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Ethnography, Russian and Soviet


Russian ethnography took shape as a distinct field of scholarship in the mid-nineteenth century, but the creation of ethnographic knowledge in Russia dates back at least to Kievan Rus. The Russian Primary Chronicle abounds with information about Slavic tribes and neighboring peoples, while later medieval and early modern Russian writings provide accounts of the peoples of Siberia and the Far North. It was only in the period following the reforms of Peter the Great (d. 1725), however, that the population of the empire was studied using explicitly scientific methods. In the 1730s Vasily Tatishchev disseminated Russia's first ethnographic survey, thereby legitimizing the notion of peoples and their cultures as objects of systematic scientific inquiry. From the 1730s to the 1770s the Russian Academy of Sciences sponsored two major expeditions dedicated to the study of the empire. Led by Gerhard Friedrich Miller and Peter Pallas, the academic expeditions covered a vast expanse from Siberia to the Caucasus to the Far North and, drawing on the talents of numerous dedicated scholars, amassed an enormous amount of ethnographic information and physical artifacts. But for all their achievements as ethnographers, eighteenth-century scholars viewed the study of cultural diversity as merely one component of a broadly defined natural science.

folklore and the search for national identity

During the last decades of the eighteenth century Russian scholars began to turn their attention to folklore. Publishers of folk songs in the 1790s, such as Mikhail Popov and Nikolai Lvov, claimed that their collections were of value not only for entertainment but also as relics of ancient times and as sources of insight into the national spirit. By 1820 several significant folklore collections had appeared, including the Kirsha Danilov collection of folk epics, and the first efforts to collect folklore among the common people had begun under the patronage of Count Nikolai Rumiantsev. As Russian intellectuals struggled in the 1820s to define narodnost, the

national spirit, they turned increasingly to folklore for inspiration. Peter Kireyevsky assembled the largest folk song collection, drawing on an extensive network of contributors, including Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and other prominent writers. While Kireyevsky's songs were not published during his lifetime, other folklorists in the 1830s and 1840s, such as Ivan Snegarev, Ivan Sakharov, Vladimir Dal, and Alexander Tereshchenko, put out collections that enjoyed considerable success with the reading public despite their often dubious authenticity.

ethnography as a discipline

Geographic exploration and folklore, the two main branches of ethnographic research up to this point, came together in the Ethnographic Division of the Russian Geographical Society, the founding of which in 1845 marks the emergence of ethnography as a distinct academic field. In its first years the society considered two well-developed conceptions of ethnography as a scholarly discipline. The eminent scientist Karl Ernst von Baer proposed that the Ethnographic Division study primarily the smaller and less-developed populations of the empire, paying particular attention to the role of environment and heredity. In contrast, Nikolai Nadezhdin, a well-known editor, literary critic, and historian, advocated a science of nationality dedicated to describing the full range of cultural, intellectual, and physical features that make up national identity. First priority, he felt, should go to the study of the Russian people. After replacing Baer as chair of the Ethnographic Division in 1847, Nadezhdin launched a major survey of the Russian provinces based on a specially designed questionnaire. The materials generated were published by the Ethnographic Division in its journal Ethnographic Anthology (Etnografichesky sbornik ), the first periodical in Russian specifically devoted to ethnography, and were used for several major collections of Russian folklore.

In the 1860s a second major center of ethnographic study arose in Moscow with the founding of the Society of Friends of Natural History, Anthropology, and Ethnography (known by its Russian initials, OLEAE). Dedicated explicitly to the popularization of science, the society inaugurated its ethnographic endeavors in 1867 with a major exhibition representing most of the peoples of the Russian Empire as well as neighboring Slavic nationalities.

During the 1860s and 1870s ethnographic studies in Russia flourished and diversified. The Russian Geographical Society in St. Petersburg and OLEAE in Moscow sponsored expeditions, subsidized the work of provincial scholars, and published major ethnographic works. At the same time regional schools began to take root, particularly in Siberia and Ukraine. Landmark collections appeared in folklore studies, such as Alexander Afanasev's folktales, Vladimir Dal's proverbs and dictionary, Kireevsky's folksongs, and Pavel Rybnikov's folk epics (byliny ). As new texts accumulated, scholars such as Fedor Buslaev, Alexander Veselovsky, Vsevolod Miller, and Alexander Pypin developed sophisticated methods of analysis that drew on European comparative philology, setting in place a distinctive tradition of Russian folklore studies.

The abolition of serfdom in 1861 sparked an upsurge of interest in peasant life and customary law. Nikolai Kalachov, Peter Efimenko, Alexandra Efimenko, and S.V. Pakhman undertook major studies of customary law among Russian and non-Russian peasants, while the Russian Geographical Society formed a special commission on the topic in the 1870s and generated data through the dissemination of a large survey. The vast literature on customary law was cataloged and summarized by Yevgeny Iakushkin in a three-volume bibliography. Alongside the study of customary law, ethnographers probed peasant social organization, with emphasis on the redistributional land commune.

the professionalization of ethnography

While ethnographers in the 1860s through the 1880s produced an enormous quantity of important work, the boundaries and methods of ethnography as a discipline remained fluid and ill-defined. Not only did ethnography overlap with a number of other pursuits, such as philology, history, legal studies, and belle-lettres, but the field itself was distinctly under-theorizeddescriptive studies were pursued as an end in themselves, with little attempt to integrate the data generated into broader theoretical schemes. During the 1880s and 1890s, however, ethnography began to establish itself on a more solid academic footing. New journals appeared, most notably the Ethnographic Review (Etnograficheskoe obozrenie ) distributed by OLEAE and the Russian Geographical Society's Living Antiquity (Zhivaia starina ). Instruction in ethnography, albeit rather haphazard, began to appear at the major universities. Museum ethnography also moved forward with the transformation, under the direction of Vasily Radlov, of the old Kunstkamara in St. Petersburg into a Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, and the founding around the turn of the twentieth century of the Ethnographic Division of the Russian Museum.

By the 1890s theoretical influences from Western Europe, particularly anthropological evolutionism, had begun to exert a stronger influence on Russian scholars. Nikolai Kharuzin, a prominent young Moscow ethnographer, made evolutionist theory the centerpiece of his textbook on ethnography, the first of its kind in Russia. In the field, Lev Shternberg, a political exile turned ethnographer, claimed to find among the Giliak people (Nivkhi) of Sakhalin Island confirmation of the practice of group marriage as postulated by the evolutionist theorist Henry Lewis Morgan and Friedrich Engels. With the growing theoretical influence of Western anthropology came increased contacts. Shternberg and his fellow exiles Vladimir Bogoraz-Tan and Vladimir Iokhelson participated in the Jessup North Pacific Expedition sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History in New York under the direction of Franz Boas. Upon his return from exile, Shternberg was hired by Radlov of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, and made use of his friendship with Boas to cultivate a fruitful collaboration with the museum in New York.

soviet period

The Russian Revolution presented both opportunities and dangers for the field of ethnography. On the eve of the February Revolution of 1917 a Commission for the Study of the Ethnic Composition of the Borderlands (KIPS) was established under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences. While initially established to aid the Russian effort in World War I, KIPS found a niche under the Bolshevik regime, which welcomed the collaboration of ethnographers in coping with the immense ethnic diversity of the Soviet state. During the 1920s KIPS ethnographers played a major role in defining the ethnic composition of the Soviet Union. The 1920s also saw the emergence of the first comprehensive programs of professional training in ethnography at Leningrad and Moscow universities.

In the late 1920s, however, "bourgeois" ethnography became a target of attack by radical Marxist activists. After a dramatic confrontation in April 1929, key ethnographic institutions were disbanded and ethnography itself was reclassified as a subfield of history devoted exclusively to the study of prehistoric peoples. Nevertheless ethnographers such as Sergei Tokarev and Nina Gagin-Torn continued to produce substantive scholarly works during the 1930s, while others collaborated with state institutions in conducting censuses and resolving practical issues of nationality policy. Soviet ethnographers and anthropologists were also called upon to repudiate Nazi racial ideology. Like many other fields, ethnography was badly shaken by the trials and purges of the 1930s. By the end of the decade many leading ethnographers had been executed or imprisoned in the gulag.

After World War II Soviet ethnography revived. Sergei Tolstov of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow was instrumental in drawing together a cadre of talented scholars, revitalizing professional training, and regaining for the field the autonomous status it had previously enjoyed. By the 1960s Soviet ethnography was a thriving profession whose central and local institutions produced a wealth of publications, sponsored numerous expeditions, and trained large numbers of talented students. Ideological constraints persisted, however, as ethnographers were often called upon to document a priori the successes of soviet nationality policy. As a rule ethnographers were expected to show a stark contrast between a dark past and a present tarnished in places by lingering survivals but well on the way toward the bright communist future. Rather than confront the exigencies of the present day, however, many ethnographers chose to linger in the past. Much of the most substantive work produced in the 1950s and 1960s was historical in nature, with the topic of ethnogenesis, or the origins of peoples, enjoying particular popularity. The 1970s, however, brought a renewed emphasis on contemporary ethnic processes. Yuly Bromlei, director of the Institute of Ethnography in Moscow, put forth his theory of ethnos, which attempted to show how ethnicity continued to be a vital force even as the peoples of the Soviet Union drew together (sblizhenie ) in a process that would ultimately lead to their merging (slyanie ) into a new form of human collectivitythe Soviet nation. Bromlei's theory remained the guiding doctrine of the field through the 1980s as social processes, such as intermarriage, geographical mobility, and bilingualism seemed to support the model of the merging of the peoples. However, much of the practical work of ethnographers, particularly on the local level, had the effect of solidifying and reinforcing the symbolic attributes of ethnic consciousness. The flowering of ethnic nationalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s took place on ground well prepared by the work of Soviet ethnographers.

See also: academy of sciences; bylina; folklore; folk music; primary chronicle; nation and nationality; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; russian geographical society


Grant, Bruce. (1995). In the Soviet House of Culture: A Century of Perestroikas. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hirsch, Francine. (1997). "The Soviet Union as a Work-in-Progress: Ethnographers and the Category 'Nationality' in the 1926, 1937 and 1939 Censuses." Slavic Review 52(2):251278.

Knight, Nathaniel. (1998). "Science, Empire and Nationality: Ethnography in the Russian Geographical Society, 18451855." In Imperial Russia: New Histories for the Empire, ed. Jane Burbank and David Ransel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Knight, Nathaniel. (1999). "Ethnicity, Nationality and the Masses: Narodnost and Modernity in Imperial Russia." In Russian Modernity, ed. David Hoffmann and Yanni Kotsonis. New York: Macmillan/St. Martin's.

Slezkine, Yuri. (1994). Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Nathaniel Knight

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