Missing Links. Indigenous Life and Evolutionary Thought in the History of Russian Ethnography

Bruce Grant

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    The history of Russian social anthropology has long been best known for the work of three, late nineteenth-century “exile ethnographers,” each sent to the Russian Far East for their anti-tsarist activities as students. All three men—Vladimir Bogoraz, Vladimir Iokhel'son, and Lev Shternberg—produced voluminous and celebrated works on Russian far eastern indigenous life, but it was the young Shternberg who had perhaps the most profound effect on setting the agenda for the canonic evolutionist line soon to take hold in late Russian imperial and early Soviet ethnography. This essay draws on archival, library, and field research to revisit the life and work of Shternberg in order to tell the story of “group marriage” that he documented for the life of one Sakhalin Island indigenous people, Gilyaks (or Nivkhgu, Nivkhi). Documented in this way by Shternberg, the Nivkh kinship system proved a crucial “missing link” for Friedrich Engels, who had long been eager to provide evidence of primitive communism as man's natural state. For Gilyaks, the die was cast. Their role as the quintessential savages of Engels’ favor made them famous in Russian and Soviet ethnographic literature, and significantly enhanced their importance to Soviet government planners. This essay tracks that episode and its aftermaths as a pivotal moment in the history of Russian social anthropology and of evolutionist thought more broadly.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)119-140
    Number of pages22
    JournalBerichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
    Issue number1
    StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


    • Gilyak
    • Nivkh
    • Russia
    • Siberia
    • USSR
    • evolutionism
    • history of ethnography
    • indigenism
    • kinship

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • History
    • History and Philosophy of Science


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