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Сollection on the culture of the peoples of Central Asia

Today the collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography on Central Asia and Kazakhstan numbers about 40,000 artifacts and it’s not only the largest among museum collection of similar kind, but also the only one which unites so comprehensively ethnographic materials on all the peoples of this region.

The start of collection: the scientific exploit of S.M. Dudin

The formation of museum collections on the peoples of Central Asia and Kazakhstan began in 1900.  In this time the Central Asia was one of the less studied and less known regions to Europeans.  Geographical distance, religious isolation and respective hostility of population to foreigners made it inaccessible for explorers.  Realization of first expeditions to Central Asia with purpose of gathering ethnographic collections was proposed to S.M. Dudin, an artist and excellent specialist in documental photography who already worked in Central Asia in archeological expeditions and was expert in Central Asian applied art. The collection gathering of S.M. Dudin in Central Asia became real scientific exploit demanding of him complete commitment.

S.M. Dudin passed hundred of kilometers  from western borders of Central Asia to Kashgar through fertile oases, deserts and steppes, worked in all the large  cities of region and many agricultural villages, visited nomadic camps and high-land villages  courageously overcoming both the difficulties of road and suspicious attitude of population.

In result of three trips he made extensive collection of ethnographic rarities, numbering almost 40000 items, in which traditional everyday culture of the most peoples of region Tajiks, half-nomadic and settled Uzbeks, Turkomans, Kirghizes, Kazakhs, and smaller ethnographic groups Baloch, Uyghurs, Afghans is represented in all its richness and diversity.  Collection materials of S.M. Dudin became the base on which all the further collection work of museum in Central Asia and Kazakhstan was realized.

Creation of regional department and F.A. Fielstrup

In the first decades of XX century there were no more expeditions to Central Asia equal in scale to similar travels of S.M. Dudin. Only from 1920s after establishment of separate regional department in museum the systematic and planed expedition-gathering work started. Simultaneously a collective of professional ethnographers, responsible researchers and enthusiastic collection-makers was forming. The first of them was specialist in Turkic studies and ethnographer F.A. Fielstrup. In 1920-1930s he gathered the most valuable materials on husbandry, hunting with birds of prey, dwelling, clothes and beliefs of Kazakhs and in particular Kirghizes with whose culture his research interests were related. 

F.A. Fielstrup traveled around the Zhetysu and the Fergana Valley, he was the first ethnographer who worked in Tian Shan where cultural traditions of Kirghizes longer conserved «their unique character intact”.  Everywhere the scholar purchased for museum ethnographic rarities. Detailed description of exhibits and careful recording of local terminology made his collection the invaluable scientific source on ethnography of Turkic peoples of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, especially Kirghizes.

Formation of Kirghiz collections

Important place in collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography belongs to materials gathered in joint expedition to Kirghizia of the RME fellow B.K. Balakin and the fellow of the Moscow Folk Studies Museum E.I. Makhova on the eve of Great Patriotic War. In result numerous and in the most of cases rare objects of yurt furnishing, utensils, clothes, and jewelry were purchased. In the post-war period during more than 25 years S.M. Leikina studied the Kirghiz ethnography and formed collection on the culture of this people. In course of her expedition work embracing  dozen trips in different areas of Central Asia and Kazakhstan she purchased for museum almost 1 000 exhibits, more than half of which were related to traditional-everyday culture of Kirghizes.  In one of her expeditions to the Kirghiz-Ichiliks, unique ethnographic group particularly long conserved many relics of Turk culture in their daily life; she gathered more than 200 extremely valuable rarities not sufficiently represented even in Kirghiz ethnographic museums.  In late the 1980s diverse   collection on Kirghizes was enriched by the collection on the Jirgatai Kirghizes – one more local group living in Pamir in long-termed neighborhood with Mountain Taijks. Today in museum storages ethnographic objects the most comprehensively represent two main groups of Kirghiz people: the northern one and the southern Kirghizes and the most specific ethnolocal groups.

Formation of collection on Kazakh culture

In Kazakh collections one distinguishes complexes on southern, western and central areas of Kazakhstan, which borders coincide with historically formed areas of main tribal unions’ development. The exploration of southern Kazakhstan areas by ethnographers already started with expeditions of S.M. Dudin.  From his voyages he brought splendid examples of textile production: carpets, patterned felts, embroidered objects and many other works of folk crafts.  The collections on Kazakhs on Western Kazakhstan and the Adai-Kazakhs of Mangyshlak who characterized by their long conservation of nomadic life and patriarchalism of their lifestyle were gathered separately. 

The northern and north-eastern territories of Kazakhstan - the areas of early historical contacts of Kazakhs with Russia were the most comprehensively studied and represented in museum storages.  The collections including very archaic and typical elements of Kazakh everyday culture were gathered during expeditions of F.A. Fielstrup and A. P. Bulgakov in first decades of XX century. In following years this work was continued by the Department’s fellows S.M. Leikina, A.S. Morozova, B.Z. Gamburg and A.V. Konovalov. The areas of Kazakhs’ living on the territory of Uzbekistan were explored and the materials on the Kosh-Agach Kazakhs – particular group which migrated to South Altay more than century ago and up to our days live among Telengits and Russians were gathered in 1970-1980s.  

The work had to be done in the hardest conditions.  A.S. Morozova remembered after one of her trips to Kazakhstan: “The way ran completely off-road in wilderness, especially on the shore of the Balkhash, where there were   barbarous agglomeration of rocks, salt marshes, blurred by rains and lakes looking impassable. Sometimes we have to sleep on the open air, in field and in tent during the rain.”  These words excellently express attitude of museum ethnographers to their expedition work full of bright impressions but very uneasy.

The history of collection on various tribes of Turkomans

Turkomans were especially diverse in respect of their territorial distribution and clan and tribal composition. For many years of expedition work the materials on almost all the Turkoman groups on the territory of modern Turkmenistan and also living in Russia and Uzbekistan were successfully gathered.  S.M. Dudin brought excellent collection of clothes, utensils, objects of house interior, horse and camel harness, weaving and felt-making production and especially rich collection of carpets of Teke, Yomuds, Ersari and other Turkoman tribes. In 1940-1960s A.S. Morozova carried out expedition and collection work among different groups of Turkomans. Particular attention she paid to local and age sets of traditional clothes, for it was related to research interests of scholar.

The Turkoman collection was always replenished thanks to individual donations. In 1902 General A.A. Bogolyubov, the head of the Trans-Caspian Area of Turkestan Governor-Generalship gave to the Ethnographic Department 37 rare carpets from his collection.  It was a token of gratitude to the Emperor Nicolas II who with his personal funds helped A.A. Bogolyubov to publish first in the world  research monograph about Central Asian carpets.  Eighty years later museum acquired   300 well annotated items of traditional clothes, carpets, felt rugs and adornment from collector Y.A. Yakovlev.

The collections of the Romanovs’ Royal Family on Uzbeks and Tajiks

The collection of  traditional daily life culture objects of  the settled Uzbeks and Tajiks living in the center of the most brilliant achievements of Central Asian civilization (city building, architecture, applied arts and crafts) which always attracted attention of Europeans   is the most numerous and comprehensive.  The first exhibits were acquired by S.M. Dudin. He worked in ancient cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, Kokand and surrounding villages from which he brought more than 2500 Uzbek and Tajik ethnographic exhibits.

In 1920 the Central Asian collection replenished with many outstanding works of crafts and applied arts from private and palace collections of Petersburg and its suburbs.  Among them the objects once presented to the Romanovs family by the Emirs of Bukhara as ambassador and personal gifts have particular value.  These are man robes embroidered with silk and gold, horse harness, curtains, coverlets, festive arms with gold and silver inlays and precious stones, silk and velvet textiles ornamented in the ikat technique, works of Bukhara jewelry.   They not only acquaint with mastery of craftsmen, but also reflect difficult period of relationship between the Russian powers and Central Asian rulers.  

The role of museum personnel in replenishment of Uzbek collection

The first after long interruption museum expedition to Uzbek areas in Khorezm in 1931. Untill XX century the population of the Khorezm oasis conserved in their culture elements which roots date to time immemorial and analysis of expedition materials gives much to recreate the picture of ethnic processes in region. 

M.B. Sazonova who paid particular attention to study and collection of Uzbek clothes and adornments   researched the ethnography of Khorezm Uzbeks more than 50 years. She published dozens of works promoting scientific popularization of storage materials. The museum always paid much attention to research on traditional crafts and trades as one of the most important fields of Uzbek economic activities in past. For example, B.Z. Gamburg studied and collected instruments of silk weaving, iron casting, smithery, and agricultural tools.  Thanks to expeditions of B.Z. Gamburg in 1960-1970s complex collections on culture of various groups of Uzbeks of Surkhandarya and Samarkand areas were formed.

M. D. Perlina worked on replenishing storages with samples of embroidery, printed textiles, and articles of clothes, objects of folk applied art of both modern and earlier periods. In total the museum concentrates 18500 Uzbek and Tajik artifacts and photographs.  

On history of the Tajik collections

The collection of artifacts on Tajik ethnography reflects cultural peculiarities of historically developed subdivisions of this people: the plain, mountain and Pamir Tajiks. Excellent collection including agricultural tools, utensils, articles of interior furnishing, and unique examples of ancient clothes was brought by museum personnel from the expedition to Darvaz and Pamir.

In 1972 the museum storages were replenished by extensive very diverse on its thematics collection formed by a group of leading ethnographers of Tajikistan and donated to the museum by the Government of the Tajik Soviet Republic. In 1970s the museum fellows B.Z. Gamburg and E.G. Tsareva bought about 700 exhibits on the culture of mountain and Pamir Tajiks. The collection reflects almost all the ethnographic topics: economy, crafts, dwelling, clothes, children’s education, feasts, beliefs. Importance of these collections is especially great because they were results of last large-scale expeditions of museum fellows to Tajikistan.

Late replenishment of collection was predominantly made by purchasing separate exhibits, mostly wall embroideries and festive female clothes from private persons. In 1988 the ethnographer A.K. Pisarchilk handed to museum unique collection of Tajik ceramics which her family collected in course of almost 50 years.

Today the Russian Museum of Ethnography became the only museum where Tajik material culture is represented so abundantly and comprehensively.

Establishing of Karakalpak collection

The museum collection on the Karalpak ethnography numbering more than 2000 items can be also considered unique.  Distanced for thousands of kilometers from the territory of this people, the Russian Museum of Ethnography in Petersburg became the most important center in which concentrated excellently formed collection giving clear idea about main features of ethnic specifics of this people. The first Karakalpak collection gathered by the artist A.S. Melkov entered museum only in 1930, but it immediately established the bases for ethnographic studies of people.  The collection reflects quite comprehensively economical activity of Karakalpaks, the specifics of their dwelling, certain crafts and trades, traditional costume. The next Karakalpak collection was acquired by the museum only 30 years later.

It was gathered by the artist I.V. Savitski, great expert in applied art of Karakalpaks who was in love with culture of this people. His collection included not only ethnographic objects, but mostly the masterpieces of folk art. In 1960s two more expeditions of the Department’s fellows to Karakalpakia took place, in  course of them agricultural tools and craft instruments, not significantly represented in previous collections  were purchased. Scholars didn’t pay much attention to this people, that’s why every Karakalpak historical artifact in collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography or in collections of other museum with time gets more and more scientific and cultural value.

“Small-numbered peoples” of Central Asia:  Baloch, Uighurs, Central Asian Arabs, Bukharan Jews, Dungans,Romani. Formation of collections

The culture of so-called “small-numbered peoples” of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, the ethnic majority of whom live beyond the borders of these regions, is also underrepresented. However, it makes each of few artifacts of their past even more valuable. S.M. Dudin included in his collections several beautiful and today rare Baloch carpets and some objects of Afghan ethnography on the territory of Central Asia.  Moreover, he gathered collection on the Uighur traditional culture. In 1906 the excise inspector A.V. Adrianov who collaborated with the Ethnographic Department for years sent to museum 13 Hotan carpets.

The collection on the Central Asian Arabs gathered by B.Z. Gamburg in 1981 in the Kashdaryinskaya Oblast of Uzbekistan and the collection on the ethnography of Bukharan Jews of the Tashkent collector V.V. Kucherov became the most voluminous and comprehensive.  Later the museum collection on the small-numbered peoples of region was replenished with exhibits on ethnography of Dungans, the Central Asian Romani and Indians which in 1948 were handed to museum as a part of extensive collection on the peoples of Central Asia and Kazakhstan from the USSR Ministry of Science.

General information about collection

Today the collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography on the ethnography of Central Asia and Kazakhstan numbers 40,000 items and is not only one of the largest among museum collections of similar kind but also the only one which so completely units ethnographic materials on all the peoples of region.   

Every object of the Central Asian collection, every set of objects opens up the curtain, under which  the cultures of Central Asian peoples surprisingly  original, bright and attractive by enigmatic language of its symbols is hidden which Europeans always tried to understand traveling to the East, gathering museum collections and exploring the amazing world full of enchantment of antiquity.   

Economic life: Agriculture and husbandry

The economic activity of the peoples of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, in the first order agriculture and husbandry determined their lifestyle in the past (settled or nomadic) is abundantly represented in the museum collections.  Various objects of domestic animal care comprised very important part of material world not only of nomads and semi-nomads, but also of agriculturalists.  The special husbandry objects on which some protective  signs are depicted, for instance in embroidered or woven patterns of horse or camel harness, in stamping motifs of leather vessels for kumis  used for magical guard of  animals are of great interest as relics of the livestock breeders’ worldview. 


The materials on various kinds of hunting, first of all on falconry which was the most widespread among nomads are amply presented. Caps of various shapes put on the head of the bird of prey to calm it before hunting, stands, ties for legs, animal dummies for birds training and teaching, utensils for their feeding, special huntsmen gloves characterize this ancient type of activity which earlier had no only economic significance but also was endowed in traditional worldview with specials magic content.   

Paper making

In culture of agricultural peoples collectors were predominantly attracted by the objects related to crafts and trades. The objects associated with hand-made production of paper conserved in Kokand up to the early XX century, and figurative tobacco boxes of gourds and cases of papier-mâché belong to the number of unique exhibits.

Copper embossment and smithery

Materials on metal work including jewelry art, copper embossing, iron cast and smithery in various centers were complex.  Production of many centers was excellent examples of folk art. Ample collection of copper vessels is kept in museum storages.  Some of items date to late XVIII century.

Archaic pottery

The storages also keep many ceramic objects from archaic molded vessels which the women in the villages of Mountain Tajikistan did just few time ago to painted high quality ceramics from all the ceramic centers of region.


The most valuable part of the Central Asian collection is his jewelry, first of all women’s ornaments. They include adornments of glass, kauri shells, precious metals and stones. They show numerous types of head and breast adornments, bracelets and rings, acquaint with sets of wedding ornaments not only of different peoples but also of different local groups. The archaic-shaped adornments of Khorezm   Uzbeks, Kazakh men’s wedding rings with ancient clan and tribe symbolic and headdresses of Kazakh and Karakalpak brides resembling warrior  helmets of ancient Saka which already in the late XIX century were rarity  belong to this category. The Turkoman jewelry art is represented in the museum by excellent examples of adornments typical for various tribal groups.

The famous Central Asian textiles

The pride of museum is its collection of Central Asian textile. Among examples of hand weaving of all the peoples of region the weaving art of Tajiks and Uzbeks is is particularly well shown. Cotton and half-silk striped fabrics alocha and bekasab, printed fabrics chit  which was made with carved wood stamps, thin one-colored and patterned silks shoii  which produced Samarkand and Bukhara weavers, Quality silk textiles are represented in collections by thousands of samples showing diversity of local types of designs and color combinations.  The collection of silk, half-silk and velvets decorated in the ikat technique very difficult to work is exceptionally comprehensive.

Collection of embroideries and gold embroidery items  

The pearl of the Central Asian collection is its embroideries. The art of embroidery is one of the brightest phenomena of folk art. In collections one can find the embroideries known under the common name of syuzani, embroidered wall sacks, clothes partly or completely decorated with embroidered patterns, headdresses.  Bands serving to fasten felt covers of yurt, details of horse and camel harness, small bags and purses, men’s belt kerchiefs and other objects are decorated with embroidery. The rarest objects of this collection are wedding face curtains of the Mountain Tajik women, Turkoman and Karakalpak head cloaks, Karakalpak cuffs for dresses and fur coats, breast embroideries of the Mountain Tajik and Kirghiz women important place in collection belong to gold embroidery items: festive robes, blankets, curtains of Bukhara gold embroiders.

Unique collection of carpets and felts

The collection of carpets is unique. Carpets are represented in the most comprehensive way in Turkoman collection; this fact reflects enormous importance they had in culture of this people. The most remarkable part of Kazakh textile collection is patterned felts in which production Kazakhs had no rivals. Many beautiful patterned felt items are kept in museum storages. For the Kirghiz textile culture is typical production of patterned mats for walls, interior partitions and yurt doors.

Ritual objects

Similar role in folk culture belongs to traditional culture which in museum collection is represented in all ethnic, local, age-and-gender and social diversity.  The ritual clothes especially distinguish.  Like in collections of other museums the rarest are the costumes of derviches — the representatives of the orthodox direction in Islam.

It’s known that cult objects and things related to religious beliefs are the most difficult “to be extracted” from the folk culture. The presence in museum collection of such objects as amulets, ritual costumes, cradle, in which the dead baby was carried to cemetery or doll which was buried when in family someone got ill sometimes creates the only opportunity for researcher to penetrate on the deepest spheres of people’s spiritual life.

Yurt furnishing

In past carpets, felts, woven and embroidered items, colorful mats created unrepeatable image of nomad dwelling — yurt. In culture of every people utensils are diverse and original reflecting their aesthetic and magic notions, ethnogenetic traditions, that’s why the objects of yurt furnishing comprise one of the most important parts of the Central Asia collection.

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