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Klejn L.S. The phenomenon of Soviet archaeology

Publ. in Russian (1993) at St. Petersburg by Farn; in Spanish (1993) at Bacelona by Critica; in German (1997) at Frankfurt by Peter Lang

By Leo S. Klejn


During the period of the USSR’s existence, our domestic archaeology universally perceived as ‘Soviet archaeology’. Indeed, Soviet archaeology was really a unique phenomenon, in many aspects sharply distinctive and separate from the archaeology of all other countries. This period began as a result of October coup of 1917 and ended in the early 1990s. Since then the objective study of this phenomenon has become possible.


This book presents an analysis of the history and contemporary state (at the end of twentieth century) of Soviet archaeology in relation to the archaeology of the countries of the West. This analysis is carried out with respect to the highest standards of scholarship, but is presented in an easily accessible form by a participant of many of the key events. Thus the book is not only for specialists.


The form in which this work first appeared was as a long article in the early ’80s for publication abroad and raised a stormy discussion in Leningrad that was stopped only by the arrest of the author. The affair of his arrest, imprisonment and detainment in a labour camp is described in another book, The world turned upside down, published in Russia under a pseudonym (Samoylov 1993) and in Germany under the author’s real name (Klejn 1991).


The article was then transported to the West, by Leningrad University (!), and printed in English in 1982 under three names, the author's and his disciples (Bulkin, Klejn and Lebedev) in the journal World Archaeology. This article attracted a great attention in the West.


Ten years later, on the basis of this article, the author wrote this short book The Phenomenon of Soviet Archaeology. This book is nevertheless many times longer than that article and contains an analysis also of the previous decade (the ’80s). It was originally published in St. Petersburg in 1993 as a ‘Farn’ publication. In the same year the Spanish translation was published in Barcelona under the title Soviet archaeology: history and theory of an unknown school. In 1997 in Frankfurt o. M. was published the German translation (by Peter Lang). In this translation the title remained The phenomenon of Soviet archaeology with the addition of subtitle History, school, representatives.


Soviet archaeology was little known and not very well understood by our Western colleagues; for that matter, by no means everything about it was known to the Soviet archaeologists either. The author considers its dramatic history as a contradictive process. Revolutionary ideas inspired it, but totalitarian power fettered and crippled it. He analyses the Aesop’s language in which, in this context, certain Russian archaeologist strove to communicate those ideas that diverged from orthodox Soviet ideology. No less than 14 methods of evading the demands of authorities are listed and described.


Special attention is paid to the role played by Marxism in Soviet archaeology. The author argues that, in its essence, Soviet archaeology was not Marxist, and that, moreover, Marxist archaeology was hardly possible in principle – in the same way, there is no Labour or Tory archaeology! Rather one can characterize Soviet archaeology as politically involved - yielding to considerations of the moment – having to follow all the zigzags of Soviet policy and diplomacy. Yet the impact of Marxism was nonetheless felt. The Marxist mental toolkit gave some encouragement to investigation, but limited the investigator’s horizon. The author aims to show the extent of the damage to Soviet archaeology caused by its panhistoricism – the author uses this term to refer to a peculiarity of Marxist scholarship, namely, the sociologisation of all the humanities and their auxiliary disciplines. In Soviet archaeology this entailed forgetting the source-studying character of archaeology; and subsequently distorting the entire structure of research. Yet, albeit in other guises, this feature is also manifested in the West (especially in British and American archaeology).


Contradictions are considered that are related to the multinational composition of the Soviet power and its culture. On the one hand Marxism declared the international solidarity of workers and the friendship of all peoples. On the other hand the Soviet Union and its satellites was an aggressive empire built on the basis of the Russian national state. Contradictory demands were made of archaeology – to satisfy the national ambitions of various peoples and, at the same time, to praise the historical mission of the Russian people, and to struggle against separatism.


The author shows that Soviet archaeology was never the united monolithic entity that was presented. It was always (particularly towards its end) divided into a number of competing schools. The principal discussions, reflecting the main struggle of opinions, are described: the battle of Gorodtsov's school with the school of Zhukov, the propagation of stadiality theory, debates on the nature of the discipline’s subject matter (history of material culture or archaeology?), discussions on the periodisation and ethnogenesis. Seven main directions in contemporary Russian archaeology are considered. These directions are determined by their respective views on the subject mater and nature of archaeology, its place in the system of disciplines, and, accordingly, its objectives.


A considerable part of the German edition consists of extensive biographies of the leading figures of Soviet archaeology. They are described vividly and frankly. Soviet archaeologists are presented with all their merits and vices, discoveries and passions. This is a peopled history. Thus, the text of German edition is twice the size as that of the Russian (412 pages). German reviews were very positive.

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Contents (of the Russian edition)


Chapter I. “The Great Unknown”

The View from the West

The View from Inside

Chapter II. Steps on the Great Path



Revolution in Archaeology

The Archaeology of Stalin’s Empire

The Thaw in Archaeology

The Archaeology of Détente and Standstill

Fin de siècle

Chapter III. Generations and Aspirations

Chapter IV. The Spectrum of Directions


1.       ‘Archaeological history’

2.       ‘Archaeological ethnogenetics’

3.       ‘Archaeological sociology’

B. Quadrivium

4. ‘Descriptive archaeology’

5. ‘Archaeotechnology’

6. ‘Archaeological ecology’

7. ‘Echeloned archaeology’

Seven colours is seven me [footnote – phonetically, in Russian seven+me sounds is the same as ‘family’]

Chapter V. Under the Sign of History


Omitting the Source-studying Fundamentals

Passing the Buck with Relative Chronology

Vertical Structural Axes without Horizontal Axes

‘Molecular’ and ‘Atomic’ Levels of Research

Chapter VI. Archaeology of Great Power

Imperial Internationalism

The Syndrome of National Wounds

The Problem of the Homeland

Chapter VII. Archaeology under the Red Banner

Is Marxist Archaeology possible?

Utopia and its Substantiation

Marxist Dogmas and Soviet Archaeology

Soviet Archaeology and Political Situations

Is Everything in Marxism Marxist?

And in the future?

Chapter VIII. Reading between Lines

Witty men and Cerberoi

Witty men and Cerberoi


Paying of Tribute

Unexpected Gaps

Covert Talmudism

A Nameless Aim

Roast under fur [footnote - a dish: roast with a thick sauce]

Substitution of the Target

Firing through the Past

Roundabout Manoeuvre

Schweijk’s Assiduity

Revealed under the Pretext of Criticism

Imitation of Socrealism

Conclusion. Retrospective and Perspective


Supplement: G. Childe and Soviet archaeology


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In the German edition the chapter III (“Arena of discussions”) is added and placed between the “Steps of the great path” and “Generations and aspirations”. Its sections are: ‘The struggle for and the struggle against’, ‘Toward the subject matter of our discipline’, ‘On archaeological culture’ and ‘On ethnogenesis’.


Besides, the book was divided into two: ‘History and present’ (the first five chapters) and ‘Aspects of new discipline’ (the remainder with the supplement on Childe as a ninth chapter). A third part was then also added – ‘Personalities in the System’, consisting of additional five chapters as well: on N. Ya. Marr, Ravdonikas, Atsikhovsky , Rybakov and the last chapter on a range of other Soviet archaeologists.


As an appendix to the German translation a critical Russian review by A. A. Formosov was added: On the book of L. S. Klejn “The Phenomenon of Soviet archaeology” and on the phenomenon itself. This is followed by Klejn’s reply: “Once more on Soviet archaeology and Marxism. The response of a Professor to the son of a Professor”.

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