The Great Unifier? War Narratives and Military History Tours in Kalmykia
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
In December 1943, as rumours began to swirl of the imminent deportation of Kalmyks, El’za Guchinova consoled her mother that they would be safe because her father was a Red Army soldier. Yet, come 28th December, like over 93,000 other Kalmyks, El’za and her mother were bundled onto unheated cattle trucks heading East, subjected to a collective ethnic punishment for the collaboration of a small minority of Kalmyks in those parts of the region under Nazi occupation.
The Kalmyk deportations of 1943 problematise the Russian government’s standard narrative of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) as a unifying triumph into which the Russian Federation’s 185 ethnicities should inscribe their identity. While no longer a taboo topic, there is little space for discussion of the deportations as part of the national war experience, rendering the Kalmyk experience peripheral to the ‘official’ memory of the war. Since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, the sacralisation of the Great Patriotic War has continued apace. To exploit its patriotic potential, the government has invested tens of billions of roubles into activities, clubs, and organisations that engage citizens with their sanitised version of the war. The main organisation spearheading this campaign has been the government-organised NGO, the Russian Military Historical Society (RMHS), headed by Vladimir Medinskii, former Minister for Culture (2012-19) and current presidential aide.
For one such initiative, RMHS and Rostourism (the federal tourism agency that sits under Russia’s Ministry of Culture), co-created military history tours for every Russian region, which they targeted at local people. In theory, you can take the tours through an operator or independently, although in practice it depends on the region. RMHS released a book detailing the tours, in which the latter are described as ‘an effective way of inculcating feelings of patriotism in the population’. In an online introduction, the book’s editor (and Vladimir Medinskii’s father) emphasised the tours as part of a larger campaign to use historical memory to unify the peoples of Russia and discredit critical views of Russian history, describing the former as a ‘virus, capable of destroying and dividing our country, poisoning different ethnicities [in Russia] against each other’.
If RMHS wanted to inspire all-Russian national pride and belonging among Kalmyks, or unify them around a shared historical memory, it was not apparent from the military history tour they created. In the tour book, there is a page-long summary of each region’s military history. In Kalmykia’s case, the Kalmyks’ non-Russian origins are highlighted in the first line, which reads ‘the Kalmyks have come to Russia twice, first […] as conquerors’ (with the Mongols) and second to swear their oath to Russian tsar’. In this way, the Kalmyks are immediately rendered ‘other’ to Russia. The text does however provide ample examples of the Kalmyk’s long martial history, mostly in service to the tsar.
Given this long service, it would arguably have been sensible to concentrate on tsarist-era battles. While over 90% of the tours created focus on World War Two, in several regions RMHS designed tours relating to other events, for example, on general regional military history over 700 years (Tver’, Pskov), the Russo-Turkish Wars (Lipetsk), and the Patriotic War of 1812 (Smolensk). Yet, in Kalymkia, RMHS created a tour entitled ‘In the Footsteps of the 28th Army’, which covers the latter’s liberation of Kalmykia from German forces in 1942-3. RMHS’ accompanying text makes it clear that the liberation arrived from outside, ignoring the role of Kalmyk soldiers fighting in, or providing support to, the 28th Army. While other regional tours include local heroes (e.g. in Chechnya), in Kalmykia’s case the emphasis was on Soviet fighters, troops, and heroism, with the two fleeting references to Kalmyk partisans and cavalrymen clarifying that, here, ‘Soviet’ meant ‘not Kalmyk’. It creates the impression that Kalmyks contributed little to their own liberation, perhaps even alluding to the accusations of collaboration.
Locals taking the tour would be very sensitive to the context and the fact the deportations followed the liberation. Despite this, the tour creators ignore the Exile and Return monument dedicated to the deportations. Moreover, the first stop of the tour – the National Museum of the Republic of Kalmykia (1 on the map) – contains a special permanent exhibition to the deportations, which the tour also excludes, mentioning only the Great Victory exhibition. With this, the creators sideline the Kalmyk experience, silencing it with celebrations of the supposedly shared victory of 1945.
This is the only part of the tour to take place in the capital, Elista. The rest takes place around the former battlefields of the 28th Army, as detailed in Image One. The second stop is some 70km away in the village of Yahskul’, where the Red Army lost a series of battles to the Nazis in 1942. These battles are detailed in the Museum of the History of the Yashkul District (2). The museum is very small, much like the third stop, the Podvig Museum of Military and Labour Glory (3), where students and graduates of a local gymnasium have gathered various objects related to history of the area, including military artefacts.
The next sites are located some 80km away around the village of Khulkhuta, where, at the end of 1942, the 28th Army reversed the German advance into Astrakhan. Stop four is the Memorial Complex to the 28th Army (4), built, like most such complexes, under Leonid Brezhnev. Set against the stark landscape of the Kalmyk steppe, the complex includes mass graves and an imposing obelisk. The complex also includes stop five, a nearby memorial to the fallen fighters of the 28th Army (5), depicted in Image Two. The final stop is a memorial to Hero of the Soviet Union, Natalya Kachuevskaya (6). She was a young volunteer from Moscow who, during the Battle of Khulkhuta, threw herself on a grenade to kill approaching German forces and save the lives of 20 injured Soviet soldiers.
Although undoubtedly inspiring, there is little in the descriptive symbolism of these sites that explicitly refers to Kalmyk identity and historical experience. This absence is made starker by the sites’ representational symbolism. Much of the architecture in Kalmykia reflects the region’s history and Buddhist heritage (including the Exodus and Return memorial), but the same cannot be said of the tour sites. Representing various eras, most of the sites are visibly Soviet in style and architecture, from the 1960s modernism of the National Museum to the gargantuanism of the Brezhnev era memorials in sites four and five. Built after the USSR, in 1997, the Kachuevskaya memorial (site six) takes the form of a Russian Orthodox gravestone.
In this way, the visual symbolism of the monuments and buildings reinforces the notion that, on this tour, Kalmyks are onlookers rather than participants. The irony of this is that the insistence on promoting a sanitised narrative of the war as a ‘unifying’ idea may well prevent the (self-) inscription of Kalmykia into the all-Russian historical memory promoted by the government. By deliberately ignoring Kalmyk wartime experiences, the government thus opens up more space for contestation of its narrative of the Great Patriotic War, from which it draws much of its political legitimacy.
Jade McGlynn recently completed her PhD thesis (viva pending) at the University of Oxford, where she is also employed as a Lecturer in Russian Language and Literature (University College). She has published articles in Memory Studies and Nationalities Papers and her current research interests include Russian military-patriotic tours and the use of history as a form of soft power.
 Guchinova, El’za-Bair. 2005. Pomnit’ nel’zia zabyt’ - Antropologiia deportatsionnoi travmy kalmykov. Moscow: Ibidem.  Medinskii, Rostislav, ed.2014. Voenno-istoricheskie marshruty Rossii. Moscow: Russian Military Historical Society. Page 8.  Ibid. Page 137