The Kalmyk-Cossack Subbotniki:

"The Khan's Warriors" convert while living in Belarus

Contributed by Dror Vaikhansky, Mishmar Haemek, Israel     November 2013

Compiled and editied by Bill Alldacushion
My name is Dror Vaikhansky / Voikhansky, and I would like to know if you have heard about the Kalmyks who converted to Judaism in Belarus during the early 19th century? I am a descendant of such a Kalmyk family, and I think that their conversion was part of the phenomenon of the Subbotniks. I am in the midst of the investigation of this amazing story.

The information I have was passed down in my family.  Larisa, my 80 year old Russian cousin, told me that our ancestors on my father's side were members of the Khazar priesthood nobility (the Kaganats).  After the Khazar Kingdom was destroyed by the Russians in the 10th century, my ancestors moved to Mongolia.

My ancestors settled in the Dzungaria (Jungaria) region of northwestern China They were nomadic, raised cattle and sheep and married Mongolian women. They became Buddhists in the 16th century together with most of the rest of the Mongolian people. Their religion was Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism) subject to the Dalai Lama, but they kept the core of Jewish identity and retained some Jewish customs. For example, they celebrated the festival of lights about the time of Chanukah, and they lit candles for seven days.

In the 17th century the clan decided to return to the Russian steppe region. They traveled west with their wives and children and settled in the vicinity of Astrakhan where the Volga River empties into the Caspian Sea and where part of the Khazar Kingdom once existed. Their Tartar neighbors called these people Kalmyks. The region became known as Kalmykiya.

In the 18th century, many of the Kalmyks returned to China once more. Most of this group perished along the way, slaughtered by the Kazakhs. Only a few managed to reach China. Only a minority of the tribe remained in Kalmykiya.

In the late 17th century, one of the Kalmyk leaders, Baakhan Manji Khan of Mongolian nobility, decided to convert to the Russian Orthodox Christianity. He also changed his name to Moshe (Moses) Alexeyev. He paved the way for his soldiers to get financial benefits and property from the Russian Tsar later on, but their Jewish collective memory and a Jewish spark were hidden and housed within them always.

Moshe Alexeyev and his extended family (perhaps a thousand or more people) moved northeast and settled along the Don River, then in the eastern Ukraine. They lived in the fortresses along the border and served as the Russian Empire’s frontier guards in the Kharkov and Kursk regions. Their job was to protect the Russian civilians from Tatar attacks.

The King of Poland admired their effectiveness and commissioned these Kalmyk soldiers to protect his Polish citizens as well. This probably led to interaction between the Kalmyks and Polish Jews. My family name, Voikhansky, comes from the Polish term meaning “The Khan’s Warriors” – with Kahn reflecting Mongolian nobility.

The Tsar recruited the Kalmyk men into the Russian Army. During the Napoleonic War, my ancestors served as officers in the 2nd Cavalry Division under the command of the Don Cossacks. They took part in the victory parade in Paris in 1814. After the war in recognition of their service, these Kalmyk soldiers received land from the Tsar in a rural area of Belarus which is where they settled. The place was named after them “Voikhanni”.

The primary source of Voikhansky family income was from horse breeding and the tanning trade. This was probably due to their Mongolian roots as this profession is very common among the nomads of the Mongolian steppes. Once they were released from military service, they established many tanning workshops all over Russia in Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, etc.

Because of the interaction with the local Jews in Belarus, my ancestors returned to Judaism and married Jewish women. In later generations, some of them became rabbis who were familiar with the Torah and the Talmud. Our great-grandfather was a Hasidic rabbi in Vitebsk. I should note that there are Buddhist perceptions of life which are similar to concepts drawn from Hasidic Judaism.

There is also a version of our family history which claims that our Kalmyk ancestors were brought to Belarus during the reign of Empress Catherine II: 1761 to 1796. They settled primarily in the Vitebsk region of Belarus: Gorodok, Dvinsk, Ludza, Rezekne, Riga and of course in the city of Vitebsk itself. They also lived during different periods in Bbreusk, Gomel, Moscow, St. Petersburg and in many other cities in Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia and Russia. Because of their interaction with the Jewish environment and their exposure to the philosophical ideas of Hasidism, several thousand junior officers and their families decided to convert to Judaism during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I: 1825 – 1855. 

In Vitebsk, they lived on Slobodsky Lane and many of the residents on this street were members of the same family. When the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, this street suffered severe damage caused by the German Air Force because it was next to a Soviet Air Force base as well as a power station. Most of the residents of the street including members of the Voikhansky family were killed as a result of these bombings. Only a few managed to escape by evacuating into the heart of Russia. Only a few of us remain from a large clan with a glorious past.

I have received a lot of this information from my Kalmyk Facebook friends. I have also met recently with a relative who immigrated to Israel from China during the Chinese revolution of 1949 and who also lived in Mongolia as a child. Naturally, since this branch of Voikhansky clan once lived in China, they know that the family origin is from the Khazars, who fled into China. This is consistent with the genetic testing that I have done.

Shabbat Shalom and Best Regards,

Dror Vaikhansky
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