Academic Archaeology in the USSR: Science in the Service of Ideology

Yaroslav V. Kuzmin provides a brief history of archaeology in Russia during the Soviet era

Archaeopress is very pleased to have published A. K. Konopatskii’s biography of Soviet archaeologist Aleksei P. Okladnikov as part of its ongoing ‘Archaeological Lives’ series. The following paper is an edited version of one of the introductory chapters to the biography provided by the volume’s co-translator, Yaroslav V. Kuzmin:

Throughout the existence of the USSR (1917–1991), the conditions for conducting academic research in the fields of the humanities were very different from the West.

Klejn (2012) distinguished several periods in the history of Russian/Soviet archaeology: 1) the beginnings of scientific archaeology (1850s–early 1880s); 2) archaeology as a separate field of knowledge (1880s–1910s); 3) archaeology at the time of revolution and revolution in archaeology (1917–1934); and 4) Soviet archaeology (1934–1991). It is interesting to note that the boundary between the Russian and Soviet periods is drawn not at 1917—a year of two revolutions— but later, when the ideology of Marxism-Leninism became dominant. In pre- 1917 Russia, archaeology was closely connected with ancient history, but the research on prehistoric sites was also developing. Some learning societies emerged after 1850: the Russian Archaeological Society in 1851 and, in 1864, the Moscow Archaeological Society. In 1859 the Imperial Archaeological Commission was created to oversee all excavations across Russia.

The 1917 revolutions brought the human sciences in Russia (and later on, in the USSR) to abrupt changes. The Civil War (1918–1920, in some parts of Russia until late 1922) resulted in a disastrous decline in industry; there was hunger and social strife, and the number of excavations was practically nil. Archaeological works slowly resumed after the early 1920s. The Bolshevik government, however, in 1919 created the Russian Academy for the History of Material Culture (the Russian abbreviation—RAIMK); after 1926 it was known as the Gosudarstvennaya Akademiya Istorii Materialnoi Kultury [State Academy for the History of Material Culture] (abbreviated as GAIMK). After several transformations it became the Institute for the History of Material Culture (abbreviation—IIMK), USSR Academy of Sciences in 1937, with two branches— in Moscow and Leningrad.

The building of the Institute of History of Material Culture, Leningrad/St. Petersburg.

The first head of the RAIMK/GAIMK (1919–1934) and formal leader of Soviet archaeology was Nikolai Ya. Marr, a scholar of Oriental studies. Marr was a prominent specialist in languages but not a proper linguist (Klejn 2012). Marr’s main contribution to science was ‘Japhetic theory’ (later turned into a ‘new doctrine of language’), built on the controversial idea that a Caucasian-based proto-language existed in Europe before the advent of the Indo-European languages. Marr’s doctrine was blessed by the Communist Party; he became a Party member in 1930. At that time, most of the Academy scholars were against the increasing ideological grip, and few of the Academicians were Communists; this is why the Party showered Marr with honours and titles. The archaeological implication of Marr’s ‘theory’ was that scientists were forced to explain cultural and other alterations as the result of the sudden changes in pre-existing populations, without any external influences.

The Marxist-Leninist approach in Soviet archaeology, developed in the late 1920s–early 1930s, defined the study of social changes from primitive societies to capitalism as the main research tool (see Trigger 2006: 329– 337). Archaeology was considered a part of history; there was a well-known expression by the prominent Soviet scholar Artemy V. Artsikhovsky that ‘Archaeology is history armed with a spade.’ Trigger (2006: 342) mentioned that many Soviet archaeologists truly believed in the possibility of extracting historical information from archaeological sources.

Two main ideologically driven paradigms were introduced into Soviet archaeology in the early 1930s. Trigger (2006: 327) combines them under the cultural-historical approach. Stadialism was developed mainly by Vladislav I. Ravdonikas and Sergei N. Bykovsky; it was based on the assumption that ethnic history can be presented as a series of leaps from one social stage (like slavery or feudalism) to another, without any external influence. Klejn (2012) noted that the entire idea of stadialism consisted of miraculous and unexplained transformations. However, in 1950, after the Second World War, the rise of Russian nationalism, inspired by Stalin, brought stadialism along with Marr’s entire theory to an end. Another approach, autochthonism, was employed by Marxist archaeologists to prove the origins of the Slavic people in local development, without any external influences from outside and/or migrations.

One of the main representatives of this method was Boris A. Rybakov, who was showered with positions and honours by the Soviet government and the Party (which was essentially the same thing) in the 1950s–1970s. Klejn (2012) also mentions other schools—Marxist sociologisers, doctrinaire unitarians, subdiffusionists and submigrationalists, empirics, scientification-oriented, imitators, ethnos-oriented, and ‘true’ Marxists.

Artsikhovsky and Ravdonikas, along with other younger archaeologists (notably Yevgeny Y. Krichevsky, Andrei P. Kruglov, and Yuri V. Podgaetsky) developed the ‘Marxist’ approach to the interpretation of archaeological data in 1926–1929 (see Trigger 2006: 328, 330), based on a strong assumption that technology directly determines the nature of society and ideology. The goal of the archaeologist, according to the ‘Marxist’ approach, was to reconstruct the societies that produced artefacts and not the artefacts themselves. The ‘method of ascent’ by Artsikhovsky – from artefacts to the structure of ancient society – presupposes establishing social structure by knowing only the Marxist peculiarities of the development of humanity. In this case archaeology was given the same level of reconstruction as history. But in 1932, due to change in the Party’s leading ranks that caused a shift in Communist ideology, archaeology was declared an auxiliary discipline that could only help history study the past.

There were other approaches that did not completely follow the ideological lines of the Party. The palaeoethnological method was initiated in the late nineteenth century and developed in the 1930s by Boris S. Zhukov, Petr P. Efimenko, and Sergei I. Rudenko. Their main idea was to combine archaeology and ethnography, and to reconstruct the history of ethnic groups in relation to environmental changes. Due to strict ideological control from the mid-1930s on, this direction and its representatives were suppressed. The diffusionist approach (including migrationism) was used after the turn of the twentieth century but was banned in the 1930s in order to promote autochthonism. In the 1950s, however, due to changes in the Party’s upper circles and the fight for power and ideological control, diffusionism was again allowed.

During the tenure of Josef Stalin as a head of the Soviet state (1929–1953), even slight disagreement with the Party line was very dangerous. Klejn (2012: 87) noted:

‘In Soviet archaeology all strictly academic debate of the slightest consequence inevitably assumed the nature of a ferocious political battle. In the early 1930s (and again in the 1950s), if a topic did not in itself qualify for such status, an archaeologist could invariably be found who would invest it with that status, in order to stick a political label on an opponent and win an easy victory. Such victories were often accompanied by ‘organisational measures’: condemnation of the recalcitrant as an enemy of Marxism, or worse, a renegade), dismissal, and even arrest of the individual and all his relations.’

During the purges in the 1920s–1930s, about 150 archaeologists, historians, art experts, and museum and local lore scholars were sentenced and either sent to prison, exiled, or even exterminated. Perhaps the true number is significantly higher. At least ten well-known Soviet archaeologists were executed or died shortly after imprisonment (Klejn 2012: 28). The ‘Academic’ and ‘Slavist’ affairs of 1929–1934 resulted in arrest and exile of dozens of scholars, mainly archaeologists and historians from Leningrad (Klejn 2014: 64). In this environment, most Soviet archaeologists were afraid to submit their papers to foreign periodicals for fear of being accused of espionage and sabotage.

After the death of Stalin in March 1953, ideological control of the humanities was to some extent loosened, and more academic freedom was allowed, as long as it did not challenge the leading role of the Party.

Nevertheless, despite the pure ‘theatre of the absurd’ of the Soviet political system, including Orwellian attempts to erase from publications the names of people who fell out of the Party’s favour (Klejn 2012: 31), the pioneering research conducted in the 1920s–1960s is widely acknowledged by the international scholarly community: by Gleb S. Bonch-Osmolovsky, Petr P. Efimenko, Sergey N. Zamyatnin, and Aleksandr N. Rogachev on the Palaeolithic; Sergei A. Semenov on use-wear analysis; Ravdonikas on the Mesolithic and petroglyphs in northern Russia; Mikhail P. Gryaznov on the Siberian Bronze and Early Iron ages; Rudenko on frozen burial mounds (kurgans) in Mongolia and the Altai Mountains of Siberia; Sergei P. Tolstov on early Central Asian states; Boris B. Piotrovsky on the archaeology of Trans-Caucasus; Aleksei P. Okladnikov on Siberian prehistoric archaeology and rock art; and Artsikhovksy on Medieval perishable birch-bark texts from Novgorod.

A. P. Okladnikov examines the rock art in Mongolia, 1970s.

Obviously, it is impossible to characterise in this brief essay all the varieties of Soviet archaeology of the 20th century; the reader will find more in the book by Aleksander K. Konopatskii about the life and works of Okladnikov in the 1930s–1950s.


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

Klejn, L.S. (2014). Istoriya Rossiiskoi Arkheologii: Ucheniya, Shkoly i Lichnosti (The History of Russian Archaeology: Doctrines, Schools and Personalities). Volumes 1–2. St. Petersburg: Eurasia (in Russian).

Klejn, L.S. (2017). Archaeology in Soviet Russia. In: Lozny, L.R. (ed.), Archaeology of the Communist Era: A Political History of Archaeology of the 20th Century, pp.59–99. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Trigger, B.G. (2006). A History of Archaeological Thought (2nd edition). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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.

9781789692044Aleksei P. Okladnikov: The Great Explorer of the Past. Volume I. A biography of a Soviet archaeologist (1900s – 1950s) by A. K. Konopatskii, translated by Richard L. Bland and Yaroslav V. Kuzmin. Printed ISBN 9781789692044. eBook ISBN 9781789692051.

xxiv+410 pages; 30 black & white figures.

Aleksei P. Okladnikov (1908–1981), a prominent Russian archaeologist, spent more than 50 years studying prehistoric sites in various parts of the Soviet Union – in Siberia, Central Asia and Mongolia. This biography will appeal to archaeologists, historians, and anyone interested in the history of the humanities in the twentieth century.

Available now from Archaeopress: Paperback (£24.99); PDF eBook (£16+VAT).