History of Siberian Archaeology: The Life and Works of Aleksei P. Okladnikov in 1961–1981

Yaroslav V. Kuzmin, from the Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy, Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Novosibirsk, Russia), introduces A. K. Konopatskii’s book on the investigations of prehistoric archaeology of Siberia, Mongolia, and the Aleutian Islands (Alaska, USA), conducted by prominent Soviet scholar Aleksei P. Okladnikov (1908–1981) and his colleagues in the 1960s – 1970s.

Archaeopress is very pleased to have published Volume II of A. K. Konopatskii’s biography of Soviet archaeologist Aleksei P. Okladnikov as part of its ongoing Archaeological Lives series.

It is about the life and works of Aleksei P. Okladnikov in 1961–1981, when he was organiser (1961–1966) and since 1966 the Director of the Institute of History, Philology, and Philosophy, Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences, in Novosibirsk. This institute was a part of large-scale project of Akademgorodok (Academic Town) built in 1957–1964, the unique phenomenon of Soviet science (see Josephson 1997).

Okladnikov went to the Akademgorodok for the first time in 1960, and was invited to move to Novosibirsk permanently, in order to organise the institute devoted to the study of the humanities in Siberia. Okladnikov felt the necessity to have free hands in order to continue his archaeological and historical pursuits in Siberia, the Russian Far East and Central Asia; also, the possibility to become a member of the Academy of Sciences in the near future was another important factor in favour of a move to Novosibirsk. In 1961, Okladnikov arrived in Akademgorodok to settle down. The Sector (i.e. Department) of History of the Industry was created within the existing Institute of Economics and Industrial Production Engineering (IEIPE). Okladnikov brought with him several archaeologists, historians, and philologists. In 1962, the Sector became the Department of Study of the Humanities, still attached to the IEIPE. In December 1966, the new Institute of History, Philology and Philosophy (IHPP) was officially opened, and Okladnikov was appointed as its Director. It had 120 employees, and consisted of three departments – History (including archaeology and ethnology), Philology, and Philosophy. The main task of the new institute was not only to conduct research but also to coordinate efforts in the field of humanities for all Siberia and the Russian Far East.

In Novosibirsk, Okladnikov continued extensive fieldworks in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Of particular importance were surveys and excavations in the Lake Baikal region (both Pribaikal’e and Zabaikal’e), headwaters of the Lena River, Altai Mountains, Kuznetsk Basin, and Primor’e and Priamur’e regions. Active fieldwork were also conducted in Mongolia in collaboration with Mongolian archaeologists. The ability of Okladnikov to find new archaeological sites was legendary; some people truly believed that he could become ‘prehistoric human’ to understand where to set up camp or permanent settlement. Of course, this talent was the result of his vast expertise in the study of ancient sites, and his intuition. In the 1960s and 1970s, Okladnikov also widely traveled abroad for conferences and business meetings – to Japan, Cuba, Hungary, USA, North Korea, Poland, India, and Czechoslovakia.

Figure 1. Meeting with Oriental scholar O. Lattimore in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 1971; from left to right: A. P. Derevyanko, O. Lattimore, D. Dorj, V. E. Larichev, A.P. Okladnikov and N. Ser-Odjav.

In 1964, Okladnikov was elected the Member-Correspondents of the Academy of Sciences, filling the quota of the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences. In 1968, he was elevated to the title of a Full Member (Academician). As a matter of fact, Okladnikov was given carte blanche to conduct archaeological, historical and other related research in all of Siberia, the Russian Far East, and Central Asia. The IHPP scholars were also the main workforce of the newly created Faculty of Humanities, Novosibirsk State University.

From the beginning of research in humanities at the Akademgorodok, the compilation of multi-volume History of Siberia was put forward as one of the major tasks, and Okladnikov was the main motor of this enterprise. In 1964, the 700 pages prospectus of Volume 1 (Ancient History) was compiled, printed and distributed among scholars. In 1968–1969, five volumes of the History of Siberia were published, and this was the first comprehensive (for the time being) compendium on archaeology and history of a large region. Okladnikov contributed the lion share of editorial work for the whole collection, and wrote several chapters for Volume 1. In 1973, this fundamental research was awarded the State Prize, with Okladnikov as a co-recipient.

Figure 2. Joint US–Soviet team at the Unalaska Island (Aleutian Islands), 1974; from left to right: A. K. Konopatskii, W. S. Laughlin, A. P. Derevyanko, R. S. Vasil’evskii, A. P. Okladnikov and V. E. Larichev.

In 1974, Okladnikov and four of his colleagues from IHPP participated in trips and joint excavations on the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, USA, along with Prof. William S. Laughlin (University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA). This was a rare example of the real collaboration, that is joint expeditions and excavations. Campbell (1976: 3) noted:

The Aleutian project of 1974 constituted, both in intent and practice, quite a radical departure from the general pattern of exchange visits between North American and Soviet anthropologists, biologists and earth scientists, which, while they have resulted in very useful comparison of data and ideas, have rarely involved actual field research under the conditions which the visiting scientists enjoyed at home. Purely and simply, therefore, the Aleutian project amounted to honest joint field work, and was not a guided tour.

Figure 3. W. S. Laughlin and A. P. Okladnikov examine the skull of one of the D. Medvedev’s party of Cossacks massacred in 1764 at Chaluka (Unalaska Island), University of Connecticut, Storrs (CT), 1974.

Another of Okladnikov’s initiative in the 1960s – 1970s was to create an Open-Air (Outdoor) Museum, and bring to Akademgorodok the ancient stelae with inscriptions and pieces of rock art that are endangered by construction of large reservoirs or industrial development. A wooden church with bell tower from the abandoned town of Zashiversk in the Indigirka River basin, built in 1700 and the miraculous survivor of several fires, was rescued from the Arctic and brought in pieces to Akademgorodok in 1971. Today, this is one of the major attractions of the Open-Air Museum that was officially opened in 1981.

Figure 4. The wooden church and bell tower from the abandoned Arctic town of Zashiversk, Open-Air Museum, Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk.

Several foreign learning societies – British Academy (1973), Academy of Sciences of Mongolia (1974) and Hungarian Academy of Science (1976) – granted Okladnikov honorary membership. In 1978, Okladnikov was given the title of Hero of Socialist Labour (civil equivalent to the Hero of Soviet Union, the highest honour in USSR).

Most of Okladnikov’s biographies are panegyric, and only his achievements are described. It seems that L. S. Klejn’s opinions (see Klejn 2012: 334–338; Klejn 2014: 306–325) are more balanced. Okladnikov’s legacy is tremendous because of his many years of work in northern Asia where large tracts of land were previously unknown to archaeologists. Klejn (2012: 338) noticed about Okladnikov: ‘Not even his enemies deny his achievements, charm, and talent.’ Besides the rich artefact collections acquired throughout more than 50 years of research, Okladnikov also built a Novosibirsk school of archaeologists – including Z. A. Abramova, S. N. Astakhov, V. V. Bobrov, A. P. Derevianko, E. I. Derevianko, B. A. Frolov, Yu. P. Kholushkin, Y. F. Kiryushin, V. E. Larichev, A. I. Martynov, A. I. Mazin, V. E. Medvedev, V. I. Molodin, V. T. Petrin, R. S. Vasil’evskii, and others.

Figure 5. A. P. Okladnikov in his Director’s office with A. K. Konopatskii (right), Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk, 1978.

However, some scholars did not come along well with Okladnikov. He was quite suspicious about some Siberian archaeologists who were revising his chronology and periodisation of ancient cultural complexes – Yu. A. Mochanov from Yakutsk; G. I. Medvedev, M. P. Aksenov, G. M. Georgievskaya and other people from Irkutsk; A. A. Formozov and G. I. Andreev from Moscow; and Z. V. Andreeva from Vladivostok. Sometimes Okladnikov used his position to postpone publications of these researchers or push them from sites that he wanted to excavate by himself. It is obvious that Okladnikov had many ‘summits and bottoms’ in science; however, his achievements are probably more important today than his flaws and mistakes.

The book (including Volume I, published by Archaeopress in 2019) is for archaeologists, historians, and everyone who is interested in the history of scholarship (particularly the humanities) in the twentieth century, especially in the USSR.

Header image: A. P. Okladnikov examines the rock art at the Sakachi-Alyan site, Khabarovsk Province, 1971.


Campbell, J.M. (1976). The Soviet–American Siberian expedition. Arctic 29: 2–6.

Josephson, P. (1997). New Atlantis Revisited: Akademgorodok, the Siberian City of Science. Princeton, NJ & Chichester: Princeton University Press.

Klejn, L.S. (2012). Soviet Archaeology: Trends, Schools, and History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Klejn, L.S. (2014). Istoriya Rossiiskoi Arkheologii: Ucheniya, Shkoly i Lichnosti. Tom 2. Arkheologi Sovetskoi Epokhi (The History of Russian Archaeology: Doctrines,Schools and Personalities. Volume 2. Archaeologists of the Soviet Epoch). St.Petersburg: Eurasia Press (in Russian).

About the Author

Yaroslav V. Kuzmin has been studying geoarchaeology of the Russian Far East, Siberia and neighbouring Northeast Asia since 1979 (PhD 1991; DSc. 2007). He has also assisted in translating and editing books on the archaeology of eastern Russia along with Richard L. Bland.

How to order

Aleksei P. Okladnikov: The Great Explorer of the Past
by A. K. Konopatskii, translated by Richard L. Bland and Yaroslav V. Kuzmin

Volume I: A biography of a Soviet archaeologist (1900s – 1950s):
PB: £24.99 | PDF: from £16.00

Volume II: A biography of a Soviet archaeologist (1960s – 1980s):
PB: £34.99 | PDF: from £16.00

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