Guchinova, Elza-Bair. The Kalmyks. Translated by David C. Lewis. Caucasus World: Peoples of the Caucasus. London – New York: Routledge Curzon, 2006.

The present book is a very personal assessment by young cultural anthropologist Elza-Blair Guchinova on the past and present of the Kalmyks. The work has been divided into twelve chapters in order to represent, from an anthropological viewpoint, the most varied aspects of the history and culture of the Kalmyks: their history from mediaeval Oirats to present-day Kalmyks; the deportation of 1943-56 as a major founding drama of Kalmykia; the Northern American diaspora and its impact in terms of collective identity; Kalmyk language and the ethno-linguistic situation; traditional economy and dwelling; family and gender stereotypes; life cycle rites; food, dress and ornament; folk handicrafts and decorative applied arts; religion, the calendar and festivals; folk arts and epics; the nation’s leader and the idea of nationhood. A large conclusion (pp. 212-25) deals specifically with the transformations of Kalmyk identity since the end of the Soviet period. Each chapter offers an admixture of data from mainly Russian secondary academic literature and personal observations often borrowed from the author’s own personal background and family. The author’s vision of the Kalmyk past and present is most of the time romantic, and consciously espouses the line of the discourses successively elaborated locally or elsewhere in the Volga River basin and in the main academic centres of the USSR since the 1930s. For instance, the considerations on Buddhism as a vector of national consolidation for the Kalmyks in the seventeenth century is not without reminding the discourse of Tatar academic circles on the role of Islam in the mid-Volga Region after the Russian conquest, which gives way to paradoxical assertions (like when the author writes that “a weakening of links with the outside world was conducive to a reinforcement of the religion,” p. 165). Besides, as far as religion is concerned, in the line of present-day official culture in Elista Buddhism is definitely viewed as the cement par excellence of Kalmyk culture and identity ― nothing at all being said in the whole book on the intense Christianisation campaigns of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (with conversion of 10% of Kalmyk society, including part of the ruling dynasty of the Kalmyk Khanate), and on the diffusion of Orthodox religious culture and practices among Christian as well as Buddhist Kalmyks (on this aspect of the things, see notably the works by Kalmyk historian Keemia Orlova, absent from the book’s limited bibliography). As for modern collective identities, the author has properly and interestingly noticed the influence, conveyed by school education, of late Tsarist and early Soviet academic works on present-day Kalmyk mass culture, notably of those by historian of the Mongolian world B. Ia. Vladimirtsov (1884-1931, see pp. 212-3). At the same time, her considerations never really exceed the level of a simple enumeration of elements of Soviet school culture on Kalmyk past associated with Russia’s grandeur, by the way not always deprived of approximation (Kalmyks entered Paris with Tsar Alexander I’s army in 1814, not in 1813. . .). In the mood of “our ancestors the Gauls,” well-known to French schoolboys and schoolgirls, the author displays a picture nourished by childhood’s readings, museum visits and other pilgrimages, which constitutes a captivating testimony of her, though deprived of critical distance, and of a heuristic or epistemological value. Simple comparison with the discourses on the self and other that have been developed since at least the 1970s among a great many ethnic groups and nations of the former USSR would have provided the author with more productive conceptual instruments. It would have notably brought her to relativize the Kalmyks’ exclusive relationship with Russian culture: Russian classical writers and travellers who have written on such or such group or community are commonly hijacked by all those in quest of historical legitimacy throughout the former Soviet Union (suffice to mention the specific relations of present-day Tajiks to Russian civilisation). The book’s main interest remains the author’s often uncritical notation of the elements through which Kalmyk identity is being reinvented since the end of the Soviet period, and from this viewpoint it constitutes an interesting document, nice to read . . . and full of potentially productive elements for comparison.

Stéphane A. Dudoignon, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris
CER: II-2.2-72