Representations from Russia’s Colonial Past: The Pre-revolutionary Kalmyk Archive (1766-1920)

While working in various archives in Russia over the course of many years, I was fortunate enough to be able to familiarize myself with the large collections of the National Archive of the Kalmyk Republic. The archive is particularly rich in its pre-revolutionary tsarist documentation – which amounted at some point in the past to more than 50,000 complete files – which makes this place indeed a ‘colonial archive’ of the Russian Empire. Yet, most intriguingly, approximately 15–20% of these files were lost due to the 1917 revolutions and World War II, or were deliberately destroyed during the subsequent deportation of the Kalmyk people to Siberia and Central Asia. We know this from the inventories contained in the old archival record books and their corresponding inspection lists (starting in the early 1930s), which still had the titles of all documents, with a special mark next to those that had been lost over time.

Unfortunately, these record books also underwent revision and became objects of an ‘updated’ edition, cleansed now of all previous entries of missing documents. However, thanks to exceptional non-bureaucratic cooperation with the archival staff, I managed to make copies of all original record books in the late 1990s, which were at the time stored in a safe place. In the current project, these old archival record books will be processed in order to describe, inventory, and analyse this particular ‘colonial archive’. As a result, we will then have at least a metadata description of those documents that were destroyed to blot out inconvenient historical truths or subjected to the horrendous Soviet-era maculature campaigns, as well as an up-to-date inventory of the pre-revolutionary documentation still available in the Kalmyk National Archive today.

Beyond the editorial work of this metadata, which is expected to result in approximately 3,000 pages in print for which three to four volumes are planned, a comprehensive analytical introduction – including tables and charts – will offer precise information with quantitative and qualitative status analyses of the metadata of the lost documents. Absolute data and ratios (in percentages) regarding the existing number of files and an inventory of what is missing will be provided for every year as well as for each of the 51 archival fonds. Since most of the files specify the number of folios contained within, an approximate calculation of losses in terms of quantity of folios and weight of paper could be added.

Regarding the qualitative analysis, there is sufficient information to analyse various criteria of the archival losses. Because of the shortage of paper in difficult times, maculature campaigns may have had an economic function (indiscriminate destruction and recycling of paper). However, there is also evidence for attempts to destroy particular documentation (selective destruction) for political reasons, following a well-known policy of damnatio memoriae (‘condemnation of memory’) by excluding persons, events, processes, or legal evidence from official accounts (quod non est in actis, non est in mundo). These losses can be profiled according to various questions and temporalities: What subjects are concerned? Which time periods are outstanding? Finally, it would be tempting to briefly sketch a narrative based exclusively on the surviving titles of the lost documentary material, which could be entitled A History that Never Was: Destinies of a Colonial Archive. From what I have seen so far, such a narrative would touch on almost every aspect of the Kalmyks in their relationships to the colonial administration, economy, religion, and legal issues. Such a story could raise and preserve their names of important Kalmyk personages, their activities, and their relations with Russian officials, peasants, Cossacks, and traders. In its own way this would offer a subaltern echo from the past that differs from what official historiography has produced to date.


Cohn, Bernhard S. 1987. An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays. Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press.

Cooper, Frederick. 2005. “Postcolonial Studies and the Study of History.” In Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, edited by Ania Loomba, Suvir Kaul, Matti Bunzl, Antoinette Burton, and Jed Esty, 401-22. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

Khodarkovsky, Michael. 2018. “Between Europe and Asia: Russia’s State Colonialism in Comparative Perspective, 1550s-1900s.” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 52(1): 1-29.

Ladwig, Patrice, Ricardo Roque, Oliver Tappe, Christoph Kohl, and Cristiana Bastos. 2012. Fieldwork Between Folders: Fragments, Traces, and the Ruins of Colonial Archives. Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Working Paper 141.

Quod non legitur. 2019. Accessed, 25 April, 2019.

Schorkowitz, Dittmar. 1988. Die ethnohistorischen Archivdokumente zu den Kalmücken, Burjaten und Mongolen des Zentralstaatlichen Geschichtsarchivs (CGIA) und des Institutsarchivs für Ethnographie (AIĖ) in Leningrad – Этноисторические документы по калмыкам, бурятам и монголам Центрального Государственного Исторического Архива (ЦГИА) и Архива Института Этнографии (АИЭ) в Ленинграде (Bibliographische Mitteilungen des Osteuropa-Institutes an der Freien Universität Berlin 25). Berlin: Harrassowitz.

Schorkowitz, Dittmar. 2012. “Historical Anthropology in Eurasia ‘… and the Way Thither’.” History and Anthropology 23(1): 37-62.

Schorkowitz, Dittmar. 2018. ‘… Daß die Inorodcy niemand rettet und das Heil bei ihnen selbst liegt …‘: Quellen und Beiträge zur historischen Ethnologie von Burjaten und Kalmücken (Veröffentlichungen der Societas Uralo-Altaica 90). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Schorkowitz, Dittmar. 2019 (forthcoming). “Was Russia a Colonial Empire?” In The Shifting Forms of Continental Colonialism: Unfinished Struggles and Tensions, edited by Dittmar Schorkowitz, John Chavez, and Ingo Schröder. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

Go to Editor View