A seminomadic branch of the Oirat Mongols, the Kalmyks migrated from Chinese Turkistan to the steppe W of the Volga's mouth in the mid-17th cent. They became allies of the Russians and were charged by Peter I with guarding the eastern frontier of the Russian Empire. Under Catherine II, however, the Kalmyks became vassals. In 1771 about 300,000 Kalmyks E of the Volga set out to return to China but were decimated en route by Russian, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz attacks. The Kalmyks west of the Volga remained in Russia, where they retained their Lamaist Buddhist religion and their seminomadic life. The word Kalmyk in Turkish means "remnant," referring to those who stayed behind.
The Kalmyk Autonomous Region was established in 1920; it became an autonomous republic in 1936. During World War II, Kalmyk units fought the Russians in collaboration with the Germans. As a result, the people of Kalmykia (some 170,000 individuals) were deported to Siberia in 1943, and their republic was dissolved. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev denounced the deportation as a Stalinist crime, and the following year about 6,000 Kalmyks were returned. The Kalmyk Autonomous SSR was officially reestablished in 1958. The republic was a signatory, under the name Republic of Kalmykia-Khalmg-Tangeh, to the Mar. 31, 1992, treaty that created the Russian Federation (see Russia). The Kalmyks sought independence in the early 1990s but agreed to abandon separatist aims in 1994.