Book Reviews

Soviet Archaeology in Theory and Practice

irigation system

A Review of Ancient Irrigation Systems of the Aral Sea Area: The History, Origin, and Development of Irrigated Agriculture by Boris V. Andrianov, andSoviet Archaeology: Schools, Trends, and History by Leo S. Klejn

Marcus Bajema

Independent Researcher, The Hague, Netherlands


In this review-article, I discuss one aspect of the history of Soviet science, that of archaeology. This subject has not received much attention, but nevertheless should be of interest to Marxists today, both for its successes and its failures. The two books under review are complementary, in that one gives a general picture of the initial development and mature existence of Soviet archaeology, while the other presents the fruits of a specific research project in Central Asia. Further thoughts are added on what the findings of Soviet archaeologists have to offer contemporary Marxism, especially with regard to comparative studies of early class societies.


Marxism – archaeology – Soviet Union – Khorezm

Boris V. Andrianov, (2016) Ancient Irrigation Systems of the Aral Sea Area: The History, Origin, and Development of Irrigated Agriculture, edited by Simone Mantellini with the collaboration of C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky and Maurizio Tosi, Oxford: Oxbow Books,

Leo S. Klejn, (2012) Soviet Archaeology: Schools, Trends, and History, translated by Rosh Ireland and Kevin Windle, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

As noted by Leo Klejn in his book, Soviet archaeology has by and large remained what he terms a ‘Great Unknown’ in the West.[1] Examples to back up this statement are not hard to find in the literature. One book that explores the relationship between archaeology and Marxism in general ignores the USSR, without providing any explanation for this.[2] Similarly, a review-article on the same topic holds Soviet archaeology to be intrinsically uninteresting because of the dogmatism that results from state interference.[3] Even a more sympathetic account of the archaeology of the USSR remains oblique.[4] In general, despite a few exceptions, in-depth engagements with one of the main forces of twentieth-century archaeology are simply lacking.[5]

          This is unfortunate, as the October Revolution provided the impetus for the encounter of Marxism and archaeology. Marxism had not seen any significant engagement with archaeology at a methodological level before 1917. Some of the early Soviet work in the 1930s was pioneering for the discipline as a whole, such as the sociological interpretation of artefacts or the use of scientific techniques to study the history of tools.[6] The impact of this encounter was felt beyond the borders of the Soviet Union, either through its impact on a Western archaeologist such as Gordon Childe,[7] or directly through the scientific ties between socialist nations.[8] The pivotal role of Soviet archaeology demands an understanding of its characteristics, whether or not one agrees with its positions. Furthermore, there existed considerable diversity in the Marxist approaches of different Soviet archaeologists, and their work should not be conflated with Stalinist dogma.

          The two books reviewed here therefore provide a much-needed service, even if they are translations of works published much earlier.[9] New chapters have been added to Klejn’s book, however, and the Andrianov volume benefits from the helpful explanatory essays that have been added to it. Both men began their career in archaeology in the last years of Stalin and can be seen as insider figures of Soviet archaeology. Klejn’s book discusses the schools and ideas of Soviet archaeology as a whole, as well as its personalities and debates. By contrast the work of Andrianov is very specific in providing an account of ancient irrigation systems in the Aral Sea area, one that is explicitly guided by Marxism-Leninism. The two books complement each other in that one discusses general ideas, while the other outlines the application of specific ideas within the setting of a major Soviet research project.

Soviet Archaeology and its Phases

Before turning to Soviet archaeology proper, it is necessary to establish the preconditions for the encounter between Marxism and archaeology. Interestingly, both evinced important parallels in their initial development in the nineteenth century. Both derived from the Enlightenment, yet in separate ways they each also initiated significant breaks with it. In the case of archaeology, in the nineteenth century it developed the Three Age system of stone, bronze, and iron ages. This build upon earlier ideas put forward by Mercati and others in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which were themselves partially derived from the Epicurean work De rerum natura by the Roman poet Lucretius.[10] In the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the ideas of Lucretius were extended beyond archaeology to broader, philosophical discourse on the development of society, as reflected in various schemes of stadialism.[11] These schemes indicated a new approach to history, but there was no scientific procedure to establish their validity.

          It was the method of ‘closed finds’ developed by Scandinavian archaeologists, starting with Thomsen, in the early nineteenth century that allowed for the scientific demonstration of the validity of the Three Age system.[12] ‘Closed finds’ refers to objects found together in archaeological contexts certain to be roughly contemporary, such as graves and hoards. Based on the copious archaeological material in the Danish national museum, Thomsen was able to determine that finds occurring together in closed contexts could be grouped into distinct sets. These distinct sets formed the basis for a sequence of stone, bronze, and iron ages, the absolute dates for which were set first by connections with historically-known cultures and later, in the twentieth century, by dating methods based on the physical sciences. Furthermore, through archaeological and other sources such as environmental studies, the characteristics of each of the three ages could be analysed in a more refined and reliable way than in the Greco-Roman and Enlightenment speculations on the contents of these stages.

          The subsequent demonstration of the enormous time-depth of the geological history of the earth, together with the establishment of the phases of the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic), led to the emergence of archaeology as a rigorous scientific discipline. Another new development was that Marx and Engels went beyond stadialism in theoretical terms, by outlining with precision what lay behind the historical process: the fundamental role of social labour for the reproduction of humankind. By starting with the forces and relations of production, modes of production could be recognised. These modes of production in turn formed the economic basis for the political and ideological patterns of a variety of social formations. In a well-known passage from Capital, Marx outlined what this means for the reconstruction of history:

Relics of bygone instruments of labour possess the same importance for the investigation of extinct economic formations of society as do fossil bones for the determination of extinct species of animals. It is not what is made but how, and by what instruments of labour, that distinguishes different economic epochs. Instruments of labour not only supply a standard of the degree of development which human labour has attained, but they also indicate the social relations within which men work.[13]

This passage of Marx is pregnant with implications for archaeology, and the usefulness of that discipline for Marxist understandings of history. However, while Marx and Engels clearly saw the need for knowledge about the pre-capitalist past, archaeology as a discipline remained firmly within the institutional clutches of nation states. Changing intellectual trends in the later nineteenth century resulted in archaeology becoming dominated by cultural-historical approaches, including in imperial Russia.[14] At a technical level the methods developed by Scandinavian archaeologists were used to delineate regional variations in a much more refined way, by distinguishing sets of finds not just by age but also by their cultural distinctiveness from contemporary neighbours. The cultural-historical approach, though far from uniform, favoured highly particularistic accounts of cultures and explained change by reference to ethnic migrations. The October Revolution provided a break with this pattern in creating a new kind of state animated by Soviet power, which in turn led to a new kind of archaeology. Klejn looks at Soviet archaeology from different perspectives: generations, personalities, and research trends and debates. There is a clear advantage in this, as it allows him to give an intimate and multi-faceted account of the field in which he made his scholarly career.

Yet despite the clarity of his language, the book remains hard to grasp for outsiders, mainly because of the diffusion of discussion on what were distinct phases in the development of Soviet archaeology between different chapters on debates, personalities, and so on. This diffusion can be seen very well for the initial development of archaeology along Marxist guidelines in the late 1920s and 1930s. This topic is treated directly in seven different chapters on trends, debates and key personalities. Yet for the reader not well-versed in the period it is a challenge to piece together these different fragments into a coherent whole. For example, the crucial early role of RANION in the late 1920s and early 1930s is not discussed in depth, or even explained, but mentioned only in passing in the biographies of key figures.[15] Furthermore, Klejn notes how one of these individuals, the archaeologist A.V. Artsikhovsky, was later accused of following the ideas of Bukharin,[16] but no mention is made of the important role Bukharin played in RANION. In this way, the account given by Klejn remains oblique at points, owing to the diffusion of crucial episodes between a large number of chapters. A more conventional chronological account would have brought the different strands together, though at the cost of sacrificing some of the diversity highlighted by Klejn.

The history of Soviet archaeology begins with the signing by Lenin of the decree establishing the Russian Academy of the History of Material Culture (RAIMK, later renamed GAIMK) on 18 April 1919. Yet the engagement between Marxism and archaeology in the post-revolutionary period started slowly, owing to the material realities of the civil war and its aftermath. From Klejn’s book it becomes apparent that there are three features basic for an understanding of Soviet archaeology. The first of these factors is the continuous expansion of research in terms of the number and scale of expeditions and investment in field techniques and laboratory facilities, reflecting the priority given to science by the state. Second, archaeology in the USSR was defined and integrated institutionally as part of history departments. The ultimate aim of archaeological research was to contribute to resolving the great questions of history, rather than those of the natural sciences (as for many pre-revolutionary Russian archaeologists) or those of anthropology (as in the USA).

Finally, Klejn notes the pervasive atmosphere and language of struggle in Soviet praxis, both for socialism and against the forces opposing it.[17] Although he does not explicitly mention the term, it is hard to separate Klejn’s account of struggle from Lenin’s notion of partiinost, implying the necessity to take a position supporting the party and foregoing misguided pretensions of non-partisanship. This notion of struggle persisted throughout the life of the USSR, but was most pronounced, and carried the most serious consequences, during the years of Stalin, who adapted it for carrying out his Purges. The notion ofpartiinost and the Stalinist persecutions should not be conflated, however, as the latter precisely involved the establishment of the power of the bureaucracy that Lenin feared.[18]

Dialectically, the struggle for a Marxist archaeology also implied a struggle against something else, this something else being the pre-revolutionary cultural-historical archaeology that was focused on using archaeological materials to trace ethnically-based cultures and their migrations. This approach was now referred to pejoratively as ‘artefactology’, to be replaced by an approach that seeks to trace productive forces and social relations in different periods through archaeological finds. The photograph of an exhibition at GAIMK in 1933 in Klejn’s book visualises this shift in emphasis, which goes to the core of what archaeology is about as a discipline.[19] Instead of tracing ethnic groups, Soviet archaeologists would now pioneer new methods for analysing tools for use-wear, for reconstructing Palaeolithic settlements, and for inferring social relations from burials. These things would not be treated on a similar scale in Western archaeology until the 1960s.[20] Yet the adoption of such methods in Soviet archaeology was not simply a struggle to replace older ideas by new ones, it also involved intense struggles between individuals and institutions that in the end served to undermine the fruitful application of the new methods.

Initially the struggle for a sociological approach to archaeological remains, and, in parallel, the struggle against artefactology, was relatively clear-cut and limited to rhetorical attacks. However, in the 1930s the praxis of struggle in combination with Stalin’s purges led Soviet archaeology to go off the rails. The initial phase in this can be seen in the campaign against a group of Moscow archaeologists associated with RANION. In 1929 this group had put forward a set of ideas for a Marxist archaeology based on what they called the ‘ascending method’. In their vision archaeology could move from the reconstruction of productive forces (the base) through the remains of tools toward relations of production, political systems, and ideology (the superstructure). These ideas came under attack from Leningrad, where GAIMK researchers faulted the Moscow group for isolating archaeology from history. In their view, archaeology should concern itself solely with describing the remains it uncovers, and leave interpretation to history as an overarching discipline. The institute in which the Moscow group was working was disbanded, and its members forced to recant their ideas in order to join the new Moscow branch of GAIMK.

The Communist Party leadership of GAIMK favoured stadialism, grouping the archaeological remains together with other sources in a succession of modes of production. Their approach is different from the philosophical stadialism of the Enlightenment, while also adding what may be seen as a sociological approach to the technical stadialism of the Three Age system used in archaeology. These additions consisted of sophisticated causal explanations of historical change, as opposed to cultural-historical references to ethnicity, and the outline of modes of production. Yet the stadialism of the USSR in the 1930s is peculiar, and should be distinguished from other Marxist versions of stadialism. This is because the initial Soviet perspective on stadialism was shaped by the linguistic theories of N.I. Marr, who was one of the few prominent members of the Russian Academy of Sciences to welcome the Bolshevik revolution. Klejn describes Marr as being strong in literary philology but prone to flights of fancy in linguistics, focusing on doubtful reconstructions of phonetic correspondences between otherwise highly-distinct languages. These ideas were rejected by linguists in Russia and the West alike.

Marr’s initial ideas on the class character of works of literature were extended later to include language itself, thus not just linguistic expressions of ideology but phonetics itself had to be grasped through the lens of social relations. Hence the development of language can be included within a stadialist scheme of development, as noted by Klejn:

The Japhetic and Indo-European language families turned out to be not local formations, not groups of related languages (languages interconnected through their descent from a common ancestor), but ubiquitous stages in the development of speech. The foundation of this development was not a segmentation of ethnic groups and languages, not a division, but on the contrary hybridization and merging: from a multitude of tribal dialects, through a number of stages, to a future common language of humanity. Not only an identical pattern of thought, but allied to it a unified grammatical structure for languages at one and the same stage, was determined by economic and social similarity.[21]

Because of his support for Soviet power and his pre-revolutionary credentials, Marr’s star rose rapidly and he was to add leadership of GAIMK to that of the Oriental faculty. From this position of power, he employed the language of partiinost to establish his linguistic theories as the paramount ones in Soviet scholarship. The critics of his ideas were said to belong to the enemy camps of the West and of those stuck in pre-revolutionary mentalities, while Soviet science supposedly made breakthroughs in linguistics not limited by the old dogmas. Furthermore, in this phase of the history of the USSR the theories of Marr were in line with the Communist Party’s policies on nationalities, since, as Klejn notes, Stalin himself endorsed the future merging of all languages into a single one for all humankind.[22] The struggle in scholarly discourse mirrored that of power, and this would have ramifications beyond the propagation of erroneous theories like that of Marr. From the early 1930s archaeologists had been arrested for various reasons, especially in the Ukraine, but in 1937 with the coming of the Great Purge the GAIMK itself was liquidated and its Party leadership and their associates were executed. Archaeology was put back into the more conventional setting of the universities and the Academy.

The war then led to the loss of many more archaeologists. In its aftermath smaller purges picked off yet more people, now including the followers of Marr’s version of stadialism who were being accused of ‘cosmopolitanism’. The result of all this was that after its initial promising start, Soviet archaeology was severely hampered in its engagement with Marxism by the impact of ideological struggles for and against. Nowhere can this be seen better than for Stalin’s version of stadialism of the Short Course of 1938, with its succession of primitive-communal, slave-holding, feudal, capitalist, and socialist modes of production.[23] As an organising principle for a book on Soviet archaeology published in 1955 and translated into English in 1959, it presents a disjointed picture of the history of the lands that make up the USSR. Slices of the archaeological record are treated as exemplars of certain modes of production, such as the slave-holding states of the Greco-Roman northern Black Sea coast,[24] but no coherent thread emerges to connect the different parts. Here stadialism is upheld theoretically, but fails to persuade in practice. This was the result not just of ideology, for the materials of Soviet archaeology proved insufficient for a synthesis by the very sympathetic Marxist archaeologist Gordon Childe, as noted by Klejn.[25]

One interested outsider has noted that the key problem of Soviet archaeology was the inability to properly allow data to modify and rework its theories, owing to the constraining political factors.[26] Yet this neglects that in a socialist state, politics and scholarship are not readily separable, as the goals of understanding, criticising, and changing the world depend on each other. What matters, rather, are the specifics of the political programme being pursued. Klejn’s discussion of the post-Stalin developments in Soviet archaeology makes this clear. Especially after Khrushchev’s thaw the intensity of partiinost lessened, although it certainly did not disappear. For archaeology this meant the co-existence of multiple trends. As noted by Klejn,[27] the so-called ‘autochthonists’, who emphasised the long-term continuity of peoples, were the most powerful group in archaeology from the middle of the 1950s to the end of the USSR.

Based on the chauvinism of the late Stalin era and the rejection of Marr and ‘cosmopolitanism’, their work sought to boost patriotism by proving the autochthony of the Slavs and other important ethnic groups in the Union. Their work essentially retraced the methods of cultural history and its association with nationalism, albeit in the different context of Soviet power and its policy on nationalities. It was in this domain that struggle still played an important role, as can be seen in Klejn’s overview of the debate on the influence of the migrants from Scandinavia (the Varangians) on the medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus’.[28] Acknowledging the important role of these Varangians, an idea actually closer to Marxism than its opposite, carried with it the threat of persecution for its supposed anti-Soviet and unpatriotic stance.[29] Yet the focus on ethnicity was far from exempt from critical discussion, and never dominant in the sense of crowding out other approaches.

As discussed by Klejn,[30] new research trends emerged that improved methodology in the description of archaeological remains, the study of the technologies behind these remains, and in studying their ecological context. Marxism was not neglected either, its emphasis on a materialist account of history coexisting with the cultural-historical focus on ethnicity. Apart from a short-lived attempt under Khrushchev to try to reinstate Marr and his ideas, the main current through which Soviet archaeology engaged with Marxism was through a form of sociology, which had been banned by Stalin. Klejn calls this ‘archaeological sociology’, and criticises the trend for its separation of the archaeological remains and theoretical models, while also noting the willingness of its participants to engage with Western authors.[31] As the book by Andrianov is part of this trend, this criticism of Klejn will be addressed as part of the review of that book.

Ancient Khorezm and the Comparative Study of Irrigation-based Productive Forces

One shortcoming of Klejn’s book is that the major archaeological projects of Soviet archaeology are mentioned only in passing, as part of the careers of individuals or to illustrate a scholarly debate. The result is that his book sometimes seems quite abstract, rather than being rooted in what the trowel and the brush brought to light. It is here that the book by Andrianov on the irrigation systems of the Aral Sea area can be useful for providing a good example of Soviet archaeology getting to work on its materials. Andrianov’s work was part of the Khorezm Archaeological-Ethnographic Expedition (KhAEE), established under the auspices of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1937. The term ‘Khorezm’, also known under its Greek rendering ‘Chorasmia’, refers to a large oasis region in the delta of the Amu-Darya (Oxus) river, presently divided between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In antiquity and medieval times Khorezm was home to an urban civilisation with a distinct state and intellectual tradition, forming part of a broader Iranian cultural sphere through linguistic affinity. The task of the KhAEE was to study the historical trajectory of this area from prehistory to the present, using a combination of large-scale excavation, aerial and field surveys, as well as ethnographic and environmental studies. To contrast this region with a nearby one, research was also carried out in the delta of the Syr-Darya (Jaxartes) river. The scale of research and the combination of different field methods were then without parallel in world archaeology, as noted by US scholar Lamberg-Karlovsky in one of the introductory articles to Andrianov’s book.[32]

Although initiated and led in its first decades by S.P. Tolstov, the KhAEE outlived him and work in the field continued until 1997. Its collective ethos of purpose, honed in the often-difficult conditions of fieldwork, allowed other individuals to develop their own research skills and interests within the signposts of the overall project. Andrianov’s work on irrigation is a good example of this, carried out in the field with Tolstov and guided by the priorities of Soviet science, but with the synthesis and conclusions formulated as befits a formidable scholar in his own right. It is important to emphasise that major field projects would serve to enable and direct individuals to pursue research topics, something left largely unaddressed in Klejn’s emphasis on personalities and ideas. Of course, the need to fund large-scale projects also raised their societal relevance. The prominent role for the study of irrigation by the KhAEE is connected by Andrianov to the drive to revitalise the lands of Central Asia after the revolution, based on a directive by Lenin.[33] In a ‘combined approach’ the historical component is indispensable for modern irrigation efforts, and in his conclusions Andrianov directly connects his research to Soviet policy.[34] The past is in this sense inseparable from the present, and it includes not just an understanding of the physical geography of the Khorezm region, but also the long-term societal development that took place there.

The key advantage of a project such as KhAEE is that it can allow for the development of a causal framework relating the natural environment to the development of the forces and relations of modes of production, as well as the political and ideological patterns of social formations. Andrianov’s perspective on this needs to be grasped in the context of 1960s Soviet geography. Whereas Stalin had initiated a struggle against ‘geographical determinism’ in the late 1930s, in the 1960s his view was explicitly rejected by the Party and, as a consequence, understanding the role of the natural environment in the development of society could be pursued anew.[35] Again, this shows the presence of living and creative versions of Marxism that were able to challenge Stalinist dogma. Key influences on Andrianov in this regard were the pre-revolutionary Russian geographers D.N. Anuchin and L.I. Mechnikov, the work on plant domestication by N.I. Vavilov, as well as the work of Marx and Engels (in particular the Dialectics of Nature and theAnti-Dühring). Contemporary scholars, both from the West and the USSR, also receive much attention.

Andrianov’s perspective clearly acknowledges the role of nature in shaping the development of society, yet he also explicitly rejects a mono-causal role for nature in social changes such as the collapse of states and urban civilisations.[36] He seeks to understand the interplay between the environment, technology, and ideological and political structures within a dialectical causal framework. Furthermore, this dialectical understanding of the relation between humans and nature is not something applied to the evidence after it has been gathered, but is intrinsic to the combined use of the methods of the natural and the social sciences. As much becomes clear in Andrianov’s conceptualisation of the landscape as an archaeological feature in itself:

The cultural landscape is a complex natural-historical formation, in which the effects of influences of different historical periods are gradually accumulated. In every historical period the influence of society on the environment has been limited by the degree of knowledge of natural laws and the level of technological development, which in turn was determined by the laws of social development. Under the influence of different forces, continuous changes take place in the environment, the result of which have an impact on the earth’s surface, space and time. Landscapes have their own history.[37]

Grasping the history of the landscapes of Khorezm and the Syr-Darya delta was made possible by the combined methods of aerial and field survey, environmental and ethnographic studies, and large-scale excavations. The strategy of research is inseparable from the theoretical perspective that informs it, calling into question the applicability to Andrianov’s work of Klejn’s notion that ‘sociological archaeology’ used models from outside archaeology in a cosmetic way. Clearly, the close interface between theory and practice of the ‘combined approach’ raises the question of how the findings are to be evaluated. Assuming a reasonable correspondence between the archaeological remains and the reconstructions of the KhAEE,[38] the criterion hinges on the coherence of the interpretation of the long-term historical development of the Khorezm and Syr-Darya delta areas. In this regard the book is a great success. While the terminology is that of ‘orthodox’ Marxism, the evidence from the field prevents its concepts from going stale. Like the desert soils being rejuvenated after receiving water from irrigation works, Andrianov’s conceptual apparatus gains a sharp, critical edge upon engaging with the archaeological evidence for the development of irrigation. This evidence entails not just Khorezm, but also similar cases from Eurasia, Africa and the Americas.

For the development of irrigation in general, Andrianov argues that it was coeval with the emergence of agriculture itself.[39] He follows Vavilov in recognising a number of distinct regions for the origin of plant cultivation, as illuminatingly illustrated in figure twelve.[40] In the initial development of irrigation, humans adapt their technological schemes to what nature has shown them to work. The themes of learning from natural examples and adapting ‘nature’s techniques’ recur at several points in Andrianov’s book, not least in the development of irrigation in Khorezm.[41] A distinction is made here between irrigation schemes adapting themselves to nature and those able to control the flow of water,[42] the latter being associated with the emergence of class society and the development of the Khorezmian state. Based on the archaeological research, Andrianov is able to recognise a succession of different irrigation techniques, each successively more complex.[43] These advances in the forces of production can be related to three different kinds of relations of production, which in succession are the prehistoric communal, the antique slave-owning, and the medieval feudal modes of production.

The evidence for the prehistoric period is limited, though some irrigation systems have been dated to the later second millennium BC and the first centuries of the first millennium BC. These were relatively small-scale systems adapted to natural features. Based on estimates of the length, width, and depth of the canals, Andrianov is able to estimate the amount of labour that would have been required to both construct them and to keep them from silting up. These estimates are based on the evidence from Sumerian texts that a working man with a metal shovel can move three cubic metres per day, lowered by Andrianov to two cubic metres per day for pre-metal periods. The amount of labour estimated for the best-known prehistoric irrigation system is estimated at around one hundred workers, congruent with the size of the excavated village next to it.[44] In very generic terms, Andrianov notes that the subsistence strategies of prehistory seem to resemble those of recent communities in the area such as the Karakalpaks.[45] He refrains, however, from using the ethnographic materials to infer relations of production for the prehistoric period. In general, Andrianov applies commendable caution when adequate sources are not available, noting the diverse possibilities offered by the limited evidence.

The next major period is that of antiquity (in Russian: antichnost),[46] which covers the sixth century BC through the fourth century AD. This period marks the emergence of cities, advanced craft-work, Zoroastrianism and sciences associated with it, and of course the state and class-society. Although at times forming part of the Achaemenid and Sassanid Persian empires, the Khorezmian state was mostly independent, and notably its capital Toprak-kala was excavated by KhAEE.[47] With the development of cities, there also emerged a countryside with farmsteads for the cultivation of grains and vines. The water that these plants required was supplied by new kinds of irrigation works that could draw water directly from the river, and which extended for tens or even hundreds of kilometres. The labour that went into constructing and maintaining different irrigation works was estimated by Andrianov at thousands of workers, in some areas more than the estimated population.[48] For him this implied the coordinating force of the state, the ability to compel that he had already inferred for ancient Egypt,[49] though others had earlier noted the possibility of communities working together to create a larger irrigation system.[50]

A number of arguments help to bolster Andrianov’s case, albeit indirectly as direct textual evidence for the organisation of labour is lacking. Not only were the labour requirements outstripping the demographic base of localities, the initial returns of labour were also meagre as inefficient systems limited the amount of land that could receive water from irrigation works.[51] Furthermore, he contrasts the elaboration of irrigation systems in Khorezm with the enduring simplicity of irrigation in the Syr-Darya area, also studied by KhAEE, where a central state organisation never emerged.[52] For Andrianov these factors point to a pattern of compulsion for huge labour mobilisations to construct and maintain the irrigation works, while cultivation still took place within a communal framework.[53] As time passed, irrigation systems and cultivation became more efficient, with the chingir water-lifting device of the medieval period making possible a much more refined system for supplying fields with the much-needed moisture.

After the collapse of antique society between the fourth and sixth centuries AD, the later medieval period saw the reconstruction of the Khorezmian state along feudal lines. The irrigation works were rebuilt too, now so efficient that the labour demands could be met by the higher population densities enabled by the higher agricultural productivity.[54] Overall, Andrianov succeeds in tracing the long-term development of the forces and relations of production together, taking into account the structuring role of the land yet also noting that cycles of growth and collapse cannot be understood apart from social relations.[55] His dialectical method is also integral to the field techniques of the KhAEE, as the notion of the cultural landscape mediates between the combination of techniques used for studying it archaeologically and the interpretation of the historical interplay between the forces and relations of production in the Khorezm region. As such, the book by Andrianov mitigates Klejn’s conclusion of the separation between the Marxist models of the ‘sociological school’ of Soviet archaeology and the archaeological sources it investigated.


The KhAEE and Andrianov’s book detailing its study of past irrigation reflect the paradoxes of Soviet archaeology well. Its founder S.P. Tolstov created a cosmopolitan and egalitarian safe-haven within its confines, including for many people of Jewish backgrounds, yet he was also a co-author, in 1937, of an article on methods of sabotage in archaeology and ethnography.[56] Another paradox is that Andrianov’s work, so well-supported and apparently congruent with state policy, had very little impact. A new cultural landscape appeared after the 1960s in the form of the dried-up Aral Sea bed, illustrating how the relations of production can be more destructive than many a force of nature. Being distinguished neither for its ethics nor for its effectiveness, there is little to glorify in Soviet archaeology in the way Klejn notes was common, especially in the Brezhnev period.[57] Yet the phenomenon of Soviet archaeology should not be dismissed out of hand, and its more creative attempts to connect Marxism to the archaeological sources ought not be obscured by Stalinism.

Rather, the reader of Andrianov and Klejn might ask what was particularly distinctive about it, what distinguished it from Western archaeology. According to Klejn there is little to distinguish Soviet archaeology as Marxist,[58] but a comparison with Western approaches shows that this is not the case, especially considering the role of the productive forces. Andrianov showed that an emphasis on the role of productive forces could produce good work. His model of humans first learning irrigation from natural examples and then creating techniques to control rivers applies ideas that go back to the works of Greco-Roman philosophers, such as Epicurus’s Letter to Herodotus.[59] Marx’s contention that the labour of animals is one-sided, determined by their physical and mental abilities, but that humans produce universally,[60] allowed him to extend these Classical insights to capitalism and its antecedents. Soviet archaeologists further used Marx’s ideas to provide a theoretical basis for comparing the historical trajectories of different world regions.

A good example of this is the work by V.M. Masson to develop a scheme of early civilisations (or early class society) in the New and Old Worlds based on distinct kinds of agriculture.[61] Some of his conclusions have to be modified based on new evidence.[62] Yet the notion that differences in the basic agricultural techniques, which constituted the main productive forces in early civilisations, are the key to understanding their development remains plausible for Western researchers too.[63] Soviet scholars also solved the problem of the broader social-geographical contexts, noting the importance of broader interaction spheres for the development of early civilisations and other kinds of societies.[64] Of particular note has been the idea of ‘metallurgical provinces’ characterised by distinct ways of metal-working, with vast spatial extensions across Eurasia.[65] These provinces have attracted considerable interest from Western scholars as a way to grasp the long-term historical trajectories of larger areas, unconstrained by the confines of the conventional division into culture-based areas.[66]

Taken together, these studies can be used to investigate the differences between world regions in terms of agriculture and technology. For example, the different crops in Eurasia and Mesoamerica, together with the initial lack of metallurgy in the latter, explain important differences in the forms of urbanism and historical trajectories of these two regions.[67] In this regard the Soviet emphasis on productive forces allowed it to break new ground, both methodologically in the introduction of new methods for studying artefacts and theoretically in its approach to cross-cultural comparison. These Soviet studies are of particular relevance in light of recent calls to engage again with the ecological dimension of Marxism,[68] especially considering recent discussions on the so-called Anthropocene.[69] Some authors in this trend have shown an interest in and an appreciation for certain aspects of ecological work in the USSR,[70] and the archaeological strand of this work should be considered as well.

Regardless of such achievements, a major outstanding problem in Soviet archaeology was relating the productive forces, accorded a primary role, to political systems and cultural phenomena. Here shortcomings can be noted in particular in the historical understanding of culture, as can be seen in the discussion of Zoroastrianism in Andrianov’s book.[71] It is not plausible to suppose that the essence of this great religion, which endures today, is really to be seen as the outcome of a struggle between nomadic and settled herders. It is not that there were no good approaches to culture in Soviet archaeology, as an extensive 1970s debate on the origin of art makes clear,[72] but the problem remained of relating them to the productive forces. It is here that Western Marxism made greater strides, in its recognition of the key role of the relations of production as an intermediary for political and cultural phenomena.[73] Using new models, the emphasis on the relations of production enabled Western Marxist archaeologists to understand and compare the various social formations across the world.[74] Furthermore, it also enabled them to develop more refined models on the social role of cultural phenomena.[75]

The different understanding of the balance between the forces and relations of production may be one of the reasons why there has been so little engagement with Soviet archaeological studies by Western Marxists. Yet the Soviet failure to adequately grasp the sequence of relations from the forces to the relations of production, and further to politics and culture, is interesting in itself. The problem was certainly recognised. For example, a philosophically-inclined Soviet historian such as Eero Loone argued for a model that explores the relations between economic, administrative, and mental forms of activity in a non-deterministic way, though still within a coherent framework that begins with the productive forces.[76] Social science can then investigate the variation between different societies through a programme of comparative research, ascertaining global differences in connections between economies, political systems, and cultural phenomena.[77] It may be that this form of Marxism does not explain everything about society, but it would be enough to sustain a Marxist political praxis that can understand the world and is internally pluralist and democratic.[78]

Western Marxists have argued that comparative studies of past social formations have an important part to play in bringing about a form of socialism than is democratic and pluralist, by showing how the past has impacted contemporary society and what alternatives existed.[79] The focus on the relations of production and a neglect of the forces of production make it more difficult, however, to adequately grasp the ecological challenges facing humankind today. Therefore, the challenge still seems to be to develop a framework that can allow the productive forces a significant role alongside the relations of production. The Lucretian notion of aleatory materialism developed by Althusser can be helpful in this regard, because despite its emphasis on the relations of production it also recognises the independence of elements that have combined after their encounter.[80] The recognition of the plurality of different temporalities allows for understanding the relations between different elements historically,[81] eradicating lingering effects of stadialist approaches. In developing this framework, it can be useful to learn from the experiences and findings of Soviet archaeology as related in the books of Andrianov and Klejn.[82] Hopefully in the future more translations of some of the major Soviet archaeological works will appear.


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Andrianov, Boris Vasil’evich and L.F. Monogarova 1976, ‘Lenin’s Doctrine of Concurrent Socioeconomic Systems and its Significance for Ethnography’, Soviet Anthropology and Archaeology, 14, 4: 3–26.

Arzhantseva, Irina 2015, ‘The Khorezmian Expedition: Imperial Archaeology and Faustian Bargains in Soviet Central Asia’, Public Archaeology, 14, 1: 5–26.

Bashilov, V.A. and V.I. Gulyaev 1990, ‘A Bibliography of Soviet Studies of the Ancient Cultures of Latin America’, Latin American Antiquity, 1, 1: 5–22.

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Chernykh, Evgenii Nikolaevich 1991, Ancient Metallurgy in the USSR: The Early Metal Age, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chernykh, Evgenii Nikolaevich 2011, ‘The Archaeology Paradigm through the Prism of Natural Science Methods’, Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 81, 1: 62–74.

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Clarke, David L. 1968, Analytical Archaeology, London: Methuen.

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Houston, Stephen D. and Takeshi Inomata 2009, The Classic Maya, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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[1] Klejn 2012, p. 3.

[2] Patterson 2003.

[3] Tantaleán 2014, pp. 4683–4.

[4] Trigger 2006a, pp. 326–44.

[5] A clear exception is the unpublished PhD dissertation by Jovan Howe on Soviet theories of the development of humankind and the first phase of history shaped by the communal mode of production (Howe 1980).

[6] Semenov 1964.

[7] See the chapter on Childe in Klejn’s book and Trigger 1980 for an overview of his intellectual development. Childe’s Marxist views are succinctly outlined in Childe 1954.

[8] For example, Soviet archaeology powerfully shaped that of China in the 1950s, establishing long-lasting patterns; see Zhang 2011.

[9] Klejn’s book was originally published in Russian in 1993, that of Andrianov in 1969.

[10] Clarke 1968, pp. 4–8.

[11] Wilson 2016.

[12] Trigger 2006a, pp. 121–38.

[13] Marx 1976, p. 286.

[14] Trigger 2006a, pp. 248–61.

[15] Klejn 2012, pp. 237, 243, 289, 291. An initialism of ‘Russian Association of Social Science Institutes’, RANION brought together established but non-Marxist academics with the new Bolshevik generation. As an influential lecturer there, Bukharin advocated a view of historical materialism that put forward an internal relation between society and nature, rather than that these were part of two distinct realms. As noted by Howe in his 1980 dissertation, these views were specifically targeted by another perspective, one that emphasised the internal development of society as external to nature (Howe 1980, pp. 115–20).

[16] Klejn 2012, p. 242.

[17] Klejn 2012, pp. 86–8.

[18] Lewin 2005, pp. 80–3.

[19] Klejn 2012, p. 29, figure 2.10.

[20] Trigger 2006a, p. 344.

[21] Klejn 2012, p. 203.

[22] Klejn 2012, p. 209.

[23] Stalin 1939, p. 103.

[24] Mongait 1959, pp. 185–217.

[25] Klejn 2012, pp. 168–73.

[26] Trigger 2006a, p. 344.

[27] Klejn 2012, pp. 53–4.

[28] Klejn 2012, pp. 115–20.

[29] As noted by Klejn, the role of the Varangians was acknowledged by Marx and the prominent early Soviet historian M.N. Pokrovsky, but this became unacceptable in the chauvinistic atmosphere of the later Stalin period (Klejn 2012, pp. 115–17).

[30] Klejn 2012, pp. 73–9.

[31] Klejn 2012, pp. 69–72.

[32] Andrianov 2016, pp. 37–9.

[33] Andrianov 2016, p. 65.

[34] Andrianov 2016, p. 254.

[35] Stalin justified his position on the peculiar basis that changes in geography take place over much longer periods than changes in the development of society; see Stalin 1939, p. 118. Here the natural environment and human history are walled-off from each other as if they were separate spheres. For a good contemporaneous account of the 1960s debate, see Matley 1966.

[36] Andrianov 2016, pp. 253–4.

[37] Andrianov 2016, p. 78.

[38] The technical volumes of the data used in Andrianov’s book are not readily available, yet the book itself does contain technical descriptions that are accompanied by photographs and illustrations revealing much detail of the archaeological findings.

[39] Andrianov 2016, p. 98.

[40] Andrianov 2016, pp. 266–7.

[41] Andrianov 2016, p. 69.

[42] Andrianov 2016, p. 146.

[43] Andrianov 2016, p. 250.

[44] Andrianov 2016, pp. 150–3.

[45] Andrianov 2016, pp. 143–4.

[46] The term antichnost refers to the ‘Classical’ cultures of the first millennia BC and AD, and unlike as in Western archaeology it refers to the broad geographical sphere of the Classical world oroikoumene and not specifically to Greece and Rome. Hence, it also includes the Achaemenid Persian empire. See Khatchadourian 2008 for Soviet studies ofantichnost in the Caucasus.

[47] Mongait 1959, pp. 270–2.

[48] Andrianov 2016, pp. 158, 167, 189.

[49] Andrianov 2016, p. 115.

[50] Mongait 1959, p. 265. The potential for self-organising communities to create larger-scale irrigation works is emphasised in recent Western studies; see, for example, Stride, Rondelli and Mantellini 2009.

[51] Andrianov 2016, p. 160.

[52] Andrianov 2016, pp. 248–9.

[53] Andrianov 2016, p. 250.

[54] Andrianov 2016, p. 179.

[55] Andrianov 2016, pp. 253–4.

[56] Arzhantseva 2015.

[57] Klejn 2012, pp. 41–2.

[58] Klejn 2012, p. 145.

[59] Where he posits that the human development of technology was initially driven by imitation and adaptation of natural features, see Inwood and Gerson (eds.) 1994, p. 16.

[60] Marx 1976, pp. 283–4.

[61] Masson 1988, p. 129.

[62] The idea that Mayan civilisation was sustained by slash-and-burn agriculture has since been refuted by new archaeological research. See Houston and Inomata 2009, pp. 233–9.

[63] Blanton 2004; Scarborough 2003.

[64] Masson 1988, pp. 111–22.

[65] Chernykh 1991.

[66] Goody 2012; Wilkinson 2014.

[67] Kohl and Chernykh 2003; see also Chernykh 2011. Andrianov in his book also noted these Old and New World differences, based on the original formulation of Engels (Andrianov 2016, pp. 133–4).

[68] Foster and Burkett 2016.

[69] Kunkel 2017.

[70] Foster 2015.

[71] Andrianov 2016, pp. 153–4.

[72] Running for several years in the journal Soviet Anthropology and Archaeology, starting with Stoliar 1977.

[73] See Patterson 2003, chapters four and five, for an extended discussion of Western Marxist approaches to archaeology, which focus almost exclusively on delineating forms of society and their transformations.

[74] Trigger 2003. See McGuire 2006 for the relationship between Trigger’s work and that of Childe.

[75] Routledge 2014.

[76] Loone 1992, pp. 159–65.

[77] Bashilov and Gulyaev 1990, p. 13.

[78] Pluralism would arguably have been possible in Bukharin’s approach to Marxism and science, but it can be most clearly recognised in the writings of the later 1960s. As noted by Howe in his 1980 dissertation, a comprehensive effort took place to reinvigorate Marxist views of world history through the internationalist series The Laws of History and the Concrete Forms of the World-historical process (Howe 1980, pp. 290–301). Only the first volume on prehistory appeared in 1968, with the overall effort meeting the same dismal fate as the contemporaneous Prague Spring.

[79] Trigger 2006b.

[80] Especially significant in this regard is his discussion of the mode of production in the light of aleatory materialism; see Althusser 2006, pp. 197–203.

[81] Morfino 2014, pp. 152–64. Note here the difference with Stalin’s contention, discussed in Footnote 35, that history and the environment cannot be discussed together, as their distinct temporalities prevent interaction.

[82] Andrianov’s work on the KhAEE, in particular the contrasts drawn between Khorezm and the Syr-Darya, seems quite compatible with the perspective in aleatory materialism of history as a sequence of encounters and non-encounters. In this regard, it is also important to note the existence of different modes of production existing side by side in broader geographical areas; see Andrianov and Monogarova 1976. The potential connection of aleatory materialism to the notion of combined and uneven development, as outlined by Van der Linden 2007, needs to be further explored.