Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

The Flight of the Kalmucks

On the 5th of January, 1771, began one of the most remarkable events in the history of the world, the migration of an entire nation, more than half a million strong, with its women and children, flocks and herds, and all that it possessed, to a new home four thousand miles away. More than once—many times, apparently—in the history of the past such migrations have taken place. But those were war-like movements, with conquest as their aim. This was a peaceful migration, the only desire of those concerned being to be let alone. This desire was not granted, and death and terror marked every step of their frightful journey.

A century and a half earlier the fathers of these people, the Kalmuck Tartars, had left their homes in the Chinese empire and wandered west, finding a resting-place at last on the, Volga River, in the Russian realm. Here they would have been well content to remain but for the arts and designs of one man, Zebek-Dorchi by name, who, ambitious to be made khan of the tribe, and not being favored in his desires by the Russian court, determined to remove the whole Kalmuck nation beyond the reach of Russian control.

This was no easy matter to do. Russia had spread to the east until the whole width of Asia lay within its broad expanse and its boundary touched the Pacific waves. To reach China, the mighty Mongolian plain had to be crossed, largely a desert, swarming with hostile tribes; death and disaster were likely to haunt every mile of the way; and a general tomb in the wilderness, rather than a home in a new land, was the most probable destiny of the migrating horde.

Zebek–Dorchi was confronted with a difficult task. He had to induce the tribesmen to consent to the new movement, and that so quickly that a start could be made before the Russians became aware of the scheme. Otherwise the path would be lined with armies and the movement checked.

Oubacha, the khan of the Kalmucks, was a brave but weak man. The conspirator controlled him, and through him the people. On a fixed day, through a false alarm that the Kirghises and Bashkirs had made an inroad upon the Kalmuck lands, he succeeded in gathering a great Kalmuck horde, eighty thousand in all, at a point out of reach of Russian ears. Here, with subtle eloquence, he told them of the oppressions of Russia, of her insults to the Kalmucks, her contempt for their religion, and her design to reduce them to slavery, and declared that a plan had been devised to rob them of their eldest sons. By a skilful mixture of truth and falsehood he roused their fears and their anger, and at length he proposed that they should leave their fields and make a rapid march to the Temba or some other great river, from behind which they could speak in bolder language to the Russian empress and claim better terms. He did not venture as yet to hint at his startling plan of a migration to far-off China.

The simpleminded Tartars, made furious by his skilful oratory, accepted his plan by acclamation, and returned home to push with the utmost haste the preparations for their stupendous task. The idea of a migration en masse did not frighten them. They were nomads and the descendants of nomads, who for ages had been used to fold their tents and flit away.

The Kalmuck villages extended on both sides of the Volga. A large section of the horde would have to cross that great stream, and this could be done with sufficient speed only when its surface was bridged with ice, For this reason midwinter was chosen for the flight, despite the sufferings which must arise from the bitter Russian cold, and the 5th of January was appointed for religious reasons by the leading Lama of the tribe. The year had been selected by the Great Lama of Thibet, the head of the Buddhist faith, to which the Kalmucks belonged, and to whom the conspirator had appealed.

Despite the secrecy and rapidity of the movement, tidings of it reached the Russian court. But the Russian envoy who dwelt among the Kalmucks was quite deceived by their wiles, and sent word to the imperial court that the rumors were false and nothing resembling an outbreak was in view. The governor of Astrachan, a man of more sense and discernment, sent courier after courier, but his warnings were ignored, and the fatal 5th of January came without a preventive step being taken by the govern Then the governor, learning that the migration had actually begun, sprang into his sleigh and drove over the Russian snows at the furious speed of three hundred miles a day, finally rushing into the imperial presence-chamber at St. Petersburg to announce to the empress that all his warnings had been true and that the Kalmucks were in full flight. Other couriers quickly confirmed his words, and the envoy paid for his blindness by death in a dungeon-cell.

Meanwhile the banks of the Volga had been the locality of a remarkable event. At early dawn of the selected day the Kalmucks east of the stream began to assemble in troops and squadrons, gathering in tens of thousands, a great body of the tribe setting out every half-hour on its march, Women and children, several hundred thousand in number, were placed on wagons and camels, and moved off in masses of twenty thousand at once, with escorts of mounted men. As the march proceeded, outlying bodies of the horde kept falling in during that and the following day.

From sixty to eighty thousand of the best mounted warriors stayed behind for work of ruin and revenge. Their first purpose was to destroy their own dwellings, lest some of the weak-minded might be tempted to return. Oubacha, the khan, set the example by applying the torch to his own palace. Before the day was over the villages throughout a district of ten thousand square mites were in a simultaneous blaze. Nothing was saved except the portable utensils and such of the wood-work as might be used in making the long Tartar lances.

This was but part of the destruction proposed. Zebek-Dorchi had it in view to pillage and destroy all the Russian towns, churches, and buildings of every kind within the surrounding district, with outrage and death to their inhabitants,—a frightful scheme, which was providentially checked. The day of flight had been selected, as has been said, in the worst season of the year, in order that the tribes west of the Volga might be able to cross its surface on a thick bridge of ice. Yet for some reason—possibly because of the weakness of the ice—the western Kalmucks failed to join their eastern brethren, and fully one hundred thousand of the Tartars were left behind. It was this that saved the Russian towns, it being feared by the leaders that such a vengeance would be repaid upon their brethren left to Russian reprisal. These western Kalmucks little guessed what horrors they were escaping by being prevented from joining in the flight.

The migrating horde was not less than six hundred thousand strong, while a vast number of horses, camels, cattle, goats, and sheep added to the multitude of living forms. The march was a forced one. Every day gained was of prime importance, for it was well known that Russian armies would soon be in hot pursuit, while the tribes on their line of march, hereditary foes of the Kalmucks, would gather from all sides to oppose their passage as the news of the flight reached their ears.

The river Jaik, three hundred miles away, must be reached before a day's rest could be had. The weather was not severely cold, and the journey might have been accomplished with little distress but for the forced pace. As it was, the cattle suffered greatly, the sheep died in multitudes, milk began to fail, and only the great number of camels saved the children and the infirm.

The first of the subjects of Russia with whom the Kalmucks came into collision were the Cossacks of the Jaik. At this season most of these were absent at the fisheries on the Caspian, and the others fled in crowds to the fortress of Koulagina, which was quickly summoned to surrender by the Kalmuck khan. The Russian commandant, numerous as were his foes, refused, knowing that they must soon resume their flight. Ile had not long to wait. On the fifth day of the siege, from the walls of the fort a number of Tartar couriers, mounted on the swift Bactrian camels, were seen to cross the plains and ride into the Kalmuck camp at their highest speed.

Immediately a great agitation was visible in the camp, the siege was raised, and the signal for flight resounded through the host. The news brought was that an entire Kalmuck division, numbering nine thousand fighting-men, stationed on a distant flank of the line of march, and between whom and the Cossacks there was an ancient feud, had been attacked and virtually exterminated. The exhaustion of their horses and camels had prevented flight, quarter was not asked or given, and the battle continued until not a fighting-man was left alive.

The utmost speed was now necessary, for a sufficient reason. The next safe halting-place of the Kalmucks was on the east bank of the Toorgal River. Between it and them rose a hilly country, a narrow defile through which offered the nearest and best route. This lost, the need of pasturage would require a further sweep of five hundred miles. The Cossack light horsemen were only about fifty miles more distant from the pass. If it were to be won, the most rapid march possible must be made.

For a day and a night the flight went on, with renewed suffering and loss of animals. Then a snow-fall, soon too deep to journey through, checked all progress, and for ten days they had a season of rest, comfort, and plenty. The cows and oxen had perished in such numbers that it was resolved to slaughter what remained, feast to their hearts' content, and salt the remainder for future stores.

At length clear, frosty weather came: the snow ceased to drift, and its surface froze. It would bear the camels, and the flight was resumed. But already seventy thousand persons of all ages had perished, in addition to those slain in battle, and new suffering and death impended, for word came that the troops of the empire were converging from all parts of Central Asia upon the fords of the Toorgai, as the best place to cut off the flight of the tribes, while a powerful army was marching rapidly upon their rear, though delayed by its artillery.

On the 2nd of February Ouchim, the much-desired defile, was reached. The Cossacks had been out-marched. A considerable body of them, it is true, had reached the pass some hours before, but they were attacked and so fiercely dealt with that few of them escaped. The Kalmucks here obtained revenge for the slaughter of their fellows twenty days before.

The road was now open. How long it would continue open was in doubt. Word came that a large Russian army, led by General Traubenberg, was advancing upon the Toorgai. He was to be met on his route by ten thousand Bashkirs and as many Kirghises, implacable enemies of the Kalmucks, from whom they had suffered in past years. The only hope now lay in speed, and onward the Kalmucks pressed, their line of march marked by the bodies of the dead. The weak, the sick, had to be left behind; nothing was suffered to impede the rapidity of their flight.

From the starting-point on the Volga to the halting-ground on the Toorgai, counting the circuits that had to be made, was full two thousand miles, much of it traversed in the dead of winter, the cold, for seven weeks of the journey, being excessively severe. Napoleon's army in its retreat from Moscow suffered no more from the winter chill than did this migrating nation. On many a morning the dawning light shone on a circle that had gathered the night before around a sparse fire (made from the lading of the camels or from broken-up baggage-wagons), now dead and frozen stiff as they sat.

But at length the snows ceased to fall, the frost to chill. Spring came. March and April passed away. May arrived with its balmy airs. Vernal sights and sounds cheered them on every side. During all these months they continued their march, and towards the end of May the Toorgai wasreached and crossed, and the weary wanderers, having left their enemies far in the rear, hoped to find comfort and security during weeks of rest, and to complete their journey with less of ruin and suffering. They little dreamed that the worst of their task had yet to be endured.

During the five months of their wanderings their losses had been frightfully severe. Not less than two hundred and fifty thousand members of the horde had perished, while their herds and flocks—oxen, cows, sheep, goats, horses, mules, and asses—had perished, only the camels surviving. These hardy creatures had come through the terrible journey unharmed, and on them rested all their hopes for the remainder of their flight.

But another two thousand miles lay before them, with hostility in front and in rear. Should they still go on, or should they return and throw themselves on the mercy of the empress? Oubacha, the khan, advised return, offering to take all the guilt of the flight upon himself. Zebek-Dorchi earnestly urged them to proceed, and not lose the fruit of all their suffering. But the people, worn out with the hardships and perils of their route, favored a return and a trust in the imperial mercy, and this would probably have been determined upon but for an untoward event.

This was the arrival of two envoys from Traubenberg, the Russian general, who, after a long and painful march, had approached within a few days' journey of the fugitives about the 1st of June. On his way he had been joined by large bodies of the Kirghis and Bashkir nomads. The harsh tone and peremptory demands of the envoys aroused hostile feelings among the Kalmuck chiefs. But the main check to negotiations was the action of the Bashkirs, who, finding that Traubenberg would not advance, left his camp in a body and set off for the Kalmuck halting-place.

In six days they reached the Toorgai, swam their horses across it, and fell in fury upon the Kalmucks, who were dispersed over leagues of ground in search of pasture and food. Peace at once changed to war. Over a field from thirty to forty miles wide, fighting, flight and pursuit, rescue and death, went on at all points. More than once were the khan and Zebek-Dorchi in peril of death. At one time both were made prisoners. But at length, concentrating their strength, they forced the Bashkirs to retreat. For two days more the wild Bashkir and Kirghis cavalry continued their attacks, and the Kalmuck chiefs, looking upon these as the advance parties of the Russian army, felt themselves obliged to order a renewal of the flight. Thus suddenly ended their hoped-for season of repose.

One event took place during this period of which it is important to speak. A Russian gentleman, Weseloff by name, was held prisoner in the Kalmuck camp, and had been brought that far on their route. The khan Oubacha, who saw no object in holding him, now gave him leave to attempt his escape, and also asked him to accompany him during a private interview which he was to hold on the next night with the hetman of the Bashkirs. Weseloff declined to do so, and bade the khan to beware, as he feared the scheme meant treachery.

About ten that night Weseloff, with three Kalmucks who had offered to join in his flight, they having strong reasons for a return to Russia, sought a number of the half-wild horses of that district which they had caught and hidden in the thickets on the river's side. They were in the act of mounting, when the silence of the night was broken by a sudden clash of arms, and a voice, which sounded like that of the khan, was heard calling for aid.

The Russian, remembering what Oubacha had told him, rode off hastily towards the sound, bidding his companions follow. Reaching an open glade in the wood, he saw four men fighting with nine or ten, one, who looked like the khan, contending on foot against two horsemen. Weseloff fired at once, bringing down one of the assailants, His companions followed with their fire, and then all rode into the glade, whereupon the assailants, thinking that a troop of cavalry was upon them, hastily fled. The dead man, when examined, proved to be a confidential servant of Zebek-Dorchi. The secret was out: this ambitious conspirator had sought the murder of the khan.

Accompanying the khan until he had reached a place of safety, Weseloff and his companions, at the suggestion of the grateful Oubacha, rode off at the utmost speed, fearing pursuit. Their return was made along the route the Kalmucks had traversed, every step of which could be traced by skeletons and other memorials of the flight. Among these were heaps of money which had been abandoned in the desert, and of which they took as much as they could conveniently carry. Weseloff at length reached home, rushed precipitately into the house where his loving mother had long mourned his loss, and so shocked her by the sudden revulsion of joy after her long sorrow that she fell dead on the spot. It was a sad ending to his happy return.

To return to the Kalmuck flight. Two thousand miles still remained to be traversed before the borders of China would be reached. All that took place in the dreary interval is too much to tell. It must suffice to say that the Bashkirs pursued them through the whole long route, while the choice of two evils lay in front. Now they made their way through desert regions. Now, pressed by want of food, they traversed rich and inhabited lands, through which they had to win a passage with the sword. Every day the Bashkirs attacked them, drawing off into the desert when too sharply resisted. Thus, with endless alternations of hunger and bloodshed, the borders of China at length were approached.

And now we have another scene in this remarkable drama to describe. Keen Lung, the emperor of China, had been long apprised of the flight of' the Kalmucks, and had prepared a place of residence for these erring children of his nation, as he considered them, on their return to their native land. But he did not expect their arrival until the approach of winter, having been advised that they proposed to dwell during the summer heats on the Toorgai's fertile banks.

One fine morning in September, 1771, this fatherly monarch was enjoying himself in hunting in a wild district north of the Great Wall. Here, for hundreds of square leagues, the country was overgrown with forest, filled with game. Centrally in this district rose a gorgeous hunting-lodge, to which the emperor retired annually for a season of escape from the cares of government. Leaving his lodge, he had pursued the game through some two hundred miles of forest, every night pitching his tent in a different locality. A military escort followed at no great distance in the rear.

On the morning in question the emperor found himself on the margin of the vast deserts of Asia, which stretched interminably away. As he stood in his tent door, gazing across the extended plain, he saw with surprise, far to the west, a vast dun cloud arise, which mounted and spread until it covered that whole quarter of the sky. It thickened as it rose, and began to roll in billowy volumes towards his camp.

This singular phenomenon aroused general attention. The suite of the emperor hastened to behold it. In the rear the silver trumpets sounded, and from the forest avenues rode the imperial cavalry escort. All eyes were fixed upon the rolling cloud, the sentiment of curiosity being gradually replaced by a dread of possible danger. At first the dust-cloud was imagined to be due to a vast troop of deer or other wild animals, driven into the plain by the hunting train or by beasts of prey. This conception vanished as it came nearer, until, seemingly, it was but a few miles away.

And now, as the breeze freshened a little, the vapory curtain rolled and eddied, until it assumed the appearance of vast aerial draperies depending from the heavens to the earth; sometimes, where rent by the eddying breeze, it resembled portals and archways, through which, at intervals, were seen the gleam of weapons and the dim forms of camels and human beings. At times, again, the cloud thickened, shutting all from view; but through it broke the din of battle, the shouts of combatants, the roar of infuriated hordes in mortal conflict.

It was, in fact, the Kalmuck host, now in the last stage of misery and exhaustion, yet still pursued by their unrelenting foes. Of the six hundred thousand who had begun the journey scarcely a third remained, cold, heat, famine, and warfare having swept away nearly half a million of the fleeing host, while of their myriad animals only the camels and the horses brought from the Toorgar remained. For the past ten days their suffering had reached a climax. They had been traversing a frightful desert, destitute alike of water and of vegetation. Two days before their small allowance of water had failed, and to the fatigue of flight had been added the horrors of insupportable thirst.

On came the flying and fighting mass. It was soon evident that it was not moving towards the imperial train, and those who knew the country judged that it was speeding towards a large fresh-water lake about seven or eight miles away. Thither the imperial cavalry, of which a strong body, attended with artillery, lay some miles in the rear, was ordered in all haste to ride; and there, at noon of September 8, the great migration of the Kalmucks came to an end, amid the most ferocious and blood-thirsty scene of its whole frightful course.

The lake of Tengis lies in a hollow among low mountains, on the verge of the great desert of Gobi. The Chinese cavalry reached the summit of a road that led down to the lake at about eleven o'clock. The descent was a winding and difficult one, and took them an hour and .a half, during the whole of which they were spectators of an extraordinary scene below, the last and most fiendish spectacle in eight months of almost constant warfare.

The sight of the distant hills and forests on that morning, and the announcement of the guides that the lake of Tengis was near at band, had excited the suffering host into a state of frenzy, and a wild rush was made for the water, in which all discipline was lost, and the heat of the day and the exhaustion of the people were ignored. The rear-guard joined in the mad flight. In among the people rode the savage Bashkirs, suffering as much as themselves, yet still eager for blood, and slaughtering them by wholesale, almost without resistance. Screams and shouts filled the air, but none heeded or halted, all rushing madly on, spurred forward by the intolerable agonies of thirst.

At length the lake was reached. Into its waters dashed the whole suffering mass, forgetful of everything but the wild instinct to quench their thirst. But hardly had the water moistened their lips when the carnival of bloodshed was resumed, and the waters became crimsoned with gore. The savage Bashkirs rode fiercely through the host, striking off heads with unappeased fury. The mortal foes joined in a death-grapple in the waters, often sinking together beneath the ruffled surface. Even the camels were made to take part in the fight, striking down the foe with their lashing forelegs. The waters grew more and more polluted; but new myriads came up momentarily and plunged in, heedless of everything but thirst. Such a spectacle of revengeful passion, ghastly fear, the frenzy of hatred, mortal conflict, convulsion and despair as fell on the eyes of the approaching horsemen has rarely been seen, and that quiet mountain lake, which perhaps had never before vibrated with the sounds of battle, was on that fatal day converted into an encrimsoned sea of blood.

At length the Bashkirs, alarmed by the near approach of the Chinese cavalry, began to draw off and gather into groups, in preparation to meet the onset of a new foe. As they did so, the commandant of a small Chinese fort, built on an eminence above the lake, poured an artillery fire into their midst. Each group was thus dispersed as rapidly as it formed, the Chinese cavalry reached the foot of the hills and joined in the attack, and soon a new scene of war and bloodshed was in full process of enactment.

But the savage horsemen, convinced that the contest was growing hopeless, now began to retire, and were quickly in full flight into the desert, pursued as far as it was deemed wise. No pursuit was needed, even to satisfy the Kalmuck spirit of revenge. The fact that their enemies had again to cross that inhospitable desert, with its horrors of hunger and thirst, was as full of retribution as the most vindictive could have asked.

Here ends our tale. The exhausted Kalmucks were abundantly provided for by their new lord and master, who supplied them with the food necessary, established them in a fertile region of his empire, furnished them with clothing, tools, a year's subsistence, grain for their fields, animals for their pastures, and money to aid them in their other needs, displaying towards his new subjects the most kindly and munificent generosity. They were placed under better conditions than they had enjoyed in Russia, though changed from a pastoral and nomadic people to an agricultural one.

As for Zebek-Dorchi, his attempt on the life of the khan had produced a feud between the two, which grew until it attracted the attention of the emperor. Inquiring into the circumstances of the enmity, he espoused the cause of Oubacha, which so infuriated the foe of the khan that he wove nets of conspiracy even against the emperor himself. In the end Zebek-Dorchi, with his accomplices, was invited to the imperial lodge, and there, at a great banquet, his arts and plots were exposed, and he and all his followers were assassinated at the feast.

As a durable monument to the mighty exodus of the Kalmucks, the most remarkable circumstance of the kind in the whole history of nations, the emperor Keen Lung ordered to be erected on the banks of the Ily, at the margin of the steppes, a great monument of granite and brass, bearing an inscription to the following effect:

By the Will of God,
Here, upon the brink of these Deserts,
Which from this Point begin and stretch away, Pathless, treeless, waterless,
For thousands of miles, and along the margins of many mighty Nations,
Rested from their labors and from great afflictions
Under the shadow of the Chinese Wall,
And by the favor of KEEN LUNG, God's Lieutenant upon Earth,
The Ancient Children of the Wilderness, the Torgote Tartars,
Flying before the wrath of the Grecian Czar,
Wandering sheep who had strayed away from the Celestial Empire in the year 1616,
But are now mercifully gathered again, after infinite sorrow,
Into the fold of their forgiving Shepherd.
Hallowed be the spot forever,
And Hallowed be the day,—September 8, 1771.