Banner granted by Elizabeth of Russia to Donduk Dashi as a Khan of Kalmykia
The Kalmyk Khanate in the 17th century
|Capital||Ayuka Khan's residence (1697-1724)|
|Common languages||Kalmyk, Russian|
|Religion||Tibetan Buddhism (Gelug, Karma Kagyu)|
o died 1644
o Annexed by Russia
The Kalmyk Khanate (Kalmyk: ? , Xal'mg xana uls) was an Oirat khanate on the Eurasian steppe. It extended over modern Kalmykia and surrounding areas in the North Caucasus, including Stavropol and Astrakhan. They ruled over the Golden Horde for three centuries before being annexed by the Tsar. During their independence, the Kalmyks both raided and allied with Russia in turn, engaging in numerous military expeditions against the Crimean Tatars, the Ottoman Empire, neighboring Muslim tribes, and the highlanders of the North Caucasus. The Khanate was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1771.
Upon arrival to the lower Volga region in 1630, the Oirats encamped on land that was once part of the Astrakhan Khanate, but was then claimed by the Tsarist government. The region was lightly populated, from south of Saratov to the Russian garrison at Astrakhan, and on both the east and the west banks of the Volga River. The Tsarist government was not ready to colonize the area and was in no position to prevent the Oirats from encamping in the region, but it had a direct political interest in ensuring that the Oirats would not become allied with their Turkic-speaking neighbors.
The Oirats quickly consolidated their position by expelling the majority of the native inhabitants, the Nogai Horde. Large groups of Nogais fled southeast to the northern Caucasian plain and west to the Black Sea steppe, lands claimed by the Crimean Khanate, itself a vassal or ally of Ottoman Turks. Smaller groups of Nogais sought the protection of the Russian garrison at Astrakhan. The remaining nomadic tribes became vassals of the Oirats.
At first, an uneasy relationship existed between the Russians and the Oirats. Mutual raiding by the Oirats of Russian settlements and by the Cossacks and the Bashkirs (Muslim vassals of the Russians) of Oirat encampments were commonplace. Numerous oaths and treaties were signed to ensure Oirat loyalty and military assistance. Although the Oirats became subjects of the Tsar, such allegiance by the Oirats was deemed to be nominal.
In reality, the Oirats governed themselves pursuant to a document known as the Great Code of the Nomads (Iki Tsaadzhin Bichig). The Code was promulgated in 1640 by them, their brethren in Dzungaria and some of the Eastern Mongols who all gathered near the Tarbagatai Mountains in Dzungaria to resolve their differences and to unite under the banner of the Gelugpa sect. Although the goal of unification was not met, the summit leaders did ratify the Code, which regulated all aspects of nomadic life.
In securing their position, the Oirats became a borderland power, often allying themselves with the Tsarist government against the neighboring Muslim population. During the era of Ayuka Khan, the Oirats rose to political and military prominence as the Tsarist government sought the increased use of Oirat cavalry in support of its military campaigns against the Muslim powers in the south, such as Persia, the Ottoman Empire, the Nogays and the Kuban Tatars and Crimean Khanate. Ayuka Khan also waged wars against the Kazakhs, subjugated the Mangyshlak Turkmens, and made multiple expeditions against the highlanders of the North Caucasus. These campaigns highlighted the strategic importance of the Kalmyk Khanate which functioned as a buffer zone, separating Russia and the Muslim world, as Russia fought wars in Europe to establish itself as a European power.
To encourage the release of Oirat cavalrymen in support of its military campaigns, the Tsarist government increasingly relied on the provision of monetary payments and dry goods to the Oirat Khan and the Oirat nobility. In that respect, the Tsarist government treated the Oirats as it did the Cossacks. The provision of monetary payments and dry goods, however, did not stop the mutual raiding, and in some instances, both sides failed to fulfill their promises.
Another significant incentive the Tsarist government provided to the Oirats was tariff-free access to the markets of Russian border towns, where the Oirats were permitted to barter their herds and the items they obtained from Asia and their Muslim neighbors in exchange for Russian goods. Trade also occurred with neighboring Turkish tribes under Russian control, such as the Tatars and the Bashkirs, with whom intermarriage became common. This trading arrangement provided substantial benefits, monetary and otherwise, to the Oirat tayishis, noyons and zaisangs.
Fred Adelman described this era as the Frontier Period, lasting from the advent of the Torghut under Kho Orluk in 1630 to the end of the great Khanate of Kho Orluk's descendant, Ayuka Khan, in 1724, a phase accompanied by little discernible acculturative change (Adelman, 1960:14-15):
During the era of Ayuka Khan, the Kalmyk Khanate reached its peak of military and political power. The Khanate experienced economic prosperity from free trade with Russian border towns, China, Tibet and with their Muslim neighbors. During this era, Ayuka Khan also kept close contacts with his Oirat kinsmen in Dzungaria, as well as the Dalai Lama in Tibet.
Historically, the West Mongolian tribes identified themselves by their respective tribal names. Most likely in the 15th century, the four major West Mongolian tribes formed an alliance, adopting "Dörben Oirat" as their collective name. After the alliance dissolved, the West Mongolian tribes were simply called "Oirat." In the early 17th century, a second great Oirat State emerged, called the Dzungar Khanate. While the Dzungars (initially Choros, Dörbet and Khoit tribes) were establishing their empire in Western Inner Asia, the Khoshuts were establishing the Khoshut Khanate in Tibet, protecting the Gelugpa sect from its enemies, and the Torghuts formed the Kalmyk Khanate in the lower Volga region.
After encamping, the Oirats began to identify themselves as "Kalmyk." This name was supposedly given to them by their Muslim Kazakh neighbors and later used by the Russians to describe them. The Oirats used this name in their dealings with outsiders, viz., their Russian and Muslim neighbors. But they continued to refer to themselves by their tribal, clan, or other internal affiliations.
The name Kalmyk, however, wasn't immediately accepted by all of the Oirat tribes in the lower Volga region. As late as 1761, the Khoshut and Dzungars (refugees from the Qing Empire) referred to themselves and the Torghuts exclusively as Oirats. The Torghuts, by contrast, used the name Kalmyk for themselves as well as the Khoshut and Dzungars.
Generally, European scholars have identified all West Mongolians collectively as Kalmyks, regardless of their location (Ramstedt, 1935: v-vi). Such scholars (e.g. Sebastian Muenster) have relied on Muslim sources who traditionally used the word Kalmyk to describe the Oirats in a derogatory manner. But the Oirats of China and Mongolia have regarded that name as a term of abuse (Haslund, 1935:214-215). Instead, they use the name Oirat or the go by their respective tribal names, e.g., Khoshut, Dörbet, Choros, Torghut, Khoit, Bayid, Mingat, etc. (Anuchin, 1914:57).
Over time, the descendants of the Oirat migrants in the lower Volga region embraced the name Kalmyk, irrespective of their locations, viz., Astrakhan, the Don Cossack region, Orenburg, Stavropol, the Terek and the Urals. Another generally accepted name is Ulan Zalata or the "red buttoned ones" (Adelman, 1960:6).
After the death of Ayuka Khan in 1724, the political situation among the Kalmyks became unstable as various factions sought to be recognized as Khan. The Tsarist government also gradually chipped away at the autonomy of the Kalmyk Khanate. These policies, for instance, encouraged the establishment of Russian and German settlements on pastures the Kalmyks used to roam and feed their livestock. In addition, the Tsarist government imposed a council on the Kalmyk Khan, thereby diluting his authority, while continuing to expect the Kalmyk Khan to provide cavalry units to fight on behalf of Russia. The Russian Orthodox church, by contrast, pressured many Kalmyks to adopt Orthodoxy. By the mid-17th century, Kalmyks were increasingly disillusioned with settler encroachment and interference in its internal affairs.
In the winter of 1770-1771, Ubashi Khan, the great-grandson of Ayuka Khan and the last Kalmyk Khan, decided to return his people to their ancestral homeland, Dzungaria, then under control of the Qing dynasty. The Dalai Lama was contacted to request his blessing and to set the date of departure. After consulting the astrological chart, the Dalai Lama set the return date, but at the moment of departure, the weakening of the ice on the Volga River permitted only those Kalmyks who roamed on the eastern bank to leave. Those on the right bank were forced to stay behind.
Under Ubashi Khan's leadership, approximately 200,000 Kalmyks began the journey from their pastures on the left bank of the Volga River to Dzungaria. Approximately five-sixths of the Torghut tribe followed Ubashi Khan. Most of the Khoshuts, Choros and Khoits also accompanied the Torghuts on their journey to Dzungaria. The Dörbet tribe, by contrast, elected not to go at all. The Kalmyks who resettled in Qing territory became known as Torghuts. While the first phase of their movement became the Old Torghuts, the Qing called the later Torghut immigrants "New Torghut". The size of the departing group has been variously estimated 169 000 human, with perhaps as many as six million animals (cattle, sheep, horses, camels and dogs). Beset by raids, thirst and starvation, approximately 70,000 survivors made it to Dzungaria.
After failing to stop the flight, Catherine the Great abolished the Kalmyk Khanate, transferring all governmental powers to the Governor of Astrakhan. The title of Khan was abolished. The highest native governing office remaining was the Vice-Khan, also recognized by the government as the highest ranking Kalmyk prince. By appointing the Vice-Khan, the Tsarist government was now permanently the decisive force in Kalmyk government and affairs.
For over a hundred years the Kalmyk alternately raided the southern borderlands of Russia.