‘American Dreams’ of Early Soviet Ethnography: Some Reflections on Bogoras’s Legacy

Dmitry Arzyutov* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

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Dmitry Arzyutov discusses a phenomenon that he defines as “American dreams” of Russian ethnography in the early twentieth century based on the example of Waldemar Bogoras, one of the founders of early Soviet ethnography. The essay highlights three specific cases that frame the development of this discipline not through the familiar narrative of gradual isolation but as a story of sometimes problematic contacts and exchanges with American anthropologists. The contacts that were established during the joint Jesup North Pacific Expedition (1897–1902) led by Franz Boas continued into the 1920s. Arzyutov shows that the main concepts of Soviet ethnography, such as “ethnogenesis” and “ethnic history,” were products of the debates about the origin of the peoples of Arctica and Siberia between Franz Boas and the Russian expedition participants, Bogoras and, to a lesser degree, Lev Shternberg. The second case addresses Bogoras’s unrealized project of establishing nature reserves-cum-reservations for the native peoples of Siberia. These were to combine the prerevolutionary idea of nature reserves (popular among Bogoras’s geographer colleagues) with the North American practice of Indian reservations. Finally, the third case compares trajectories of the two students of Bogoras and Boas, Julia Averkieva and Archie Phinney. Their stories show how Marxism might have been differently understood and deployed in the transnational context, and how this difference could have generated intellectual and personal disagreements and conflicting versions of identity politics. The three cases taken together testify to the importance of shifting the optics of the history of anthropology from reconstructing national traditions and local genealogies toward tracing dialogue and mutual borrowings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-89
Number of pages15
JournalAb Imperio
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2020


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