The Kalmyk Migration


A traditional Kalmyk encampment. The Kalmyk yurt, called a gher, is a round, portable, self-supporting structure composed of lattice walls, rafters, roof ring, felt covering and tension bands

Modern scholars know more about these events three hundred years ago than almost any foreign observer of that time. Yet there is much to be learned from studying commentaries of that time—they teach us what contemporaries knew, suggest why decisions were made, and provide us an understanding of the intellectual climate in which decisions about frontier peoples were made.

Thomas Penson De Quincey (1785-1859) is recognised today for his 1822 Confessions of an Opium-Eater, but in his lifetime he was better known as a writer and journalist. A polymath who had demonstrated early in life extraordinary talents, he was prevented by poor health from doing more than commenting on society, politics and history. Still, his Collected Works amounted to twenty-two volumes.

His long article on ‘the Revolt of the Tartars’, appeared in a prominent magazine, Blackwood, in July 1837, and was almost instantly recognized as an adventure classic. He took the basic facts from a German article by Bergman, Versuch zur Geschichte der Kalmüken Flucht von der Wolga, whose narrative had been based on the recollections of a Russian prisoner, Weseloff. ‘The Revolt of the Tartars’ was, therefore, a third-hand narrative that reflected an obscure incident in the vast borderland between two advancing civilisations—China and Russia. The steppe tribes that roamed what is today Kazakhstan were caught in the middle. Hence De Quincey’s subtitle: Flight of the Kalmuck Khan and his People from the Russian Territories to the Frontiers of China. This event, according to De Quincey, was perhaps the most romantic of any story in history, involving the mightiest of Christian thrones and the mightiest of pagan ones, a myriad of wills, the wild barbaric character of the migrants upon whom the national catastrophe fell, and the many open and hidden motives of those involved. There was first a conspiracy, then a great military expedition, and lastly a religious exodus. Against such a magnificent background, one equal in colour to the skies and mountains that framed the limitless prairie, what did mere facts matter?

The story began 21 January 1761, when Ubashi Khan (Prince Oubacha, 1724-75) succeeded his father as ruler of the Kalmyk people living on both sides of the Volga River. He had been only eighteen years of age when he first had a role in tribal leadership, not old enough to command the allegiance of the clan leaders of his widespread tribe and certainly unlikely to impress the officials of the distant tsarina of Russia who allowed the nomads free use of the Kuban plain in return for military service; and even when mature he lacked the domineering personality that impresses nomads. It was no surprise, therefore, that a rival was able to persuade the Empress Elizabeth (1709-62) to give him her blessing to assist Ubashi in ruling his scattered people. This started the series of events that led the Kalmyks to decide to leave Russia. Doing that, however, would not be easy.

First, the Kalmyks had been in the service of tsars and tsarina so long that memory of their having fled the attacks of the Zungars was distant folklore. Elizabeth and Catherine II (1729-96), their most recent Russian overlords, had plenty of infantry—conscripts from the peasantry—but those sturdy fighters were only familiar with draft animals; for cavalry they had their noble boyars, but those aristocrats insisted on returning to their estates quickly after each campaign was over. This meant that for a more permanent cavalry force the generals had to rely on Cossacks. These wild horsemen were, alas, undependable; they resisted every governor’s efforts to control them and periodically revolted over issues involving pride and traditional independence.

As a result, military leaders had advised trying to replace them, or at least restrict their expansion, by asking more of the Kalmyks. As governors insisted that the tribesmen remain longer on campaigns, mass desertions resulted. This made generals determined to bring the Kalmyks to heel as well as the Cossacks.

Second, the Quin dynasty was not known for treating steppe peoples leniently. In 1756-7, only a few years before, the emperor had ordered his generals to kill all the Lamas of the ‘Yellow Teaching.’ This could only be done after destroying the Zungar leadership, which, as we have seen, they did by a combination of surprise, betrayal, and force. Such a policy of extermination was rare for the Quin emperor, but the Zungars had refused assimilation point blank; his response was to make their steppe into a human desert. Where once 600,000 nomads had lived, now not a tent could be seen anywhere.

For the Kalmyks this meant that a new homeland was available—actually their old homeland—if they could secure Catherine II’s blessing to return there. They knew little about the lands in between, but one steppe and one mountain range were much like any other. Their ancestors, losers in the complicated wars of rapidly changing Central Asia, had come to Russia with only two usable skills—herding animals and making war. They had not seen any reason to learn how to farm or live in villages. This had meant that, since Russian generals always wanted more cavalry, they had enlisted for wars both in Europe and on the eastern steppe, where tsars were extending control beyond the horizon to the east. Now, however, they could see that this arrangement was coming to an end.

Once Catherine II began to settle wheat farmers in the Kuban in 1763, it was obvious that the wide plain was becoming too small to support the herds of the nomads. The immigrants known as ‘Volga Germans’—Roman Catholics from the Holy Roman Empire—were introducing modern agricultural methods that increased production more than the traditional villages of serfs could do. While the empress seemed to be carrying out a traditional policy—encouraging enterprises that would produce more taxes—she was also reducing the danger of revolution by diversifying the population. Although Catherine II was angering Orthodox Cossacks and Buddhist Kalmyks by bringing in Roman Catholics who weren’t even good Russians, she knew that ancient rivalries with the Muslims of the Caucasus Mountains and the Turks would make it impossible for them to acquire allies there.

Meanwhile, the Kalmyks were finding themselves ever more unwelcome in Russia. They had taken, in part, the Cossacks’ main reason for existing—military service for the tsar. But more fundamentally, all herdsmen—Cossacks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and Kalmyks alike—hated manual labour, working at lowly jobs in the towns and being treated as an inferior form of life. The Cossacks arguably suffered less—they at least spoke Russian and understood what was going on. But they all resisted as best they could.

No cattlemen anywhere have ever been known to be unduly sensitive to farmers’ complaints about their herds trampling the grain. While the Cossacks giving up some of their horses and becoming farmers was nothing unusual—the Cossacks had always been men of the soil—for the Kalmyks this was a serious challenge to their entire way of life. A nomad was a man only as long as he was on horseback, and paying taxes to some Russian official would undermine the whole clan structure. Moreover, for a Kalmyk to become a farmer implied abandoning Buddhism. In the Russian language the word for peasant was крестьян (Christian).

The religious situation in the Kuban was as easily ignited as a prairie fire, and as quick to spread. Everyone was aware of the wars that the Cossacks had fought against the Circassians and Chechens, and they anticipated the yet more fierce wars to come. But Catherine II, like most Enlightenment rulers, believed that she had the knowledge and the power to shape society as she wished, and that everyone would be better off for it.

This had resulted in a considerable reduction in Ubashi’s authority. The Kalmyk clan leaders were already accustomed to considerable autonomy; after all, with the herds scattered over a very wide area, it had been impractical to refer all minor issues to the khan. When Ubashi was required to submit all his decisions to review by a council of tribal elders, it became possible for a rival, Zebek-Dorchi, to challenge him. (We do not actually know this rival’s name, since Zebek-Dorchi means ‘a legitimate claimant’ to tribal leadership.) Soon the young upstart was the dominant figure among the clan leaders, a role that the tsarist governor seems to have recognised—and welcomed as weakening tribal unity. However, the government seems to have had an exaggerated view of what it could expect its new puppet to do. Clearly, there was no point in any Kalmyk leader asking permission to return to China.

When tsarist officials explained to Zebek-Dorchi what they expected him to do, he agreed to cooperate. But that was a lie. He saw what the settlement of German and Russian farmers in the most favourable areas between the Volga and Don Rivers meant—that more farmers would be coming soon. Already herders were being forced to take up lowly trades in the cities and forts; this would inevitably lead to conversions to Orthodox Christianity. But he could not defy the government, because the governor would give his new authority back to the old khan. Nor could he simply murder his rival—Catherine II was not a person to forgive such actions. But he could prepare the way to lead the Kalmyks back to their original homeland east of the Caspian Sea or even back to the Great Wall of China. To this end he began a correspondence with the emperor of China, who gave his approval to the proposal, then wrote a prominent lama of the Yellow sect, probably a Mongol (but often identified, probably incorrectly, as the Dalai Lama), who, presumably after consulting the stars and signs, set the date for the start of the migration in January 1771. All this had to be conducted in greatest secrecy, first to avoid tsarist officials taking hostages from among the families and then to make excuses for crossing the ring of forts that marked the frontier. If his intention was discovered, the garrisons could prevent their passing safely with their herds and wagons.

When Ubashi Khan learned what the tribal leaders had decided, he originally bent to their will, but over the months to come he made as much trouble for Zebek-Dorchi as he dared. He knew that he could not flee to the Russians because Catherine would not forgive him for failing to control his people, and the Kalmyks in the Kuban would probably assassinate him. Therefore, he accompanied the exodus, but did not cooperate fully with the Kalmyks’ new leader.

The garrisons on the frontier were mostly Cossacks, Orthodox fanatics ready to kill Catholics, Jews, or Muslims, or even Buddhists like the Kalmyks. They were fierce warriors, completely at home on the limitless plains, and among the best horsemen in the world. There were also Poles, Germans, and representatives of all the oppressed people in the empire—the Russians had mastered the techniques of divide and rule, letting the subject peoples terrorize each other into submission.

Catherine II thus had good reasons to keep the Kalmyks in her service. If they were allowed to leave, why not others? Moreover, in 1770 Ubashi had led 40,000 cavalry to support the Russian army in its war against the Turkish sultan and had contributed greatly to the ultimate victory. However, the Russian court and army made no secret of their disdain for him and any of their other barbarian subjects. Insolence, contempt, and mistreatment—common features of imperial regimes—were typical of Russian officers and administrators. Since Western Europeans looked down on the Russians, the example may have been contagious; alternatively, it may have reflected the folk memory among Russians of the long and bloody oppression by horse-born raiders and conquerors from the south and east. It might have come simply from the difficulty of finding competent and humane men to spend their lives on a distant and backward frontier, but more likely it was hatred for the way that hundreds of thousands of their people had been carried away into Muslim slavery, and treasure uncountable had been handed over as tribute. It was pay-back time, even if the Kalmyks had not been guilty of those crimes and were not even Muslims.

If De Quincey alternated between ‘Kalmuck’ and ‘Tartar’, it is of no importance. No horde in that era was ethnically pure. Relationships were often symbolic; what was uniform was the lifestyle. Languages varied, but communication was not a problem—this was not the first time there had been a mass migration. A similar one had brought the Kalmyks west, just has earlier hordes—Goths, Huns, Avars, Pechenegs, Mongols and Tatars—had come through Russia into Central Europe. Many had followed the route back east when climate and politics permitted or required, and the route was strewn with the remnants of Turkic, Mongol and Caucasian peoples who had stopped along their migrations. Some of these peoples undoubtedly disliked the Kalmyk plans because they did not want anyone crossing their grazing lands, consuming the grass and spreading diseases.

Since Zebek-Dorchi had to consult with the tribes along his proposed route, it is no surprise that rumours of the exodus reached the governor, who first dismissed the idea, then became panicked. Zebek-Dorchi’s plan had been for the Kalmyks to burn all their own dwellings—to discourage the faint-hearted from turning back—then to fall on all the Christian settlements in the Kuban. However, the ice on the Volga was too thin that January for Kalmyks in the Kuban to cross. Knowing that they would be massacred in retaliation if they attacked Russian towns and farms, they quietly returned to their homes. Thus, the exodus consisted only of the 200,000 Kalmyks living east of the Volga River.

The Russian army was soon on the trail of the fugitives—and a wide trail it must have been, beaten out by wagons, horses, cattle, sheep and camels. However, the Cossacks, regular army units and other nomadic peoples could not move swiftly, either, as they were burdened by a supply train and artillery; on the other hand, they had few civilians to slow them down, and no herds needing water and forage.

The Kalmyks had a considerable head start thanks to having made the first three hundred miles in a week. Exhausted, they paused at a river before moving on at an average of forty miles a day, a pace which was greater than the animals could stand for long. Soon sheep and cattle began to perish. Even earlier their milk had given out, making it impossible to feed the infants and younger children. As a result, it was the camels which saved the tribesmen, though they, too, were becoming gaunt. It was, after all, deepest winter in one of the coldest regions on earth.

The first confrontation was won by the heavily armed garrison of a fort at a river crossing. Fortunately for the Kalmyks, many of the Cossacks had gone to the Caspian Sea to fish, and the rest retreated under the renewed pressure of Kalmyk numbers. Nevertheless, the tribesmen could not take the fort, and since they could not pass by beyond cannon range, they and their herds were under constant shelling the five days it took to reach the opposite shore. At the very end news arrived that the rear guard, 900 men from one of the most powerful clans, had been defeated by a Cossack force and utterly annihilated.

The Kalmyks immediately increased the pace, fearing that the Cossacks would occupy the only pass through the mountains ahead. They gained time to cover that 150 miles thanks to a ten-day snow storm, during which they slaughtered many of their animals and feasted, regaining strength for the race to come; meanwhile each day some of the tribesmen made progress toward their goal. In early February they could see the mountains.

Their scouts, alas, reported that they had arrived too late—Cossacks were already in place—and soon other reports came in that hostile forces were approaching from every point of the compass. This new enemy—Kyrgyzs, Kazakhs and Bashkirs, all former allies well-known to them—deserved their formidable reputation both for valour and endurance. That made it all the more necessary to force the pass at once. But it was only when the Kalmyks attacked that they saw how small the blocking unit was; Zebek-Dorchi then led dismounted warriors around the defenders and came in from the rear at the same moment that the main body of horsemen struck from the front.

The battle quickly became a slaughter. The Cossacks had exhausted their horses and camels to get into position, and so the mounts lacked the strength to carry the surviving heavy riders through the snow to safety. For generations thereafter Kalmyks related the story of the battle as one of the most glorious moments in their national history.

There was still a formidable army plodding on behind them. Michael Johann von Traubenberg (1719-72) was a German-Balt with a reputation for moving as slowly as he thought. Governor of Orenburg, a Cossack outpost just north of the Kazakh lands, he was responsible for the huge region to the south. To maintain his family’s status at the court, he needed a success in this expedition (or at least the appearance of one); on the other hand, he did not want to repeat the failure of the 1718 expedition to Khiva in the Uzbek khanate—the loss of the entire army of perhaps 4,000 men. The extremes of weather were formidable—brutal cold in winter, terrible heat in summer—so he was cautious about wearing out his men and their mounts.

Traubenberg followed slowly with his artillery as far as Orsk, counting on 10,000 Kazakhs and an equal number of Kyrgyzs to join him as soon as the spring grass was up. Both Turkic peoples were Sunni Muslims, but while their Hanfi legal tradition emphasised religious flexibility based on logical analysis of problems, they had each suffered Kalmyk attack when they had resisted tsarist expansion. Now the sides had changed—these warriors could earn pay and the tsarina’s favour while dispatching ancient enemies. But spring was months away. So the best Traubenberg could do was send scouts to keep track of the fugitives, then follow along slowly with the main army. His scouts reported finding many frozen bodies of women and children who had vainly huddled around the campfires in hope of surviving another night.

By May the Kalmyk had covered 2,000 miles. Thinking themselves safe, they scattered throughout the rolling prairie so that their surviving animals could graze and they could relax. When envoys from Traubenberg caught up with them, their hopes of being able to negotiate a new relationship with the tsarina’s government vanished—the only terms Traubenberg would accept were unconditional surrender. This was hardly rejected before Bashkirs struck, wiping out one isolated clan after another.

Once again the Kalmyks set off in wild flight, with their enemies trying to get ahead and hold them in place until the Cossack army could catch up. But the prairie was too broad to trap them long; and the Kalmyks, despite the desert heat and lack of forage, pushed on. In the summer both fugitives and pursuers reached settled territories. Both faced difficult choices—to proceed straight ahead meant encountering forces trying to prevent them from plundering, to go around meant starvation for men and beasts.

Our information about this summer crisis is sparse because our main informant about the winter march, a prominent Russian prisoner, had escaped and made his way back to Orenburg. De Quincey reports that when he rushed into his home, his mother was so overwhelmed by seeing her only son still alive that she fell dead on the spot.

As the two hordes approached the Chinese border in the early autumn, the fighting became ever more frenzied. As De Quincey put it: ‘The spectacle became too atrocious; it was that of a host of lunatics pursued by a host of fiends.’

As it happened, that very day, September 8, the Chinese emperor, Qianlong, was visiting Xinjiang, hunting in a vast area made almost devoid of human population by earlier operations of the Chinese army. According to a Jesuit reporter, he was standing at the entrance to his pavilion when he observed a cloud in the distance, a cloud that became ever larger, rolling forward in immense billows. Quickly he summoned his military escort and huntsmen, who watched in consternation as they espied distant men thundering toward them, with faint cries of desperation and combat discernible. There were so few Chinese that they could be easily overwhelmed, but nobody dared move without an imperial command.

The emperor realised that the foremost party was the Kalmyk host, but he had not expected them to arrive for another three months and not in such furious haste. While the emperor debated with himself whether or not to retire towards his main army, he saw that the mass of horsemen began moving away at a slight angle toward a body of water, Lake Balkhash (Tengis). He was too far away to see well, but he was quickly informed that the Kalmyks, Kyrgyzs and Bashkirs had been ten days in the desert and were now perishing from thirst. With no thought for further fighting, the Kalmyks threw themselves into the lake. There they were slaughtered by their pursuers until the Bashkirs and Kyrgyzs also succumbed to the desire to drink. Then a desperate struggle began, with all sides trying to lap up the bloody water, to push enemies beneath the surface, and to gather in protective clumps of friends and relatives. Then the Chinese cavalry arrived and the commander of a nearby fort began lobbing cannon balls among those Bashkirs and Kyrgyzs who remained mounted at a distance. The Kalmyks then took their revenge on those dismounted enemies who had been abandoned by their fleeing kinsmen.

The emperor assigned the Kalmyks territories superior to those they had abandoned in Russia, but the losses in human and animal wealth could not be made good quickly. Moreover, Zebek-Dorchi was now thoroughly disgusted with the khan, an enmity that came to the attention of the emperor, who soon discovered that Zebek-Dorchi had been conspiring with various tribal leaders to throw off Chinese rule. The emperor apparently ordered the khan to deal with it, which he did at a banquet during the great assembly of the ‘Tatar peoples’—an annual tradition dating back to the time of the Mongols—slaughtering Zebek-Dorchi and his fellow conspirators. Ubashi Khan was henceforth the undisputed ruler of the Kalmyks, but, with his people scattered to the five districts assigned by the emperor, he ceased to be important.

Ubashi Khan did have his revenge on his rivals—his partisans wrote the tribal history.

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