Russian African Studies: Past and Present.

Author:Bekenova, Kristina


The discovery of African art's aesthetic significance, paradoxically, came many years after Europeans had had their first encounters with African art. This paradox is due to two sets of factors. First, what eventually Europeans came to regard as African art had not been produced and used as an art object or as an art form by the African populations. Second, at first, Europeans were more concerned with African art for ethnographic and anthropological purposes than for aesthetic ones.

Europeans, thanks to their colonial experience, were able to organize several international exhibitions of African and non-European art (Leipzig, 1892; Antwerpen, 1894; Brussels, 1897) and they also set up several ethnographic museums (Trocadero, 1879; Zwinger, 1903) where the African objects were displayed for the first time. These objects, however, were treated and admired as the expression of exotic, "primitive" even "savage" societies and not as proper art objects or as manifestations of "refined art" (Mirimanov, 1970, 1986).

The artistic and aesthetic value of African art was recognized, for the first time, by avantgarde artists such as Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Vlaminck, etc. who were inspired by the geometric features of African sculptures. This is why European avant-garde artists started to discuss, understand and promote African art and its 'philosophy'.

While the relationship between African art and the Avant-garde artists, from Western Europe, is well documented and well known, much less is known about the Russian discovery of African art. Yet, as I claim in this paper, Russia also made an important contribution to the 'discovery' of African art thanks to the efforts of Vladimir Markov (Voldemars Matvejs, 1877-1914) with his seminal work Negro Art (1914, published 1919). In fact, Markov's book was, along with Carl Epstein's Negro Plastics (1915), the first attempt to fill the gaps in a literature that had, up to that point, failed to acknowledge the aesthetical and theoretical dimensions of African art.

Markov's book went beyond the ethnographical perspective, and by doing so it was the first effort to treat African sculptures as a true art. During the Soviet period, Markov and his Negro Art went eventually into oblivion until 1967 when an exhibition in Dakar introduced his study of African art to an international audience.

Russia's contribution to advancing the understanding of African art is usually neglected, because, more generally, Russia's contribution to African studies is generally neglected. This article is a preliminary attempt to fill this knowledge gap and to see how Russia ventured in the realm of African studies (1).

The paper is divided in three logical parts. In the first section, I will look at the beginning of African studies in the Russian Empire; then I will examine the different periods African studies went through during the Soviet time; and the final section will give a picture of the current state of African studies in Russia.

Part 1: African Studies in the Russian Empire

African studies in the Russian Empire could be traced back to the end of the 18th century and started with linguistics. As Olderogge noted in his great article on the history of learning African languages in the Russian Empire (1975), the interest in African languages was determined by the decision of the Russian Academy of Science to publish a comparative dictionary of all languages of the world. In its second edition (1789), words from 33 African languages--2 from North Africa, 23 from Western Sudan, 6 from the Bantu people, Khoekhoe language of southwestern Africa and Arab language of Madagascar--were included.

In this regard, one should also recall the contribution made by Junker (2), the famed traveler who, during his several trips to Africa in 1879-1886 period, collected precious information on languages of Eastern Sudan and Congo and then published his findings in Zeitschrift fur Afrikanische Sprachen (1888-1889).

Junker's first trip across Eastern Sudan, Central Africa and Northern Congo in 1875-1878 immensely enriched the collection of the first Russian museum--the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, or Kuntskamera--with 1896 items of weapons, clothes, domestic utensils, figures, sculptures, masks, jewelry, musical instruments, etc. of various African ethnic groups. A great study on Junker's collection was done by Sobchenko in the midfifties (1953; 1955).

Furthermore, systematic studies on Ethiopian language and culture were regularly carried out in Russia because of the fact that Ethiopia, just like Russia, professes Christian Orthodoxy. The Ethiopian church was the focus of a special interest: "it was very common to see in the Russian newspapers of that time a reference to 'our faith Black brothers' (Tsypkin, 2001). Moreover, the idea to bring the churches closer and the understanding that far away there is a country with similar Christian religion helped to eliminate the prejudice on the "African continent as a place populated with Black savages, pagans and cannibals" (Tsypkin, 2014, 67). It was the first and the only one state in Africa south of the Sahara with the special mission of the Russian Empire (1898-1919).

In 1829, B.A. Dorn was the first professor who started teaching Ge'ez language in Kharkov University (Olderogge, 1975). The first works on Russian and Ethiopian churches appeared in the 1870s by Archimandrite Porfiriy Uspenskiy.

Bolotov and Turayev (3) should also be mentioned among the pioneers of Ethiopian studies because, thanks to their knowledge of Ethiopian languages (Ge'ez, Amharic), they provided the foundation for Ethiopian studies (after the October revolution) by researching Ethiopian manuscripts, church literature (Bolotov, 1887), history of the lives of Saints of the Ethiopian Church, and hagiological sources (Turayev, 1902, 1905).

Part 2: African Studies during the Soviet Time

African studies, in Europe, evolved out of anthropology and ethnography, while, as noted by Balesin (2001), in Russia it emerged from political science. Its orientation, research questions, etc. were defined by the Soviet state. Even the periodization of the development of African studies offered by Davidson (2001) is based on the level of the state's interest in Africa. According to him, the Soviet Union was particularly interested in Africa during the 20s--mid 30s, and from the end of the 50s up to the 80s; and there were also two periods where the level of interest to Africa was declining: the mid 30s-50s and the end of the 80s. Following this typology, the overview of Russian literature on Africa will be given in the next section.

20S--MID 30S

After the October Revolution and serious political changes in the country, to study and examine African languages was still a priority for Russian Africanists. In 1932, the Linguistic Commission on African languages was set up with prominent Africanist linguists, historians and ethnographers such as Danilov, Zusmanovich, and Potekhin. The study of the languages was not only done by relying on academic materials, but also Moscow scholars had a unique opportunity to get Jomo Kenyatta's (Kenya's future President and Prime Minister) Swahili and Albert Nzula's (South African politician) Zulu, Xhota, Sotho language classes and consultations (Gromova, 2009).

A new feature of Russian-African relations was the establishment of the Comintern that was the main channel that coordinated the relations between Russia and African countries. The objective of the organization was the same as elsewhere--proletarian revolution against imperialism. The Comintern recognized only revolutionary methods of struggle that approached decolonization as 'absurd and nonsense', and, as noted by Gorodnov (2001), this explains why for a long time Soviet studies defined by political and ideological conjuncture focused only on revolutions on the continent (Potekhin, 1950; Madzoyevskiy, 1959; Oganisian, 1965). Based on the archives that became available in the 1990s, Gorodnov, Filatova and Davidson published a collection of documents on the Comintern and its activities in South and Tropical Africa (2003).

MID 30S--50S

During this period of time, African studies went through a difficult time. At the moment, the most important source on the tragedy Soviet scholars on Africa had to go through is Davidson (2012), where the author tries to return from oblivion the undeservedly forgotten names and their ideas as a precondition to give a full picture of African studies in the USSR.

According to Davidson (2012), by 1937, the African departments in Moscow were almost totally destroyed. Those who focused on African politics, culture and economy were repressed and/or sent to prisons and concentration camps (Gerngross, Danilov, Nasonov, Zusmanovich, etc.). The only Africanists who avoided the deportations were those who studied linguistics, literature and philology in Leningrad/Saint-Petersburg (Yushmanov, Olderogge). One of those who survived in that period was Krachkovskiy who worked in the traditions of Bolotov and Turayev. He read lectures in Leningrad University on Ethiopian philology and later published a book, where he not only introduced history and development of Ethiopian languages, but also relations between Ethiopia and Russia since the 17th century (1955).

Of course, nobody during that period ever had a chance to go to Africa to work in the field or to participate in the international conferences; all the information that was received came from rare Western editions and from African students.

END OF 50S--80S

The end of the 1950s--the early 1960s, years that became a watershed for African history and for African scholars worldwide, marked also the change in the Soviet approach to the continent. As Davidson (2009) recalls, the Middle East sector in the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (CPSU) was transformed into the Middle...

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