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Archaeology in the ex-USSR: post-perestroyka problems.


For about 70 years the USSR possessed the world's largest network of archaeological research (Trigger 1989). The foundation of this system was laid on 18 April 1919, when Lenin signed a decree establishing the Russian Academy for the History of Material Culture (RAIMK) in place of the Imperial Archaeological Commission. The same decree proclaimed all the historical and archaeological monuments on the Russian territory to be state property.

The establishment of a centralized archaeological structure in the newly founded communist state was instigated by Nikolai Ya. Marr (1865-1934), the Russian linguist and archaeologist of Marxist orientation.

From the very beginning the archaeology in the USSR was largely viewed as a device for official communist indoctrination. The study of material remains (hence the name of the archaeological institution) was regarded as an instrument for promoting Marxist dogmas in relation to the socio-economic development of pre-class and early-class societies. For a long time Marr's teaching based on the formal similarities between the evolution of languages and Marxist explanation of socio-economic evolution was officially regarded as a guideline for Soviet theoretical and practical archaeology. Marr's concept was refuted after Stalin in 1950 criticized it as 'a vulgarization of Marxism'.

The structure of Soviet archaeology was repeatedly modified in the course of recent decades until it finally acquired its full status in the 1970s.

At that time at least three hierarchical levels could be distinguished:

All-Union institutions

These were entitled to carry out archaeological investigations on the whole territory of the USSR:

Research Institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR

Institute of Archaeology, Moscow (Directors: Acad. V.P. Alexeyev; died in 1992; acting director: Prof. R.M. Munchayev);

Leningrad (later St Petersburg) Branch of the Institute of Archaeology (Director: Prof. V.M. Masson);

Institute of History, Ethnography and Archaeology, Novosibirsk (Director: Acad. A. Derevyanko).

Each of these institutes included several historically evolved departments, e.g. Department of Stone Age, Department of Central Asia and Siberia, Department of North Pontic: (Classical) Archaeology, Department of Finno-Slavic Archaeology, Laboratory for Archaeological Technology (St Petersburg); Department of Neolithic and Bronze Age, Department of Slavic Archaeology, Department of Classical Archaeology, Department of Theoretical Archaeology, Department of Archaeological Records, Laboratory for Scientific Methods (Moscow).


Large departments of archaeology exist at the Moscow State University and at the St Petersburg State University. There are departments of Archaeology at the universities of Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Vladivostok, Syktyvkar (Komi Republic in the Russian North), and some other universities.

The universities carry out mostly teaching, both on undergraduate and postgraduate (aspirantura) levels. At the same time, the universities are engaged in research and carry out field projects, mostly on a smaller scale than the institutes belonging to the Academy of Science. The inadequate co-operation between the 'academic' institutions and the universities was one of the main shortcomings of Soviet science inherited by the present regime.


The most important sections of archaeology, housing considerable collections, are at the State Museum of History, Moscow; The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art, Moscow; Anthropological and Ethnographic Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg.

Archaeological and prehistoric departments at these museums carry out many archaeological expeditions: e.g. the Hermitage Museum has numerous archaeological missions in Central Asia, the North Pontic area and the Russian northwest.

Republican institutions

All the Soviet Republics had either Archaeological Institutes or Departments of Archaeology within the framework of their Academies of Sciences. The most important of these are:

Institute of Archaeology, Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, Kiev;

Department of Archaeology, Belarus Academy of Sciences, Minsk;

Department of Archaeology, Moldova Academy of Sciences (Chisinau);

Centre of Archaeology, Georgian Academy of Sciences, Tbilisi;

Institute of Archaeology, Uzbek Academy of Sciences, Samarkand;

Departments of Archaeology in the Baltic Republics (Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius);

Departments of Archaeology in Petrozavodsk (Karelia);

Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Erevan (Armenia);

Department of Archaeology in Baku (Azerbaidjan);

Departments of Archaeology also exist in the republican academic institutions in Alma-Ata (Kazakhstan); Ashgabad (Turkmenistan); Bishpek (Kyrgyzstan); and Dushanbe (Tadjikistan).

The most important departments of Archaeology are at the universities of Tbilisi, Yerevan, Baku and Tashkent.

Large archaeological collections are held at the museums of Tallin, Riga and Vilnius. Considerable archaeological materials are displayed at three museums in Kiev. The Museum of Archaeology and Zoology, Ukrainian Academy of Science (actually under reconstruction) houses important Palaeolithic collections, including reconstructions of Palaeolithic dwellings; the Historical Museum of Ukraine gives a general panorama of Ukrainian antiquities, from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages; the Museum at Kiev's Lavra contains materials from Scythian tumuli and Greek sites in the northern Pontic area. The archaeological museum of Odessa (the only specialized archaeological museum in the ex-USSR) possesses a unique collection of classical antiquities from the north Pontic sites, including the materials from pre-1917 excavations.

There are local archaeological museums at some important archaeological sites. One of the most impressive museums is located at the reserve of Olbia, an important complex of Greek and Roman sites near the town of Nikolaev.

Each capital of the Caucasian republics (Tbilisi, Yerevan, Baku) has national museums of history with rich archaeological collections. In addition, there are local archaeological museums erected at most important archaeological sites. Amongst these one should mention the museum at Vani (a site of the classical period) in Georgia; Gharni (a fully restored basilica of the Hellenistic era) and Metsamor (a large Bronze Age metallurgical centre) in Armenia; Kobystan (Stone Age rock paintings) in Azerbaidjan. Outstanding archaeological collections were held in the Museum of Sukhumi, Abkhazia. They included monuments of the Stone Age (including megaliths), classical antiquities and objects of early Middle Ages. There are unconfirmed reports indicating that these treasures were destroyed during the recent fighting in the town.

There are national museums at each capital of the newly independent Central Asian republics. An important museum reserve is at the Parthian site of Nisa (3rd century BC-AD 3rd century) near Ashgabad, Turkmenistan. Substantial archaeological collections are held at the museum attached to the Institute of Archaeology, Uzbek Academy of Sciences in Samarkand. An impressive museum is located in Pendjikent, an important Sogdian town of the 5th-8th centuries AD.

To the credit of local authorities both in Russia and in ex-Soviet republics, it should be stressed that, notwithstanding economic difficulties, they spend considerable funds on the development of archaeological museums, which are considered as an important element of the national heritage.

Regional institutions

Each capital of an oblast' (district) has a heritage museum with archaeological departments. These museums carry out limited-scale excavations within the corresponding districts.

Each oblast' has a department for the protection of historical monuments (within local councils), which supervises and partially finances the restoration of monuments under its protection.

In Russia, like in the ex-Soviet republics there are small museums at archaeological sites. A sizable museum was opened a few years ago in Kostenki (Voronezh oblast"), at one of the best preserved late Palaeolithic dwellings.

Each Soviet Republic had a Committee for Field Archaeology which issues licences for excavations (otkrityi list) within the territory under its jurisdiction. In the Russian Federation this committee is attached to the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow.


During the past 70 years Soviet archaeologists have excavated many sites of various periods. The excavation technique adopted in the USSR stipulates large-scale horizontal exposures. Great attention is being attached to the identification of various types of structures and to the distribution of artefacts within these structures. The meticulous application of this technique resulted in numerous outstanding achievements, including the identification of Palaeolithic dwellings in the 1930s, earlier than anywhere else in the world (Childe 1951).

Another characteristic feature of Soviet archaeology consisted in a profound interest in sociological interpretations -- in the identification, wherever possible, of the technology, social organization and ideology of past societies.

All materials from the excavations are held in centralized archaeological archives. According to law, excavation reports should be submitted to the controlling institutions (field committees) within six months of the completion of field work. No licence may be issued until the full report of the previous excavation campaign has been handed in and approved. The St Petersburg Institute houses the largest archaeological archive in the USSR, which also includes the documents of the Imperial Archaeological Commission. The St Petersburg Institute also has the largest collection of archaeological visual documents (pictorial archive).

The central institutions carried out field investigations in all part of the Soviet Union. Within the republics these investigations are often carried out jointly with the republican and/or regional institutions.


The greater part of funding for archaeological research in the Institutes belonging to the Academy of Sciences is normally carried out through appropriations by the central budget office of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow (currently, through the local branches of the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, Siberia etc.).

Another important source of funding is the Development Act, which provides for major development projects to finance archaeological excavations within the terrain affected by the development (3-5% of the total budget). The most important archaeological projects in the 1960s-1980s in Siberia were funded by the major developments (e.g. Krasnoyarsk, Sayano-Shushino hydro-electric power stations and many other projects).

Post-perestroyka developments

The problems faced recently by archaeology in the USSR are akin to the difficulties encountered by Soviet society as a whole. The first major problem stems from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The Academy of Sciences of the USSR no longer exists. It has split up into the Academy of Sciences of independent states. Some of these entered the CIS, others (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania) are totally independent. Consequently, the Institutes of Moscow and St Petersburg now belong to the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN). The Institute in St Petersburg proclaimed its independence from Moscow and restored its old Marrian name (Institute for History of Material Culture).

Another consequence of the disintegration of Soviet state was the disruption of intra-republican cooperation. Even in the old days it was not always possible to obtain licences for excavations from the republican archaeological authorities. Now it has become much more difficult. In spite of substantial difficulties, however, several archaeological expeditions from St Petersburg have been able to carry out fieldwork in the Ukrainian Pontic area and in the Crimea.

Ethnic conflicts have virtually stopped all kinds of archaeological investigations in Moldova, Georgia and Armenia. During our visit to the Greek and Roman site of Tyra (in the estuary of the Dniestr River) last April Charles Daniels (Head of Department of Archaeology, University of Newcastle upon Tyne) and the author had to use a detour, the main motorway between Odessa and Kishinev being cut by fighting.

A flare-up of ethnic conflicts in the Northern Caucasus has closed yet another area where intensive archaeological studies were being carried out by Russian archaeologists.


The deep economic crisis combined with the painful transition to the market economy has resulted in considerable reduction in the funding of fundamental sciences, and particularly of the humanities. Galloping inflation has recently caused a considerable increase in salaries. Since the overall funding remained unchanged, it resulted in drastic restriction in field activities. Only a few large expeditions with 'central budgeting' were able to carry out fieldwork in 1992.

Owing to the general decline of input from industry and to the chaotic state of finances, no agreements were concluded for this year with the development companies for the funding of archaeological excavations in development areas.

At the same time a new source of funding emerged: sponsorship. At least one large expedition (a classical site near Nikolayev excavated by a team from St Petersburg) was entirely financed by sponsors this year. There are also cases when sponsors fund the publication of archaeological books.

The publication of archaeological books is another area that has been severely hit by post-perestroyka. Until recently a limited number of books was annually published by the central Nauka publishing house and by its St Petersburg branch. Since 1992 Nauka has imposed charges on the institutes that they are unable to pay. No major archaeological publications will appear this year.

According to reliable sources, the financial situation in the ex-USSR will grow worse in the immediate future. In words of Mr Saltykov, newly appointed Minister of Science, 'Russia can no longer support its science to continue in the style it was accustomed'. A new policy adopted by the Russian government abandons all-out support of a broad spectrum of basic research, and switches emphasis to priority projects. The government reserves the right to decide which these priorities are (cited from Pokrovsky 1992). There can be little doubt that archaeology will have no chance of entering the circle of the privileged few.

There are numerous no less serious problems facing Russian and ex-Soviet archaeology in the turbulent post-Communist period. The President of the newly organized Russian Archaeological Society in his address to the Supreme Soviet stressed that the draft law on land presented to the Russian Parliament makes no provisions to safeguard the protection and management of national heritage in the case of privatization of land ownership (cited from Archaeological Bulletin, 1991). The law which may revoke the decree of nationalization of historical and cultural monuments enacted in Russia since 1919 (and which could not prevent the large-scale destruction of historically and archaeologically important ecclesiastical monuments in the 1930s and 1940s) may result in massive destruction of the national heritage. Since the publication of this report, the situation has improved. Considerable sums of money were allotted for detailed records of archaeological and historical monuments in the area of possible privatization of land.

A large scandal has arisen from the hasty agreement of the Russian Government to hand back artistic treasures (including archaeological items) from Russian museums to the 'places of their origin'. This decision, which could have resulted in a cultural disaster, was finally repealed after numerous protests by distinguished intellectuals.

A major controversy surrounds the establishment of an Archaeological Society of Russia. In fact, two rival archaeological societies exist in Russia, each claiming the right to represent the 'unofficial organization of archaeologists' in Russia. The appeal of one of these societies is given as an appendix to this paper.


According to available information, in the present circumstances internationally sponsored projects on the territory of the ex-USSR have the greatest chances for additional funding. The Academy of Sciences normally allocates special funds for international multidisciplinary projects.

The problems related to aid to Russian science on the part of the international scholarly community is being actively debated in the scientific press. As J. Mervis wrote recently (Mervis 1992), 'everyone agrees that . . . the aid should by-pass the ex-Soviet bureaucracy and go directly into the hands of individuals'. This attitude seems to be accepted even by the present Russian scientific establishment. In a quoted statement, the Russian Minister of Science wrote that in terms of the new policy the funding of institutions will be replaced by the funding of individuals, whose independence will be encouraged (Pokrovsky 1992).

In the present circumstances Western institutions should themselves choose the projects and individuals in Russia to be included in joint ventures.

In choosing concrete projects, the following considerations should be taken into account: the importance of the project for the resolution of problems of major theoretical importance; the possibility of the application of multidisciplinary techniques; accessibility and infrastructure.

One of the important aspects of the project should consist of training Russian personnel in the use of modern technology (computerized data recording and processing, geophysical techniques etc.).

British archaeologists already have considerable experience in carrying out joint projects with Russian and ex-Soviet archaeologists. The University of Southampton for about five years has been carrying out an exchange of researchers with a limited participation in fieldwork in a wide range of topics. The Institute of Archaeology of University College London is participating in a field project, the Jeytun Project, in Turkmenistan, aimed at the multidisciplinary study of early agricultural sites.

The department of archaeology of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne is currently engaged in negotiations with the University of Odessa and the Institute of History of Material Culture in St Petersburg which may result in starting several joint projects.

The departments of archaeology in the universities of Durham and Newcastle recently proposed to create a joint Centre for the Archaeology of Central and Eastern Europe, which would encompass all the former Eastern Bloc countries, including the ex-USSR. The aims of the Centre would include promoting fieldwork by British scholars in the area; extending knowledge of new technical and theoretical approaches in archaeological research in the Central and East European countries; and providing practical help to archaeologists in these countries.


Archaeological Bulletin (1991) 4/8: 2.

CHILDE, V.G. 1951. Social evolution. London: Watts.

MERVIS, J. 1992. The West gropes for ways to help, Nature 356; 733.

POKROVSKY, V. 1992. Russian research may be put on a lean diet, Nature 357: 530.

TRIGGER, B.G 1989. A history of archaeological thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Dear colleague

We are very grateful to you for supporting our society in very hard times. Up to now it was impossible to conduct archaeological research in Russia only through official state institutions. Our Russian Archaeological Society is the first unofficial organization of archaeologists after 1917. However, hardly had we started to work when the official institutions (headed by the director of Novosibirsk Institute, A.P. Derevyanko, the former secretary of the regional committee CPSU KPSS) began to struggle for assuming our title and appropriating the results of our work in order to maintain their former monopoly. It is only through your support that helped us to withstand the difficulties. We do not know how long we shall be able to stand up to the attack of official institutions, that is why we are in a hurry to send you our membership card and the annotation of our society. We hope that you will go on supporting us and with your help we shall continue our work on saving archaeology in Russia.

President of the Russian Archaeological Society Academian Matyushin Gerald The Moscow University (MGU) Korpus L K 11/117234 Moscow Russia
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Author:Dolukhanov, P.M..
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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