Central Asian collection of RME

the Russian Museum of Ethnography

The start of the collecting: a true epic of a scholar's staunchness and self-sacrifice.

The Museum's Central Asian and Kazakhstan department began in 1900. Central Asia at that time remained poorly explored by and little known to, Europeans. It had been practically barred to travellers because of its remoteness and religious isolation, which caused the natives? hostility against strangers. First expeditions to Central Asia aimed at collecting ethnographic material should be entrusted to the artist S.Dudin, a brilliant master of documentary photography, who had the experience of this type of work in archaeological expeditions in Central Asia and was regarded as an authority on Central Asian applied art. S. Dudin?s activities as a collector in Central Asia became a true epic of a scholar's staunchness and self-sacrifice. S.Dudin covered hundreds of miles from the Western boundary of Central Asia to Kashgar, through fertile oases, deserts and vast steppes, working in every large town and many a farming village, visiting a nomad camps and mountain auls, in unrelenting struggle against the hardships of the journey and the natives?suspicion. In the course of his three expeditions he amassed an impressive 4,000-item ethnographic collection. The collection presented the traditional culture of most of the ingenious peoples in all its wealth and cultural diversity: the Tadjik, semi-nomad, and settled (the Sart) Uzbek, the Turkmen, the Kirghiz and the Kazakh, as well as the culture of minor ethnic groups (the Baluchi, the Uighur, and the Afghan). The material accumulated by S. Dudin laid the foundation of the Museum's subsequent acquisition activities in Central Asia and Kazakhstan.

Creation of the regional department and F.A. Fielstrup.

The scale of Dudin?s expeditions to Central Asia remained unmatched throughout the first decades of the twentieth century. Only since the 1920-s, after the establishment of the separate regional department, the expeditions and collecting activity began to be organized on a regular basis. Meanwhile, a team of professional ethnographers - serious researches and enthusiasts - was being set up. Ethnographer F.Fielstrup, specializing in Turkic studies, became its first member. In the 1920-beginning of the 1930-s he managed to collect extremely valuable material pertaining to the dwellings, clothes, cattle breeding, falconry, and religious beliefs of the Kazakhs and, especially, the Kirghiz, whose history and economy were his major areas of interest. F. Fielsrup travelled throughout Semirechye (the Seven Rivers) and the Fergana Valley; he was the first ethnographer to work in Tien Shan, where the traditional culture of the Kirghiz had "retained its unique quality intact longer than elsewhere." Wherever he found himself, he acquired items of ethnographic value for the Museum. Detailed descriptions of items and careful records of local terminology made his collections a priceless source of research into the ethnography of the Turkic peoples inhabiting Central Asia and Kazakhstan, primarily of the Kirghiz.

Forming of the collection on the Kirghiz.

Another notable batch of materials was procured for the Museum by a joint pre-war (1940-41) expeditions to Kirghizia organized by B. Balakin of the Ethnographic Department and Ye. Makhova of the Moscow Museum of Ethnology. It was owing to her cooperation the museum acquired a large number of exhibits, quite rare for the most part, such as the "yurta" interior decoration items, household utensils, article of clothing, and ornaments. After World War II, over a period of twenty-five years the study of Kirghiz ethnography and formation of the Kirghiz culture collection was supervised by S. Leikina. In the course of her expedition activities she made dozens trips to various regions of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, acquiring about 1,000 exhibits, more than half of these objects was related to Kirghiz traditional culture and mode of life. During one of her trips to the Ichkilik Kirghiz - a distinctive ethnic group that had long retained traces of Turkic culture in its daily life patterns - she amassed more than 200 items of high ethnographic value, which scarcely represented in the ethnography museums of Kirghizia itself. The various collections on the Kirghiz were expanded in the 1980-s by the addition of collections relating to the Kirghiz of Dzhirgatal?, another native ethnic group that has long inhabited the Pamirs, living side by side with the Mountain Tadjiks. Nowadays the museum possesses rather impressive representations of ethnographic items from two major Kirghiz cultures, those of the Northern and Southern Kirghiz, and also of the most distinctive cultures of indigenous ethic communities.

Forming of the collections on Kazakh culture.

The Kazakh collections, for instance, include units relating to the southern, western (including the Aral Sea coast) and central regions of Kazakhstan, which dividing lines coincide with the boundaries of historically established habitations of the major tribal unions. The ethnographic exploration of Kazakhstan?s southern areas had already begun with Dudin?s expeditions. In the course of his travels he picked up some fine specimens of textile - rugs, pattern strips of felt, pieces of embroidery and many other articles of folk handicrafts. Separate collections relating to the Kazakh of western Kazakhstan and Mangyshlak were acquired from the Adai Kazakh (i.e. those that belonged to the old tribal union of Adai), who differed from the rest of the Kazakh tribes in that they had long remained nomads and upheld patriarchal tradition. The northern and north-eastern territories of Kazakhstan became the most thoroughly explored by explorers and best represented in the Museum collections, as those Kazakh areas had been in contact with Russia since early times. The collections containing the archaic, typical household items were formed in the course of the expeditions by F. Fielstrup and A. Bulgakov during the first decade of the twentieth centuries. This work was continued by the leaders of subsequent expeditions: S.Leikina, A.Morozova, B.Gamburg, and A.Konovalov. They explored the Kazakh settlements in Uzbekistan; and between 1970 and 1980 they amassed the materials relating to the Kosh-Agach Kazakh, a distinctive group that wandered to the Southern Altai over a century ago and still lives among the Telengit and the Russians. A.Morozova wrote about one of her expeditions to Kazakhstan: "The journey in complete absence of any kind of roads, took us through deserted areas, particularly along the shore of Lake Balkhash, past the formidably huge cliffs, over patches of saline soil eroded by rain and across what looked like fordless lakes… Having no shelter, we sometimes had to sleep in an open field, pitching a tent when it rained…" This sort of attitude has always been remarkably characteristic of the Museum staff members, dedicated as they are to their fieldwork, full with different hardships but rich in exotic impressions.

The story of the Turkmen collection.

The Turkmen used to be a particularly varied nation in terms of their habitation, tribal composition and vernacular culture. Years-long exploratory and acquisition activities have yielded a wide range of exhibits pertaining to almost all ethnic groups of the Turkmen who inhabit the territory of present-day Turkmenistan and also live in Russia and Uzbekistan. S. Dudin brought an excellent collection of clothing, utensils, household articles, interior decoration items, horse and camel trimmings, samples of woven fabrics and felts and a particularly rich assortment of rugs produced by the Tekke, the Yomud, the Ersar and other Turkmen tribes. Morozova began her fieldwork and acquisition activity in 1940-1960 -s. She gave special attention to the traditional costume of various Turkmen groups, which was her main area of interests. The Turkmen collection has always received numerous donations from private individuals. In 1902 General A. Bogoliubov, head of the Trans-Caspian Gubernia of the Turkestan Governorship, bestowed on the Ethnographic Department a gift of 37 carpets, part of his unique private collections, thus expressing his gratitude to Nicholas, who had generously sponsored the publication of his book on Central Asian carpets, the world's first compendium of this kind. About 80 years later the Museum received a 300-item batch of traditional costumes, carpets, felts and ornaments from Yu. Yakovlev.

Romanov?s Royal collections on Uzbeks.

The collection relating to traditional Tajik and settled Uzbek culture is the richest and the most wide-ranging of all. These people live among the brightest achievements of Central Asia - engineering, architecture, and crafts that have always attracted the Europeans. S.Dudin acquired the first exhibits. He worked in the oldest towns - Bukhara, Samarkand, Kokand, as well as nearby villages, from where he brought more than 2500 ethnographic items on the Uzbek and the Tadjik. In 1920s, remarkable specimens of vernacular crafts and the applied arts objects from the private and palace collections of Petersburg and its suburbs were added to Central Asian Department. Among them there are objects of special value, which were sent by the emirs of Bukhara to the members of the Russian Imperial family as diplomatic and personal gifts. They include men's robes embroidered in silk and gold thread, horse trimmings, curtains and bedspreads, ceremonial weapons with gold and silver applications and gem inlays, lengths of silk and velvet fabrics decorated in the ikat technique, ornaments produced by the Bukhara goldsmiths and saddles covered with delicate Arabic patterns. Not only do they attest to the elaborate craftsmanship, but they also reflect the complex relations between the Russian authorities and Central Asian rulers.

The role of the museum staff in adding to the collection on the Uzbek.

It was only in 1931 that a long period of inactivity was terminated by the expedition to the Uzbek settlements in Khoresm. The population of the Khoresm oasis preserved until the 20-th century some cultural elements that could be traced back to the ancient Zoroaster era and a scolar analysis of the expeditions materials gives a lot for reconstruction of ethnic processes that had taken place in that region. M. Sazonova devoted more than 50 years to the Uzbek ethnography. She was particularly interested in studying and collecting Uzbek's traditional costume and ornaments. She published dozens of works, thus raising the scientific popularization of the funds. The Museum had always paid a great attention to the investigation of traditional crafts and occupations as a major sector of the Uzbek economy of the past. B. Gamburg, for instance, was concerned with a study and collecting of silk reeling and weaving, iron foundry, smithery and agricultural tool making. B. Gamburg?s expeditions of 1960-1970s resulted in building up specialized collections devoted to the culture of various Uzbek groups relating to the Samarkand and Surkhandaryinsk Regions. M. Perlina worked hard to augment the Museum's assets with embroideries, printed cloth samples, articles of clothing, folk art objects produced during contemporary and earlier periods. Totally the museum collection on the Uzbek and the Tajik accounts 18500 household items and documentary photographs.

To the history of the Tajik collection.

In the collection of the ethnographic monuments of the Tajik reflects the divergent cultures of the historically formed groups of the Tajik people - the Plainsmen Tajik, Mountain Tajik and Pamir Tajik. An excellent collection including agricultural implements, utensils, details of the interior, unique specimen of old garments was brought by the museum researches from an expedition to Darvaz and the Pamirs. In 1972 the Museum collections were enlarged by the addition of a large batch of highly varied items put together by a team of leading ethnographers in Tajikistan and donated to the Museum by the government of the Tajik Soviet Republic. In 1970-s the Museum researches B.Gamburg and Ye.Tsareva collected about 700 items on culture of the Mountain and Pamir Tajik. The collection reflects practically all areas of ethnographic interest: household, crafts, dwellings, costume, childcare, festivals, and worship. The significance of these collections for the Tajik unit cannot be overestimated, as they resulted from the last large-scale expeditions to Tajikistan organized by the Museum. Subsequent acquisitions were chiefly limited to miscellaneous items bought from private collectors; a variety of embroidered wall hangings and women's embroidered festive dress are of special interest. In 1988, ethnographer A.Pisarchik gave the Museum her own unique collection of Tajik pottery which her family had amassed over a period of 50 years. Today the Russian Museum of Ethnography remains the only institution where the material culture of the Tajik represented so fully and widely.

The starting up the collection on the Karakalpak.

The collection on the ethnography of the Karakalpaks counting more than 2000 objects can be considered to be unique. The Russian museum of Ethnography in Saint-Petersburg, thousands miles removed from the land of the Karakalpak, has become the major centre in possession the fullest collections that give a clear idea of the culture-specific qualities of this ethnic group. The first Karakalpak collection, amassed by artist A. Melkov, was acquired by the museum only in 1930 but from the very start it provided a firm basis for subsequent ethnographic study of this ethnos. The collection gives rather a broad picture of the nation's economy of the Karakalpak, the specific quality of the vernacular dwelling, some of the handicrafts and occupations, as well as traditional clothing. The next Karakalpak input was acquired only thirty years later. It was provided by another artist, I. Savitsky, a great connoisseur on the Karakalpak applied art, who was fascinated with that nation. His collection comprised not just ethnographic items, but mostly real masterpieces of folk art. In 1960-s two more expeditions were organized by the Museum; they mainly acquired agricultural implements and handicraft tools of that types, that were poorly represented in the previous collections. This nation seemed to escape the ethnographers's attention, and that's why in the course of time each historical monument of the Karakalpak possessed by the Russian Museum of Ethnography and by other museums increases in scientific and cultural value.

"Minor" ethnic groups of Central Asia: the Baluchi, the Uigur, the Central Asian Arabs, the Bukhara Jews, the Dungans, the Gypsies.

It seems that just as scarcely represented is the culture of the so-called "minor" ethnic groups of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, the bulk of their population living outside the boundaries of the given region. In view of this, each of their few historical monuments appears more valuable. S. Dudin's collection included a few magnificent Beluchi rugs, now quite rare, and certain number of objects relating to Afgan ethnography on the territory of Central Asia. Besides, he collected a number of exhibits on traditional culture of the Uigur. Thirteen rugs were sent in 1906 by Adrianov A., Excise Office inspector in the Yeniseisk Guberniya, who had long been associated with the Ethnographic Department. The most important in terms of scale and content is the Central Asian Arab collection put together by B.Gamburg in the Kashkadaryinsk Region, Uzbekistan, in 1981, and also the one dedicated to the Central Asian (or Bukhara) Jews, accumulated by a Tashkent collector Kucherov. The Museum's "minor ethnic group" collections were eventually supplemented with exhibits relating to the ethnography of the Dungan, the Central Asian Gipsies and Indians, which were transferred to the museum from the USSR Ministry of Science in 1948 as part of an impressive collection dealing with the peoples of Central Asia and Kazakhstan.


Dish, a spoon for pouring koumiss and a dish container. Kazakhs. Syr-Darya region. Late 19th - early 20th century
Dish, a spoon for pouring koumiss and a dish container. Kazakhs. Syr-Darya region. Late 19th - early 20th century
Young woman in wedding dress. Kazakhs. Semipalatinsk region. Early 20th century
Young woman in wedding dress. Kazakhs. Semipalatinsk region. Early 20th century
Men and a woman in the summer yurt. Kazakhs. Early 20th century
Men and a woman in the summer yurt. Kazakhs. Early 20th century