Tatiana Bogrdanovan artikkeli tarkastelee Kaspianmeren luoteisrannalla sijaitsevan Kalmukian tasavallan kielitilantennetta. Kalmukin kieli on mongolikieli, jota puhuu noin 500 000 ihmistä. Venäläisen kirjallisuuden kautta peilaten Bogrdanova pohtii kalmukkikulttuurin ja venäläisen kulttuurin vuorovaikutusta ja merkitystä kalmuk-venäläiselle kaksikielisyydelle. Kalmukin kielen tilannetta tänä päivänä leimaa alisteinen ja uhanalainen asema sekä empiirisen, paikallisen tutkimuksen puute.


The present paper describes the particular linguistic and cultural situation in the Republic of Kalmykia and illustrates issues of Kalmyk-Russian bilingualism and biculturalism. Before examining these in detail, I would like to cite some basic facts about the people, history and culture of Kalmykia as background.

A BBC country profile for Russia provides the following information1:

The Republic of Kalmykia is a constituent republic of the Russian Federation situated south of the Volga on the north-western shores of the Caspian Sea.

  • Population: 289,464 (2000); Area: 76,150 sq. km (29,400 sq miles); Capital: Elista
  • Main ethnic groups: Kalmyks, Russians; Kalmyks account for about 53 percent of the population. The rest are mostly ethnic Russians.
  • Languages: Kalmyk, Russian
  • Religions: Buddhism, Christianity
  • Resources: Agriculture, wool, caviar”.

Accounts of the historical past of the Kalmyks can be found in one of the few Western studies on the subject, Michael Khodarkovsky’s (1992) Where Two Worlds Met: The Russian State and the Kalmyk Nomads, 1600-1771, as well as in the work of a Kalmyk historian translated from Russian, Konstantin N. Maksimov’s (2008) Kalmykia in Russia’s Past and Present National Policies and Administrative System. Also of importance is a work devoted to the religion and history of the Kalmyk people, a recent contribution by a Kalmyk scholar to the limited list of such sources: Kitinov, Baatr U. (2010) The Spread of Buddhism Among Western Mongolian Tribes Between the 13th and 18th Centuries: Tibetan Buddhism in the Politics and Ideology of the Oirat People.

The Kalmyks originally lived as nomadic herders in Mongolia and Dzungaria, regions corresponding to present-day (Chinese) Xinjiang. They are descendants of the Oirots (or Oyrats), a western Mongolian people. In the 17th century the Kalmyks migrated westwards towards the Caspian Sea. Advancing to the Caspian steppes for pastures and a better life, they encountered the expanding Russian Empire, interacting with Russians and finally becoming their subjects. The Kalmyks were still quite a formidable military force in the region at the time and, their nomadic economy having prospered, were able to organize themselves into the Kalmyk Khanate. However, the rapid colonization of the Volga area and the encroachment of sedentary populations on the nomads’ pastures brought economic destitution. Under the circumstances, in 1771, the Kalmyk Khan, along with most of the Kalmyk population that had settled east of the Volga (an estimated total of 125,000 people), migrated back to the pastures their ancestors had left 150 years before. In the aftermath of this escape the Kalmyk Khanate was dissolved, and the remaining population was joined to the Astrakhan administrative unit2. It should be added that since at least the 13th century the Kalmyks have adhered to the Buddhist tradition and it has become their dominant world view3. After 1917, the fortunes of the people seemed to have changed for the better, but new tragedies followed: the Kalmyks were one of the eight “deported nations” under Stalin; the Republic and the people were rehabilitated in 1956.

Kalmyk-Russian bilingualism and biculturalism under recent language policy

Kalmyk (Хальмг келн) is a member of the Kalmyk-Oirat subgroup of Mongolic languages. It is spoken by about 500,000 people in Kalmykia as well as in Western China and Western Mongolia. In 1648 a Kalmyk Buddhist monk called Zaya Pandita Oktorguin Dalai created the Kalmyk alphabet, or Todo Bichig (Clear Script), by adapting the Classical Mongolian script. The Clear Script is still used by Kalmyks in China, but Kalmyks in Russia adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in 19244.

According to sociologists, Russian – non-Russian bilingualism is a popular and socially important type of bilingualism in national communities. It is recognized as the most effective means of linguistic integration in Russia’s multiethnic society: it allows for linguistic diversity in that bilingual citizens may speak Russian as their means of interethnic communication and may use their mother tongues as well. The number of bilinguals with Russian as their second language may vary from region to region, but on the whole the proportion is over 90 percent of the population5.

This is certainly the case in the Kalmyk Republic. By 1985, according to official statistics, 93 percent of urban Kalmyks and 87.2 percent of rural Kalmyks could speak, read and write Russian, but only 27.3 percent of the former and 45.8 percent of the latter reportedly had a similar level of competence in Kalmyk6; 97 percent of ethnic Kalmyk reported having “knowledge” of their language. Recent estimates suggest that the proportion of fluent speakers does not exceed 6 percent among the young and that there are only six villages in the country where Kalmyk is used as the main language of communication7. Moreover, the number of people speaking their mother tongue is decreasing with every year. According to the recent census (2010), 80 546 people reported they spoke the language, which is less than 44 percent of the whole Kalmyk population (183 372). The Russian language is used in all vital spheres of life, including education, where Russian is the language of instruction8. In addition, according to Kalmyk scholars, 400 years of living with the Russian population in the region and competing with the Russian language has left its mark on the Kalmyk language, which shows a number of evident changes on all linguistic levels: phonological, morphological, syntactical and lexical-semantic9.

As part of the new language policies in the Russian Federation, Kalmykia, like many other national republics10, has seen the introduction of new language legislation. The Kalmyk Language Act declares Kalmyk and Russian to be the state languages of the Republic and a knowledge of the Kalmyk language to be a duty of every citizen living there. However, as a Western expert on minority languages11 has concluded, given that only a small proportion of ethnic Kalmyks actually know the language, and that virtually no ethnic Russians do, this provision in the law is, at best, “aspirational”. The new law aims, at least in principle, at creating a fully bilingual society, with an all-embracing equality of status for Kalmyk and Russian. Even modest achievements in this direction would constitute major gains for Kalmyk, given its current precarious position, the expert adds.

Thus, in terms of language planning, some progress has clearly been made as regards the official status of the Kalmyk language, alongside Russian, in the Republic. However, given the lack of financial resources, as well as certain sociolinguistic factors, the status achieved is of symbolic rather than communicative value, as Russian dominates almost all the principal spheres of communication. Kalmyk is present to some extent in education: its position as one of the regular subjects at secondary schools has recently been consolidated through the introduction of a required final examination in Kalmyk language and literature. In the mass media the language is used in the newspaper Khalmig Yunin and the magazine Teegin Gerel, and spoken on some very brief radio and TV programs. The folk art and culture of the people are cultivated and promoted by ethnographic artistic companies, the best-known of which is Tulpan. There is some new hope that the position of the language will become stronger, seen in the activism of some younger people – mostly graduates of the Kalmyk Department of the local university – who demonstrate a greater interest in the mother tongue and their ancestors’ heritage.

Literature and translation issues

Kalmyk-Russian bilingualism is inseparable from Kalmyk-Russian biculturalism, which can be seen, for example, in Kalmyk “footprints” in Pushkin’s works. Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799–1897), the greatest Russian poet – “the sun of Russian poetry”, as he is usually called – was, among other things, a cosmopolitan who was able to embrace the oriental Other present in the Russian Empire. Thanks to Pushkin, the Kalmyks are probably best known to everyone in the Russian-speaking world as friends of the steppe (друг степей – калмык). This was how Pushkin aptly described them in his most important poem (now part of the required school reading), written in the late 1830s, in which he was summing up his life and work:

Слух обо мне пройдет по всей Руси великой, / И назовет меня всяк сущий в ней язык, / И гордый внук славян, и финн, и ныне дикой Тунгуз, / и друг степей калмык12 [ I will be known to all the nations of great Rus’ / They will repeat my name in many of its tongues, / The proud Slav, the Finn, the still wild Tungus, / And the friend of the steppe, the Kalmyk.]

The poet mentions some of the peoples of the Russian Empire, including the Finns. The Tungus were somewhat unfortunate here to be called wild, but this can be seen as mirroring the era in which Pushkin wrote and the prejudices of his class: after all, for all his poetic genius and liberal world view of an advanced thinker and philosopher of his time, Pushkin was a Russian aristocrat.

As a much younger man, while travelling in the southern regions of Russia and in the steppes as well, the poet met a young Kalmyk woman and was quite enchanted with her beauty (Pushkin was a womanizer and is famous for his exquisite love poetry) but when he wanted to kiss her she did not like it and hit him with a dombra (a musical instrument) she was holding13. The poet was disappointed and poured out some of his feelings in the poem To a Kalmyk Girl (“Калмычке”), which is now staple reading for every educated Kalmyk girl.

In my opinion, even this anecdotal evidence is quite illustrative of the extent to which literature shapes the way in which peoples are perceived. In this case Russian literature helps to shape the bicultural Kalmyk, for whom Pushkin is ultimately a Kalmyk as well as a Russian, while the oriental Other, the Kalmyk, also becomes part of the Russian poetical landscape and consciousness.

To continue with matters of literature, it should be recalled that being a Soviet socialist republic meant, among other things, that a region would have a Soviet literature of its own, and Kalmykia was no exception. The most prominent among the Kalmyk poets was probably David Nikitich Kugultinov (Көглтин Дава) (1922–2006), who not only became quite well known in Kalmykia but also found readers outside the Republic, as did other authors from different national regions who were widely translated into Russian and published by both local and central publishing houses in Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s USSR.

However, it turns out that translating national poetry and prose into Russian was quite a controversial issue, one with important implications for the sides involved.

Indeed, one of the recent research works in the field “traces the institutionalization of translation in the Soviet era and its subordination to the political goals of the state – that is, the transformation of what had been primarily a literary concern into ‘a matter of statewide importance’”. More and more, translators were tasked with rendering work from the ‘minority languages’ of the Soviet Union rather than from languages of their choice; since many of these translators did not speak the languages from which they were asked to translate, they worked with the help of interlinear cribs (podstrochnik). “A tool of propaganda and a convenient means of promoting the ‘brotherhood of the peoples,’ translation also offered a fragile connection with world culture and a rare chance of experiencing cultural otherness”. However, in practice, the Socialist Realist approach to translation, which promoted “faithfulness to the original” and “adequacy of translation”, looked more like “bending toward our customs”14.

Of interest in this respect is the case of Semyon Lipkin (1911–2003), who translated the Kalmyk epic “Djanggar” and stated in his memoirs that he first became interested in the epic when a fellow student of his, a Kalmyk, performed it to him and provided him with an interlinear crib. Later Lipkin was commissioned to translate the work and did so successfully. He says that he was happy to learn that young Kalmyks become acquainted with “Djanggar”, their national epic, in his Russian translation15. This fact is of relevance for the present discussion as it indicates the scope of Kalmyk-Russian bilingualism.

In commenting on the way he translated poetry (the work of Kugultinov, among others), Lipkin pointed out that he often gave advice to the authors, who were quite receptive to his criticism. Lipkin took great pains and worked hard on his translations so that “his Russian readers would like them”. This suggests that the translator, a native speaker of Russian who might not have belonged to the literary elite in Moscow but had quite a literary reputation for his translations, took up the role of an influential editor of provincial poets, one who was to have a say in their final product.

Kugultinov was certainly bilingual, but he belonged to the first-generation of Kalmyk-Russian bilinguals, for whom the substrate influence of their mother tongue still made itself quite clearly felt in their speech16; originally a Kalmyk speaker, he shifted to Russian in his later years. He was certainly interested in Russian translations of his works, because it meant a larger audience and an increase in profits as well.


By way of summary, it may be pointed out that Kalmyk-Russian bilingualism and biculturalism have been some of the recent outcomes of the historical, cultural and linguistic interaction of the Russians and the Kalmyks since the 17th century. Far from being harmonious, the present linguistic situation is characterized by the deficient position of the Kalmyk language, whose status is recognized as threatened.

As part of the new language policy, the introduction of a law proclaiming Kalmyk to be one of the two official languages of the Republic, the other being Russian, is only the first and, though important, mostly symbolic, step towards improving the situation. To be fully effective, the policy should be supported in all other domains, including literary life, because the importance of literature in shaping the cultural identity of a people is beyond question.

However, as far as the local context is concerned, these issues are still largely unexplored. In particular, it remains to be seen and described in detail what part Kalmyk-Russian translations have played in the present situation and what their implications for the future of the language are.


Alpatov / Алпатов В.М. (2005) Языковая ситуация в регионах современной России. Отечественные записки 2.

Carnie, Andrew (1996) ‘Modern Irish: a Case Study in Language Revival Failure’ Papers on Endangered Languages, MIT Working Papers in Linguistics 28, 99-114.

Dralyuk, Boris A review of A Remedy For Solitude: Russian Poet-Translators in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Eras, by M. Y. Khotimsky. http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/author/boris-dralyuk.

Dzhushhinova / Джушхинова, К.А. (1992) Русская речь нерусских: (На материале русской разговорной речи калмыков разных поколений). Саратов. http://cheloveknauka.com/russkaya-rech-nerusskih

Grin, Francois (2000) Kalmykia: From Oblivion to Reassertion? European Centre for Minority Issues http://www.ecmi.de/download/working_paper_10.pdf

Kalashnikova Elena / Калашникова Елена (2002) Interview with Elena Kalashnikova http://www.russ.ru/krug/20020507_kalash.html

Kandler, Anne, Unger Roman and Steele James (2010) Language shift, bilingualism and the future of Britain’s Celtic languages. Cultural and Linguistic Diversity: Evolutionary Approaches comp. and ed. by James Steele, Peter Jordan and Ethan Cochrane. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society. 365:1559.

Khodarkovsky, Michael (1992) Where Two Worlds Met: The Russian State and the Kalmyk Nomads,1600-1771. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kitinov, Baatr U. (2010) The Spread of Buddhism Among Western Mongolian Tribes Between the 13th and 18th Centuries: Tibetan Buddhism in the Politics and Ideology of the Oirat People. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellon Press.

Maksimov, Konstantin N. (2008) Kalmykia in Russia’s Past and Present National Policies and Administrative System. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Purbeyev / Пюрбеев Г.Ц. (1997) Калмыцкий язык. Языки мира: Монгольские языки. Тунгусо-маньчжурские языки. Японский язык. Корейский язык. Москва.

Shapir / Шапир М. И. О неровности равного: Послание Пушкина… danefae.org/pprs/koma/kalmychka.htm

Zamyatin, Konstantin (2014) An Official Status for Minority Languages?: A Study of State Languages in Russia’s Finno-Ugric Republics. Vammalan Kirjapaino Oy: Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura (Uralica Helsingiensia; vol. 6).


  1. BBC NEWS: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/4580467.stm Published: 2011/11/29 

  2. Khodarkovsky 1992; Maksimov 2008 

  3. Kitinov 2010 

  4. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/kalmyk.htm 

  5. A Dictionary of Sociolinguistic Terms 2006; here and hereinafter in the text, the translations are the author’s

  6. Tishkov 1997: 96;as cited in Grin 2000 

  7. Grin 2000 

  8. Baklanova 1999 

  9. Purbeyev 1997 

  10. Zamyatin 2014 

  11. Grin 2000 

  12. http://www.bibliotekar.ru/encSlov/17/120.htm 

  13. Shapir danefae.org/pprs/koma/kalmychka.htm 

  14. Boris Dralyuk http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/author/boris-dralyuk

  15. May 7, 2002. Interview with Elena Kalashnikova www.russ.ru/krug/20020507_kalash.html 

  16. Dzhushhinova 1992