NATIONAL ETHNOGRAPHERS AND ANTHROPOLOGISTS. 20TH CENTURY

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About the Project

Efim Rezvan


In 2012, the 5th Volume of Kunstkamera Archives published the unfinished paper by the famous Russian ethnographer Alexander Mikhailovich Reshetov (1932—2009), titled Materials for a biobibliographical dictionary of Russian ethnographers and anthropologists of the 20th century, on which the author spent the last ten years of his life. Despite the obvious gaps, the vast material, collected and summarized by the author, is a unique source of information on the history of Russian ethnography and anthropology. The materials analyzed allow to conclude that they constitute roughly four-fifths of the book that the author had in mind. Specifically, a few names of outstanding scholars were missing from the articles. The MAE Board of Academics discussed two alternative approaches to publishing Reshetov’s book. One approach consisted in using his materials as a basis and augmenting them by means of collective work of MAE’s staff members. The other option suggested publishing archival materials as they were. First, this would make it possible to preserve the memorial nature of the edition and emphasize the role of the author in the project – vital for Russian ethnography. Second, the book would come out sooner. MAE’s Board of Academics, together with colleagues from other ethnographic institutions of Saint-Petersburg, voted for the second option. Furthermore, the Board stressed that, once the book has been published, it was going to be augmented and extended. In 2016 the Russian Geographical Society supported the idea to create a complex online project – first in the history of Russian science – that would be based on Alexander Reshetov’s book and would comprise diverse and unique material on the history of Russian ethnography and anthropology, along with the history of the Russian Geographical Society. The materials of the project are of a fundamental historiographic nature and are relevant to this day. They will serve an important source for new research papers. The format of a publicly accessible updatable electronic reference site will facilitate the project’s development for decades to come. The project is based on a wiki-type encyclopaedia architecture, a model of openly editable content. The authors can modify its content and structure using the tools provided by the site. This approach enables multiple editing in the wiki environment. Currently, together with our colleagues from Russia’s leading institutions in the fields of ethnology, sociocultural and physical anthropology, we are planning not only to complete Alexander Reshetov’s work, but also, by expanding its horizons, to make the project basically self-sustaining. Those concerned will be able to contribute to the project, with minimum moderation. The idea underlying the project is not just about creating a platform, allowing to collect unique materials on the history of Russian ethnography and anthropology, but, more importantly, about creating a modern, academic, collaborative environment for scholars form Russia and post-Soviet space, about honouring the legacy of our teachers, about creating an effective tool to educate young scholars, and about promoting Russia’s scientific achievements internationally.

As Russia’s leading ethnologist-sinologist, Alexander Reshetov contributed greatly to the study of small peoples of China. The MAE RAS is justifiably proud of the collections of photos and items that Reshetov brought from China and Central Asia, where his interest lay in the culture of the peoples who ended up on the territory of the USSR because of transborder movements in the first half of the 20th century. Today it has become only too clear that the research area Reshetov chose for himself is soon to become one of the most prevalent in Chinese studies. Apparently, though, this is not what Reshetov perceived as his main scientific goal or achievement. Developments of the last few decades have constricted the social role of Russian science considerably; there is a danger of losing scientific continuity in a range of key research areas. Sadly, in some cases this continuity has been, indeed, lost. The goal of storing and communicating information about academic traditions and schools of thought has become a most important one; we will not forfeit our science only if we are able to assess, take stock of and make use of the vast amount of scientific information produced by Russian scientists of the Soviet era. To attract young people to science, it is essential that truth be told about who did great science and how and in what conditions it was done. That is why it is hard to overestimate the role of the last works by Alexander Mikhailovich Reshetov. Those who visited him in the last years of his life, who saw the amount of his scientific correspondence, would know that this remarkably brave man, being terminally ill and practically stiff-limbed, kept working as if he were a whole research team. Until the very last days of his life, confined to bed, Alexander Mikhailovich worked on his Materials for a biobibliographical dictionary of Russian ethnographers and anthropologists of the 20th century. Not only did the work involve maintaining active correspondence, but it also consisted in processing literature and archival data, analyzing questionnaires sent by colleagues. Then he wrote an article, edited and proofread it. Within the scope of the project Alexander Reshetov published a whole series of papers devoted to certain scientists (articles, commemorating dates, forewords to books, obituaries, etc.); besides, he is the author of two landmark series of papers: Purged Ethnography and Paying Tribute. It is vital that a scientist know what their last book will be like. Alexander Mikhailovich Reshetov was destined to tie the torn threads of our science history, thus communicating to further generations what would otherwise have been lost. And he did a yeoman’s duty. Many years ago, while talking about the unusual lives of orientalists and ethnographers, he said to me, “Do you know that X. used to be a communication agent during the war and a few years after – in fact, a key figure, without whom all the efforts of an intelligence officer turn futile. There is brain and heart, but also blood that transports oxygen to both.”

Mindful of Alexander Mikhailovich’s scientific predilections, we chose the Chinese endless knot, which is a symbol of longevity, as a logo of our project. The knot symbolizes endless wisdom, the desire to discover the mystery of immortality, eternal youth and beauty, and represents the movement of Time, interconnectedness, and the union between wisdom and compassion. The multitude of twists and turns of a knot like this one illustrates the theory of interconnection of all beings and phenomena in the Universe. Mankind is a whole is an inscription on the tombstone of Lev Yakovlevich Sternberg (1861—1927), an outstanding Russian and Soviet ethnographer, corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences. We chose this maxim, that has become the motto of several generations of Russian ethnographers and represents the main trajectory of development of Russian ethnography, as an epigraph for the project.