Thursday, September 25, 2014

Window on Eurasia: How a Russian Émigré in China Created the Idea of the Russian ‘Ethnos’

Paul Goble


            Staunton, September 25 – Many in Russia and the West have been struck or even confused by the tendency of Russian scholars, commentators, and activists especially since the end of the Soviet period to use the term “ethnos” to refer to a variety of communities based on primordial ties.


            Some have seen this as an attempt to escape the Stalin system of ethnic classifications and thus a way for people to discuss ethnic issues without being trapped by that terminological straightjacket. Others have drawn attention to its links to the French term “etnie,” and still others have pointed to the role of Yulian Bromley and Lev Gumilyev in promoting it.


            But few know the fascinating history of this Russian term, which was developed and promoted by a Russian specialist on traditional societies in Siberia and the Russian Far East who emigrated to China in the 1920s, developed close ties to English eugenicists and German Nazis, and whose name was largely unmentionable in Moscow in Soviet times.


            That man was Sergey Shirokorogov (1887-1939) whose remarkable career and still more remarkable influence have now been traced by Dmitry Arzyutov, a researcher at St. Petersburg’s Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, in an article posted this week on the portal (


            As Arzyutov points out, an ethnos is defined as “a group of people who are united by a common language and origin who share common economic and cultural practices,” a definition significantly different from Stalin’s definition of the nation because it makes no reference to specific territory.


            The first Russian scholars to employ the term were Nikolay Mogilyansky (1871-1933) and with much greater subsequent impact Shirokogorov, both of whom were concerned with defining what the proper subject of their relatively young science of ethnography should be.


Both were students of the Russian-Ukrainian anthropologist Fedor Volkov and were profoundly affected by the writings of late nineteenth and early twentieth century French scholars like Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet and Georges Vacher de Lapouge, but the two and especially Shirokogorov went far beyond their teachers, Arzyutov says.


Shirokogorov studied the native peoples of Siberia and the Russian Far East at the end of the Russian imperial period, but he did not give final form to his ideas until after he emigrated to China in 1922 at the end of the Russian Civil War. There he published several fundamental works, including “The Psycho-mental Complex of the Tungus” (1934). (Mogilyansky also emigrated but to Prague and then Paris.)


Once in China, Shirokogorov wrote mostly in English and established close ties with Arthur Keith, a British anthropologist who promoted eugenics, and with Muehlman, a German scholar with close ties to the Nazis and a major influence on the creators of the apartheid system in South Africa.  The German émigré also played a key role in training Chinese ethnographers.


 But if he was internationally known, he was largely neglected in the Soviet Union. In 1929, Shirokogorov’s work on the ethnos was declared “idealistic” and cast into the outer darkness, seldom referred to except to be condemned and not discussed even by scholars for decades.


Arzyutov notes that when one well-known Soviet ethnographer was under arrest in the 1950s, he was charged with the crime of reading émigré literature in his field and the works of Shirokogorov in particular. The young Russian scholar does not identify this ethnographer further, but it is likely that it was Lev Gumilyev.


But despite that, Soviet ethnographers began to discuss Shirokogorov in the late 1950s and in 1964, at the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnographic Science in Moscw, even went so far as to declare, albeit without reference to the late émigré writer, the ethnos as “the chief theoretical conception in Soviet ethnography.”


Bromley, later an academician and director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnography, at that time incorporated the term as the basis of his elaborate terminological system, one that allowed him and his students to discuss ethnic issues in the Soviet Union in new and interesting ways without being trapped by Stalinist verbiage.


At the same time, working in Leningrad, S.I. Rudenko and Gumilyev made several presentations on  the ethnos and even succeeded in gaining permission to conduct a seminar on that term at the Geographic Society. But neither of them mentioned Shirokogorov at that meeting, although the émigré scholar’s works clearly informed their thinking.


With the collapse of the USSR, the term ethnos spread outward from the academy and was adopted by politicians and national activists, some but not all of whom began to acknowledge the role of Shirokogorov and many of whom applied the term in ways that neither he nor his ethnographic successors would accept, Arzyutov says.


That has led to a “most interesting” development, the young Russian scholar says. Today, “the ethnos exists as part of the discourse of the national intelligentsia which seeks to balance between an academic tradition and its own insistence on rights to land, culture, language and so on. Here arises the inversion of object and subject.”


            And that in turn means that as was the case a half century ago, Shirokogorov “as a presentative of ‘unofficial’ anthropology continues to play the role of a forgotten classic.” According to Arzykutov, treating the émigré scholar in this way “has turned out to be useful for the majority of groups both liberal and conservative.”



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