Collections of Relics of Culture of the Peoples of the Baltic and the Barents Regions

Alexandra Zadneprovskaya

           The nations speaking the Baltic languages, together with Western-Finnish ethnic groups, are among the earliest inhabitants of that land. They differ in terms of their origins, language, and religion. The common features shared by their cultures are due to a number of factors. These nations live in similar geographic and climatic conditions, have long-established his­torical and cultural links with one another and used to be, over a long period, parts of the same state, the Russian Empire and later the USSR. At present they live both on the Russian territory and in the neighbouring countries. In North-Western Russia, the Baltic-Finnish group includes the Karelians, Vod, Izhors, Ingrian Finns, Setu Estonians and Kola Laplanders, whereas in European countries here belong the Estonians of Estonia and the Suomi Finns of Finland, who are speakers of Baltic-Finnish languages. The Baltic group comprises the Letts, who inhabit Latvian Republic, and the Lithuanians, who live in the Lithuanian Republic.

          The collections on the culture of these nationalities began practically at the same time that the Ethnographic Department of the Russian Museum was founded. The first stage spanning the years 1902-14 was marked by intensive collecting activity, which laid a foundation for the Museum's collection on the ethnography of the Baltic-Finnish and Baltic nationalities. Originally, new exhibits were obtained from private collectors and lovers of folk art by the Ethnographic Department staff members Ye. Liatsky, N. Mogiliansky and A. Serzhputovsky, who were responsible for input on the Veps and Setu Estonians, the Finns, and the Lithuanians, respectively. However, already at that stage the Museum began to rely on expedi­tions for acquiring new items to supplement its stock. Staff members were few, and experts fewer still; therefore, purposeful, large-scale acquisitions were carried out through local con­tacts. Their networking proceeded in accordance with the Programme for Collecting Ethnographic Material (St Petersburg, 1902). Associated with the Museum were some promi­nent figures of the time, e.g., the scholars U. Sirelius (the Suomi Finns) and E. Volter (Lithuanians) and the artists and architects I. Halnbek (the Estonians), R. Zarinsh (the Letts), and A. Plotnikov (the Lapps). Sometimes purchases were entrusted to undergraduate students, such as D. Yanovich (the Karelians) and S. Serghel (the Lapps), and also to teachers and priests, who had a good knowledge of local cultural tradition. The correspondents were careful in their choice of itineraries and approach to selecting suitable items. Besides, they received instructions to gather maximum information about each object. They did their best to acquire such items as were characteristic of each nation's ethnic and cultural indentity. Special attention was given to archaic and richly ornamented articles pertaining to ritual practices and spiritual life. It was then that the Museum received a large number of unique exhibits dating from the earliest period represented in its collections, i.e. the late 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries. Ye. Liatsky and H. Mogiliansky co-ordinated most of the proj­ects and maintained correspondence with the local contacts.

         The second stage in collecting materials on the cultures of the Baltic and Barents regions covers the period of the 1920s—30s. Those two decades marked a further elaboration on the adopted principles of collecting. The accessible area of fieldwork had by then diminished, for the Finns, Estonians, Letts and Lithuanians had formed their own independent states. It was natural, therefore, that scholars should have focused on a study of the Baltic-Finnish peoples living in the North-West of the Russian Federation. Specialists were aware of the fact that those ethnic groups had remained but little investigated hitherto, the material basis required for their study absent from the Museum's collections. In view of that, establishing the missing link became of primary importance. The expeditions organized by the Museum's ethnographers pursued a systematic collecting policy aimed at bridging the geo­graphical, thematic and chronological gaps. Rather than confine themselves to a study of what was archaic, members of the expeditions strove to record the specific features of that transitional period as fully as possible, highlighting the co-existence of the vanishing forms of traditional culture and the new features finding their way into contemporary peasant life. Credit for the development and substantiation of the new direction of research was largely due to the well-known anthropologist and ethnographer Professor D. Zolotarev. He initiat­ed and headed integrated expeditions for a study of the Russian and Finnish-Ugric peoples. His major ethnological projects included the Upper-Volga Expedition of 1921—25, the Lapp Expeditions of 1925 and 1928-30, the North-Western Expedition of 1925-28 and the Karelian Expedition of 1926—28. Participating in the preparation and work of these large-scale innovative expeditions were practically all the leading humanitarian institutions of Petrograd (Leningrad, now St Petersburg). The younger members of the expeditions, e.g. Z. Malinovskaya, L. Kapitsa, V. Chernolusky, N. Prytkova, N. Grinkova, L. Pesselep, and N. Rozov, got a thorough training under D. Zolotarev, with the result that many of them subsequently joined the Museum's staff. A great contribution was made by professional architects, artists and photographers, who rendered their services to the expeditions: R. Gabe, A. Kolobayev, A. Oliferenko, A. Belikov, and A. Grechkin. Despite the fact that it proved impossible to complete the programme on account of some objective difficulties, the results of the expeditions look highly impressive.