Archaeology and Education in Postsoviet Russia

By Berezkin, Yuri E. | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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Archaeology and Education in Postsoviet Russia


Berezkin, Yuri E., Antiquity


Key-words: Russia, soviet, Slav, education, universities, history

In the mid 1980s, anthropologists such as Marcus & Fischer (1986) called for a `repatriation' of anthropology, bringing the tools of the discipline to bear on the `home' situations of Euro-America rather than focusing on `alien, exotic' traditions.

To understand fully the relationship between archaeology and education in Russia, some background is necessary. In the Soviet Union, Marxism meant that evolutionary ideas characteristic of the later 19th century were preserved for another hundred years. Ideal research in the USSR was not the study of the past but the identification and confirmation of laws which regulate historical development, supporting marxism theory. Such Marxist theories, supported by many Russian intellectuals before the revolution, was afterwards upheld as official doctrine and disseminated through mass secondary education in the 1920s and '30s.

The evolutionary paradigm meant that archaeologists focused on temporal changes in technology and social structure rather than the problems of cultural development. Migration as explanation was extremely unpopular, and `cultural' groups identified within USSR territory were seen as ancestors of contemporary Soviets: in the case of eastern Europe, usually the ancestors of Eastern Slavs. In the 1940s and '50s cultures such as Fatianovo, Tripolye, Zarubincy and Cherniakhov, spread across eastern Europe, were identified as Slavic or proto-Slavic. Archaeology became an important component of national and imperial myth.

Archaeology, the main source of prehistoric study, claimed extensive financial support from the state. Academic prestiege, linked with opportunities for leading research expeditions, made the discipline an attractive and respected career choice. In 1965, there were 130 applicants for each of the four places reserved for archaeology at Leningrad State University; greater competition than any other departments within the History Faculty. Even after sifting by exam results, during the 1960s and '70s there were no less than four applicants for every place in the Archaeology department.

Soviet centralization of the discipline created strong and weak points. The Academy of Sciences of every Soviet republic had a Field Committee with exclusive control over issuing permits (`Opened Lists') for archaeological research. These lists were in three degrees, the least permitting only reconnaissance and description of sites. The receivers of Opened Lists were required to present reports of their research for assessment, upon which further research would depend. Copies of these reports were also presented to the museums, universities and academic institutions which had been involved in the research. Although not all reports fulfilled the requirements of scientific methodology, they did provide minimal data of research undertaken. This system still exists, and is effective in preventing amateurish excavations as well as concentrating all information at major centres for consultation. However, there is no requirement to publish work, and at least nine-tenths of reports presented to the Academy remain unpublished. While in the 1980s 1000 special permits were issued for archaeological excavations every year within the territory of the Russian Federation alone (Trifonov 1991: 80), there is a danger of overlooking previous research.

School history books of the Soviet period had little space for archaeology (usually a handful of pages including handaxes and early horticulture), but older schoolchildren had the chance to learn more through the system of `archaeological circles' (educational groups), which existed not only at major scientific centres like the Hermitage or Leningrad State University but also at many provincial museums, universities and sometimes at the schools themselves; although precise numbers are unclear, thousands and possibly tens of thousands of children were in contact with them.

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