The Kalmyk People: A Wealth of History and Culture
Dr. Rick Taupier, PhD
University of Massachusetts Faculty Member, Amherst, USA

Recollections of "Kalmuckia" — Confiscation of Buddhist Art During Stalin Era

02 March 2006

Dear Editor,

Many thanks for the information. I have read your very nice homepage with great interest and added it among the "favorites". I have also submitted my e-mail address for future information.

Reading the entry on the Avalokiteshvara statue in Ulan Bator I recall a visit I made to St Petersburg in 1991 (1990?). I traveled with a friend, who studied in Russia in the 1960's-70's, who speaks Russian and knows everything worth knowing about St Petersburg and "Oriental Studies" in that great city. In 1990/1, it was not so great; it was just after the break down of the old regime. The Academic institutions were crumbling due to non-funding and things were very much in a flux. There was only one restaurant serving food (of a kind). In the hotel you were served coffee and a sausage one morning, tea and a bun the other. It was a remarkable experience! We visited most of the museums and collections then in existence, among them the "Museum of Atheism" housed in the Kazan Cathedral. It stored (and exhibited) many of the objects from Buryatia, Mongolia, "Kalmuckia" confiscated during the Stalin era.

Then to the point: We then met a delegation from Mongolia, which had arrived in St Petersburg to look for statues from Ulan Bator carried away during the communist regime; in particular the lost large scale statues removed to turn monasteries and temples into more "productive" institutions (such as a printing house). The delegation even crawled through the basement under the foundation of the Kazan Cathedral looking for parts of the statues, since there were rumors that they were stored there - but unfortunately found nothing. Eventually the collections were removed from the Cathedral and turned into a "Museum of Religions" (no discussion of repatriation, as I can recall) and the cathedral was again consecrated.

So much for that story. The delegation also visited our museum, which, however, does not contain any substantial collections from "Outer" Mongolia. Our Sino-Mongolian collections are from Inner Mongolia or adjacent areas of China.

Best Wishes,
Håkan Wahlquist
Sr. Curator Asian Collections
Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm
Keeper the Sven Hedin Foundation

PS: By the way, a question, which you have probably received many times already: Why do you call yourself the "Tibetan" Museum Society, when your strength evidently is to observe and inform about Mongolia and its Buddhist history? The "Tibetan Scene" in the West is so crowded with support organizations of all kinds and qualities, while Mongolia does not at all experience the same attention and support!? Tibetan Buddhism might be a much better general term for all different traditions of Northern Buddhism (surely more appropriate than "lamaism"), but when you name yourself a "Tibetan Museum", you get a wrong impression (surely as compared to what your excellent homepage contains!). The great list of links that you provide mirror the dominance of Tibetan Collections in the world (though you have picked up the primarily Mongolian ones too). But most of the Western museums also contain Mongolian collections of one sort or another. Our strength is: Sino-Mongolian religious objects; a fully equipped tempel-ger from Karashar (Xinjiang) and a fully equipped living ger from Edsin Gol (Inner Mongolia). Our homepage does not help the visitor very much in locating these collections, I am afraid, and the Sven Hedin Foundation home page is eternally "under construction". The Ethnographic Collections of the National Museum, Copenhagen, further, houses one of the great Mongolian Collections in the world: the so called Henning Haslund-Christensen collections. They are being beautifully published now under ´the so called Carlsberg Project in Copenhagen. I am above all eagerly waiting for the publication of their shaman dresses, which the curator of the collections Rolf Gillberg is editing. So much for trading information!

TMMS: Thank you for your note and to answer your question, yes, the "Tibetan" of the Tibetan Mongolian Museum Society, offers a unified approach to all traditions and schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Further, we wish to be a global advocate for all persons, institutions and causes that like us, facilitate the universal appreciation of Buddhist Art and Culture.


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We all live on the edge of great stories. There are epics in human history that span centuries and continents and together represent the history of human civilization. It is not often that we are more than bit players, the theatrical extras whose faces pass in the crowd and whose lives go unheralded. In our daily lives we forget that we are even bit players in these great dramas. We lack the vantage point to recognize those stories on the margins of which we live. More of these stories should be told. They should be told in ways that bring them to life and let us see how we are connected to them and to all the epics of human history. The history of the Kalmyk Mongolians, the only Mongolian and Buddhist ethnic group in Europe is one of those great stories.

Above my desk is a small, faded, unpretentious painting, a thangka that depicts a Buddhist refuge tree at the center of which sits the great Tibetan Lama, Tsongkhapa. It is more than 350 years old. It came from that area of central Asia known as Dzungaria, north of the Silk Road as it passes near the Tian Shan Mountains far to the west of the Great Wall of China. From there it traveled west to the steppes of the southern Volga basin, in the area north of the Caspian Sea. It survived through numerous Mongolian-Turkic-Russian conflicts and emerged as a subject of Tsarist Russia.

The thangka was handed down from generation to generation. Some of those generations fought with the armies of Peter the 1st and Catherine the Great. Almost all saw their nomadic pastoral lives increasingly limited and finally, with the Russian Revolution and Civil War, they fell under communist domination. The thangka survived soviet collectivization but during the Second World War it traveled to Siberia. Perhaps it went hidden in the lining of a coat, hastily taken when Stalin's army rounded up its owners on an early December dawn and shipped them off to live or die in the cold North.

Somehow it survived, one of the few personal belongings of a people that had virtually nothing. The majority of the Kalmyk people died in transit or starvation and exposure in the unforgiving permafrost. (1) In the late 1950s it found its way back to the Volga steppes under the more liberal policies of Nikita Khrushchev. It may have remained hidden in the wall of a modest hut built in an area not desirable to the Russian Slavs who had been induced to fill the more livable portions of the open steppe.

We can be certain that its owners lived modestly, as far out of Soviet sight as possible. They tried to eke out a living as best they could and keep alive those fragments of traditional culture they were able to salvage. It was not until the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of Soviet Communism that it came out of hiding, one of very few treasures to survive three centuries of journeys. This thangka was a gift from one of those hardy Kalmyks who lived through the long Siberian winters. They have now arrived in the early 21st Century with the possibility that they will experience in their lives some measure of cultural revival. 

The Kalmyks are descended from a confederation of western Mongols, the Oirats, who originally emerged from the taiga around the Yenisei River area west of Lake Baikal that forms the divide between western and eastern Siberia. In the early 13th century they allied themselves with the Mongol tribes under the leadership of Chenggis Khan. But the Mongolians seldom remained at peace with one another for very long. In the Mongol Civil War of 1260 to 1264 the Oirats fought on the side of Ariq-Boke against the armies of his brother, Kubilai, and lost. They joined with Kubilai's Khanate and in so doing first encountered the Tibetan Buddhists with whom they would become inextricably linked.

Those early encounters with Tibetan Buddhism involved the Sakya Lamas, most important of whom was Sakya Pag-pa. He became the personal preceptor of Kubilai and the ruling family and was credited with having taught Kubilai the skill of causing items to levitate at the banquet table. Even Marco Polo wrote of this feat. But it was centuries later in 1578 that another Khan, the Altan Khan, bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso, the foremost Gelukpa Lama of Tibet, the title of Dalai Lama, Oceanic Spiritual Friend. History came to know him as the third Dalai Lama, the title retroactively given to his two previous incarnations.

Less well known is the fact that the fourth Dalai Lama was born to Mongolian parents, the father being a grandson of the Altan Khan. Eventually the patronage of the Western Mongols became the key to the political control of Tibet. They placed the fifth Dalai Lama on the throne as both spiritual and secular leader of Tibet. That influence continued until 1757 when Manchu control of central Asia allowed them to supplant the Western Mongols in this relationship. (2)

But prior to that time several large groups of Oirats migrated to the Volga Steppes between 1630 and 1690. These 45,000 to 50,000 households represented the last great westward migration from the steppes of Central Asia. They left to avoid intra-Oirat conflicts that might have resulted from territorial pressures by the eastern Mongols, direct descendents of Chenggis Khan, who became allied with the Manchus in northern China. 

Those far Western Oirats, who would become known as Kalmyks, ran directly into the eastward expansion of Muscovite Russia. Over the next century they lost most of their autonomy. They fought efforts to convert them to Orthodox Christianity and interference in their internal political structure that the Tsarists viewed as allowing too great a degree of independence. In 1771 a large portion of the Kalmyk households endeavored to undertake a largely tragic migration back to Dzungaria.

Their goal was to retake control of Dzungaria from the Qing Dynasty of China, an area that the Kalmyk leaders knew to be largely unoccupied in the wake of Qing conquest.  An unusually warm winter that prevented the Volga from freezing divided the Kalmyks from the very start. As more than 30,000 households began the eastward migration another 11,000 households were stranded on the western shore. Those remaining turned out to be among the more fortunate. The majority of those undertaking the eastward journey, under constant attacks from the Kazakhs and stress from disease and starvation, died en route.

The approximately 70,000 who did reach Dzungaria had no choice but to surrender to the Qing upon arrival. They were not treated unkindly. Less than 20 years earlier the Qing army had killed more than one million Dzungar Mongols who refused to submit to Manchu control. The Emperor Qianlong moved to regain Kalmyk allegiance through gifts of rice, livestock, cloth and eventually pastures that would induce them to remain and guard the borders of the Empire. Thus it is that the majority of the current Xinjiang Mongols are descended from and sometimes known as Kalmyks due to the ties they shared with the Volga Kalmyks. The lessening political restrictions of the last decade of the 20th century have allowed many to become re-acquainted. Among the Kalmyks, and all Mongolians, blood-ties have always run deep.

It may be that from the outside it is possible to view the Kalmyks as a unified ethnic minority. But even a short exposure to the culture reveals a complex mix of tribal and kinship groups with a history of constant realignment. In the great migration back to Dzungaria in 1771 it was primarily the Torghut tribe who left from the eastern bank of the Volga and the Durbot who were left behind. In the latter half of the 18th Century the Durbot split into two groups, the greater and lesser Durbots. It is they with a number of small renegade groups who form the present day Kalmyks.

The Kalmyks, isolated from other Mongolian cultures, developed and preserved a distinct language expressed through several different scripts over the past four centuries. The most recent, Clear Script (Todo Becik), developed by the Mongolian Buddhist sage Zaya Pandita in 1648, (3) is a modified version of the vertical Uighur-Mongolian script. It is this form of writing that is now being taught again to some Russian Kalmyk children in elementary and secondary schools. Spoken Kalmyk is now considered a different language from Mongolian, not a separate dialect. It is largely uninfluenced by modern Mongolian and difficult for a Mongolian speaker to understand.

It is not widely known that the largest Kalmyk population to reside outside of Eurasia lives in the U.S. In the late 40s the Allied governments were faced with the task of resettling some 2000 Kalmyk refugees from Western Europe. Many came from prison camps or were otherwise displaced during the war. When the Allies found that Stalin had exiled all the Russian Kalmyks to the North, and that other repatriated groups were being executed upon arrival back in Soviet Russia, the U.S. government agreed to take them. They were first settled in New Mexico but the land they were placed on was so poor that not even the Kalmyks could survive. And so they were resettled in New Jersey and integrated themselves into American society during the 1950s and 60s.(4)

Geshe Ngawang Wangyal was one of the last great Kalmyk Mongolian Geshes to leave Kalmykia to be educated in Drepung Gomang Monastery in Lhasa. He left Tibet in 1951 and in 1955 immigrated to the U.S. to minister to this population of Kalmyk refugees. (5) He was the root disciple of Agwan Dorjieff, the famous Buryat Mongolian Geshe and reformer of Buddhist institutions in Buryatia and Kalmykia. (6) In 1958 Geshe Wangyal founded the first Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in America in the suburbs of New Jersey and soon began to teach the first generation of American Tibetan Buddhist scholars. The most famous of that remarkable group are Robert Thurman and Jeffery Hopkins who have since trained yet another generation of fine Buddhist scholars. I myself studied under Dr. Thurman and was fortunate to study for several months with Geshe Wangyal.

A complete history of the Kalmyks has yet to be written. It is my goal to accomplish this task over the next few years assuming that time, resources and circumstances allow. Numerous texts however do contain limited sections devoted to the Kalmyks. More sources of historical material about these remarkable people are being uncovered and there are known to be numerous texts in the Todo Becik script in museums and archives in St. Petersburg Russia, Elista Kalmykia, and in Xinjiang China. Yet few historians are able to read this script and I know of only one such text translated into English. That text is the History of the Kalmyk Khans written by an unknown Kalmyk historian, translated by Stephen Halkovic, and published in 1985. (7) Michael Khodarkovsky's Where Two Worlds Met (8) is the only text of which I am aware that is readily available for purchase. It is a well-researched and enjoyable work of history.

Readers of Russian have a few more options and some of the historical materials written by Kalmyk scholars in Russian in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are now being reprinted in Elista. Perhaps the least known historical materials however are in the Tibetan language. How much of that material deals specifically with the Kalmyks is unclear but there are known to be more than 15 texts on the history of Buddhist Mongolians among that literature. (9) We do know that all the Kalmyk Khans were buried in Lhasa by agreement with the Dalai Lama and over time it is hoped that we will find other buried treasures among the literature salvaged from the great Tibetan monastic libraries.


1  See Conquest, R. The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities. MacMillan & Co. London, 1960. Official estimates show a lower mortality rate but those figures do not account for those who died in transit nor do they agree with more recent efforts to account for all the Kalmyk families involved in the deportation.

2 Perdue, Peter, C. China Marches West. Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2005

3 Khordarkovsky, Michael. Where Two Worlds Met. Cornell University Press, 1992.

4 Rubel, Paula. The Kalmyk Mongols. Indiana University Publications, 1967.

5 Wangyal, G.N. The Door of Liberation. Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1995. See Preface to the New Edition.

6 Snelling, John. Buddhism in Russia: the Story of Agvan Dorzhiev, Lhasa's Emissary to the Tsar. Element Books, London, 1993.

7 Halkovic, Stephen A. Jr. The Mongols of the West. Research Institute for Inner Asia Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1985.

8 Khordarkovsky, Michael. Ibid.

9 Bira. Sh. Mongolian Historical Literature of the XVII-XIX Centuries Written in Tibetan. The Mongolia Society, Bloomington, Indiana, 1970. Also see Martin, Dan. Tibetan Histories. Serindia Publications, London, 1997.


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