Chapter I: Introduction By Alexeev

[Lecture 1 delivered on 24 June 1991]


Overview by Geraldine Reinhardt

This is the first in a series of fourteen lectures delivered by the distinguished Soviet scholar Valery Alexeev at Harvard University in the Summer of 1991, immediately before the coup and the transposition of the USSR from a socialistic republic to a democratic commonwealth of states. This introductory lecture contains a brief biographical sketch of Professor Alexeev, a commentary on the state of archaeology in the then Soviet Union, a brief description of the physical and political geography of Eurasia, an annotated listing of the only English language texts on Soviet archaeology in the Harvard Library system during the time the lectures were being given, and lastly the known beginnings of human occupation of Eurasia: the lower paleolithic at Filimoshki, Satani-Dar, and Azykh. To allow for an accurate and current interpretation of the physical and political geography and the present status of Russian archaeological material available in the Harvard Library System, I have taken the liberty to update the Alexeev lectures.


Autobiographical Sketch by Alexeev; the beginning of fourteen lectures delivered at Harvard University, Summer 1991.

Valery Pavlovich Alexeev received his doctorate from the Institute of Ethnography at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He was a scholar at the Institute of Oriental Languages and at the Institute of Ethnography. For the last four years he has directed the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow.

His scholarly interests as reflected in his publications include population and genetics, paleoanthropology, physical anthropology of Russia, Vietnam, India, and Cuba, and the archaeology of Mongolia. Additional publications reference the Early Iron Age, Central Asian and Caucasian Islamic and Baltic settlements, and morphological observations and genetic markers for a collection of genealogical data.


State of Archaeology in Eurasia (western Europe not included)

According to Alexeev, at present there is no complete archaeological survey of the (then) Soviet Union because of its immense size. Areas that have been particularly neglected include Siberia, Northern Russia, and Central Asia. To have undertaken a complete survey would have required an increase in the number of Russian archaeologists of which there are no more than 2,500, not enough to have carefully studied the (then) Soviet Union. [Now that the Soviet Union is no longer a political reality, the decentralization into independent states and the strong collaborative efforts made with France, Japan, Mongolia, and the United States has aided in producing academically viable research, especially in Central Asia]

In Eurasia there are Institutes of Archaeology located in Russia (Moscow and Leningrad); Minsk, Belarus; Novosibirsk, Siberia; and in the Baltic and Central Asian Republics. There are also large archaeological centers in Tbilisi, Georgia and Yerevan, Armenia as well as in Kiev and Kharkiv (Ukraine). Smaller archaeological centers are in most of the North Caucasian constituent republics of the Russian Federation i.e. Adygea, Karachai-Circassia, Kabardin-Balkaria, Ossetia, and Dagestan. There are two special institutes, both part of the Russian Academy of Sciences system, located in Moscow and Novosibirsk. The Moscow Institute houses a staff of 250 and Novosibirsk a staff of 150. As well, many of the local museums also staff archaeologists.


Physical Geography of Eurasia (western Europe not discussed)

Physically, the geography of the supercontinent of Eurasia can be divided into four major areas: western Europe; the east European plain; the border between Europe and Asia; and northern Asia.

The East European plain is bounded by Poland, the Ural Mountains, and the Caucasus Mountains. This land mass is flat with forests to the north and steppes in the south. Small rivers and lakes are plentiful making this region very comfortable for hunting and fishing. Open air sites are found here dating from the Paleolithic. Cave sites are found in the Urals and Caucasus. Mousterian artifacts have been found at these sites and cultures extend from the Lower Paleolithic to the Middle Ages.

The border between Europe and Asia consists of the Ural Mountains, the basin of the Ural River, the Caspian seacoast, and Central Caucasus Mountains. Extensive archaeological research has been conducted in this area.

Northern Asia consists of Transcaucasia; Central Asia with its five republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Kirghizistan, and Kazahkstan; and Siberia. Transcaucasia is an extremely complicated area and will be given attention in the linguistic section below. Central Asia is a region of flat steppes in Kazakhstan and mountainous areas in the south; the major body of water is the Aral Sea and two major rivers are the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. A major international research endeavor has been conducted in Central Asia with participation from France, the United States, and Russia. The geography of Siberia is predominantly valley and flat taiga forest with tundra in the north. To the east of the Siberian Valley, the region becomes mountainous and extends to the Pacific Ocean providing geographical barriers for many ancient peoples such as the Yakuts (Sakha). The Chukchi (Chukot) Peninsula, bordering the Bering Strait is located in a tundra zone and the Kamchatka Peninsula, south of the Chukchi and separating the Okhotsk and Bering Seas, is in a forest zone. Siberia continues to be a major focus for research by Russian archaeologists.


Political Geography of Eurasia (western Europe is not included)

When Eurasia was under the aegis of the USSR, the political geography was determined by two major physical divisions: the European sector of the Soviet Union and the Asian sector of the Soviet Union. The European Soviet Union was comprised of Estonia whose peoples speak a Finno-Ugric language, and Latvia and Lithuania with people speaking Baltic languages. Belarus (White Russia) has a language distinct from but similar to Russian; its capital is at Minsk. Ukraine with its capital at Kiev speaks the Ukrainian language, more remote from the Russian than Byelorussian but still rather similar to it. Russia with Moscow as the capital has Russian as its language. The Asian Soviet Union consisted of Transcaucasia and Central Asia. The three major republics in Transcaucasia: Georgia with Tbilisi as capital, Armenia with its capital at Yerevan, and Azerbaijan whose capital is at Baku were joined from the north by seven minor republics including the break-away Chechnya. Central Asia's five Soviet republics: Turkmenistan with Ashkabad as capital, Uzbekistan with its capital at Tashkent, Tadzhikistan's capital at Dushanbe, Kirghizistan with Pishpek as capital, and Kazahkstan with its capital at Almaaty all speak a Turkish language with the exception of Tadzhik, a language which is a slightly different accentuated Persian. Thus the USSR had a widely disparate population composed of numerous ethnic groups and four major language families: Finno-Ugric, Baltic, Turkic, and Slavic and with hundreds of spoken dialects. Although Russian has been considered the official language, many small republics rigorously preserve their specific language(s) and dialect(s).

At this time, the political geography of Eurasia remains in constant flux. The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are independent states with very loose ties to Russia. Belarus continues with strong trade agreements with Russia while Ukraine continues to assert its independence. In the Caucasus, of the three major republics, Georgia seems most at unrest; and in the minor Caucasus republic of Chechnya a major insurgence has erupted necessitating the presence of Russian troops and much blood shed. War in Chechnya continues to be an embarrassment for the Russian government and a peaceful resolution is in the process of being negotiated . In Central Asia, the five republics remain independent, but the presence of crude oil makes these republics an attractive addition for Russian control. "Getting the oil out of Central Asia" poses the greatest current dilemma; if exit is via Russia to the Black Sea, environmental hazards appear certain. If exit is through Turkey to the Mediterranean, the possibility of fuelling an age old conflict seems very probable. At present, the most expeditious exit route is through Turkey to the Black Sea.


Reference Sources, in English, Available at Tozzer Library

Alexeev originally began this section stating that "at the Tozzer Library, Harvard University there is a good collection of Soviet works on archaeology written in Russian. However, there are no more than five good English language books on Soviet archaeology, and even these are not systematic; they are rather a collection of topics". The five works are as follows:

Klein, Richard.G. 1973. Ice-age hunters of the Ukraine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This is a volume in the series "Prehistoric archaeology and ecology" with focus on the Paleolithic period in the Ukraine.

Soffer, Olga. 1985. The Upper Paleolithic of the Central Russian Plain. Orlando, Fla: Academic Press. This is a volume in the series "Studies in archaeology" and is perhaps the best account of European Soviet archaeology to date. No account written in Russian is as good.

Gimbutas, Marija. 1965. Bronze age cultures in central and eastern Europe. The Hague: Mouton Press. This is now old fashioned but still has interesting ideas.

Okladnikov, A.P. 1970. Yakutia before its incorporation into the Russian state. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. This volume is from a series of translations published by the North American Institute. The subject is the archaeology of Siberia.

Martynov, A.I. 1991. The ancient art of northern Asia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. This volume is not of general interest.

There are also two books by Philip Kohl on the archaeology of Soviet Central Asia which are good but very detailed and therefore not of general interest. They are:

Kohl, P. 1981. The Bronze Age civilization of Central Asia: recent Soviet discoveries. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

1984. Central Asia Paleolithic beginnings to the Iron Age = L'Asie centrale des origines a l'age du fer. Paris: Editions Recherche sur les civilizations.

Alexeev continues: "there are also many English language articles in journals but they are specialist in nature. At the Peabody Museum is the Hallam Movius collection of artifacts from Asia, but none from the Soviet Union. Also there are some fossil remains in the Peabody Museum and in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC."

Since Alexeev used the Harvard library system in the summer of 1991, major changes have occurred. HOLLIS, the Harvard On Line Library Information System, is available on the Internet to all potential users without restriction. Since the Roman alphabet is used rather than the Cyrillic, Russian texts can be perused; with the elaborate keyword reference system, students with minimal knowledge of the Russian language can gain access to current material. Scholars with special access codes can access the guide to anthropological literature, a detailed compilation of all recent journal articles accessible not only with title and author commands, but with subject commands as well. This guide in invaluable for journal access; Harvard is the only library in the country, perhaps the world, to provide such a service.

The collection of archaeological and anthropological texts written in Russian and located in Tozzer Library is most impressive and consists of more than 25,000 volumes. In addition, Widener Library contains a collection of Russian anthropological literature equally as impressive. Since the Harvard Library System and the Library of Congress are on-line, I have had the opportunity to access both electronically. The Library of Congress collection of Russian anthropological/ archaeological literature has been compiled for use by congressmen, not scholars! I have no doubt that the Harvard library system has the most extensive collection of resources in the world.

Since Alexeev's visit to Harvard in 1991, many texts have been the result of international collaboration on a world basis and numerous Russian texts have been translated into English. Alexeev would be very impressed with the collection of Russian material now available at Tozzer Library.