The Torgut Exodus


DeFrancis, John, In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, Hawaii, 1993.


Narrative of the Chinese Embassy to the Khan of the Tourgouth Tartars, 1712-1715, tr. Sir George Thomas Staunton, University Publications of America 1976 (John Murray 1812).


Cds, George, Testimonia of Greek and Latin Writers on the Lands and Peoples of the Far East, Ares reprint, 1910/1979.



Additional bibliography

"The Return of the Torghuts from Russia to China", C. D. Barkman, Journal of Oriental Studies II, 1955, pp. 89-115.

Barkman Website

Barkman's fictional treatment of the Torgut Exodus

New Qing Imperial History (Ruth Dunnell, James Millward, et al, Routledge Curzon, 2004.)

Sample page of New Qing Imperial History

De Quincey: Flight of a Tartar Tribe

On the Arrival of the Kalmyks from Russia to China in 1771 (by Ochirova Nina, in Chinese and English)


Nowadays the Torgut exodus  is remembered, if at all, only as an obscure episode in the history of the Sino-Russian frontier, but it can be seen as the last gasp of nomadism -- a way of life which had had a powerful influence on Eurasian political and military affairs for well over two thousand years. The Torgut Mongols on the lower Volga were a small subject people of the Czar, but their nomad mobility put them in direct contact with most of Eurasia -- from Moscow to the Black Sea to Beijing to Lhasa (and indirectly at least as far as Stockholm and Istanbul). Both the steppe world and its civilized periphery were familiar to them, at a time when the steppe was still a land of mystery to the civilized peoples, and at a time when the civilized peoples at the two ends of Eurasia were still mysterious to one another. The Torgut lived at the center of a nomadic world of experience whose continental scope had not yet been matched by the civilized peoples in their maritime world.


The Torgut were not descended from the Genghis Khan's hordes, but came west to Russia in 1618, fleeing a dispute with some of the other Mongols in Ming China's western provinces. Much later (in the middle of the winter of 1770-1771), Russian pressure caused them to pack up  everything they owned and travel more than 1700 miles to the east, fleeing Russia and returning to China (now ruled by the Manchus). After fighting their way past various enemy peoples, in September of 1771 80,000 survivors (out of 400,000) resettled in their former homeland in Zungaria in Northern Xinjiang, where the tribe still resides. (Those who stayed behind on the Volga are called Kalmyks; at the end of the Napoleonic wars, Kalmyk cavalry units in Russian service entered Paris. The Kalmyks were involuntarily resettled in Central Asia again for a time during WWII, and after the war a few of them came to the United State as refugees and settled in New Jersey.)


At the beginning of the modern age the Torguts were still nomads, and were able to move across the continent on short notice. Living in the days before railroads, automobiles, and airplanes, during their time on the Volga they fought against the Swedes and Turks, sent a delegation to the Dalai Lama in Lhasa 2500 miles away, and exchanged delegations with the Manchu Emperor in Beijing 3600 miles away. They also served the civilized world as a conduit for  information about the continent as a whole: around 1715, Chinese emissaries returning from the Torguts brought the Manchu emperor news of Russia's 1709 defeat of the Swedes at Poltava in the Ukraine (about 600 miles west of the Torgut's Volga homeland). The Russian victory at Poltava also indirectly contributed toward enlarging the Western universe: captured Swedish officers were transported far to the east, and two of them ultimately brought back a German translation of the first Mongol work ever seen in Europe (a history written in 1659 by the ruler of Khiva in present-day Uzbekistan, Abu al Ghazi Bahadur).


For more than two millennia Inner Eurasia had been a mystery zone. It was a source of luxury products and the route of the Silk Road, but it was also inhabited by unknown, uncontrolled nations -- Petchenegs, Bulgars, Khazars, Kushans, Sakas, Chorasmians, Tokarians, Scythians, Turks, and Huns. The literate nations of Greece, Persia, Rome, China, and Islam were almost entirely unsuccessful in their attempts to control this area (with the occasional exception of some of the oasis cities), and from time to time steppe warriors established themselves as rulers in China, India, or the Middle East. Because of Inner Asian disorder and fragmentation, it was more or less  impossible for anyone to conceptualize Inner Asia as a whole: trade was carried on in relays, with no single individual going more than half the distance between the Mediterranean and China (and seldom as far as that). And since there was no common written language and since most of the steppe peoples were illiterate, almost no accurate information, and no messages at all, ever reached Europe from China (or conversely).  In Cds' collection of classical Western writings about the Far East, the first reasonably accurate information about China came from a Turkish emissary in about  650 A.D. (recorded by Theophylactus Simocotta, pp. 138-142 in Cds). The collapse shortly thereafter of the Western Turkish Empire meant that this kind of communication would not occur again until the Mongol era eight centuries later, when Marco Polo and others were able to make the first round trips and bring back detailed first-hand reports.


The Torgut world of the eighteenth century was a nomad world, but it was a nomad world boxed in by civilization. The Torgut were no longer a sovereign nation, and their communications with Tibet and China were probably made possible partly because the gunpowder empires (Russia, China, and the British in India) had indirectly stabilized the steppe by hardening the lands on its civilized periphery. Like most then-surviving nomads, the Torguts served as military auxiliaries of a sedentary nation (Russia in their case), and the nomads would never completely disappear while cavalry were still an important military factor. (Muslim Tatar cavalry loyally served Poland from the battle of Grunwald in1410 until WWII, and sedentarized Tatars survive as one of the Poland's ethnic groups. The uhlan cavalry of most of the European armies descended  from the Polish Tatar cavalry, and "uhlan" is a Tatar word).


When the Kalmyks helped Peter the Great defeat Karl XII of Sweden at Poltava, it could be taken to mark the ending of two different eras of history. The Kalmyks' 1618 migration to the Volga had been the last westward movement of the steppe nomads, following a pattern which was at least 1500 years old. Karl XII's advance toward the South (albeit in retreat) followed the route along the Baltic-Black Sea corridor which had previously been taken by the Goths, the Rus or Varangians, and the pagan Lithuanians. Peter the Great brought this zone of intersection under the control of the Russia state, and so it was to remain -- though perhaps the Cossacks, who engaged in cavalry raiding and Black Sea piracy even into the twentieth century, might be thought to be the last heirs both of the Huns and of the Goths.



The Torgut World:


From the Volga homeland to:

Dzungarian homeland
1700 miles
650 miles
650 miles
2500 miles
3370 miles
1500 miles
1000 miles
2200 miles



Kalmyk / Torgut Chronology


1618 Westward migration from China

1689 Russian-Chinese treaty fixes border

1698 Torgut pilgrimage returning from Lhasa is trapped in N. China

1709 Trapped Torgut delegation goes to Beijing

1707-9 Torguts in Russian service fight Swedes in Ukraine 

1712-1715 Chinese delegation sent to Torguts on Volga

1729 Trapped Torgut delegation settles in N. China

1755 Chinese annihilation of Dzungars (western Mongols related to Torguts and Kalmycks)

1759 Subjugation of Kalmuck/Torguts

1768-9 Torguts serve with Russians vs. Turks

1771 Midwinter return of Torguts to China. Only 20% reach their destination. Kalmyks remain behind on the Volga.

1815 Kalmyks in Russian service enter Paris.


The Ivory Road

Around 1000 AD the Baltic-Black Sea corridor was part of a trade network reaching from China to Greenland. Another Inuit network reached from Greenland across Canada west to Siberia, where the Inuit had originated, almost joining the first network at both ends. 


The Amber Road connected the Baltic and the Black Seas long before the birth of Christ.




Oirat History


The Torgut in China


The Kalmyk in Russia


Kalmyk-Oirat in China


Ethnologue on the Torgut language


Kalmyk American Society


Oirats / Western Mongols


Abu al Ghazi Bahadur's Genealogical History of the Tartars translated by Swedish officers captured in the Battle of Poltava


Manchus, Russians and Mongols in Inner Eurasia up to 1727


Manchu China dominates eastern inner Eurasia by 1771


The Torgut between China and Russia  



I am emersonj at gmail dot com.

Original materials copyright John J Emerson

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