The present book tackles several aspects of the history of the Kalmyks, a yet poorly studied people of the Russian Empire ― viz., the evolution of the imperial policy in the steppe world; Orthodox missions among non-Christian populations; and confessional interactions on the Eurasian space. Historian K. V. Orlova, from the Institute of Oriental Studies of Moscow, provides a detailed incursion into the history of the Kalmyks’ conversion to Orthodoxy, from their integration into Muscovy to the revolutions of 1917 and the loss of its predominant status by the Russian Orthodox Church. Being the first publication on this subject, the book encompasses all the territories populated by Kalmyk tribes, and proposes a chronological and thematic narrative.
After a first chapter on the issues of existing sources (central and local archives; travel accounts; ethnographic research), the second one deals with the prudent conversion policy applied until the fall of the Kalmyk Khanate in 1771. The story began at the end of the sixteenth century when, after a second wave of missionary activity, Buddhism was recognised the official religion of the Kalmyk Khanate. However, in the aftermath of the khanate’s integration into Muscovy in 1655, conversion to Orthodoxy became a method for reinforcing social control. The Kalmyks’ military recruitment was permitted by their religious affiliation: For the defence of Russia’s southern border against Crimean and Azov Tatars, Muscovy, guided by the fear of Muslim solidarity, favoured Kalmyks. K. V. Orlova sheds light on the pragmatic and cunning policy implemented during this whole period towards Kalmyks.
Unfortunately, as it is often the case in present-day Russia’s regional or national historiographies, her rich material does not extend to other populations, which drives her to oversimplification, notably when she argues (p. 44) that “Muslims were not resorted to for the defence of [Russia’s] southern border.” Instead, similarities could have been identified with other ethnic groups of the Volga-Ural region. Kalmyk social élites (the noyons and zaysangs) were the first touched by conversion to Orthodox Christianity. Social and economic benefits being associated with baptism, conversion became a tool in the quest for political legitimacy and struggle for leadership. In parallel went a process of obusrenie (integration into Russian culture). Like other natives (inorodsty), the Kalmyks were sent to colonise distant territories. The author provides long descriptions of the colonisation of the Don and Terek Rivers, of the Stavropol, Saratov, and Orenburg regions. On each case, a multiple approach focuses at the same time on the economy (through the impact of the settling process), the military, and the migration history. Kalmyk colonies were mostly peopled with converted Kalmyks (in 1897, 10% of the Kalmyk population were baptised), even if conversion as noticed by several travellers (Rychkov, Pallas) remained superficial. (Unfortunately, the issue of the ‘superficiality’ of the modern conversion to Abrahamic religions by the steppe peoples, one of the most lasting stereotypes of Russia’s colonial literature, has not been assessed by the author.)
The third chapter explains the religious situation after 1771, when the abolition of the Kalmyk Khanate provoked mass return migration to Jungharia. In 1825, the Kalmyk aristocracy was submitted to the Astrakhan Governor and integrated to Russia’s table of ranks. The participation of Kalmyk warriors in Pugachev’s uprising side in 1773 brought about the elaboration of a new policy based on a moderation principle. In 1837, the Holy Synod forbid mass conversions and obliged Orthodox missionaries to learn Kalmyk language. The Christian missionaries’ methods are described with detail, notably their use of a mobile church pulled by thirty camels in order to reach the nomadic Kalmyk population along the lower course of the Volga River. At the same time, on the model of Christian and Muslim confessional institutions successfully promoted by Peter I and Catherine II, religious boards were instituted in the early nineteenth century: a Kalmyk special commission, then a Lamaic Buddhist Spiritual Assembly (1836-47) ― on which the author’s narrative remains unfortunately elliptic.
The fourth and last chapter is dedicated to the cultural and proselyte activities of the Russian Orthodox Church among Kalmyks. The first ten pages offer the first systematic treatment of the question of translation. The function of translator was officially created in 1830 by a decree of the Senate. Their activity was not only oriented towards the publication of Orthodox religious books. The Holy Synod also imposed the translation of Kalmyk literature to Russian in order to familiarise Russian missionaries with Buddhism. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the first Russian-Kalmyk dictionary was published in Astrakhan, the Kalmyk language began to be taught in Orthodox seminaries and religious primary schools. The chapter ends up with description of schools construction and the difficulties to introduce the Il’minskii system of education in the Kalmyk steppes (in 1897, there were only twelve Kalmyk schools in the Russian Empire). In all, the book provides an innovative, well informed and relevant view on a long neglected population of the Russian Empire. Among the disappointments that the reader inevitably feels towards such a pioneering study can be mentioned the lack of analysis of the impact on the Kalmyk national claims after the 1905 Revolution, especially as far as the land question is regarded. Of course, a prolongation of the study to the Soviet period would be useful for understanding how successful was the conversion of Kalmyk population to the communist ideology.