Alexander Reshetov and the History of Russian Ethnography

Alexander Mikhailovich Reshetov (1932–2009) was a prominent Russian anthropologist and historian of anthropology. He authored more than 500 scientific publications dedicated to the culture of East and Southeast Asia, theoretical problems of ethnology, and the history of Russian ethnographic studies. He was a board member of the Association of Russian Ethnographers and Anthropologists for several years until 2007. Between 1994 and 2005 he organized panels on the history of Russian ethnography and anthropology during the Association’s biannual conferences, which drew hundreds of scholars. Reshetov filled many gaps in the history of Russian anthropology, saving many prominent ethnographers from oblivion and ensuring continuity of the Russian scholarly tradition.

Reshetov was born on August 1, 1932 in the village of Glubokii, about 200 kilometers from the large Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. His father, Mikhail Ivanovich, was a train driver; his mother, Matryona Fominichna, cared for Alexander and his three siblings at home. Although all three of his siblings pursued professions related to the railway business, Reshetov focused his attention on the study of ethnography and anthropology. Reshetov died on May 29, 2009 in Saint Petersburg.

In 1951, after graduating from high school with a silver medal, Reshetov enrolled as a student in the Department of Oriental Studies at Leningrad State University (now St. Petersburg State University). He specialized in the history of China and other Far East Countries, studying under prominent scholars.[1] Completing his undergraduate studies in 1956, he enrolled in graduate school at the Institute for Ethnographic Studies (now Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography or the Kunstkamera). His graduate studies were interrupted by practical training in the People’s Republic of China, where he studied cultures and languages of certain Chinese ethnic groups for four years. In December 1960 he returned to Leningrad to resume his studies at the Institute, never to break ties with it again. After completing his graduate studies, he worked his way up from an associate fellow to a leading scientific fellow, distinguished author, and prominent researcher whose works are known far beyond the borders of the Russian Federation.

Reshetov began his career as a Sinologist, publishing works on Chinese ethnography and history, and the culture and social organization of ethnic minorities in China, including the Mongolian, Turkic, and Tungus-Manchu peoples. Gradually expanding his interests to the ethnography of other regions, such as Central Asia, the Far East, and Southeast Asia (Mongolia, Tibet, Vietnam), he made significant contributions to the influential academic series, “Peoples of the World,” authoring several articles in the volumes on “The Peoples of East Asia” and “The Peoples of Southeast Asia.”

One of Reshetov’s greatest mentors was Nikolai N. Cheboksarov. Even though Reshetov and his mentor were separated by about 600 kilometers (the distance between Leningrad and Moscow), the two scholars developed a professional relationship that grew into friendship. Cheboksarov’s exceptional knowledge in many domains awakened and shaped the research interests of the young scholar. Under the guidance of his teacher, Reshetov wrote his PhD thesis, “The Buyi: Historical and Ethnographic Essays,” which he successfully defended in 1967. Reshetov always cherished the memory of his teacher, and paid a tribute to Cheboksarov’s scholarly accomplishments in several articles (Reshetov 2004a).

Reshetov was a versatile scholar. On the one hand, he was an “armchair scientist” who worked in libraries with books and archival materials, and loved museum work. He was fond of the quiet ambiance of a scholar’s study. On the other, he could not live without the adventures of fieldwork. Almost every year between 1962 and 1988, he spent several months in the field. In addition to his work in China (1956–60), Reshetov undertook several ethnographic expeditions, studying the Kalmyks, Nenets, and Selkups, traveling all over Primorye, Sakhalin, and Mongolia. He also worked in Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan).

From the beginning of his career, Reshetov was interested in the theory of ethnology, including subjects such as kinship systems, family and marriage relations, economic and cultural types of society, the concept of “ethnos,” and ethnic psychology. These interests were stimulated by the active Russian scientific community of the 1960s, among whom problems of theoretical ethnography were hotly debated. Reshetov’s views were formed in discussions with scholars who did their best to promote ethnographic science within the constraints of Marxism—the only ideologically permitted philosophical and scholarly framework in Soviet Russia.[2]

In 1970 Reshetov established the Department of Theoretical Ethnography in the Leningrad branch of the Institute for Ethnographic Studies, which he directed for several years, publishing two volumes.[3] From the late 1970s on, his interests were divided between theoretical anthropology on the one hand, and the history of ethnography on the other. First and foremost, Reshetov studied the history of Russian ethnography. He documented the work of the first directors of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography.[4] He also published a series of articles about Russian scholars who made important contributions to Russian ethnography but had been nearly forgotten. Although later generations of scholars often built on their ideas, they did so unwittingly or without giving their predecessors the credit they deserved. Many of these forgotten scholars were intellectuals who left Russia after the revolution of 1917. The names of those individuals were effectively erased from Soviet Russian science because references to them and their work were forbidden in Soviet publications. Reshetov’s research highlighted the contributions of S. M. Shirokogoroff (1887–1939), a leading authority on the Tungus-Manchu people, the theory of ethnos, and shamanism; S. G. Eliseev (1889–1975), a prominent scholar who dedicated his life’s work to the Far East (mostly Japan); V. V. Golubew (1878–1945), one of the world’s greatest authorities on Indochina and neighboring countries; and, V. A. Ryazanovkii (1884–1968), a prominent scholar of legal conventions in traditional cultures.

Reshetov was also crucial in saving the works of scholars who were imprisoned or persecuted by the communist regime. When the regime fell, Reshetov published a series of articles with extensive biographies of the persecuted and executed scholars. Reshetov spent years in the “special” archives (archives that were for all practical purposes classified), researching and reconstructing the lives and works of scholars obliterated by the persecution of the Soviet era.[5] With his series of articles on “Persecuted Ethnography,”[6] Reshetov established a new field in the modern Russian history of ethnography.

Finally, Reshetov devoted several publications to those scholars and employees of the Institute for Ethnographic Studies who died on the battlefield during World War II (1939–45) and during the Siege of Leningrad (1941–44) in “Repaying the Debt” (1995a–c). These two works, “Persecuted Ethnography” and “Repaying the Debt,” are Reshetov’s main contributions to the history of Russian ethnography. Thanks to these texts, and his expertise in the history of ethnography in Russia, the names and works of numerous persecuted or prematurely deceased Russian ethnographers and anthropologists have been salvaged from oblivion.[7]

Reshetov also published multiple articles in several Russian encyclopedias.[8] Reshetov’s expertise was an important resource for researchers in Russia and beyond, many of whom contacted him frequently. His works were highly appreciated by foreign colleagues. Thanks to Reshetov, the monumental International Dictionary of Anthropologists contains 55 articles on prominent Russian ethnographers and anthropologists.

From the beginning of his career, Reshetov engaged in teaching the next generation of Russian ethnographers. He was a natural mentor: his students could not help but share his enthusiasm for issues that were of interest to him. At the same time, he was deeply involved in the issues and subjects that were of interest to his students. Many of his students have long since become prominent scientists themselves. They work in colleges, universities, and research institutes all over Russia as well as the republics of the former Soviet Union. In 2007, on the 75th anniversary of Reshetov’s birth, his colleagues and students published a volume titled “Problems of General and Regional Ethnography,” paying tribute to his scholarly accomplishments.

Reshetov devoted the final two decades of his life to the history of Russian ethnography. He compiled a biobibliographical dictionary of Russian ethnographers. To this end, he analyzed numerous archival documents and collected memoirs of older scholars and their relatives. He also compiled and distributed a special questionnaire for ethnographers currently working in this field. He was unable to complete this work. It was published posthumously in 2012 as “Materials for the Biobibliographical Dictionary of Russian Ethnographers and Anthropologists of the 20th Century.” Reshetov’s work is now expanded in the Wiki-based internet encyclopaedia “Russian Ethnographers and Anthropologists of the 20th Century,” directed by E. A. Rezvan.

Reshetov was truly a multi-talented scientist. He made important contributions to the studies of Chinese tribal nations and other peoples of the Far East, Siberia, and Central Asia. At the same time, his work discovered forgotten pages of the history of Russian ethnography, saving the names of prominent Russian scholars from oblivion and establishing a new direction in Russian anthropology (unique to the Russian science): “The Persecuted Ethnography.”



Reshetov, Alexander Mikhailovich. 1994a. “Repressirovannaya etnografiia: lyudi i sud’by, chast’ 1.” [Persecuted Ethnography: The People and Fortunes, Part 1], Kunstkamera. Etnograficheskie tetradi 4: 185–221.

———. 1994b. “Repressirovannaya etnografiia: lyudi i sud’by, chast’ 2.” [Persecuted Ethnography: The People and Fortunes, Part 2], Kunstkamera. Etnograficheskie tetradi 5–6: 342–368.

———. 1995a. “Otdanie dolga, Chast’ 1: Pamyati sotrudnikov Instituta etnografii, pogibschih v blokadnom Leningrade.” [Repaying the Debt, Part 1: In Commemoration of the Employees of the Institute of Ethnography who perished during the Siege of Leningrad], Etnograficheskoe obozrenie 2: 40–62.

———. 1995b. “Otdanie dolga, Chast’ 2: Pamyati sotrudnikov Instituta etnografii AN SSR – voinov Velikoy Otechestvennoy Voyny.” [Repaying the Debt, Part 2: In Commemoration of the Employees of the Institute of Ethnography AN SSR – Ihe Warriors of the Great Patriotic War], Etnograficheskoe obozrenie 3 & 4: 3–20, 3-24.

———. 1995c. “Otdanie dolga, Chast’ 3: Institut etnografii AN SSSR vo vremya Velikoy Otechestvennoy Voyny (nekotorye voprosy istorii).” [Repaying the Debt, Part 3: The Institute of Ethnography AN SSR at the time of the Great Patriotic War (Some Problems of History)], Etnograficheskoe obozrenie 6: 3–17.

———. 1999a. “V. V. Radlov – direktor Muzea antropologii i etnografii Imperatorskoy Akademii nauk.” [V. V. Radlov – Director of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Imperial Academy of Sciences]. In Nemtsy v Rossii: Peterburgskie nemtsy, edited by G. I. Smagina, 137–155. St. Petersburg: Dmitriy Bulanin.

———. 1999b. “Nikolai Nikolaevich Koz’min: Osnovnye napravlenia nauchnoi deyatel’nosti.” [Nikolai Nikolaevich Koz’min: Main Branches of his Scientific Work]. In Repressirovannye etnografy, edited by D. D. Tumarkin, 81–100.

———. 2000. “S. K. Patkanov kak statistik i etnograf-sibireved.” [S. K. Patkanov as a Statistician and a Researcher of Siberia]. In Kul’turnoe nasledie narodov Sibiri i Severa. Materialy Chetvertykh Sibirskikh chteniy 12-14 oktyabrya 1998 g, edited by E. G. Fedorova, 22–26. St. Petersburg: Muzei antropologii i etnografii im. Petra Velikogo (Kunstkamera) Rossiiskoi Akademii nauk.

———. 2003. “Tragedia lichnosti: Nikolai Mikhailovich Matorin.” [The Tragedy of Personality: Nikolai Mikhailovich Matorin]. In Repressirovannye etnografy Vol. 2, edited by D. D. Tumarkin, 147–192.

———. 2004a. “Nikolai Nikolaevich Cheboksarov: portret uchenogo v kontekste vremeni.” [Nikolai Nikolaevich Cheboksarov: A Portrait of the Scholar in the Context of his Time]. In Vydayuschiesia otechestvennye etnografy i antropologi XX veka, edited by V. A. Tishkov and D. D. Tumarkin, 358–396. Moskva: Nauka.

———. 2004b. “Dmitriy Konstantinovich Zelenin: classik russkoy etnografii.” [Dmitriy Konstantinovich Zelenin as a Classic of Russian Ethnography]. In Vydayuschiesia otechestvennye etnografy i antropologi XX veka, edited by V. A. Tishkov and D. D. Tumarkin, 137–183. Moskva: Nauka.

———. 2004c. “Repressirovannaya leningradskaya antropologiya (k postanovke problemy).” [Persecuted Anthropology of Leningrad (Statement of the Problem)]. In Paleoantropologia. Etnicheskaya antropologia. Etnogenez. K 75-letiyu Il’yi Iosifovicha Gokhmana, 201–219. St. Petersburg.

———. 2012. Materiali k biobibliograficheskomu slovariu rossiiskih etnografov i antropologov, XX vek [Materials for the Biobibliographical Dictionary of Russian Ethnographers and Anthropologists of the Twentieth Century], edited by E. A. Rezvan. St. Petersburg: Nauka (Kunstkamera – Arkhiv 5).

Tumarkin, Daniil Davidovich. 1999–2003. Repressirovannye etnografy. [Persecuted Ethnographers]. Moskva: Izdatel’skaia firma ‘Vostochnaia Literatura’ RAN (Rossiiskaia Akademiia Nauk, Institut Etnografii i Antropologii imeni N.N. Miklukho-Maklaia).


[1] Reshetov considered the following people to be his most influential mentors at the Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) State University: G. V. Efimov, Sinologist and department chair (Department of the Near East); Professor N. V. Kühner (Near Eastern Civilizations); Professor L. A. Bereznoj (China studies—history and politology); Professor I. P. Petrushevsky (history of Iran); and, Indologist E. Ya. Lyusternik.

[2] Such as: Sergei A. Tokarev, Nikolai A. Butinov, Vladimir R. Kabo, Sofia A. Maretina, and Yurii V. Maretin.

[3]Hunters, Gatherers, Fishermen” (1972) and “Early Agriculturalists” (1980).

[4] L. I. Shrenk (1826–1894), V. V. Radlov (1837–1918), E. F. Karskii (1860–1931), D. K. Zelenin (1878–1954), and N. V. Kühner (1877–1955).

[5] He has publications about B. A. Kuftin, a specialist in the cultures of people of Siberia, Caucasus, Crimea, and the Volga Region; B. N. Vishnevskii (1891–1965), a prominent Soviet anthropologist; N. M. Matorin (1898–1936), one of the leading scholars in Soviet Ethnography in the second and third decades of the 20th century, first director of the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnography; N. I. Gagen-Torn (1900–1983), a scholar of the peoples of the Volga Region; M. B. Shatilov (1882–1937), a scholar of the Khanty people; N. N. Koz’min (1872–1938), who specialized in anthropology and history of the Siberian nations (Buryat, Khakas, and Yakut people); T. A. Kriukova (1904–1978), a specialist in the Russian traditional culture and Mari, Chuvash, and Udmurt ethnography; and, many others.

[6] Reshetov 1994a, 1994b, 2004c.

[7] On persecuted ethnographers, see also: Tumarkin 1999–2003.

[8] “Soviet Historical Encyclopaedia” (1961–76), “Great Soviet Encyclopaedia” (1926–90), “Great Russian Encyclopaedia” (from 2002 on), “North Encyclopaedia” (2004), “Peoples and Religions of the World” (1998), “Yugoria” (2000–05).

Elena V. Revunenkova: contributions /

1 Comment

  1. Han F. Vermeulen

    August 1, 2017 at 7:15 am

    Very valuable publication!!

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