Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Animal husbandry based on extensive pastoralism was the basis of the traditional Kalmyk economy. Herds provided for most of the needs: food, clothing, and means of transportation. Kalmyk herds consisted of horses, sheep, camels, goats, and cows. Horses and sheep constituted the backbone of the Kalmyk pastoral economy. Kalmyk horses were distinguished for their speed and endurance. They were herded in groups called adun, consisting of 100 to 200 horses. Fermented mare's milk provided the alcoholic beverages arki, arza, and khursa. Kalmyk sheep were a "fat-rump" type and provided meat, milk, pelts, and wool. Camels, goats, and cows were of relatively less significance. In the 1830s an average Kalmyk family had 60 to 150 sheep, 10 to 50 horses, 5 to 15 camels, and 10 to 30 head of cattle. Hunting traditionally served as a form of military training and a supplement to the diet. The largest game in the steppes was the saigak, a large, horned antelope. Since the eighteenth century, ever-increasing dependence on Russian markets and the subsequent turmoil in Kalmyk society has caused many Kalmyks to abandon their traditional life-style and seek employment in neighboring Russian towns, or, most commonly, at the fisheries. As in other nomadic societies, booty captured in raids constituted an important part of the Kalmyk economy. Slaves captured in raids were sold or exchanged for goods. Moscow was expected to send annual payments in cash and valuable items to the Kalmyk chiefs. In addition, the Kalmyks were paid cash for their participation in Russia's military campaigns. Although cash became more prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Kalmyk economy remained at the level of subsistence. In today's Kalmykia animal husbandry, in particular of sheep, remains the principal economic activity. With the construction of several irrigation systems, winter wheat, maize, and fodder crops became important, mainly in the western part of Kalmykia. The main industry is the processing of agricultural produce such as wool, meat, and fish.
Trade. With their arrival in the Caspian steppes, the Kalmyks became major suppliers of horses to Russia; this lasted until the middle of the eighteenth century, when trade with the Kazakhs in Orenburg became more important to the Russian government. The Kalmyks also traded their livestock with neighboring towns along the Volga. Astrakhan, a city in the estuary of the Volga, was a center of this trade, which was conducted outside the walls of the city at the place called "Kalmyk bazaar." Authorities in Moscow tried to control this trade lest the Kalmyks obtain weapons, in particular firearms. The threat of a glut in the Russian markets served as an important policy tool of the Russian government. Traditionally, most of the trade was conducted not by the Kalmyks but by the Tatars, merchants from Bukhara and Khiva, and later by the Russians. The main items of trade were and remain the products of the cattle-breeding economy. Today, Kalmykia is the major supplier of mutton and wool to the other former Soviet republics.
Division of Labor. In the past the labor force was engaged in extensive nomadism, with no labor specialization other than that provided by cattle breeding. Production was a domestic function in which each family, or perhaps khoton (a group of families), cared for its own needs. Most of the labor was performed by women. They prepared food, made clothing, and tanned hides. There were few artisans among the Kalmyks. During the years of Soviet rule the role of gender in the division of labor became less significant, and now women are employed in a variety of jobs.
Land Tenure. Unlike settled people, the main value for the nomads rested not in land but in herds. Herds were privately owned but were grazed on common pastures. Land and water were held in common. The Kalmyks practiced a meridianal type of nomadism, moving north and reaching the mid-Volga region in the spring-summer season and then returning south to seek protection from the cold weather in the reeds of the lower Volga region. The routes of annual migration, which lay near the sources of water, were carefully chosen and agreed upon by the chiefs. The arrival of the colonists in the eighteenth century cut off the Kalmyks from the best pastures along the rivers. A shrinkage of the vital pastureland eventually led to a sharp decline of the Kalmyk economy. After the collectivization of the 1930s the Kalmyks completely abandoned nomadism and became sheep farmers on the Soviet collective farms. A decision by the Soviet government toward the end of its tenure to introduce private property is likely to lead to the emergence of private herds in the near future.