Kalmykia’s long goodbye

Seventy years after their horrific mass deportation by Stalin, the Kalmyk people still live with its traumas. RU

Badma Biurchiev
22 December 2016


Pigeons at a Khurul (Buddhist temple) in Elista, capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, southern Russia. CC-by-SA-2.0: Alex Malev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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 In 1944, roughly 15,000 Kalmyk troops were withdrawn from the Soviet front line, mainly to be interned in the Shiroklag forced labour camp.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 trauma of “treachery”

My earliest “discussion” of the Kalmyks’ role in the Second World War ended in a fight. It was before Perestroika – sometime around 1984-1985. I was around 12 years old. And I had heard for the first time that my people were traitors.

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. My grandmother’s younger brother, who won a medal on the front line, was called “a traitor” by someone in Siberia, so shoved a clay pot onto his accuser’s head. The pot had to be smashed to get it off.

Around the same time I heard from my schoolmates that there were several former “German policemen” living in a village where I spent holidays with relatives. I later discovered that this was just gossip — this is how children referred to any grumpy old man.

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.


The less you remember, the better you sleep. A victory day banner on a traditional-style arch in Komsomolsky, Republic of Kalmykia. CC-by-2.0: Artyom Svetlov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Most of the accused were being tried for the second time. One had been somehow enticed back to the USSR from Belgium. During a trial in 1968, a regional newspaper published an open letter from a Kalmyk woman who disowned her own father and demanded “the most just punishment for him: the death penalty” (Russian link).

These high profile trials triggered mass fights between Kalmyk and Russian youths. Most likely, it wasn’t just me getting into scuffles over “controversial events in history”.

I knew very little about either the Kalmyk Cavalry Corps, created by the Germans on occupied territory, or the deportation of my people. I did know two clear truths: “We are not traitors” and “Siberia is the second homeland of my parents”.

I’d already heard a lot about Siberia, But at that time the older generation didn’t talk about the horrors of their exile. There’s only one story I remember, and it wasn’t connected with my parents’ memories of their childhood. My grandmother’s younger brother, who had won a medal “For Valour” on the front line, was called a “traitor” by someone in Siberia, so she shoved a clay pot over his accuser’s head. The pot had to be smashed to get it off. I found this story very funny, like a scene out of a slapstick comedy.

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.


In 1944, the author’s grandfather Sarang Biurchiev (right) was deported from the front to Shiroklag, along with other Kalmyk soldiers. Photo from the author’s family archive.

I clearly remember my father, a history teacher, persuading my grandfather to tell his older pupils about everyday life during the war, to dispel all the myths we got from films. Granddad agreed, but very unwillingly. At the time, it seemed to me like false modesty, and my father probably thought the same. Now I realise how hard it was for him to bring up the past.

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.


Far right: Sarang and Tsagan Biurchiev. Most likely in 1946, after they had just met. The others in the photo are the Godzhurov family, with whom the author’s grandfather first lived after being deported. Photo from the author’s family archive.

In Kalmykia, she had worked in the theatre, and on the day of the deportation she was on tour. She had two children at home (her husband had been killed in battle) and the deportation, codenamed “Operation Ulussy”, was carried out so rapidly that many didn’t even have time to pack their things.

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.

Reading the future in a sheep’s shoulder blade

Some give an exact start date for public discussion of the Kalmyks’ exile: 27 December 1988. That was when “Reading the Future in a Sheep’s Shoulder Blade”, a film about a deported family, premiered in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. After the screening, people came to the front of the auditorium to share their stories.

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 the mid-2000s I was given a column in a regional newspaper. The column was called “A Siberian Album” and was to consist of short commentaries on photographs taken by exiles. There were lots of happy memories, but the darker stories stuck with me: how, in that first winter, mothers had to choose which child they should stop feeding, in order to give the rest a better chance of survival; how some families survived thanks to permission to boil up meat from dead cattle; how young women died helplessly while felling trees in the forest, they were unable to speak Russian, so hadn’t understood the orders they were given.

In some cases. local Siberians finally realised that the newcomers were normal people, not “cannibals” (Russian link) 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: “Stand here, girls / — the photographer would call — / shorter girls in front, / tall girls at the back / And big smiles when I say cheese. / But one more head count, that’s everyone? / Yes sir, that’s all.”

Do you remember how it begins? 

"A few minor changes / and my mother might have married / Mr Zbigniew B. from Zdunska Wola. / And if they’d had a daughter — she wouldn’t have been me. […] / They might even have met in the same school, the same room." It continues in the same spirit until the photographer appears, and then there's the flash.

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.


The Bukhtalskaya elementary school, in the Velizhansky district of Tyumen region, Siberia. The author’s uncle and father studied here for some time; this photo was taken on 18 May 1957, one of their last days before returning to Kalmykia. Photo from the author’s personal archive.

Fate could still have brought Sarang Biurchiev and Tsagan Boskhaeva together in Kalmykia, but my maternal grandfather’s marriage in the Urals was the result of history itself.

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.

Are we home yet?

Elza-Bair Guchinova, who has studied the anthropological aspects of deportation, believes the younger generation in Kalmykia has already worked through its collective trauma. She quotes the example of essays written by high school students in Elista between 1993 and 2002 and collected in a book entitled Memory and Heritage (Russian link): “These pieces show how over time the students progress from concrete biographical descriptions to totally impersonal essays on legal issues.”

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.


Faces of a tragedy. Detail from Ernst Neiznestny’s monument to the Kalmyk deportation in Elista, Kalmykia. Photo: Maxim Edwards. Some rights reserved.

The “corps” is still considered a shameful subject, even amongst academics and people who work in the humanities — those who, in theory, ought to be leading the debate around the deportation. And I have to add that it’s now a potentially dangerous subject as well. In 2014, an article on “the rehabilitation of Nazism” was added to Russia’s Criminal Code, which criminalises the promulgation of “knowingly false information about the activities of the USSR during the Second World War”. This vague formulation allows the article to be used against people more or less indiscriminately (Russian link).

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.

But Kalmyks’ attitude to their deportation is not just a question of their enforced feeling of collective guilt. Elza-Bair Guchinova increasingly tends to think that there is an important religious factor at work here too. (Kalmyks have traditionally been Buddhists). “When California’s Japanese-Americans were interned in 1942, they behaved in exactly the same way as the Kalmyks,” she tells me. “They got their things together and left their homes in a disciplined fashion, and they also remained silent about their ordeal until 1988, when the US government admitted its error and paid them compensation.

“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.”

“However,” Guchinova continues, “it was largely thanks to the Chechens’ implacability that they got their country back. When the Soviet regime began to relax after Stalin’s death, Kalmyk intellectuals started writing letters to Field Marshals Budyonny and Voroshilov, while the Chechens came together in their hundreds for sit-ins at railway stations, and literally steamrollered the government into acceding to their demands. Later, in the 1990s, Kalmyk parliamentary deputies only demanded compensation for their deportation after they found out that the Chechens had been receiving government payouts for ages.”

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.

The need for a strong leader

The “Exodus and Return” memorial complex, the work of sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, who died just this year at the age of 91, has become one of the central symbols of our republic. These two words sum up not just the tragedy of the deportation, but, more importantly, the entire history of the Volga Kalmyks.

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 (Russian link) to ideological conflict with central government (Russian link). 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.


Vladimir Putin during a working visit to Kalmykia in 2005. (c) Sergey Guneyev / RIA Novosti. Some rights reserved.

When in 2004 several thousand Kalmyk oppositionists held a rally in Elista’s central square, calling for the resignation of the republic’s leader Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the local papers all reported the reaction of Prosecutor General Sergey Khlopushin (who currently occupies the same post in the Vologda region): “the Kalmyks could find themselves in the same situation as in 1943”; “this could lead to the abolition of their republic”.

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.

However, neither the threat of another deportation like that of 1943, nor the brutalities committed by the bussed-in security forces succeeded in arousing mass fury among the public. And although Khlopushin had to move to a job elsewhere, this didn’t stop the Kalmyk authorities from forcing almost all the opposition leaders out of the republic after they failed to gain enough support from their fellow Kalmyks.

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 (Russian link) 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 (Russian link).

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.

Kalmykia_My Love.jpg

“Kalmykia, my love!” Billboard in Elista, Kalmykia. Photo: Maxim Edwards. Some rights reserved.

In such a highly centralised country as Russia, however, both these strategies — the Caucasian and the Kalmyk — are futile. Kalmykia, which has resigned itself to the status quo, is once again losing its most educated citizens, who are leaving their homeland due to a lack of work and prospects. Social activism in the north Caucasus is considerably stymied by the law enforcement agencies and the government propaganda that projects an image of local peoples as communities with terrorist and extremist tendencies (Russian link).

In once-mutinous Chechnya, the principle of collective responsibility is carried out on the orders of the local leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose heavies burn the houses of fighters’ families and parents publicly denounce their sons.

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.

As such, this behaviour is a flight from freedom — when piety before executive power coexists with hope that figures from the Kalmyk folk epic Djangar will come back to restore Kalmykia’s sovereignty, and defend it from any encroachment by Moscow.

Translated by Maxim Edwards.

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