Empire, State & Social Change in Siberia, 1887-1941


A review of Cultural Curators and Provincial Publics: Local Museums and Social Change in Siberia, 1887-1941, by Julia Fein.

Julia Fein’s dissertation, “Cultural Curators and Provincial Publics: Local Museums and Social Change in Siberia, 1887-1941,” examines the history of local museums in Siberia as a way of understanding the changing relations between state and society, imperial center and periphery, and people and things in late imperial and early Soviet Russia. She argues that Siberian museums played a crucial role in two parallel modernization projects undertaken in Russia at the time: “cataloging and claiming” the empire’s natural and human resources, and enlightening and educating “the masses” (p. 1). In tracing the work and movement of exiles, Siberian regionalists, state servitors, and imperial officials, the institutional evolution of museums, the circulation of objects, and the views of museum-goers, Fein shows how important museums were to transformations in Siberian society and politics that bridged the revolutionary break in 1917. Her study makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Siberia’s place in Russian history, Russia’s place in modern history, and political and social transformations in the past century and a half, more broadly.

The local knowledge represented by Siberian museums became increasingly important to archeologists and state servitors in Moscow and St. Petersburg beginning in the 1880s. In her first chapter, Fein reconstructs lively correspondences between elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg and museum activists in the central Siberian town of Minusinsk in order to show that a market for local artifacts emerged in the late nineteenth century. Local Siberians who hunted and sold antiques ably negotiated the objects’ newly monetized value, which quickly came to threaten their value as scientific specimens. The rising number of people in the countryside finding the objects did not always document or preserve the artifacts properly, and dealers selling them did not always sell them to museums within Russia. In an effort to counteract these trends, archeologists and other scientists in the capitals and Siberia advocated for regularized, well-managed, and centralized protocols for processing the archeological wealth of the empire. Thus the problem of establishing the value of Siberia’s archeological wealth first brought Siberian museums and their potential for making the region legible to the attention of scientists empire-wide. Agents in the imperial center and its periphery were actively involved in the process.

The second chapter is about local museums and politics, which Fein defines broadly to include a general promotion of democratic values by museum personnel (many of whom were political exiles), involvement with electoral politics after 1905, and conservative efforts to promote Orthodox and monarchist imagery. The chapter covers a period from 1887 to 1917 and showcases Fein’s truly impressive range of archival research by treating the topic in the Siberian cities of Tobol’sk, Irkutsk, Chita, Kiakhta, Iakutsk, Krasnoiarsk, and Minusinsk (still only some of her research sites), allowing her to register local particularities. Museums were involved in creating different kinds of publics in different places. In Iakutsk, for instance, Iakut men were the most frequent patrons of the museum (p. 156). In Chita the museum was actually a “museum-temple” which included an elaborate display of Buddhist objects, that is, until it was burned down by Russians with the blessing, evidently, of the Orthodox Church (pp. 190-192). Attentive to local variety, Fein shows how museums across Siberia became important not only as institutions generating “provincial publics,” but also as physical gathering spaces for Siberians of various stripes engaging with the increasingly volatile politics of the late imperial period.

If Siberian museums first attracted empire-wide attention because of what they could contribute to the field of archeology, by the early twentieth century they were devoting themselves, in tandem with museums in European Russia, to the creation of “complete” ethnographic representations of different groups within the empire (p. 209). Chapter three takes up the “economics of ethnography” as it developed after the turn of the century. A new national ethnographic museum in the capital solicited ethnographic materials from the provinces, which meant there was more money involved in the movement of objects. Fein argues that this helped to speed up the rationalization of the process of collection. Rather than collecting objects for their own sake, which could result in eclectic exhibits, this new generation of collectors set out with clear goals of representing the “historic” (indigenous) peoples living in the region (p. 230). In practice, this could mean stealing drums and coats from shamans for the purpose of display, or it could mean commissioning the fabrication of ethnographic artifacts for the same reason. There were not always extra “national costumes” and the like lying around when ethnographers were meeting with indigenous peoples, but these objects were considered necessary for proper ethnographic representations. At the same time the prevalence of photography in ethnography increased, not simply as a tool to document and represent, but as a tool to stage and narrate.

One of the many important and compelling aspects of Fein’s dissertation is its attention to the place of material objects in the changing constructions of state and society. Drawing on Bruno Latour’s work, the fourth chapter approaches change from the 1905 Revolution into the early Soviet period through the relationship between human and non-human actors and objects. The chapter looks at two case studies. One involves communities that developed around the Krasnoiarsk museum through which nature both in the museum and in the region came to bear political significance. At the same time, paradoxically, the mission of the museum was being more explicitly articulated in terms of strict division between human and non-human nature. The second case study involves “the mysterious case of the missing rocks” in Irkutsk between 1909 and 1911, in which a public dispute erupted between factions in the Geographical Society’s museum over whether the value of several hundred polished stone cubes rested in their connection to a specific place and should therefore be displayed in the museum, or whether it rested in their potential as data useful for engineering experimentation and railroad construction that therefore necessitated their physical alteration or destruction. Eventually the cubes themselves weighed in on the debate insisting, in their testimony published in a local newspaper, that their value consisted of the information they could provide to engineers. Fein utilizes the seemingly bizarre case of the missing rocks and their anthropomorphization to illustrate an “object-oriented politics” that developed in the constitutional period (p. 346).

From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the First Five Year Plan in 1928, museums navigated frequent and substantial changes in relations between the center and periphery and state and society. Contributing to a growing body of scholarship attentive to continuity across the 1917 divide (Peter Holquist, Vera Tolz, Francine Hirsch), Fein argues in chapter five that museums continued to carry on the twin goals of accumulating local information and enlightening the public that they had pursued in the pre-Revolutionary period, even as those goals changed to account for new Soviet ideals and the fact that museums had been made official state structures in the early 1920s. In the name of maximizing economic productivity, local museums were made into kraevedenie, or “regional studies,” museums tasked with inventorying non-human and human resources in their respective regions. Siberian museums in particular had long been attuned to generating practical benefits for their localities and so were seen as models for other kraevedenie museums throughout the country. Thus there was increasing coordination (and professionalization) in the purposes and practices of museums across the space of the new Soviet empire. However – and this is one of the arguments that runs throughout the dissertation – the increasing coordination among museums across the empire was not a result of initiatives that simply moved from center to periphery. Rather, the changes in Siberia’s museums and transformations in their relationship to the state and to “the people” were affected by complicated networks through which people, objects, and ideas moved. Fein uncovers these networks in remarkable detail and ably explains to us how they changed over time.

The final chapter, which considers local-studies museums during the 1930s, follows a process of their redefinition according to Soviet ideological “signals” emanating from Moscow during the dynamic and eventually violent 1930s. Following the kraevedenie movement of the 1920s, the 1930s marked a return to the theory-first mode of organizing museums that had begun to emerge before 1917. Didactic messages that museums were meant to convey to the masses came first and determined what particular objects would be displayed. As personnel sought to bring exhibits in line with the new demands of Stalinist museology and socialist realism, they worked to strip extraneous details because they obscured the message. Among other things, a preference emerged for two-dimensional exhibits over three-dimensional ones (although photographs could still pose the problem of too much extraneous information) since the former were easier to conform to the new museum orthodoxy. Fein then proceeds to examine a large number of collections of museum comment books from the period (drawing on these kinds of sources by Eleonory Gilburd), showing how museum-goers in Siberia engaged with and responded to the “messages” that were being conveyed through exhibitions and reflected the broader atmosphere of the 1930s, in which “social mobility and hope for the future combined with political vigilance and mistrust” (p. 509). The story ends with Siberian museum workers (about half in several cities) falling victim to the Great Purges in 1937-38. Fein shows how the Terror in the region was particular to the circumstances there: museum workers were tainted because of their previous relation to Siberian regionalists, Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, former priests, or anti-Bolshevik forces during the Civil War. In their place, museums brought in a new generation of workers who had been educated in the post-Revolutionary period rather than through museum work itself, which had until then been the norm. The Purges, Fein explains, effected a “macabre professionalization” of workers in Siberian museums (p. 531).

Julia Fein’s dissertation is a well-conceived, impressively researched, and engagingly written piece of scholarship. It incorporates archival material from twenty-nine archives scattered across ten Siberian cities, Kazan’, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, in addition to numerous newspapers and other published primary sources. It contributes to ongoing debates in recent studies of empire, modernity, civil society, the state, Russian anthropology and ethnography, museum studies, and the importance of space and place.

It situates Siberia in relation to the history of museums, modernization, and political transformation in other parts of the world (Western Europe and the U.S.), which strengthens Fein’s case that the study of Siberian history has much to offer not only scholars of Russia, but scholars in other fields as well. Finally, Fein’s dissertation challenges scholars to reflect upon how our writing, like a museum, is about producing narratives based upon the artifacts we collect. In exploring this analogy, her work contributes as much to our understanding of the scholarly enterprise in general, as it does to our understanding of Russian history in particular. If Fein’s project is a museum, it is a fascinating and important one that is sure to attract lots of visitors.

David Rainbow
Postdoctoral Fellow
New York University

Primary Sources

Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Irkutskoi oblasti
Krasnoiarskii kraevoi kravedcheskii muzei, nauchnyi fond
Minusinskii regional’nyi kraevedcheskii muzei imeni Mart’ianova, nauchnyi arkhiv
Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii (Moscow)
Institut istorii material’noi kul’tury Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk (St. Petersburg)

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 580 pp. Primary Advisor: Sheila Fitzpatrick.

Image: Minusinsk (Martyanov) Regional Studies Museum. Photograph by Julia Fein.

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