Staunton, December 28 – Seventy-seven years ago today, Stalin began the deportation of the Buddhist Kalmyks from the North Caucasus to Siberia and the Far East, an action in which more than 50 percent of those exiled died and which involved the complete suppression of Kalmyk statehood and the Kalmyk language.
As republic head Yury Zaytsev said today, the Kalmyk people suffered “irreparable harm” as a result, but they retained their dignity and worked hard as special settlers in defense plants during and after World War II. And they were eventually able to return to a revived republic (nazaccent.ru/content/34804-den-pamyati-zhertv-deportacii-kalmyckogo-naroda.html).
But they have been less successful in reviving their language, becoming one of the many non-Russian nations who speak Russian but identify as non-Russians, a pattern that calls into question Vladimir Putin’s assumption that language change will inevitably lead to identity change (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2016/10/kalmyks-using-their-language-less-but.html).
The Kalmyks have been undergoing an identity change as well, however. Many Kalmyks now say that they are not Kalmyks, a term the Russian conquerors imposed on them but Oirots, a Mongol term that links them with the Buddhist peoples of Inner Asia and one Moscow discourages the use of.
One Oirot activist is Vladimir Dovdanov, who lives in the Kalmyk Republic capital of Elista. Speaking at the recent meeting of the Free Russia Forum, he insisted that he is an Oirot and not a Kalmyk. There is no such people as ‘the Kalmyks,’” he says. There are only Oirots and the Oirot language (idelreal.org/a/31022524.html).
Both the nation and the language are under increasing pressure from Moscow and the republic authorities are not doing much to slow this process. As a result, many who call themselves Kalmyks consider themselves “second-class people” as far as Russians are concerned. Those who identify as Oirots have no such inferiority complex.
Kalmyks have always been aware of their Oirot roots, but the effort to promote a change in self-designation goes back to a series of comic books first put on sale four years ago. These carefully researched comics in the intervening period have promoted this identity shift (riakalm.ru/news/daynews/3022-segodnya-v-prodazhu-postupil-pervyj-kalmytskij-komiks-syumsn-volya-sudbynazaccent.ru/content/21329-pervyj-kalmyckij-komiks-postupil-v-prodazhu.html).
Officials in Kalmykia have generally been pleased, but many Russian ones may rue the appearance of such materials. Comic books not only allow the discussion of alternative futures and alternative pasts but help form the worldviews of the young who read them. And Kalmyk history is full of events that an Oirat warrior might find himself arrayed in conflicts with Russia,
The name “Oirat” is Mongol and refers to “the forest peoples” in the westernmost part of the Mongol Horde. They settled on the western bank of the Volga, but their relations with Russia were fraught with violence: Catherine the Great tried to have them exterminated, and after they revolted in 1926, 1930, and 1942-43, Stalin deported them.
Of particular interest in this regard is the history of Kalmyk and Mongol efforts at rapprochement. The Kalmyks were part of the pan-Mongol movement in the early 20th century, and Mongol leaders tried to convince the Soviet government to allow the Kalmyks to resettle in Mongolia at the time of the famine in the early 1920s.