Voluntary exile: Kalmyk migrants’ views of Kalmykia from Moscow
Edward C. Holland and Elvira Churyumova

Figure 1: A street in Tsagan-Aman, a Kalmyk village that has been affected by outmigration (photo by Edward C. Holland)
An office worker in her downtown office is mistaken by her colleagues for the cleaning crew. A man is stopped by the police and moves along without incident only after showing his Russian passport and Moscow residence permit, all while speaking flawless Russian. A pregnant woman on a city bus is made to stand as no one offers her their seat. These vignettes illustrate the experiences of Kalmyk migrants in Moscow, Russia’s capital.

Each is drawn from a paper we recently published in the journal Caucasus Survey, “Internal Migration from a Russian Republic: The Everyday Experiences of Kalmyk Migrants in Moscow.” The study is based on interviews from January and February 2020 with 53 Kalmyks living in the Russian capital, right before the pandemic began. The paper explores Kalmyk migrants’ experiences with racism and xenophobia, and notes a generally improved racial climate in Moscow compared to the 1990s and 2000s. However, as reported by our interlocutors, instances of discrimination still occur, notably in the housing market, for workers in unskilled employment sectors and on city streets during interactions with less educated and lower-status ethnic Russians (oftentimes Russians encountered by our white-collar Kalmyk interlocutors outside their places of work).

Our paper on internal migration from Kalmykia to Moscow, as well as the lived experiences of Kalmyk migrants in the Russian capital, is part of a special issue about the republic. The volume foregrounds two broader themes: 1) the historical experience of the Kalmyks within the Russian and Soviet polities, as a formerly nomadic population that was sedentarized before being deported to Siberia and Central Asia during World War II; and 2) contemporary challenges facing the republic revolving around pilgrimage and Buddhist practice and economic marginality. As two of the guest editors for the issue, we used the idea of decolonization to frame the papers, with particular emphasis on the value of scholarship from and about the margins of Russia as a colonial state. Focused interventions on republics like Kalmykia work toward the decolonization imperative by decentering the study of Russia and its environs away from the metropole and to the periphery.

In this memo, we further develop this research thread by returning to our interviews with Kalmyks in Moscow, exploring how these migrants view their native republic that they left in pursuit of better opportunities.

Outmigration from Kalmykia

Outmigration from Kalmykia is significant, and though there are no accurate figures on how many Kalmyks live outside of the republic, we estimate that between 20,000 and 40,000 live in Moscow and Moscow Region. The issue of outmigration was highlighted in an Instagram post by the oppositional account “Elista is our city” made in January 2020, which showed long queues of migrants at the bus station in Kalmykia’s capital Elista leaving the republic. A trio of questions asked during each interview prompted interlocutors to reflect on migrants’ views on Kalmykia, the effects of outmigration on Kalmyk society and the possibility that migrants would one day return.

Migrants’ critical views on Kalmykia

Migrants’ views on Kalmykia can be quite harsh and critical. For instance, on its level of development one interlocutor said: “There is no running water in Kalmykia. We are accustomed to civilization...not to no water being the norm” (in areas of Elista, water can be shut off for periods of time while the system is repaired). Another decried the lack of investment in Elista in particular and Kalmykia in general, particularly compared to Moscow, where money is invested to build out the city. A third pointed to corruption among the political leaders both in Kalmykia and Russia, framing the issue in existential terms: “We are on the verge of extinction. In another 200 years, Kalmyks will cease to exist.” To quote a fourth: “I do not believe that our republic will become civilized and self-sufficient, to be honest.”

Others identified a wide range of issues facing Kalmykia: the republic’s lack of connectivity to Russia’s rail system and the high costs of getting a taxi; lack of employment opportunities due to deindustrialization; the absolute reliance on subsidies from the federal center and a need to develop an economic base; low wages that barely rise above subsistence levels; failure to develop Kalmykia’s tourism potential; and population loss from rural areas and the “inertia” found in these places (e.g. the settlements of Yashkul and Tsagan-Aman, among others mentioned). Some respondents communicated a perception of stagnation and hopelessness about the republic: “I have not lived there for 15 years, and for 15 years I have not noticed anything good, I have not noticed any positive changes in the republic.” The percentage of those who leave and subsequently return to Kalmykia is likely low, on the order of 10% or 20%, another interlocutor estimated.

Migration’s strains on Kalmyk society

These views on Kalmykia underpin other perspectives on the impact of internal migration on Kalmyk culture and society, as well as the republic’s economy and politics. Many of our interlocutors viewed outmigration as a net negative, particularly in terms of culture. The loss of the Kalmyk language — see the article in the Caucasus Survey special issue by Elza Guchinova — is amplified by outmigration. For example, one interlocutor notes that she no longer speaks Kalmyk with her family and that few other migrants in Moscow do. A broader concern with assimilation, cultural loss, and the drawbacks of the diasporic condition was articulated in multiple interviews.

One respondent noted increased tensions within families, with mothers-in-law, for example, being the butt of jokes in ways that they were not previously and that reflect the erosion of elder authority — whether this is anecdotal or a broader trend is difficult to say, though it does inform concerns about cultural and social change broadly defined. Other interlocutors emphasized the negative effects of outmigration on families and parent-child dynamics, most commonly when parents leave their children with grandparents and move elsewhere for work. Interethnic marriages, previously pursued by Kalmyk men, are now often initiated by Kalmyk women. Some pointed to gender norms and expectations of wives within Kalmyk society as an explanation for this trend. As one interlocutor put it, characterizing how men approach domestic relationships, “they just lie around and that’s it, [making demands like] I want, I want, I want, the wife must, must.” Other informants expressed concern about the deracinated nature of younger Kalmyks born elsewhere in Russia: “How can I drag my children there and how can I make them love their hometown (Elista) when they don’t know it?” Another interlocutor suggested that Kalmyks’ being raised outside the republic would undermine any spiritual connection with Kalmykia, its land and history.

Despite a host of issues identified by our interlocutors, a thread of nostalgia for Kalmykia ran through many of the conversations. From one interview: “it was and remains my homeland (in Russian: rodina), as I loved it, I love it still.” Another respondent spoke about their love of Kalmyk culture, music and dance, the celebration of holidays such as Zul (Kalmyk New Year celebrations that usually occur around the start of the year in the Gregorian calendar), and many good memories of time spent in the republic: “I love Kalmykia very much...I love our culture and am proud of it.”

Migrants’ views on economics and politics

The economic consequences of outmigration are more ambiguous. Certainly, salaries in Kalmykia motivate people to leave — a number of interlocutors gave a top end of RUB 15,000 per month (about $180 at current conversion rates; approximately $240 at the time of the interviews) — and discourage many migrants from returning. (For those on disability and pensioners, another interlocutor gave an income range of RUB 6,000 to RUB 9,000 per month.) According to one interviewee: “it seems to me that there is an even greater outflow of the population.” Outmigration has usually been seen as undertaken by the most ambitious and talented, whether students or professionals. This brain drain deprives the republic of people with ambition: “the best leave, those who want to live better, but there is no way to live better there (i.e. in Kalmykia).” The outmigration has been linked to larger structural processes in the Russian economy: “regions are not developing and there is no way to stay where you were born and [previously] lived.” However, some interlocutors identified an economic silver lining in outmigration, what could be viewed as a brain gain in the future. Those Kalmyks working in Moscow develop a skillset that can benefit the republic if they return while also establishing a capital base for future investment should the climate for that improve. Others pointed to the economic benefit of remittances for the republic as a positive that results from migration.

Some interlocutors demonstrated a serious familiarity with politics in Kalmykia, particularly the protests that resulted from the appointment of the ethnically Russian Dmitri Trapeznikov as Elista’s mayor in September 2019 (though not part of the special issue, see the paper on these themes by Edward Holland in press in Caucasus Survey). One respondent interpreted the situation: “Moscow told [Batu Khasikov, Kalmykia’s current head] that Trapeznikov needed to be stuck someplace (in Russian: pristroit').Others were more sanguine on Khasikov’s leadership — he had been in office officially only for a handful of months at the time of our interviews — and pointed to “positive change” in the republic since he took over. As opposed to the previous two leaders of the republic, Alexei Orlov and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who worsened the situation in the republic, Khasikov’s tenure at the time of our interviews was viewed by some as trending in the right direction.
Figure 2: Responses to the question: Would you return to live in Kalmykia permanently?
Plans for the future: to stay or return to Kalmykia?

About a third of our respondents indicated that they intended to return to Kalmykia at some point in the future (Figure 2). (We either directly asked this question about returning or it came up organically in the interviews with 50 of the 53 respondents.) This desire to return was linked to a number of factors, including the nostalgia noted above, spending old age in their place of birth, the desire to get married and start a family, and the simplicity of life in Kalmykia in comparison to Moscow. For example, one said that “I will definitely return to Kalmykia, I will live there and die there.” If remote work were a possibility, a handful of interlocutors indicated that they would base themselves in Kalmykia and maintain their current positions and salary (while perhaps these opportunities increased with the pandemic, due to Russia’s war in Ukraine it would be difficult to speculate as to whether these individuals returned to work in Kalmykia).

Twenty-two respondents (41% of the total interviewed) indicated unambiguously that they do not have plans to return to Kalmykia. Those that did not want to return cited salaries, lack of employment opportunities (particularly without connections necessary to secure a good job), inadequate health care and sustained outmigration by family members. Other justifications were more abstract. As described in one interview, “Kalmykia for me is something distant, alien, like a void.” Another interlocutor suggested that the provincialism of a place like Elista was a negative compared to Moscow. The capital allows “you to fail 3,000 times, and no one will say anything to you, it's much better here.” Yet others dream of retirement internationally: “in old age, we would like to live in Miami Beach.”


Although Kalmyks’ exile from their home republic is today voluntary and economically motivated rather than politically dictated — in contrast to the deportation during World War II — the effects for the ethnic group are arguably similar in terms of cultural erosion. There are genuine challenges in preserving cultural markers like the Kalmyk language beyond the borders of the republic, challenges which have not been fully reconciled by those who have moved elsewhere. Even here, though, there is some ambiguity; one interlocutor emphasized the benefits of broadened horizons: “I believe that for... life experience, it is useful to live in different places, not only in your hometown.” As we found in interpreting migrants’ views on Moscow and the lived experiences in the Russian capital, internal migrants from Kalmykia offer a range of opinions when thinking about their home republic and the social, cultural and economic outcomes of the move. These various interpretations underscore the particularity of the migrant experience as shaped by region of origin and destination, but also race, citizenship, educational level and employment sector across a range of other factors.
  • Edward C. Holland

    Assistant Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arkansas
  • Elvira Churyumova

    Affiliated Researcher at Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge
More articles
Subscribe to our newsletter
You will receive our biweekly newsletter with the most relevant Russia-related research news.