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Kalmikia: Nomads In Europe

To understand the nature of the Eurasian steppe one only has to look at the heritage of Kalmikia which is a microcosm of the constant tidal change and movement of nomad people. The Kalmiks themselves are ethnic Mongol’s of the Oirat tribe. Their time of greatness came during the ‘Zhungarian Empire’ in the 15th and 16th centuries that threatened to swallow today’s Kazakhstan, Northern China and a large part of Russia. Eventually however the Kazak tribes united and the Chinese empire eventually wiped Zhungaria off the map. Interpretations of history differ, but essentially, those Oirats (or Zhungars as known by the Kazaks) who survived the bloody battles re-settled far from home on the southern Volga steppe in geographical Europe. The Kazaks insist that the word ‘Kalmik’ comes from a Turkic word meaning ‘those who were left.’ Some historians even argue that if Russia hadn’t offered them asylum on the southern steppe then they may have been wiped out as a people all together. In any case Kalmikia became a semi-independent territory between the end of the 16th century, and 1771. Between 1664 and 1771 it was governed by the Kalmik Khaanate. The Kalmiks brought with them a form of Tibetan buddism mingled with shamanistic and nomadic custom. Those who settled close to the Volga became fishermen, whilst those who settled on the open steppe continued a nomadic herding, grazing lifestyle, with the horse, camel and sheep central to life. In 1771 however under repressive Tsarist rule, the young Kalmik Khaan at the time decided that it was time to move back to their ancient homeland of Zhungaria in China and Mongolia. So, 200 years after fleeing, around 200,000 Kalmiks set out in winter on an epic journey home. Along the way they were slaughtered by tsar-loyal Cossacks, and attacked by Kazaks who still recalled them as the bitter Zhungar enemy. Whether or not they attacked is irrelevant- even if the Kazaks refused to help them with hospitality it would have meant certain death in such conditions. Only half arrived in Mongolia and China alive. Today Oirat Mongols, the descendants of these survivors, can be found in Western Mongolia and Xinjiang province in China. Those who remained on the Volga remained known as Kalmiks. I recalled strongly my first meeting with Oirat Mongols in Mongolia 18 months ago (August/September 2004). I had been relatively green to nomad culture at that stage, and Kalmikia seemed like such a distant, almost mythical place. The toil of the Kalmik people did not end in 1771 though. Their greatest challenge as a people came in 1943 when the entire population was deported to Siberia on Stalin’s orders. The Nazis were on the march, and so all of the Kalmik livestock were also removed, mostly to Kazakhstan across the border. This resulted in a decimation of Kalmik culture, including the deaths of almost one third of the Kalmik population. After 1956, the so called ‘Siberian Generation’ began relocating back to Kalmikia. Today Kalmikia is alive, the people striving to regain a sense of place and culture in the midst of such a stormy and close past.