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Vladimir Kabo

Letters from Afar

 

In front of me are letters I wrote to my mother from Leningrad to Moscow, starting in 1957 – the first year of my work in the Leningrad division of the USSR Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Ethnography – until her death in 1968. Behind me were five years spent in gaol and prison camp on a political accusation and then, after Stalin’s death, release and my return to Moscow State University, where I graduated in 1956. I write about all this in detail in my memoir The Road to Australia (Effect Publishing Inc: New York, 1995). I think that these facts of my life are relevant for a correct understanding of what I am about to relate. My mother, Elena Osipovna Kabo, to whom these letters are addressed, was a researcher, statistician and economist, educated before the Revolution in the traditions of the old Russian intelligentsia; a person close to me in spirit and views. For these reasons, my letters to her go beyond the usual familial correspondence.

These letters are like a diary. In them, I talk about both my life and what took place in the Institute of Ethnography. I write hot on the trail of events in which I was witness and participant, and about the people along with whom those years passed. They reflect the time, its taste and smell, and for this reason – or so I hope – they are already of interest to both today’s reader and the future historian. Below, I offer just brief extracts from a multitude of letters. The rest will, for now, remain “out of shot”.

I dedicate this publication to the memory of Nikolay Aleksandrovich Butinov.

 

On ideologically flawed stone implements

 

In 1960, researchers in the America, Australia and Oceania section – N.A. Butinov, Yu.M. Likhtenberg, D.D. Tumarkin and I – began thinking about publishing a collection of our work. In 1962, the collection was published under the title Problems of History and Ethnography of the Peoples of Australia, New Guinea and the Hawaiian Islands. But this had been preceded by dramatic events linked with my work on the stone implements of the Australians, intended for the collection. I hoped, once it had been printed, to defend it as my candidate’s thesis. My approach to the topic was unorthodox. I didn’t want just to talk about the stone implements, but also demonstrate their role and place in the social life and spiritual culture of Australia’s Aborigines. After the first chapters – devoted to classification of the implements, their manufacture and economic significance – my work had chapters on the implements’ role in social life, work allocation, bartering, property relations and, finally, in art, religion and mythology. Nobody had yet written about the stone implements of primitive society in such a way.

N.A. Butinov submitted a work on the origin and ethnic composition of New Guinea’s indigenous population; Yu.M. Likhtenberg, about the Papuans’ kinship systems; and D.D. Tumarkin, on the role of American missionaries in the colonial enslavement of the Hawaiians. Nikolay Aleksandrovich’s work touched on many pointed and controversial issues of primitive society. He cast doubt on the fundamental concepts which underlay Soviet theory of primitive society: the primacy and universality of the matrilineal clan and matriarchy, and the significance of clan organisation in general. I had not ventured into such things in print; but for some reason it wasn’t Butinov’s revolutionary ideas, but my humble work, already at the editing stage, that provoked the storm I am about to relate.

And now for the letters.

 

19.11.1960

These last few days I’ve been reading Butinov’s work, which will be discussed next week. It unsettles me a lot. It has too many far-fetched ideas, and I fear this may sink the entire collection when it gets discussed in Moscow.

 

Butinov’s work didn’t sink the collection, but after publication it aroused sharp condemnation in the journal Soviet Ethnography. More on this later.

 

8.01.1961

Yesterday a discussion of my work was held. For a few days beforehand, I already sensed that Butinov and Tumarkin were prejudiced against my work. It was clear from their comments that they didn’t grasp its fundamental idea. Only Yu.M. Likhtenberg rated it highly. I understood that I’d be out on my own, because no one takes her opinion into account. For this reason – although there were only two days until the discussion – I invited the archaeologist Dr S.A. Semenov to take part. Although little time remained, he agreed. I visited him and left a copy of my work; we talked for a long time. I invited two others besides him: Teplov, a philosopher interested in problems of primitive thought, the origin of art and religion; and Laushkin, an archaeologist and researcher at our institute. Laushkin was first to speak at the discussion. In his words, the work is of great interest to scholars of diverse specialisations, on account of both its tremendous amount of material and insight. According to Teplov, the work is innovative and works like these are unknown in ethnography. It is a monographic study of labour implements, from their manufacture right up to their objectification in cult and myth. In Likhtenberg’s view, the work is a completely new and unusual phenomenon in not only Soviet, but world, Australian studies. Semenov recommended the work’s quick publication as a separate book. But Tumarkin had “mixed feelings” about the work: the first three chapters are good, but the fourth, devoted to the implements’ social function, contained many erroneous, simplified and mechanistic formulations. Butinov merely repeated what Tumarkin had said, but without any argumentation. As the collection’s prospective editor-in-chief, he proposed publishing just the first three chapters and continuing work on the remaining ones. After concluding words from me, Butinov tabled a compromise: that my work be discussed at the Institute of Archaeology’s Palaeolithic section, headed by Okladnikov and Rogachev. I willingly agreed. Semenov also supported the motion.

 

Just a few days after the discussion, Butinov promised to include the modified second half of my work (the fourth and fifth chapters) after the collective approval of the scientific council, provided I make cuts to the initial chapters and other parts.

The section’s discussion of my work was not without consequences.

 

15.01.1961

This week, the work plans of our section’s researchers were discussed. I had earlier intended to begin a major work about the local group as the primary cell of traditional Australian society. But after the discussion about stone implements, where all the criticism centred on the chapter devoted to social structure, I  developed a sort of foreboding about the topic. Therefore, following Butinov and Tumarkin’s advice, I decided to write a long-conceived work about the Australians’ implements based on archaeological rather than ethnographic materials, as the source for solving the problems of the Aboriginals’ ethnogenesis. Having burned my fingers on social structure and received praise from the archaeologists, I’m also inclined towards this theme.

 

From a work devoted to the archaeology of Australia, to which were later added other parts drawing on anthropological and ethnographic data, a book was to grow about the origin and history of Australia’s Aborigines. But this was still a long way off. In the meantime, I corrected the work about stone implements discussed at the Institute of Archaeology and in March 1961 the collection was sent to Moscow. Our section, just like the Institute of Archaeology, recommended the printing of my work in its entirety. In July 1961, the publishing editor, A.P. Konakov, went to work on the collection.

 

11.09.1961

The editor is spluttering over my work. I’ll probably have to make a few concessions.

 

20.09.1961

The editor is feeling belligerent and wants to send my work off for re-evaluation. Let him. A researcher told me recently that she had heard “rave” reviews about it.

 

Later on, some bizarre events unfolded. Our institute’s party affairs bureau received a review of my work on stone implements signed by the editor. The document accused me of terrible ideological errors. It was decided to discuss it at a meeting of our section, with the participation of management and Party representatives.

 

4.11.1961

A few days ago, a section meeting was convened. Two people came from the publishing office: the editor of our collection and his immediate superior, Saltanov. From the institute were: all our section[1], deputy director Vilchevsky, the scientific secretary, and a member of the party bureau, Ginsburg. Butinov chaired. All our people presented a united front. They actively and heatedly attacked the publishing staff and defended me. Butinov gave a very good appraisal of my work. But Konakov was made to read his review over again; upon which, the questions and accusations rained down fast. Then I was given the floor. I spoke, in my customary way, very quietly and politely. But when, concluding my talk, I started describing the style in which the review had been written, Saltanov couldn’t contain himself. He leapt up, cut me short, declared that I was slandering the editor, had no right, that it was all a set-up and that he’d show us, especially me. “Just you wait, we’ll see to it you remember this.” Upon which he demonstratively abandoned the meeting and invited Konakov along, who remained. Saltanov’s behaviour – having terminated the meeting in such a demonstrative and dramatic way – made everyone very indignant. They demanded that everything be noted down in the minutes. Vilchevsky spoke very heatedly and harshly, declaring to Konakov’s face that his review – intended for internal (publishing) use and somehow ending up with the party bureau secretary – had the character of a political denunciation, and that this was intolerable after the 22nd Party Congress. Ginsburg spoke in the same spirit. He and the editorial committee secretary, Laushkin, demanded an explanation of this underhand affair: how and why a document intended for internal use and containing accusations of ideological errors ended up with the party bureau secretary (who had diplomatically absented himself). In the end, a resolution was adopted which deemed Konakov’s accusations unfounded, and though my work may have been badly formulated on technical and literary grounds, it contained no ideological errors. After the meeting, Butinov congratulated me and said that I had been “fully rehabilitated”. Konakov attempted to carry his review away and conceal it in his briefcase, but I noticed and demanded that he return it. Leaving, he threatened to “destroy” me. I wonder fearfully if our victory will turn out to be Pyrrhic and if the publishing staff will begin to take revenge, particularly against me. True, Vilchevsky and the party bureau members assure me they won’t dare. I don’t know.

 

So, what happened next?

 

8.11.1961

They comfort me at the institute, saying that I have emerged the victor and I should have responded to unjustified accusations. Butinov says the same: that I ought to have got rid of the accusations and that it’s more important than the relationship with the publishing office. After all, my work still hasn’t been defended, and a review like that in the institute had to be cut short immediately. Maybe he’s right.

 

12.11.1961

I told L.P. Potapov [the director of the Leningrad division of the institute – VK] about the meeting and how I was threatened. He already knew about it all. He called the publishing director then and there, told him about his staff member’s behaviour, and threatened to write to the Party organisation about it himself. He told me I have nothing to worry about and that it’s not my manuscript at issue: the publishing office is giving an account of its work before the Party district committee.

 

The meeting – which condemned the editor’s review and Potapov’s interference – apparently calmed passions.

 

19.11.1961

Normal work continues with my editor. He’s returning my work chapter by chapter as I make corrections.

 

In the end, my work was published in full, including the final chapters. I was very grateful to Nikolay Aleksandrovich for the unwavering support he leant me both during and after these events. Events which, meanwhile, took an unexpected turn.

 

8.01.1962

The young president of the Academy of Sciences recently demanded that the Academy’s cadres consist, in the main, of young, talented scholars who had defended their candidate’s theses early on. Communist Party Central Committee secretary Ilyichev criticised publishers’ work at a meeting on ideology, speaking about their “endless need for editing and agreement” and so on. But my editor apparently doesn’t read the newspapers. Last week I finished collating the second half of my manuscript after it had been re-typed, found him at the publishing office and handed it over to him. He started to say that there were still some inconsistencies in the first half of the typed version. He’s already nit-picking.  Then he said that if I’m “at all interested” in having my work printed more quickly, I should drop by his place to pick up the manuscript, because he doesn’t intend to be in the publishing office any time soon. It’s not the first time he’s invited me home. I told Nina Ivanovna Gagen-Torn. She exclaimed: “Don’t you get it?! He’s inviting you home so you can give him a bottle of fine brandy with words of gratitude for his work, asking him to forget about last year’s disputes, and to collaborate in the New Year so that the manuscript gets printed sooner, without delays and complications. After all, he knows you’re interested in it, that it’s your candidate’s thesis, and that its defence depends on its publication. If he accepts your gift, you can offer him your “gratitude” as well... That’s how publishers do things, it’s what they live off”, she finished. So how do you like that? Of course, I’d very happily “thank” an editor if we already had a good relationship and he didn’t do such foul things, but what to do in this instance? Is it worth taking that slippery path?

 

Mother didn’t advise taking that path, and I was of the same opinion myself.

 

28.01.1962

There was a meeting this week of the ethnographic branch of the Geographical Society. Afterwards I chatted with two of its members: L.N. Gumilev and T.A. Kryukova. It transpired that they both – just like branch chairman S.I. Rudenko and I – have similar fates in many respects. It turns out that Gumilev is acquainted and even on good terms with my editor. He promised to have a word with him on my behalf and even to attempt to ascertain if anyone is standing behind him. The fact is that when I had told them the entire story of my work, they both got the impression that somebody’s intrigues were behind it. “After all, you weren’t “exiled” to Leningrad in order to build an academic career here”, Gumilev told me. In their opinion, someone has an interest in my thesis not being defended. By the way, the editor told me in our last conversation that I should be very grateful to Butinov for supporting and defending me all the time. In his words, he, the editor, had been leant on to pull my manuscript from the collection, but Butinov always objected. “And I wouldn’t have suffered materially, either, if I’d have removed your work”, he added. What does this mean? I simply can’t share Gumilev’s suspicions while I have insufficient grounds to suspect anyone. Maybe the editor’s the only issue? There’s a psychological puzzle for you. You can ponder it at leisure, if you’re at all inclined.

 

11.02.1962

Gumilev, whom I met at the Geographical Society this week, greeted me with the words, “Everything will be fine. I had a word with him and everything’s forgotten. Your work will be printed”. I thanked him. Butinov is immersed in his own manuscript and the editor has demanded that he rework several tens of pages. New unpleasant surprises are possible further down the track: paper supply is a big issue and the publishing schedule is being reviewed and reduced. Books that haven’t yet gone to type-setting are being cut from the plan.

I read in Okulov’s article “The Development of Soviet Philosophy after the 20th Congress” in this year’s first edition of Problems of Philosophy that technology has not yet been researched by Soviet philosophers as a social phenomenon, sociological category or social function. I recalled A.V. Yefimov, associate member of the Academy of Sciences, and manager of the America, Australia and Oceania section, who, discussing my work, told me repeatedly and with indignation that it isn’t possible to talk about “technology’s social function” and that technology cannot have a social function.

 

10.02.1963

On 4 February the section of the Peoples of East and South Asia, Australia and Oceania[2] discussed my work as a candidate’s thesis. Butinov supported me strongly and had particular praise for the very chapter four that he had earlier attacked. Everyone recommended the work’s submission.

 

 

On how the unity of Soviet ethnographers was forged, and the battle against “the Leningrad opposition”

 

And so, the scientific work of the Institute of Ethnography continued.

 

30.10.1960

The first of the philosophy seminar meetings has been held, at which it was decided to devote a few lectures to the theme “Religio-Social Survivals of the Peoples of the USSR and the Paths to Overcoming Them”. L.P. Potapov proposed I give a paper on “Bourgeois Ethnography on Survivals”.

 

4.03.1961

The management has received calls for submissions for the seventh International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnographic Sciences, which will be held in Moscow in 1964.

 

Nikolay Butinov, meanwhile, continued to shake the foundations of Soviet theory of primitive society.

 

1.12.1961

We’re preparing to discuss Butinov’s new and very controversial work.

 

7.12.1961

Butinov’s work will be discussed next week. It frames some problems about clan structure anew. The controversy arises from the fact that Engels already had his authoritative word on these questions in “The Origins of the Family”. Butinov, however, is polemicising not against him, but Soviet ethnographers.

 

17.12.1961

Butinov’s work was discussed this week. Formally it was a section meeting, but D.A. Olderogge, newly returned from Moscow, brought along an instruction from the director of the Institute of Ethnography, S.P. Tolstov, to invite a stenographer. Butinov’s work has aroused great interest: the meeting was held in the Round Hall, with the stenographer and a large public gathering. I had carefully prepared my talk, agreeing with many of Butinov’s propositions, trying to do so in such a form as to avoid provoking official fury. Butinov was satisfied with the discussion. In my speech, I had to touch on complex problems on the socio-economic structure of primitive peoples. I expressed the wish that Soviet research commence on primitive community economics, as there had been no such Marxist work since N. Ziber’s book last century. Now I’m consumed with the idea. I think I’d be able to write such a book, though it would demand several years’ work.

 

At the same time, our institute director, S.P. Tolstov – the very same man who had dispatched a stenographer into the dissidents’ nest – published an article with traditional Soviet views on primitive society.

 

8.01.1961

Tolstov has published an article in the journal Problems of History on the principle issues of the primitive community structure. The problem of the development of productive forces and relationships – so important in Marxism – is again substituted for minor and unsubstantiated assertions about the universality and primacy of the matrilineal clan organisation. As this isn’t corroborated by the Australian material – Aboriginal local groups, their basic productive collective, being organised on an altogether different principle – Tolstov simply writes them off in a few lines, declaring them a new formation arising under the influence of colonisation or, in his expression, “a cancerous growth on the body of a dying society, something akin to a malignant tumour”. Local groups, by the way, also existed where colonisation had not yet affected the Australian Aboriginals’ social structure. This is the sort of environment in which one has to work and defend one’s views. After all, if he wasn’t the director, it might have been possible to ignore him; but a director… You might remember how I wanted to choose “the local group of the Australians” as the theme for my future work and how it had been approved by Butinov and Yefimov, head of the America, Australia and Oceania section. Now, just imagine if I had begun work on this topic, convinced that I’m studying a very important form of the social system of the Australians, when suddenly the institute director declares – in print – that this form is nothing other than “a cancerous growth... something akin to a malignant tumour”. Meaning that it’s also not worth studying, all the more because its origin is so completely clear: the influence of colonisation.

 

In the institute’s Leningrad branch, work on the philosophical seminar continued.

 

4.11.1962

A meeting of the organising committee of the philosophical seminar was held this week, where the year’s work plans were discussed. It was decided to open the seminar with a discussion of the question “Periodisation of Clan Community”. It’s a controversial and highly fraught issue, as you know. Potapov spent a long while asking who’d agree to give the opening paper. Everyone declined. He suggested me twice before I finally agreed. Potapov calmed me: now we can talk and write creatively, not relying on authorities. We were called to do so by Central Committee member Ilyichev at a recent session of the Academy of Sciences.

 

8.11.1962

I am encouraged by Ilyichev’s guiding report at the Academy of Sciences session, about the necessity of creative development in science and the need to reject dogmatism.

 

18.11.1962

I’m working on the seminar paper. The article’s turned out to be longer than twenty-five pages. Its argument comes down, while standing on the principles of Marxism, to rejecting certain dogmatic tenets which are hampering the way forward in ethnographic science. I'm not sending the article anywhere before my thesis is defended, but even after the defence, of course, Soviet Ethnography won't print it... Tolstov is expected from Moscow. It'd be amusing if he came to hear my paper!

 

2.12.1962

Butinov's major work was discussed this week: he's been working on it for six years and earlier it’s been discussed only in parts[3]. His work is very good and I rated it highly. I will say as such at the scientific council too. I'm very happy with the work's high quality: it’s possible to move forward and battle stagnation in science only with works like these.

 

I'm reading Solzhenitsyn's story in edition 11 of Novy Mir[4]. It's a thing of truth. It shows not only a camp, but all Russia: that's exactly where the force of the story lies.

 

24.02.1963

Tolstov is terrorising his staff in Moscow and is very ill-disposed towards the Leningrad crowd. According to reports coming from the Moscow division of the institute, theoretical stagnation and Tolstov’s “personality cult” prevail. In Leningrad we feel somewhat freer.

 

Meanwhile, four months had passed – four months! – since L.P. Potapov persuaded me to present the paper on the periodisation of clan community. He assured me that one was now able to write and talk freely, not looking over one's shoulder at the authorities, and that the Party was calling for the creative development of the social sciences. I wrote a large paper which was discussed in several workshops of the philosophical seminar.

And so...

 

4.03.1963

On the first of March I gave the closing paper at the philosophical seminar. Potapov took the floor after me. His presentation left everyone with a feeling of oppression; it vividly brought the good old times of the so-called “personality cult” to mind. Everyone who presented any new ideas at the seminar copped it, me included. Our guests – the archaeologists were indignant. They say that Potapov got scolded by Tolstov the day before, who shouted at him for “letting the Leningrad branch of the institute go” and for his “inability to manage”. And so he showed, as he knew how, that he's worthy of managing a scientific institution. His talk was in harsh dissonance with what social scientists have been called to do by the Party's Central Committee in the person of Ilyichev: “to develop Marxist social science creatively” and proceed from facts to theory. There were no facts in Potapov's talk, only quotes and thundering upon our heretical heads. There’ll be more to this yet: some Party members have already protested to Potapov, and Butinov also intends to say something.

 

In autumn 1963, the institute began to prepare in earnest for the international congress due to open in Moscow the summer of the following year. The ideological weapons were being sharpened.

 

27.10.1963

Discussion about the Soviet papers for the international congress continues. The organising committee will convene next week in Moscow, along with a meeting on “Morgan and His Periodisation of Primitive History in Light of Modern Ethnography”. Butinov has prepared a good and very pointed talk for the meeting.

 

The meeting devoted to Morgan was due to be a dress rehearsal of Soviet historians of primitive society ahead of the congress.

 

3.11.1963

I still don't know any details about how the Moscow meeting went. I've heard only that Butinov spoke and he copped it from Tolstov.

 

Meanwhile, I was expecting the appearance in print of my review of Frederick Rose's new book on the Aborigines of Groote Eylandt. The review had been sent off long ago to the journal Soviet Ethnography which, on theoretical questions, expressed the view of our institute's management alone. At the core of Rose's book – as with his other works – was many years’ field research, and an immediate and intimate familiarity with Australia's Aborigines at a time when the traditional foundations of their society had not yet been completely destroyed by the influence of colonisation. The book made wide use of demographic statistics. It had an innovative methodology and drew original conclusions. It was the latest word in the study of traditional hunter-gatherer societies. I didn’t agree with everything in the book, which I duly noted in the review, but, on the whole, the book warranted high esteem. I should add that the author didn’t fall into the category of “bourgeois scholars” Soviet ethnographers were battling against. He was a communist; in recent years he had been working in the German Democratic Republic as head of the department of ethnography at Berlin University. He had come to the Soviet Union and met Tolstov; they had had theoretical disagreements. And so, we return to the letters.

 

3.11.1963

My review of Frederick Rose's book was returned from Soviet Ethnography: it was rejected on the basis of two negative reviews. These anonymous reviews have been sent to me. They accuse me of not slandering Rose's book outright, of calling him a Marxist although many Soviet ethnographers disagree with him, and so on. I decided to write to Tolstov, as the journal's editor-in-chief, to express my disagreement with the reviews' authors, and to ask him why free and creative debate on fundamental theoretical issues was absent from the journal's pages.

 

9.11.1963

Butinov has returned from Moscow and recounted what happened at the meeting about Morgan. First to present a congress paper was our institute's new ideologue, Yu.I. Semenov. Then the discussion began. The most incisive was Butinov's talk, which incurred Tolstov's “royal” wrath. According to Butinov, Tolstov and Semenov's responses contained no arguments at all: only abuse. Many people supported Butinov in the corridors. He's feeling optimistic.

 

In the third issue of Soviet Ethnography in 1963, Butinov's work, which had been published in the collection Problems of History and Ethnography of the Peoples of Australia, New Guinea and the Hawaiian Islands, suffered some devastating criticism. The journal article was signed by the pillars of theoretical thought in the institute's Moscow branch: Yu.P. Averkiyeva, A.I. Pershytz, L.A. Fainberg and N.N. Cheboksarov, who sided with them. It was called “Once More on the Matrilineal Clan’s Place in Society's History”. The authors identified “Engels' doctrine on the matrilineal clan” as a natural and universal stage of human history with all the Marxist theory about the paths of development of human society. This meant that the recreants who impinged on the “teaching on the matrilineal clan” had broken away from Marxism and had no place among Soviet scholars. The article's authors also took a passing swipe at me. Both of us – Butinov and I – wrote letters to the editors of Soviet Ethnography responding to the criticism.

 

8.12.1963

Tolstov has suffered a stroke. Some are linking it with the threatened staff cuts; others, with the Khorezm expedition he's in charge of. It's run over budget by 60,000 rubles.

 

2.01.1964

On New Year's Eve a section meeting discussed the infamous article by the four authors in edition three of Soviet Ethnography. Nobody from the entire staff of the large East and South Asia, Australia and Oceania section supported it: it was condemned by almost everyone. Some speakers conclusively demonstrated its authors' carelessness and ignorance. General opinion in the Leningrad division of the institute is on our side.

 

My review of Rose's book has been returned again. At Tolstov's direction, it was sent off for a third opinion. It was, of course, as negative and groundless as the first two. At first I reacted with disgust, but then decided I couldn't leave it all without a response, so I wrote a new letter to the editors of Soviet Ethnography and, point for point, dealt with all the third reviewer's objections.

And so, my article wasn't published.

Passions flared as the international congress neared. The institute management was planning to battle “bourgeois scholars” at the Morgan symposium, which was meant to be held with the participation of Soviet and foreign scholars as part of the congress. In April, one more meeting about theoretical issues of primitive society was held in Moscow.

 

16.04.1964

There was a heated discussion at the Moscow meeting. N.A. Butinov, S.A. Tokarev, D.A. Olderogge and the philosopher G.F. Khrustov spoke on one side; and on the other, Tolstov's minions (he himself was absent). S.I. Bruk, deputy director, spoke very harshly, evidently doing Tolstov's work. He crudely rounded on Butinov, spoke about the “Leningrad opposition”, said that Soviet ethnographers will present a united front at the congress, and that this unity will be achieved “at whatever cost”. After the meeting, management summoned Butinov and suggested he not appear at the congress's Morgan symposium. Butinov returned to Leningrad in a glum mood and said that he’s “awaiting punitive measures”. I don't think it’ll be like that, but one thing is clear: the dogmatists are trying every means possible to shut our mouths. If they succeed in this – the entire institute administration, the journal and the publishing office being in their hands – they will succeed only in ending any kind of development of creative theoretical thinking in Soviet ethnography.

 

29.04.1964

D.A. Olderogge has been chosen to lead the Morgan symposium at the upcoming congress. It would have been impossible to do without him, even though he is the spiritual father of the “Leningrad opposition”.

 

Butinov's presentiment didn't deceive him: an attempt was made to throw him out of the Party, albeit unsuccessful[5]. Nevertheless, they continued to take revenge against him.

 

21.07.1964

The date of my departure for Moscow to take part in the international congress is still unknown. Potapov wants to “have a talk” with me beforehand and still hasn't approved my departure. It's all clear: they've forbidden Butinov to go to the congress at all, and they want to “have a talk” with me. Meanwhile, I've been appointed section secretary and my presence, at least for the week leading up to the congress, is desirable.

 

In the end, I went to Moscow and participated in the congress. Butinov was refused leave and forbidden from meeting the foreign delegates who were due to come to Leningrad afterwards. The institute management and journal editorship refused to print our letters in Soviet Ethnography in response to the critical article published in 1963. It was only after the congress that something changed within the institute. In the third edition of Soviet Ethnography in 1965 – two years after we had sent our letters – they were at last published.[6] Our critics' response was published in the same edition. Saying nothing essentially new, they expressed regret for the tone of their article. The response was signed by Pershytz, Fainberg and Cheboksarov. Averkiyeva, probably not wanting to forsake her principles, didn't sign it.

 

14.03.1965

Butinov’s work on the Papuans of New Guinea is being discussed: the same work which was rejected by the Moscow academic council and he was forced to re-write. The new version is now being discussed.

 

25.03.1965

The discussion of Butinov’s work ended yesterday. Although I criticised it a lot in my talk, Butinov said he was very satisfied with it. Many people spoke: there were no entirely negative speakers. The work has been recommended for printing to the academic council. Now it’ll go to Moscow and, as always, the Muscovites will have the final word.

 

N.A. Butinov’s book The Papuans of New Guinea wasn’t published until 1968.

 

1.07.1965

The third edition of Soviet Ethnography has come out with our – mine and Butinov’s – letters, and our critics’ response. Problems of Philosophy has published a debate on Yu.I. Semenov’s book The Origin of Human Society at the same time, with a contribution from me. For the first time, disagreements in ethnography have been brought before the court of a wide readership, and this is a good thing.

 

11.07.1965

Butinov recently went to Moscow to attend the discussion of his book. A group of our Moscow ethnographers is standing firm on their dogmatic position and attempting to hold onto their monopoly of science. Their response to our letters in the last edition of Soviet Ethnography is striking in its theoretical and factual feebleness.

 

18.12.1965

Our institute’s new director still hasn’t been appointed, but they’re saying it’ll be Yu.V. Bromley: my former classmate in the history faculty at Moscow State University. His obvious advantage over the other candidates for the director’s chair is his ties with the Academy of Sciences leadership. Olderogge quipped that when two people jostle with each other at a bus door, a third person walks right on through; the two being Potapov and Terentyeva.

 

The last extract from this series of letters relates to 1968. It is about the collection Problems of the History of Precapitalist Societies: Book One. It came into being that same year and had been prepared by the methodological section of the USSR Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History. The soul of the work was L.V. Danilova. Its many articles were devoted to controversial problems of pre-class and early class structures. Diverse and often opposing views were presented. Ethnographers wrote alongside historians and orientalists, against the background of the major historical problems they shared. N.A. Butinov had written a large and rich article “The Primitive Social Structure”; I, an article devoted to primitive hunter-gatherer societies. From this work, the book The Primitive Preagricultural Community later grew.

 

24.07.1968

I received the proof of my article for the Institute of History’s methodological collection, around which there were so many conversations, both open and behind closed doors. If, at last, the collection is released, it will signify a unique revolution in views on prehistory.

 

My letter attests to the combative atmosphere surrounding the collection: combat reflecting the flux within the Party’s ideological apparatus, which had been frightened by the Prague Spring. A decision was probably made to tighten the screws again. The second book of the envisaged series didn’t appear and the section of methodological problems of history was abolished.

But our voices had already been heard.

 

How much a kilo of potatoes costs

 

I’ll begin at the beginning.

 

25.01.1961

Potapov returned from Moscow and informed me of his conversation with Tolstov concerning my participation in the International Pacific Congress in Hawaii. Tolstov said that I can’t go to the congress, but I can send a paper: depending on its contents. I don’t think there’s any point wasting time working on a paper if it goes to the congress without me.

 

Meanwhile, my colleagues Butinov and Tumarkin continued to fight their way to the congress and, it seemed, had already achieved some success. Alas…

 

24.07.1961

None of our Oceania specialists are going to the congress. What a disappointment for Butinov and Tumarkin: they’ve spent so much effort, energy and time, and had placed so much hope on it! It’s just as well I was spared all this from the very outset.

 

But it wasn’t the last Pacific congress: another was due in Japan in 1966. This time management didn’t object and I was given a good reference.

 

27.01.1966

The Party’s Vasilevsky Island district committee is due to approve my reference any day now for the trip to Japan for the Pacific congress.

 

Disappointment awaited me at the district committee. I couldn’t answer the questions from the members of the commission which approved overseas travel; more precisely, those from an elderly pensioner who sat at the head of the table. The remaining members sat in silence. It turned out that to go to an Oceania specialists’ congress, you needed to know how much flour and potato cost in our shops, at what age collective farm workers receive the pension, the name of the Uruguayan Communist Party chairman, and so on. Of course I didn’t know any of this.

 

13.02.1966

Yesterday I went to the district committee’s overseas travel commission. The commission didn’t approve my reference, on the grounds I was unable to answer several minor questions. The set of questions they ask isn’t known beforehand, which leaves room for arbitrariness. It all had a very unscrupulous character. I was upset and expressed my disagreement with the panel’s decision there and then. I also wrote a statement to our institute’s party bureau.

 

20.02.1966

The members of our party bureau said a word about me at the district committee. There they were told that the commission’s decision about me was not final and I’ll soon be invited for “re-examination”. I have no desire at all to repeat it again, but they’re trying to persuade me to go.

 

20.03.1966

Yesterday, on the advice of the secretary of our party bureau (who had made an arrangement with the district committee in advance), I again went to a meeting of the overseas travel commission. The commission chairman told me, however, that he was surprised (!) I had come, and that the commission stood by its previous decision and was not recommending me for travel to Japan. They asked me no questions at all. Unfortunately I didn’t ask them how they arrived at their decision, but don’t think they’d have told me, at any rate. The secretary of the party bureau promised to find out the real reason for the commission members’ stubbornness, and an explanation for why some district committee members asked me to go and others were surprised I went.

 

27.03.1966

I’m not laying down arms, but the chances of my travel are shrinking. More and more absurd pretexts are being invented to stop my trip. I’ll tell you the details when we meet.

 

The congress went by without me. But that autumn, other events took place in the institute’s Leningrad division.

 

29.09.1966

Yesterday the academic council convened to discuss the election of senior research fellows in the speciality “Ethnography of East and South-East Asia”. The panel announced that three nominations had been received: from Maretin, Mukhlinov and Kabo. The last is suitable to be a senior fellow, but in the speciality “Ethnography of Australia and Oceania”, so the panel decided not to include me on the ballot paper and withdrew my nomination. This badly upset D.A. Olderogge. He declared that it was discrimination and that an Oceania specialist is directly related to South-East Asian ethnography. Butinov made similar comments after, as did several other members of the academic council. They spoke about my work on South-East Asia and my collaboration with Cheboksarov on the introduction to The Peoples of South-East Asia. Olderogge spoke several more times and fought for me like a very determined and quick-witted lion. He said: “Kabo was necessary when you needed someone to work on volume on South-East Asia, but now it’s ‘down with him’”. In the end, Potapov put my inclusion on the ballot paper to an open vote, in violation of procedural rules and putting the academic council members under duress. I was duly excluded from the ballot. It turned out in passing that the gamble was originally intended just for Maretin. Then the vote was held, which resulted in neither Maretin nor Mukhlinov receiving the necessary majority, both nominations failing. Today, the day after the academic council meeting, the institute is seething and the staff are openly expressing their indignation at this ugly incident. Olderogge said, referring to me, that they can’t throw a scholar out “like administrative slops”. In Butinov’s opinion, the institute was behind the decision not to let me go to the Pacific congress. It’s easy to believe after yesterday’s meeting.

 

8.10.1966

I myself am to blame for what happened. If I hadn’t supported Butinov and presented my independent views, maybe I’d already be a senior fellow. Things had already got chilly between Maretin and myself prior to the academic council. He started collecting money from the authors of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography’s book when it first came out, so it could be distributed to a wide range of people, including the institute director, his deputies, the academic council members, and so on. I flatly refused to take part in the exercise, and commented to him that it seemed like “toadying”.

 

2.11.1966

Today P.I. Boriskovsky gave a report at the Institute of Archaeology about the Pacific congress in Tokyo he attended this summer. He said that the Australians he met all “cried as one” that I wasn’t there and hoped that I’d manage to get to Australia for the next congress, which will be held in Australia in four years’ time.

 

5.02.1968

I very much like Rasul Gamzatov’s aphorism: “An intelligent man sees more sitting in his office, than a fool who circumnavigates the world.”

 

Translated by Matthew Bogunovich


[1] At that time it also included the Americanists.

[2] This letter reflects changes which had taken place by this time: the Australia and Oceania group had been separated from the Americanists, and joined with the section of Peoples of East and South Asia.

[3] This is probably about his future book The Papuans of New Guinea.

[4] A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

[5] A.M. Reshetov: foreword to The Peoples of Papua New Guinea; St Petersburg, 2000; pp.8-9

[6] For further details about the four authors’ article and N.A. Butinov’s “Letter to the Editor”, see A.M. Reshetov: op cit; pp.7-10