The digitised photographic archive of Siberian indigenous peoples (available online from the British Library’s website) is a rich source of information about late Russian and early Soviet colonisation of Siberia. The collection of over 4000 images is the result of five years of exploratory work led by David Anderson (University of Aberdeen,) and Craig Campbell (University of Alberta) in Central Siberia. The research group digitised glass plate negatives in five Siberian archives: Irkutsk, Minusinsk, Ekaterinburg, and Krasnoiarsk. Although many photographs lack any original descriptions, and thus it is not always easy to identify where and when they were taken, the visual archive nevertheless provides great insight into the lives of Siberian indigenous peoples, in particular, Mansi, Nenets, Evenki, Buryat, Karagas, Soyot, Nganasan, Dolgan, Khakas, Khanti, and Kety.
In their articles based on the results of their research, Anderson and Campbell suggested several common tropes to interpret the photographs of indigenous peoples. They explored the themes of ‘travel photography’, ‘ethnographic photography’, ‘expedition photography’, and ‘community-driven portrait photography’, and provided examples. This, however, is by no means an exhaustive list of possible tropes to explore the vast visual collection. Drawing on Anderson and Craig’s observations, I would like to suggest exploring the subject which arrested my attention and the attention of several colleagues at the BL: the visual representation of indigenous childhood and its transformation during the time of intense Soviet collectivisation in the 1920s and 1930s.
Taimyr. The family of Nganasan, Dyutamo Turdagina: his wife Palai, son Murkari, baby Kurvak. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev. (All captions are my own translations of the original annotations made by the Russian photographers)
Children during their class at school
The British Library’s digital photographic collections contain many photographs representing children, taken by various photographers – whose names are not always identifiable – during their expeditions. Although the goals of each expedition require some separate research, it is often possible to deduce from the photographs whether the photographers took pictures for ethnographic purposes or for political propaganda.
The ethnographic expeditions to Siberia usually sought to collect information about the ‘sparse’ native peoples of Siberia, and the children in such photographs are usually portrayed as immersed in their families’ social and professional lives, or engaged in traditional games. They are dressed in the national costumes which represent the ‘exotic’ features of Siberian peoples. It was a common colonial practice to collect various artefacts representing indigenous cultures, such as traditional clothing, musical instruments, tools, and housewares which would form vast museum collections.
A woman with her child
Taim. A Nganasan man, Dyutalyu Turdagin, setting a fish trap, 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev
Taim. The Stalin collective farm: the collective farmer, Aksenova Evdokiia, a Sakha native, is making a sleeping bag. 1938. Photo by Tyurin
Taim. Durakova, a collective farmer at the Stalin collective farm, is decorating the male parka with some beads. She is considered a skilled worker. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev
A woman with two children. 1927. Photo by Tyurin
Studies of indigenous childhood had been one of the prominent areas of study in the Russian Empire’s ethnography, and it became even more significant in the 1920s and 30s, when the Soviet State rushed to construct a new society by culturally assimilating Siberian peoples. Indigenous children became the chief target of Soviet policies concerned with the creation of new generations of Soviet people. The photographs of children were not ideologically neutral: they were designed to show the transformation of the old into the new.
Pictures of children taken during the Soviet expeditions often represented them as integrated into Soviet culture rather than as representatives of their national cultures. Soviet photographs of children were often intended to demonstrate the result of Soviet reforms and the transformation of ‘savages’ into educated Young Pioneers. In the photographs we see the children dressed in uniform Soviet clothing.
A group of pioneer-children. Photo by Nosilov (assumed)
A group photograph of Evenki. Photo by Nosilov (assumed)
They are playing Soviet games.
Taim, Volochanka. Sakha children in the Volochanka residential school, in the playroom
The Nizhne-tunguskaia expedition. Children making a pyramid. 1925
We also find pictures of children visiting a picture gallery, something that can be interpreted as their symbolic initiation into the world of Soviet ‘civilised’ culture.
Buryat children visiting a picture gallery. 24.07.1923
Many such photographs were taken during the census expeditions of 1926, which were conducted in cooperation with geographers and ethnographers. The census was a worldwide colonial statistical practice, and the Soviets employed and developed new approaches to classifying the peoples of their vast empire. The indigenous peoples were surveyed within their households and individually to collect demographic data describing their diet, economy, trade data, beliefs, folklore, and so on. If the statistical information collected during the census was intended to provide an objective summary of life in the remote parts of the Soviet Union, then the photographs often offered a somewhat idealised picture of the social inclusion of indigenous peoples within Soviet life. The photographs of children were especially important as they depicted the social and cultural production of the new generation of loyal Soviet citizens.
Numerous aspects of Soviet modernisation were introduced in indigenous settlements, such as medical care, veterinary services, and housing. Often photographers chose to take pictures of children in these new Soviet settings.
Tura. An Evenk student, Hukochar Emel'yan, 11 years old, at a tuberculosis dispensary for a blood test. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev
A young Yakut mother with a new-born at the Eseiskoi hospital. December 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev
The most common setting for the pictures were school classrooms: the photographers were specifically advised to document ‘the dawn of cultural and primary school education’ among Siberian peoples, and the work of teachers liquidating illiteracy (Anderson, Batashev, Campbell, 2015, p. 501). To the modern eye, these pictures might look somewhat dystopian: students sit under a poster showing Stalin surrounded by children, located next to another with a wolf trying to kill two little pigs; children eat their meal under a poster instructing ‘eat only from your plate’; or a photograph taken during a sport class where all children synchronically perform the same exercise with a huge portrait of Stalin in the background.
Tura. Children playing a game at the district health department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev
Tura, the Evenk national republic. A group of students during the May Day demonstration. May 1, 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev
Tura, the Evenk national republic. Children at the Turinsk District Health Department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev
Tura, the Evenk national republic. Lunch in the nursery at the District Health Department. January 1939. Photo by Ivan Baluev
The most touching pictures are probably those where we see groups of children sitting in densely bedded dormitories. Taken away from their families – often involuntarily – children stayed in the residential schools during the academic year and were returned to their parents only for the summer holidays.
Tajm, Letov'e. The teacher of Letov'e school, Zlobin, meeting the first year Nganasan students who are accompanied by the leader of the Avamo-nganasansk settlement, Baikal, Turdachin
The Nizhne-tungusk expedition. Girls’ bedroom. 1925
Away from their families, children were expected to develop a sense of belonging to the larger Soviet society with its new system of values. The residential schools were also instrumental in the process of reorganising the indigenous populations of Siberia into cooperative settlements and demolishing their original tribal structures. During the first years of the Soviet Union the State tried to accommodate the educational needs of reindeer herders by initiating an experimental project of nomadic schools, which moved together with the clan, but by the end of the 1930s this practice was terminated. The number of residential schools in various parts of Siberia, on the other hand, reached 20 by 1935. Often reindeer herders chose to stay close to their children instead of continuing the traditional nomadic lifestyle. As a result, the introduction of residential schools greatly decreased the nomadic way of living, and saw indigenous Siberians become more settled.
The Nizhne-tungusk expedition. A man in suit sitting at his desk. The poster in the background reads ‘The diagram showing the growth of the number of schools’. 1925
The exhibition ‘Nomadic School’. 1938. Photo by Ivan Baluev
In the 1990s, several cultural initiatives tried to revive the idea of nomadic schools as a means of restoring traditional lifestyles and culture. Several nomadic schools were successfully organised, for instance, in the Republic of Sakha.
The residential schools continue to run in different part of Siberia, and a basic internet search shows many negative feelings associated with them. The experiences of indigenous peoples in the residential schools are actively explored by contemporary scholars. For example, in the 1990s, Alexia Bloch, an anthropologist from the University of British Columbia, collected accounts of elderly Evenki women, who studied at residential schools. Relying on these records, Bloch conclusively demonstrated a blend of positive feeling about the schools contrasted with ambivalence about the termination of the Soviet colonial project in general. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, many Evenki women recalled their time at the residential schools with a sense of nostalgia for the socialist era.
For many indigenous children, residential schools became a source of radical social mobility within Soviet society. After graduation, young people received an opportunity to continue their studies at university and move to big cities in central Russia, or secure more prestigious jobs back home. We do not know which paths were taken by the children in the photographs in the British Library’s digital collection, and this might be one of the questions which scholars could explore using the BL’s vast visual archive.
Anna Maslenova, British Library PhD placement student working on the project ‘Contextualising a digital photographic archive of Siberian Indigenous peoples’
References and further reading:
David G. Anderson, ‘The Turukhansk Polar Census Expedition of 1926–1927 at the Crossroads of Two Scientific Traditions’, Sibirica, 5: 1 (2006), pp. 24–61.
David G. Anderson and Craig Campbell, ‘Picturing Central Siberia: The Digitization and Analysis of Early Twentieth-Century Central Siberian Photographic Collections’, Sibirica, 8: 2 (2009), pp. 1–42)
David G. Anderson, Mikhail S. Batashev and Craig Campbell, ‘The photographs of Baluev: capturing the “socialist transformation” of the Krasnoyarsk northern frontier, 1938-1939’ in From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme, ed. by Maja Kominko (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 487–530. ELD.DS.46613
Georgii Vinogradov, Etnografiia detstva i russkaia narodnaia kulʹtura v Sibiri (Moscow, 2009) YF.2011.a.853
«Provintsialʹnaia» nauka: etnografiia v Irkutske v 1920-e gody, ed. by A. Sirina (Irkutsk, 2013).
Olga Laguta and Melissa Shih-hui Lin, ‘Language and Cultural Planning in Siberia: Boarding School System Represented in the Texts of the Siberian Indigenous Writers’, Taiwan Journal of Indigenous Studies, 12: 1 (2019), pp. 1–37.
Sargylana Zhirkova, ‘School on the Move: A Case Study: Nomadic Schooling of the Indigenous Evenk children in the Republic of Sakha Yakutia (Russian Far East)’ (unpublished master’s dissertation, University of Tromsø, 2006)
Alexia Bloch, Red Ties and Residential Schools: Indigenous Siberians in a Post-Soviet State (Philadelphia, 2004). m04/19814
Alexia Bloch, ‘Ideal Proletarians and Children of Nature: Evenki Reimagining Schooling in a Post-Soviet Era’, in Bicultural Education in the North: Ways of Preserving and Enhancing Indigenous Peoples’ Languages and Traditional Knowledge, ed. by Erich Kasten (Münster, 1998), pp. 139–157. m03/16772
Alexia Bloch, ‘Longing for the Kollektiv: Gender, Power, and Residential Schools in Central Siberia’, Cultural Anthropology, 20: 4 (2005), pp. 534–569. 3491.661000
Natalia P. Koptseva, Ksenia V. Reznikova, Natalia N. Pimenova and Anastasia V. Kistova, ‘Cultural and Anthropological Studies of Indigenous Peoples of Krasnoyarsk Krai Childhood (based on the field studies of Siberian Federal University in 2010-2013)’, Journal of Siberian Federal University: Humanities & Social Sciences 8 (2014), pp. 1312–1326.