Contesting Kalmak Identity in Contemporary Kyrgyzstan

There are approximately ten thousand people identified as Sartkalmaks living in four villages - Börü-Bash, Chel’pek, Burma-Suu, and Tash-Kyiya - near the town of Karakol at the southern shore of the Issyq-Köl Lake. The Sartkalmaks emigrated from China in the late 19th century. They are descendants of Buddhist Oirats but today identify as Muslim. The Sartkalmaks speak Kyrgyz and share traditions with the Kyrgyz.

The ethnonym ‘Sartkalmaks’ is used only in regard to this ethnic group living in Kyrgyzstan and was introduced in Russian documents at the end of 19th century (Zhukovskaiya 1980). One of the aspects of my research will be the investigation of the confusion existing among Kyrgyzstan’s citizens regarding the names of this group. The majority of people in the country consider the Kalmaks to be one of the big Kyrgyz lineages; some know of daana (‘real’) Kalmaks from Issyk-Köl, and very few people use the term Sartkalmaks. People from the four villages most often call themselves Kalmaks, although in recent years there is a tendency to call themselves Sartkalmaks. It is important to understand where the proliferation of this identifying term stems from and the impacts, if any, it has on the Sartkalmaks? Why did they recently start to use the ethnonym ‘Sartkalmak’?

The ethnonym ‘Sartkalmak’ itself should be studied. The linguistic complexity can point to a more fundamental complexity of the modes of identification. Representatives of the older generation of Sartkalmaks typically identify themselves as having “become Kyrgyz”. At the same time, however, many Sartkalmaks feel the need to have a separate identity; and the need to differentiate themselves from other people has been growing, especially during the last decade. The young generation, in particular, tries to insist on being Sartkalmak.

I will consider not only what cultural traits ‘draw’ the boundary between being a “Sartkalmak” and various contrastive “others” (including, most importantly, Russians and Kyrgyz), but also the dynamic processes through which a person chooses to identify him- or herself as a Sartkalmak, Kalmak, or Kyrgyz – and what each of these choices means in different contexts. I will be focused on both the rational and emotional components of identity. I will also examine the so-called ‘passportnyi vopros’ (the “passport question”), which can illustrate the decision-making process in relation with identity and the dynamics of its development regarding perceptions of the past, homeland, and the state.

The question of Sartkalmak identity can also be explored in terms of the potential for productive manipulations. I am interested in how, when, and why my informants relate themselves to Sartkalmaks and Kyrgyz respectively, and particularly what ‘benefits’ these decisions may bring in terms of jobs, questions of status, and opportunities for seeking work abroad (notably in the Kalmak republic of the Russian Federation)?

The ‘rationale’ of the choice of identity is going to be ‘explained’ by two main actors: the older and the younger generation of Sartkalmaks. Three paradigms1 can be distinguished in the narratives of the informants in the preliminary research project2: ilgeri (‘the distant past’), ‘the Soviet past’, and ‘the postsoviet present’. On this basis, I will analyse the dynamics of ethnic boundaries (Barth 1969), where ‘being Sartkalmak’ faces, contrasts, or sometimes intertwines with ‘being Kyrgyz’.

Through the situated ethnography, I seek to contribute to debates concerning minority-majority relations in the context of postsoviet and postcolonial change, the role of the state in mediating identity choices, and contemporary theoretical debates about ethnic identity.


Barth, Fredrik 1969: Ethnic groups and boundaries. The social organization of culture difference. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Zhukovskaiya, N. ‘Issyk-Kul’skiye Kalmaki (sart-kalmaki)’, in: Ethnograficheskiye processy u nacional’nyh grupp Srednei Azii i Kazahstana, 1980, p 157, Moscow.


1 As a paradigm I understand a system of notions and definitions, which people (in this case Sartkalmaks) operate towards the identity. The paradigm in the context of this research is framed with the periods of identity-making: pre-soviet, soviet, and post-soviet. Each of the periods is not homogeneous, there were changing circumstances and therefore changing or shifting boundaries based on the choice at the particular moment. I use the term ‘paradigm’ instead of ‘period’ (if one would argue) because as I think for people, at least for those who were already interviewed, these paradigms exist at the same time.
2Under the Aigine Cultural Research Center in these four villages, in July-August 2008.

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