Identification. The Kalmyks are the Western Mongols, also known as the Oirats," who in the beginning of the seventeenth century undertook migration west, eventually to roam the steppes of the Volga, Don, and Kuban rivers. Today the Kalmyks reside in the Republic of Kalmykia, located in southeast European Russia bordering on the Caspian Sea. It is one of the twenty autonomous republics within the Russian Republic. Traditionally the Kalmyk (also transcribed Qalmïq) people identified themselves by the name of one of the tribes they belonged to: Torgut, Khoshut, and Derbet. It is commonly believed that the term "khal'mg" is derived from the Turkic kalmak (to leave behind, to remain) and was used by the Turkic peoples as early as the fourteenth century to designate the Western Mongols. In fact, there is no historic or linguistic evidence to substantiate this conclusion. The term "khal'mg" did not become a self-designation until the early nineteenth century.
Location. Kalmykia is bounded by the Volgograd region in the north, the Stavropol region in the south, the Rostov-on-the-Don region in the west, and the Astrakhan region in the east. Kalmykia occupies the western part of the Caspian lowland, the Ergeni highlands, and the Kuma-Manych depression. Most of Kalmykian territory is a steppe, ranging from arid in the west to semidesert in the southeast. The Kalmyk steppe is located at approximately 45° to 48° N and 44° to 48° E. There is little surface water—mostly shallow saline lakes. The climate is continental, with hot dry summers and often cold winters with little snow. The average temperature in July varies from 23° to 26° C and in January from 8° to 5° C. Average annual precipitation is 30-40 centimeters in the northwest and 17-20 centimeters in the southeast. In the south the winters are usually without snow, hence the traditional use of these lands as winter pastures for the sheep herds.
Demography. Fifty years after their arrival at the Caspian steppes in the 1630s, the Kalmyk population was 70,000 tents or about 300,000 people. The descendants of those who failed to join the majority (who departed for Zungharia in 1771) and remained in the Caspian steppes, reside today in Kalmykia. In 1939 there were 140,000 Kalmyks out of 204,000 residents of the Kalmyk ASSR. In 1979 the Kalmyks constituted 41.5 percent of the Kalmyk ASSR, or 122,000 people out of 293,000 total residents. According to the 1989 census the population of Kalmyks in the Kalmyk Republic was 146,316 out of a total population of 322,579. Throughout their history many Kalmyks settled in neighboring towns or became Cossacks. Descendants of these Kalmyks may still be found outside Kalmykia in the cities of eastern Ukraine, the Don region, in the northern Caucasus, and in Siberia. Some Kalmyks left Soviet Russia after the October Revolution of 1917 and after World War II and settled in small communities in Paris and in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the United States.
Linguistic Affiliation. Kalmyk belongs to the Mongolian branch of the Altaic Language Family, as do the Buriat and the Mongol languages. Torgut and Derbet are the two major dialects spoken by the Kalmyks. The Kalmyks used a vertical Old Mongolian script until 1648, when the Buddhist scholar Zaya-Pandita replaced it with a writing system that more adequately reflected the sounds of the Kalmyk language. The Zaya-Pandita writing system, also known as "Todo Bichig," remained in existence until 1925, when it was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet. The Roman alphabet was introduced in 1930 and again replaced by the Cyrillic in 1938, which remains in use to this day.