Introduction / History
The Kalmyks of Russia are Mongolian in origin. In the 16th century, the Kalmyks, or Oirat, left their homeland, now known as areas of northwest China, to avoid political and economic pressures. They had hopes of settling in the rich pastures of the northern Causasus Mountains.
What Are Their Lives Like?
In 1771, the majority of the Oirats decided to move back to their homeland in order to escape the Russian dictatorship, but only a few survived the long journey. Those who stayed behind in Russia became known as the Kalmyks, which means "to remain." As Kalmyks looked for their identity, they discovered it in Buddhism.
In 1943, Stalin had the Kalmyk descendants deported to Siberia for allegedly uniting with occupying Nazi troops. About half did not survive the Siberian cold; others were so dispersed that the Kalmyk language and culture suffered irreversible decline. In 1957, after Stalin's death, they were allowed to return home. Modern day Kalmykia is located north of the Caspian Sea and west of the Volga River. Animosity still remains between Russians and Kalmyks.
After their return from Siberia, many Kalmyks were forced to conform to the Soviet lifestyle, living in traditional gray, five story apartment complexes of the 1950s and working in industrial plants. After Perestroika, or the collapse of the Soviet regime, the economy disintegrated and factories closed, leaving many unemployed and causing widespread hardship.
What Are Their Beliefs?
Kalmykia is composed of steppes (treeless plains), semi-desert, and desert. It does not have good soil for crops. In rural areas, there are herdsmen who raise cattle, sheep, goats, and a few camels. They are known for their love of fine horses and horse racing. Those who live in the narrow neck of land with access to the Volga River are fishermen. Many have a small garden plot in the yard, growing melons, corn, and potatoes for their families. Some are employed in the trades, earning barely sustainable wages. Others continue to live as nomads, their lives characterized by seasonal migrations. Their dwellings are portable tents called yurts.
Kalmyks traditionally lived in extended family units with a mother and father, married sons and their families, and unmarried sons and daughters. Today there is a growing tendency toward nuclear families. Couples usually marry in their early to mid-twenties. Kalmykian law still allows polygamy. Sadly, divorce is becoming more common, and legal abortion is the principal means of birth control.
The traditional Kalmyk dress includes velvet hats, loose fitted coats, and heavily padded long pants. Men often shave their heads, except for one small area in the back that is reserved for a ponytail.
Oral history in an important part of Kalmyk culture. It is traditionally recited by a poet and accompanied by a two stringed lute called a dombr. Favorite past-times include storytelling and singing.
Their diet is largely one of meat and milk. At social gatherings, Kalmyks enjoy drinking kumiss (fermented mare's milk) or Kalmyk tea made of tea leaves, milk, butter, salt, nuts, and sometimes even meat.
In the late 1500s, Kalmyks adopted Tibetan Buddhism. Many were later forced to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Kalmyk Buddhism is a mixture of ethnic beliefs and Shamanism (belief in unseen gods, demons, and spirits). The people continue to depend on shamans, or medicine men, despite laws forbidding their practices to cure the sick by magic and communication with the gods. The obo, a heap of stones thought to be inhabited by local spirits, often serves as a site for performing various rituals. Occultism is occurring as Kalmyks have the custom of going to a Buddhist temple and inviting the gods to live inside them. Many are possessed by demons. Some are now being persuaded to join the Muslim religion.
What Are Their Needs?
In the 1990s the first positive wave to accept Christ began, and ambitious Christian pastors in Kalmykia have plans to establish churches in all seven regions, reaching the whole population of 174,000 for Christ.
Medical facilities are inadequate. Limited water supply, poor hygiene, deficient diet, and alcoholism are common problems. Kalmyks have a high infant mortality rate, low life expectancy, and persistence of diseases like tuberculosis.
Ask the Holy Spirit to soften the hearts of the Kalmyk people so that they will be receptive to the love of Jesus.
Pray that God will free the Kalmyks from occultism and their belief in evil spirits.
Pray that God will grant wisdom and favor to missions agencies that may be currently focusing on the Kalmyks.
Ask the Lord to call people who are willing to go to Russia and share Christ with Kalmyks.
Pray that God will send Christian medical teams to work among these precious people.
Pray that God will raise up teams of intercessors who will faithfully stand in the gap for the Kalmyks.
Ask the Lord to raise up strong local churches among Kalmyks.
Scripture Prayers for the Kalmyk-Oirat, Western Mongol in Russia.
Bethany World Prayer Center / GAAPNet