Every 28 December, Kalmyk families light lamps to commemorate victims of their mass deportation. In late 1943, the Soviet authorities exiled more than 90,000 Kalmyks to Siberia — most of them women, children and elderly people. More than 14,000 died on the way and during the winter. In 1944, roughly 15,000 Kalmyk troops were withdrawn from the Soviet front line, mainly to be interned in the Shiroklag forced labour camp. Here, they were set to work building a hydroelectric power plant. Their alleged crime: mass collaboration with the German invaders of their homeland in 1941.
The Kalmyks’ exile lasted 13 years, and in that time their numbers dropped by half. Those born in Siberia barely knew their own language or traditions. The accusation levelled against them in 1943 was no less traumatic.
Although the survivors returned to their homeland in southern Russia in 1956, the feeling of collective guilt forced on them by the Soviet government haunts the Kalmyks to this day. This psychological trauma, forced into the public’s subconscious, still has a considerable bearing on Kalmyk citizens’ relationship to the Russian state.
The fight happened near our village’s war memorial — an eternal flame and a wall displaying the names of local fallen heroes. My opponents were two members of the local pioneer troop, named after Tamara Khakhynova, a Kalmyk partisan who had died heroically not far from our sovkhoz, or state farm.
Soviet propaganda was based on the carrot and stick approach. On the one hand, Kalmyk heroes were commemorated; on the other, our collective guilt was intensified by public trials of former members of the Kalmyk Cavalry Corps (KKK), a German volunteer unit formed in 1942. Between 1960 and 1970, there were seven trials, and one more in 1983.
My paternal grandparents didn’t survive to see Glasnost in the 1980s. It was only as an adult that I learnt Sarang Biurchiev, my grandfather, was sent to the Shiroklag forced labour camp from the Karelian Front in 1944 and convicted in 1945. He had been called up at the time of the “Winter war” against Finland in 1940 and worked as a clerk in the General Staff.
After a few drinks, my grandfather would mourn for his brothers and sisters who died during the famines of the 1920s and 1930s. They had been orphaned as children and only two survived into adulthood, Granddad and his younger sister. Famine was also a taboo subject in Soviet times. Yet every now and then, unlike memories of Shiroklag in the early deportation years, that pain would break through.
My grandfather arrived in Siberia in 1946, when the Kalmyks had survived their first, harshest winter and were gradually adapting to life in exile. In Tyumen he located his sister (his only family member alive at the time) and met my grandmother Tsagan Boskhaeva.
As a result, my grandmother and her sons travelled in two different train convoys, and as the Kalmyks were scattered across Siberia, they ended up in different places. One boy died, and the other was placed in an orphanage. My grandmother managed to get back to Tyumen, where my uncle was born in 1947, followed by my father in 1949. They already had their elder brother, who became the core of the new family.
My family didn’t discuss the deportation openly until well into the 1990s, and I only began to get a fuller picture when I was started work as a journalist.
In some cases. local Siberians finally realised that the newcomers were normal people, not “cannibals” as they had been told, so shared food and clothing with the “special settlers”, despite this being strictly forbidden.
It was around this time that I came across “Absence”, a poem by Polish Nobel Prize winner Wisława Szymborska. I can still remember the shiver that ran through my spine when I got to the last verse:
If it hadn’t been for the deportation, my maternal grandfather Erdni Muchiryaev wouldn’t have married Zemfira Kozlova, a girl from the Urals. My mother wouldn’t have been born and neither would I.
For a moment, I realised what it would have been like had Granddad Biurchiev’s ten brothers and sisters not died of starvation. Family ties are a valuable resource in Kalmykia. Would my father have become a teacher, and I a journalist?
All this may be speculation. But when the events are still fresh in family memory, you have a keen sense of history and fate, the trajectories that have led to your birth.
One of my family lines is connected to those who tried to survive between two deaths, the other, with those who were condemned by the Soviet government to humiliation and starvation. If either of these were erased, the contours of myself wouldn’t be quite right.
But what trace did the trauma leave behind? And has it been reflected in people’s civic consciousness?
The worst thing, Guchinova believes, is the fact that Kalmyks have got “hung up” on the illegal public trials of KKK members. The government has certainly got us to believe in our collective guilt.
The deportation, as Guchinova reminds me, is still a delicate, family tragedy for Kalmyks. This “intimate” character is what marks it out, not only freeing it from the banalities of “official” speeches, but taking it out of a narrow civil rights framework. On 28 December, thousands of people gather at the “Exodus and Return” monument in Elista, while on 30 October, a maximum of ten civic activists meet at the memorial stone from Shiroklag on the day commemorating the victims of Soviet political repression.
“In both Siberia and Central Asia, Kalmyks tried to assimilate. Like the interned Japanese, they proved their innocence through an excess of enthusiasm and diligence. The Chechens and Ingush, on the other hand, according to the American historian Michaela Paul, ‘resisted in every way they could’: they refused to take part in elections in 1946 and avoided working for the state’. Lidia Berdenova, who took part in a survey of mine, was almost robbed by Chechens – they returned the things they had stolen when they discovered she was a deportee.”
Guchinova dismisses any idea of an innate mindset in one ethnic group or another as pure racism. The religious factor she talks about is not just a question of Buddhist refusal to meet evil with violence. In the 1920s and 1930s all the most influential Buddhist priests were shot, and the rest of the monks were either sent to labour camps or forced to abandon their spiritual activity. (Japanese teachers and priests were also the first to be arrested in the USA in 1942.) And in the USSR all the Buddhist temples in the steppe, the main centres of education and social organisation, were destroyed.
In the mountains, Muslim spiritual leaders remained influential; the old traditions continued to flourish. Also, the peoples of the north Caucasus, unlike the Kalmyks, were all deported together, which meant they could develop a different strategy for survival.
We have lost and reclaimed our statehood more than once. For a nomadic people with no allies other than Russia, exodus was the only possible reaction to ideological conflict with central government. As Nikolai Palmov, the historian of the Kalmyks, notes, for those who stayed behind “any thoughts of protest never went further than a dream of returning to the past and the traditional structures and customs of Kalmyk life.”
Kalmykia’s leaders of public opinion today are equally nostalgic for the old days. It’s hard to figure out any more promising means of dialogue. People in Kalmykia are very wary of open opposition, especially in relation to the Kremlin. Moreover, when the need arises, our politicians don’t hesitate to resort to blatant manipulation of public opinion, playing on these subconscious traumas.
An order from Khlopushin triggered the first violent break-up of a peaceful protest action in independent Russia. The squads of riot police and internal troops brought in from neighbouring regions didn’t even spare women and elderly people, one protester was killed.
In Kalmykia, people prefer not to attract any attention from the federal authorities. Occasional clashes with neighbouring Astrakhan over disputed areas along the border established after the deportation never last long and are quickly forgotten. In contrast, the clashes over the Prigorodny area of North Ossetia, which housed a small Ingush community and was the site of armed clashes with Ossetians in 1992, is more of a matter of principle. So too was the reestablishment of Aukh, a Chechen enclave in neighbouring Dagestan.
To a large extent, the focus on principles is linked to population density and shortage of land. But Kalmykia’s history also developed very differently from that of the Caucasus. The mountain peoples of the Caucasus fought long and hard against the Russian Empire. They boast of their past as the heroes of the resistance to the Tsars, and, after the collapse of the USSR, as the “elusive avengers” (as a popular film has it) who challenged Soviet rule. The legends of the Abreks, Caucasian mountain bands who fought the Russians in the 19th century, put the subject of deportation in the context of colonisation and anti-colonial struggles. And the 1991 law on “rehabilitation of repressed peoples” has been seen as a step towards the restoration of historical justice in a wider sense.
Indeed, in Chechnya, there is a de facto ban on marking the Day of Memory on 23 February, the date in 1944 when whole populations were deported from the North Caucasus — it coincides with the Russian public holiday, Defender of the Motherland Day. Such a minor offence might land you in prison, as happened in 2014 with Ruslan Kutaev, the organiser of a conference devoted to the deportation of the Kalmyks and Ingush.
It’s surprising, but Kalmyk social network users even praise Kadyrov to the skies, while criticising their own republic’s leadership. T-shirts bearing portraits of Stalin no longer awake antagonism on the streets of Elista. Kalmyks, both pro- and anti-government, agree that Kalmykia needs a “strong leader”.
These feelings aren’t just a sign of some vague mood of protest, they also reflect Kalmyks’ lingering deportation trauma. An inner taboo on dissatisfaction with the politics of “party and government” is sublimated into criticism of the puppet regional authorities and a myth of a leader who could return dignity to their nation.