic tents or houses. Midwives were usually unpaid elderly women without any formal training. A midwife (baabk in Kalmyk) was highly respected in the household concerned. The birth of a boy always brought joy because it secured the continuity of the patrilineal descent of the family. Childlessness or giving birth only to girls was considered the greatest misfortune that could occur. It was not unusual for a childless woman to return to her parents' home. The childhood and teenage years in Kalmyk families have no distinctive rites of passage. Death and burial are a family matter. It is customary to visit the deceased person's family to express one's condolences. Monks, who consult the sacred Buddhist scriptures, determine the dates of the funeral and the memorial services. During the funeral they let it be known that people born incertain lunar years may not touch the deceased's coffin. At that time or at the requiem, both people present and not present donate money to the bereaved family as a token of their sympathy. It is believed that after death the spirit of a deceased person wanders about for 49 days. On the 49th day the invited monks offer special prayers at the home of the deceased in the presence of his/her family. On this day, the soul of the departed is supposed to leave his/her home and transmigrate into another body or being. In times past, it was customary to cremate the mortal remains of nobility and high ecclesiastics in full view of the people.


The Buddhist clergy occupies a position of high esteem. When commoners meet ecclesiastics, they greet them by bowing and touching their heads against the monks' hands. Formerly, it was not customary to shake hands. Women, especially those who are middle-aged and elderly, usually abstain from handshakes with each other. It is considered to be a sign of piety and courtesy to bow before a host's Buddhist altar if it is within sight. The elderly are highly respected in Kalmyk culture. They are traditionally allowed entry to homes before the younger people and are given the right to lead conversations and not be interrupted. Kalmyks are known to be hospitable. Traditionally, the doors of one's home were always open to everyone, even complete strangers. It was acceptable to enter someone else's abode without ringing the door bell or knocking at the door. Visitors and guests are always served tea, food, and drinks. Refusal of the offer of drink and food is considered rude and pompous, insulting to the host or the hostess. In the past, young unmarried men and women met only at evening parties, as dating was not then socially acceptable. A formerly observed custom was for a bridegroom to meet his bride for the first time on their wedding day. Many customs have since changed, however, and dating, now commonplace, is not significantly different from dating in other countries.


Before the 1917 Bolshevik coup d'état in Russia, medical care in Kalmykia was virtually nonexistent. The people relied for their medical care on Buddhist monks (emchi) who had been trained in Tibetan medicine. The mortality rate was quite high, especially among children. The number of cases of smallpox was substantial because the Kalmyks were afraid of being vaccinated. The introduction of Western medicine in the 1920s significantly alleviated health problems in Kalmykia. At about the same time, the Soviet authorities started to combat the most widely spread diseases-tuberculosis and venereal diseases-just as they did in Mongolia. Tuberculosis was attributed to three causes: an occupational disease among the fishing population along the shores of the Caspian Sea; undernourishment; and the wearing of sleeveless camisoles by Kalmyk girls beginning as early as seven or eight years of age. The tight camisoles prevented normal chest development.

Even though tuberculosis is supposed to have been completely eradicated in Kalmykia, sporadic outbreaks of this contagious disease have been reported in recent years. The Kalmyks seem to be susceptible to tuberculosis. For example, a considerable number of people fell ill with it in prewar Yugoslavia and postwar Germany. Because of negligence on the part of the medical personnel of the Elista city hospital, a mass outbreak of AIDS occurred in the spring of 1989. The total number of people infected by the AIDS virus in Kalmykia exceeded 100, the overwhelming majority of them children, and some have since died. Teams of medical specialists from New Jersey have visited Kalmykia on half a dozen occasions in order to render assistance and deliver needed medical equipment and instruments to hospitals in Elista.

The population of Kalmykia can be divided into urban and rural. The town dwellers are better off as far as employment opportunities, housing conditions, consumer goods, public education, and medical facilities are concerned. In Elista, for instance, most of the people live in tenement houses in their own multi-room apartments that meet minimum standards of sanitation, safety, and comfort and are usually located near bus stops. Taxicabs are also readily available. The living conditions in most of the rural areas, however, are inferior. Not all of the countryside communities have adequate basic services such as indoor water and sewer facilities, gas, proper housing, transportation, hospitals and clinics. For this reason, many Kalmyks living in villages have decided to migrate to urban areas, either in Kalmykia or further in another part of Russia. The standard of living of Kalmyks living in West European countries and in the United States is predictably higher.


Women were traditionally regarded in Kalmyk society as of lesser standing. To be sure, the Kalmyk women were not blindly subject to their husbands as in India, nor were they strictly isolated as in Islamic tradition. Nonetheless, there was a patriarchal system of rules governing the conduct of women, particularly married women. The practice of taboos against saying men's names resulted in a special women's jargon. All clothing was sewn by women. A woman's daily household routine consisted of preparing food and arrack (a type of alcoholic beverage), milking cows and mares, gathering fuel, drying and salting meat, and caring for children. The change from a nomadic to a sedentary way of life alleviated the lives of Kalmyk women as fewer items were domestically manufactured and more were purchased. More women began to attend educational institutions and to receive higher education. Today, many women in Kalmykia hold advanced degrees in a wide range of fields. In the United States, quite a few Kalmyk women have received a college education.

The average family size in Kalmykia consists of about four to five individuals. The strained housing and economic conditions of a sizable proportion of the Kalmyk population significantly affect family size. Previously, it was not uncommon for a family to have six or more children.

Marriage is monogamous; polygamous marriages are unknown. In the past, the only polygamists were khans and high nobility. Until recently, marriages in both Kalmykia and abroad were for the most part endogamous (marrying within one's own ethnic group) unless there were no locally available Kalmyk girls. The number of marriages between Kalmyks of both sexes and non-Kalmyks has been progressively growing. This development has affected the Kalmyk family in many mostly unfavorable ways. Parents strive to have their sons and daughters marry their own kinsmen and co-religionists, but in Kalmyk tradition, marriage between young people of the same yasun (kin in the bone) and between distant cousins up to seven times removed is discouraged. This significantly limits its the possibilities for in-group marriage. Married sons are customarily expected to live with and care for aging parents. When there are no married sons, married daughters assume this responsibility.


Traditional clothing for men and women was of the same design irrespective of region. Men wore rather long and baggy shirts with low collars made of canvas, coarse calico, or cotton. Trousers were tucked into boots of black goatskin leather. Over their shirts, men wore a Caucasian-type beshmet (quilted coat) that fitted at the waist, with a stand-up collar. The preferred color of the beshmet was blue. Worn underneath it was a waistcoat made of nankeen (cloth). The belt, made of silver, was considered the most valuable item of apparel and a required element of male and female garments. The headdresses of both men and women were diverse. The most widely worn cap was the toorcg, with a black lambskin cap band and a quadrangular top trimmed with otter. The top of the cap was made of bright broadcloth edged with white or colored lace. A distinctive red tassel jutted out in the middle. Many men liked to wear Russian-type service caps.

Starting at 14 years of age, girls wore over their underwear a peculiar, tight sleeveless canvas corset (called a kamzol ) that prevented the natural growth of their breasts. On top of this they wore a special kind of beshmet called a biiz with a tight waist made of silk, wool, satin or printed cotton. The lace or cloth belt was a required part of the girl's attire. The female headdress was of three main styles. As everyday clothing, married women wore long-sleeved dresses down to their heels. Over their white shirts, they wore a long sleeveless tsegdeg embellished with ornamental details sewn from wool or black cotton materials. These were adorned with rich embroidery. Unlike men and unmarried women, married women never girdled themselves. Today, traditional clothing is worn only on special occasions such as religious festivities, major national holidays, weddings, and so on. In the last 80 or so years, Kalmyks have worn clothing similar to that of other modern urbanites.


The Kalmyk diet is based primarily on meat. By far the favorite meat is lamb, followed by beef, chicken, and pork. In the past, camel and horseflesh were also eaten. Until very recently, the staple of the Kalmyk diet was so-called Kalmyk tea, which was made from crumbled pressed-brick tea, milk, salt, butter, nutmeg, and bay leaves. Brick tea was originally imported from China but in recent years it has been replaced by locally grown tea from Georgia and other southern regions of Russia. This tea is served always at rites and holidays, but regular tea or tea bags and evaporated milk are used for everyday purposes. On ceremonial occasions it is also customary to serve boiled lamb cut up into small pieces and mixed with finely cut fresh onions. Lamb stock is also served on those occasions, and it is believed to have medicinal properties.

A very popular Kalmyk dish is dotur. After a sheep is slaughtered, the thoroughly washed large and small intestines, tripe, and stomach are cut into pieces. The lung, liver, kidney, and heart are also washed. All the entrails are boiled and then served. Customarily, relatives and neighbors are invited to eat this dotur. An equally popular dish is böreg, a counterpart of Chinese boiled dumplings and Russian vareniki. This is made of ground lamb or beef that is boiled and sometimes served with sour cream. This dish is also popular in Tibet, Mongolia, Buriatia, and Sinkiang (Xinjiang). Formerly, the common people consumed a soup, budan, almost daily. Budan consisted of dried lamb or beef with onions and was thickened by adding flour to the broth, and finally sour cream was added. Kumiss is a beverage made of fermented mare's or camel's milk. It is not readily available nowadays, but a similar drink prepared from fermented cow's milk is used for medicinal and dietetic purposes. Chigän-fermented cow's milk added to fresh milk-is a refreshing drink. Bulmug, a gravy-like dish of thick broth, flour, milk, sugar, raisins, and fresh apples and/or pears, is usually prepared in winter. Borcog are small flat whorl-shaped cakes made of flour, water, and yeast and fried in oil. These come in various shapes and forms and are served on festive occasions. There are no taboos of any kind insofar as food and drinks are concerned.

Kalmyks today are becoming accustomed to European and Russian food such as borscht (soup made of cabbage and beets), bliny (thin round pancakes), xolodec (jellied minced meat somewhat similar to headcheese), and vinegret (salad of cucumbers, potatoes, onions, etc., dressed with oil and vinegar). Kalmyks who have lived in countries outside of Russia (the Balkans, France, etc.) have adopted some of their popular dishes. In the United States, young Kalmyks do not differ from their American counterparts in what they eat and drink.


Until the 1930s, literacy among the Kalmyks was very low. Many parents chose not to send their children to Russian grammar schools out of fear that they might become Russianized and/or baptized. Other parents were unable to educate their offspring because they could not afford to pay the school dormitory expenses in distant locations. The Soviet authorities, realizing that only literate people could be reached by propaganda and be of use for agricultural and industrial development, began massive Soviet campaigns directed at the eradication of illiteracy. According to Soviet sources, by 1940 the literacy rate had risen to 91%, up from 3.8% in 1924. Today, the percentage of Kalmyks who can read and write must be even higher because of considerable progress in education.

Education was sorely neglected in the Kalmyk steppe by the Tsarist government. In 1917, there were only 14 Kalmyks with a higher education. The number of elementary schools was small, and they were far apart. The language of instruction was Russian. Recently, the Kalmyk language has experienced a revival. In 1993, 24 national classes were developed, and national classes and the teaching of Kalmyk language is a priority and continues to be expanded. Teaching of Kalmyk culture and history is also a priority. There are no longer shortages of schools (from grammar to senior high school) or of college-educated teachers. In 1964, the Kalmyk Pedagogical Institute was established in Elista. Six years later, it was reorganized into the Kalmyk State University. It has numerous departments offering undergraduate courses in Kalmyk language and literature, Russian, foreign languages, history, mathematics, agriculture, and so on. In recent years, new courses in marketing, business, and management have been introduced. The establishment of a graduate school is in the initial stages.


Russian and other foreign travelers who visited the migratory Kalmyks in the 18th and 19th centuries took note of their musical ability. They reported that most of the musicians playing the dombra, a two-stringed, triangular-shaped musical instrument, were women. (The instrument's strings were made from sheep intestines.) One of the most prominent foreign visitors was Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870), a famous French novelist and dramatist, who visited the Kalmyk steppe in October 1859. He was entertained at a dinner in his honor at the mansion of Prince Tseren-Djab Tumen' (1824-1864) by an orchestra of Kalmyk musicians who played overtures by Mozart and Rossini. The great Russian composer and director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov, immediately recognized the exceptional talent of a Kalmyk student, Dordji Mandjiev (1883-1909), a gifted cellist and violinist. Unfortunately, Mandjiev died of pulmonary tuberculosis in the prime of his life. In general, Kalmyk women are more involved in music and singing than men. Today they are familiar with the violin, cello, accordion, grand piano, and other instruments.

During formal and informal gatherings and various festive ceremonies, Kalmyk singing and dancing take place to the accompaniment of the dombra. Dancing involves the stamping and rapid movement of the feet more than the movement of the arms and hands. It is done by same-sex or opposite-sex, individually, in foursomes, or even in a group. Dance partners face each other, but when they turn around they dance back-to-back. Women dance more calmly, easily, and gracefully, whereas the dancing of the men is notable for its occasional swift movements and for the loud stamping of feet.

Secular literature did not exist until the advent of the 20th century. The only known literary works are three historical chronicles written in the vertical todo script during the 18th and 19th centuries. The first Kalmyk writers made their appearance at the end of the 1920s with short stories and poems. The poets wrote their poems in the traditional alliterative metrical verses, which were either consonantal or vocalic-i.e., in a tetrastich (a stanza consisting of four lines) in which initial consonants or vowels were repeated either successively or alternately. In Kalmyk verses, the lines are non-rhyming. The first novels appeared in 1962. In 1957, a new generation of poets and prose writers made their appearance after their return from enforced exile in Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. Some younger writers write their works only in Russian. The works of Kalmyk writers and poets appeared also in Russian translation, particularly in Elista and Moscow. Needless to say, until about 1990, writers had to adhere to the canons of the Communist Party-controlled dominant style of Socialist Realism.

The breeding of horses was traditionally part of the Kalmyks heritage, due to their nomadic past. Today, there is a tendency to return to this tradition, as 28 stud farms operate in the republic. Likewise, the breeding of sheep has been important to the Kalmyks in the past and continues to be important to the Kalmyks.

While Kalmyks are Buddhist, some remnants of older religion and shamanism remain in practice. In some areas, sha-mans are reported to continue to hold a place of respect. Fire is believed to be sacred and to have cleansing properties. Smoke from juniper branches are also considered to have cleansing properties. Heaps of stones that are believed to have spiritual properties are found in the region.


Until recently, few goods were purchased. Women, who bore the full brunt of domestic housekeeping and were busy from sunrise until late in the evening, made most goods. They sewed all the clothing and, in addition to the daily household work of preparing food and arrack (an alcoholic brandy distilled from fermented mare's milk, kumiss ), they milked the cows and mares, gathered fuel, dried and salted meat, and cared for children. With the abandonment of the nomadic way of life and the rise of a settled agricultural existence, certain changes took place. The evolution of the Kalmyk economy also brought about changes in Kalmyk life. Fewer items were manufactured at home and more were purchased. During World War I and World War II, Kalmyk women had to bear the entire responsibility for the fields and their homes while the men were at the front. In the past, a favorite pastime for men was to visit to their relatives, comrades, or neighbors in order to chat, exchange news and gossip, enjoy some drinks, play cards, or simply lie down out-of-doors either smoking pipes or napping in a shady place. All of this has changed, however, with the radical departure from a nomadic way of life and the advent of secular education. Nowadays, there is no difference between the work habits of Kalmyks of either sex.


In the past, Kalmyk-style wrestling, archery, and horse racing were very popular. These took place during folk and religious holidays, weddings, and other festive occasions and attracted throngs of local people as well as guests. Young girls and women competed in archery and horse racing equally with young boys and men. Horse races were conducted over a distance of 6.5 miles to 16.5 miles and involved the participation of 10-20 riders of both sexes. The Kalmyks are very fond of chess and known to be good chess players. In fact, as of 2008 the president of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was the leader of FIDE, the World Chess Federation. He oversaw the building of a multi-million dollar complex called Chess City, located on the outskirts of Elista. By far the most popular sport played and enjoyed by both children and adults is soccer. In the 1930s the Kalmyk soccer team in Prague (consisting of high school and college students) made it to the first Czechoslovak soccer league. In the 1960s a Kalmyk soccer player played for the French national team as its captain. His son also became a famous soccer player.


There are theatres and concert halls in Elista and elsewhere in Kalmykia. The former have been experiencing difficult times due to a decline in attendance, a lack of state funding, and a shortage of suitable plays.

Virtually every Kalmyk household has a television, which is very popular among both the urban and rural population. The television station in Elista offers both local and national news and various programs of entertainment and culture. The latter are transmitted from Moscow. In Kalmyk homes in the United States, it is not surprising to find VCRs, DVD players, personal computers, fax machines, and stereo systems.

Teenagers and other young people are fond of American youth culture. American clothing (blue jeans), rock music, and movies are especially popular. Entertainment is usually provided at weddings, dance parties, and other occasions, and musicians perform western-style music. At such functions, native Kalmyk music is also provided for dancing. Elista is home to several discos, which are frequented by young people.


Traditionally, Kalmykia had a reputation for its bonesetters, who treated both cattle and people. They could set fractures, or broken or dislocated bones, usually quite successfully. Sometimes they resorted to removing certain small shattered bones and replacing them with the bones of a young camel.

The Kalmyks were skilled in almost every imaginable type of handcraft. From head hides they made distinctive large flasks (bortxo) for keeping arrack brandy, and from the hides of legs and bellies of cattle they made hunting bags, buckets, and other vessels, as well as straps for various purposes. From sheepskin women sewed fur coats. Wooden cups of different shapes, sizes, and grades were hollowed out from birch, maple, elm, or walnut wood. These are still used in households for drinking Kalmyk tea. Kalmyks were also skilled goldsmiths and silversmiths.


In December 1943 the Kalmyks were subjected to the most flagrant violation of their human and civil rights when the entire nation, including front-line soldiers and officers, was deported to Siberia and adjacent regions for alleged collaboration with the German army of occupation. Since their return to their homeland in 1957, they have enjoyed equal rights in every respect. In Kalmykia, Russians enjoy the same rights as the Kalmyks, despite some evidence of tensions. The office of mayor in Elista, the capital city, has been held by a Russian, as has the representative from Kalmykia to the Russian State Duma (parliament).

Drug abuse has as of yet not been a major problem in Kalmykia. Alcoholism is a problem, although numbers of alcohol-related deaths are lower than the average for Russia. Kalmykia has one of the highest infant mortality rates in Russia, and life expectancy is lower.


While in the past there may have been very little equality between the sexes among the Kalmyks, this is a trend that has changed. Today, the situation of Kalmyk women is similar to that of most other women in Russia. Kalmyk women, as women of most ethnicities under the Soviet Union, were actively encouraged to join the workforce. Kalmyk women are known to hold important positions within their community, obtaining success both in business and civil careers.


Bormanshinov, Arash. Kalmyk Manual. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 1961.

Erdniev, U. E. Kalmyks: Historical and Ethnographical Studies.3rd ed., In Russian. Elista, Kalmykia: 1985.

Fagan, Geraldine. "Russia: Few Complaints Over Kalmykia's State Support of Buddhism." Forum 18 News Service, 11 April 2003.

Gordon, Raymond G. Jr. (ed). Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: SIL International, 2005.

---. "The Kalmyks in America, 1952-62." Royal Central Asian Journal 50 (1963).

---."Kalmyks," Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Ed. S. Thernstrom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1980.

---."The Kalmyks in the United States 35 Years Later." The Mongolia Society Newsletter, n.s. 5 (1988).

---. The Kalmyks: Their Ethnic, Historical, Religious, and Cultural Background. Howell, NJ: Kalmyk American Cultural Association, 1990.

Government of the Republic of Kalmykia. Education Section. http://www.kalm.ru/en/education.html (June 2008).

Mydans, Seth. "Where Chess is King and the People Pawns." The New York Times, 20 June 2004.

Pridemore, William Alex and Sang-Weon Kim. "Patterns of Alcohol-Related Mortality in Russia." J Drug Issues. 2006; 36(1): 229-247.

Rubel, P. G. The Kalmyk Mongols: A Study in Continuity and Change. Indiana University Publications, Uralic and Altaic Series, vol. 64. The Hague: Mouton & Co. 1967.

Wu, Chi-yü. "Who Were the Oirats," Yenching Journal of Social Studies 3 (1941).

— revised by M. Kerr

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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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The Kalmyks, traditionally Mahayana Buddhist pastoral nomads, originated as an offshoot of the Mongols. They moved into the southern Volga Steppe region in the 1660s. Strong under Khan Aiuka (1669–1724), they allied with Peter the Great who used them as a buffer against possible Persian invasion.

Subsequently, the tsarist government "divided and ruled," and a continuing influx of peasants severely hampered the Kalmyk pastoral-nomadic life. Despairing and desperate, in 1771 they attempted a coordinated flight back to their ancestral home, Dzungaria. Weather prevented the Kalmyks on the western bank from leaving, but both groups residing on the eastern bank fled eastward. It was at this point that the first genocide occurred. The harsh winter killed many, but Bashir units sent by the tsarist government massacred many more. Perhaps only a quarter of the fleeing Kalmyks reached Dzungaria. There the Ching government annihilated large numbers and forcibly dispersed the remainder into cultural oblivion among other pastoral nomadic groups.

In the nineteenth-century the poverty and demographic decline of the Kalmyks began to worry the Russian government. These circumstances threatened the Kalmyks' continued ability to provide a significant share of the cavalry mount for the Russian army. Also, low population density would leave the Kalmyk region of the northwest Caspian littoral open to Turkish invasion from the south. In the 1880s and 1890s the tsarist government improved education and health conditions, and the Kalmyk population started to recover.

The eventual Russian revolution impacted the Kalmyks. Some fought with the White Army and then fled to Serbia. The communists established the Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast in 1920; it became the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in 1935, with its capital at Elista. A devastating blow, a de facto second genocide, came with Joseph Stalin's enforced collectivization during the 1920s; violence and starvation killed many.

In World War II numerous Kalmyk soldiers fought in the Red Army; some received the highest military decorations. However, in the summer of 1942, when the Nazis occupied Kalmykia, some local Kalmyks, and others from Nazi-occupied Serbia, sided with the Nazis as a way to throw off the communist yoke. The Soviets reconquered the Kalmyk ASSR in December 1942. Stalin declared all Kalmyks Nazi collaborators and ordered them deported. In December 1943 boxcars carried the total population of the Kalmyk ASSR, including communists and Komsomols, to prison camps in Siberia and Central Asia. This was the third great Kalmyk genocide—about half survived.

In his Secret Speech to the Communist Party in February 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced this forcible exile of the Kalmyks and that of the Karachai, Chechen, Ingush, and Balkhars from elsewhere. However, only after international pressure were some Kalmyks finally allowed to return home in 1957. Although traumatized by their forced exile into Gulag, the returnees started over in their reconstituted homeland.

After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the Republic of Kalmykia became federated within Russia. Twenty-first-century Kalmyks realize that, while the genocide perpetrated from 1944 through 1957 failed, much cultural destruction occurred, and economic globalization and other pressures could lead to ethnocide. Therefore, both in Kalmykia and within overseas communities of Kalmyks, including several in New Jersey, leaders seek to preserve and revitalize the Kalmyk language and key parts of the culture.

SEE ALSO Cossacks; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics


Khrushchev, Nikita S. (1956). Crimes of the Stalin Era, Special Report to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. New York: New Leader.

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

Linda Kimball

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