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Endangered Archives in St. Petersburg

Safeguarding and preservation of sound materials of endangered languages in the Russian Federation for sound archives in St.Petersburg

At present, many old sound recordings still remain hidden in private archives where the quality of preservation is not guaranteed. In our project, we proposed to make part of these recordings available and to add them to the database developed in St.Petersburg. The aim of the project has been to re-record the material in a storage facility which would modernise the possible archiving activities in the Russian Federation and bring them up-to-date with the present day world standards. In the project we concentrated on a selection of recordings, especially those of some endangered Siberian languages. Partners in this project were the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Science and the St.Petersburg Institute for Linguistic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. From 1 September 2006 until 1 September 2008 the project has been financially supported by the Programme on Endangered Archives of the British Library. More details can be found in the final report of the project.

In October 2006 the local representative of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region invited members of the project team in St.Petersburg to provide information about the project on Endangered Archives. During this meeting he showed his interest in the reconstruction of archival data on the Nenets language and other aims of this project. As a follow-up on the 12th of December the governor of Yamal-Nenets during his official visit to St.Petersburg signed an agreement of co-operation with representatives of the Russian Academy of Sciences which will make it possible to obtain further support for this work.

Some applications for the use of endangered archives are described in the conference report Voices from the Past: The Use of Sound Archives for the Study of Endangered Languages at the International Symposium on Preservation of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, Beijing, 16 - 18 November 2004.  

Our research program Voices from Tundra and Taiga has resulted in the following report made by the project team in St.Petersburg on the Archives in the Pushkinsky Dom. Part of this important material is endangered and the further investigation and publication of these invaluable recordings is will be very urgent task for the future.

Overview of material on languages and folklore related to peoples in the Far North, Siberia and the Far East of Russia, stored in sound archives of the Russian Literary Institute (Pushkinsky Dom), Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS)

When it comes to researching cultures and languages of ethnic minority groups living in the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East of Russia, the invaluable contributions made by Russian scholars is well-known. In the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, fundamental descriptions of the language material and of the spiritual culture of these peoples were published, and voluminous collections of folklore texts were presented in various languages - with translations in Russian or European languages. All these publications have proved to be of long-lasting global importance. In the twentieth century, these collections were supplemented by dual-language dictionaries in the national and Russian languages, thus reinforcing the richness of the dictionaries' contents for the Finno-Ugric, Samoyed, Turkic, Tungus-Manchu and Paleosiberian languages. Detailed scientific grammar books appeared, together with monographs dedicated to a comprehensive description of ethnic cultures and individual problems related to ethnography, folklore and the study of linguistics.

In addition, within the history of Russian ethnography and the study of folklore, there lies an almost unknown area of field expeditions and research projects, such as gathering samples of typical folklore texts in their oral form with the help of contemporary technical sound recording devices.

A series of sound recordings from the peoples of the Far East - collected in the 1900’s by L.Ya. Sternberg - is preserved in the Phonogram Archives of the Institute of Russian Literature (IRLI). These Archives also house a comprehensive collection with recordings of various types of folklore from the Tungus and Mongolian  peoples.  This material was collected by S.M. Shirokogorov and  E.N. Shirokogorova in the period around 1910.  The Archives also boast  numerous folklore recordings from the Aleutians and the peoples living on the Russian coast along the Pacific Ocean.  These recordings were collected by V.I. Jochelson.  Also, unique collections can be found with  samples of oral national creativity from Southern Siberia - recorded by S. E. Malov and A.V. Anokhin - and a collection of folklore recordings from Kets and other peoples of the Yenisey North. V.I. Anuchin, N.K. Karger and other researchers were in charge of these projects . Collections of phonograph recordings were made by various scholars between 1900 and 1917. Today, for our researchers, these recordings  present unique samples of epic folklore genres, of narrative prose  and they offer us a multitude of recordings of Shaman rituals from various peoples of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East. The material enables us to assess the sound techniques used for the recording of the Shaman rituals.

Towards the end of the nineteen-thirties, the Phonograph Archive of the IRLI had become a large centre housing collections for the scientific study of oral national creativity and musical culture of the peoples of Russia and the USSR. Famous collectors and researchers of folklore and musical culture, such as Z.V. Evald, E.V. Gippius, S.D. Magid, B. M. Dobrovolsky and V.V. Korguzalov, worked here as well.

At the end of the nineteen-twenties and the beginning of the thirties, the colleagues from the Phonogram Archive of the IRLI continued their field expeditions in order to collect folklore samples from various ethnic groups of peoples.  This was done with audio recordings, and also with informants so as to continue the work in Leningrad. These informants were representatives of the minority groups from the USSR and from abroad. This was the time when a collection of phonograph recordings was compiled with samples of various types of folklore from minority groups in the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East. Initially, this material was worked out by students of the Northern Department of Leningrad University. At a later date, it was  followed up by students of the Institute of the Peoples of the North. Concurrently, scholars in Leningrad and Moscow were actively involved in gathering information using phonographs in those places, too, which were traditionally inhabited by the peoples of the North: in West Siberia, the Northern Yenissey area and in Chukotka.

The most impressive amount of phonographic material dating back to the second quarter of the twentieth century is associated with various types of folklore song. A main emphasis was placed on improvisation. It is quite understandable that, during this period, the collectors were interested in improvised songs since the musical culture of these minority groups was easily accessible for ethno-musicological research.  The study of prose in folklore, by contrast, demands a profound knowledge of languages since these hold the key to the interpretation of folklore.

Among the recordings of the Phonogram Archive of the IRLI, the voices of Evenki poets Aleksei Platonov and Nikita Sakharov were preserved as well, as was the voice of Nikolai Tarabukin, the Even poet and prose writer. Also, the sounds of Akim Samar - the Nanai poet - Dzhansi Kimonko - the first Udege writer - and other literary and public figures among the peoples of the North of Russia were stored:  their voices are all preserved in the recordings. Among the documents associated with collecting this work and the research carried out on the samples of folklore available from these minority groups, there is quite an impressive number of valuable documents that illustrate the history of writing system development for the languages of the peoples of the North of Russia. We know that at the end of the nineteen-twenties, in certain parts of the country, teaching of the mother tongue took place with the help of the Cyrillic alphabet.  In 1932, however, alphabets were elaborated for the languages of the peoples of the North on the basis of the Latin script and were officially introduced into teaching and publishing, thus representing variations of a Unified Northern Alphabet. In 1936 and the beginning of 1937, the written language for the peoples of the North of Russia was officially changed to the Cyrillic script.

Written versions of individual texts in various languages, such as the Khanty, Evenki, and Nanai languages stored in the manuscript collection of the IRLI Phonograph Archive, provide a good example that both scripts-Latin and Cyrillic - were not foreign to the indigenous northern performers of folklore texts, nor to those who assisted the researchers in their studies and actively used these scripts to write down the texts in their native tongues.

The basis for the audio-funds of the peoples from Siberia and the Far East in the IRLI Phonograph Archive consisted of collections that had arrived in the nineteen-thirties from the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. The most valuable elements were represented by the monumental collections reflecting the results of the exploratory activities carried out by the pre-revolutionary collectors. Among these collectors, the following are particularly worth mentioning: A.V. Anokhin, V.I. Anutchin, V.I. Jochelson, A.N. Lipsky, S.D. Mainagashev, Ya. Strozhetsky, I.I. Suslov, S.M. Shirokogorov and L.Ya. Sternberg. During this period in history, their numbers grew, following the results achieved with the activities by the folklore specialists in the Phonogram Archive and also by the musicians of the Leningrad Conservatory. Furthermore, E.V. Gippius, Z.V. Evald and S.D. Magid were involved in an important undertaking with the recording of traditional folklore from students of the Institute of the Peoples of the North.

Among the most significant achievements of the following decades, we should mention a collection of phonograph cylinders - recorded in the nineteen-thirties - from the Moscow State Conservatory. The cultural heritage of the peoples of Siberia and the Far East on audio is also represented by a host of folklore recordings performed by the members of the All-Union study of folklore recordings, produced in the seventies and eighties under the guidance of ethno-musicological  specialists in Moscow and Leningrad.

From 2002 to 2004, the members of our project team participated in research on the phonograph recordings from  the collection and manuscript material in the IRLI Phonograph Archive, Russian Academy of Sciences. The team took part in  a project entitled "Voices of Taiga and Tundra", initiated by Professor Tjeerd de Graaf of the Frisian Academy in the Netherlands. Financial support was made available by the Netherlands Foundation for Scientific Research (NWO).

The following activities were carried out in accordance with the guidelines set: 

  1. Studying the catalogue material in the Audio Archive and in the computer catalogues produced, studying archive notes on the recordings as well as notations attached to the cylinders.
  2. Listening to the material from the Phonogram Archive (collections by different collectors) as well as to folklore material from different peoples - the peoples of the Tungus-Manchu group, and peoples of the Far North-East of the Russian Federation - in order to determine the character of separate recordings, their technical quality and condition, their feasibility when it comes to  deciphering and also with the aim of identifying those recordings which have no ethnic affiliation  or genre identification.
  3. Comparing the identified recordings with the printed texts available.
  4. Collecting information on the collectors themselves and on the performers whenever possible and necessary.
  5. Becoming acquainted with available documents containing well-known printed texts from the manuscript foundation, which could then be equated with the collected audio-material of the Phonogram Sound Archive at the IRLI.
  6. Compiling a list of specialists for the languages of the peoples in the Far North, Siberia and the Far East of Russia who could be recruited for further work on this project.

As a result of these activities, the general catalogue was supplemented with material on folklore from the peoples of the Far North, Siberia and the Far East of Russia.  In addition, some errors were corrected, and more precise information was introduced into the reading of certain texts (e.g. the names of many performers). The ethnic relationship of some recordings was updated with the help of  today's accepted classification system for the peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of Russia. The hand-written and typed texts of some recordings were clarified, and an interesting series of documents was discovered reflecting various episodes of the work performed by the collectors.

The folklore material related to the peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of Russia, as preserved in the Sound Archive IRLI and recorded on phonograph cylinders (1900 - 1940) and magnetic tapes (1950 -1990), concern the following peoples: 

Khanty  collection: No. 091, No. 124, No. 127, No. 133, No. 268;
Mansi  collection:  No. 124, No. 133, No. 268, No. 427, No. 437;
Saami  collection: No. 035, No. 191, No. 148;
Nenets collection: No. 027, No. 035, No. 146, No. 268, No, 436, No. 443, No. 449;
Selkup  collection: No. 449;
Ngnanasan  collection: No. 489;
Yakut  collection: No. 029, No. 032, No. 035, No. 035, No. 268, No. 449, No. 469, No. 491, No. 492, No. 493;
Dolgan  collection: No. 268, No. 449, No. 489;
Altai  collection: No. 030, No. 064, No. 159, No. 490. No. 494;
Teleut collection: No. 063, No. 159, No 494;
Tuvinian collection: No. 035;
Khakas  collection: No. 022, No. 035;
Khakhas (Khachints)  collection: No. 25, No. 494;
Khakas (Sagaits)    collection:  No. 025;
Khakhas (Khyzyls) collection: No. 025;
Evenki (Tungus)  collection: No. 020, No. 021, No. 026, No. 033, No. 035, No. 074, No. 094, No. 112, No. 126, No 133, No. 206, No. 449, No. 491, No. 492;
Even collection: No. 035, No. 124, No. 133, No. 206, No. 492;
Orochon  collection: No. 021, No. 023;
Udehe collection: No. 124, No. 133;
Nanai collection: No. 020, No. 035, No. 084, No. 133, No. 206, No. 268;
Chukchee collection: No. 206, No. 268, No. 428, No. 434, No. 447, No. 451;
Koryak  collection: No. 035, No. 206, No. 268;
Itelmen collection: No. 033, No. 206, No. 268;
Eskimo collection: No. 268, No. 428, No. 447, No. 451;
Aleutian collection: No. 034, No. 035;
Nivkh collection: No. 020, No.035, No. 084;
Ket collection: No. 26, No. 031, No. 065, No. 449.

Manuscripts and typed material on folklore of the peoples in the North, Siberia and the Russian Far East pertaining to the gathering of recordings on phonograph cylinders from the corresponding collection are stored in the IRLI Sound Archive in 14 folders. These folders are numbered as follows: Nos. 28, 34, 38, 51, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 61 and 62, according to the regular description of the manuscript (stored in the IRLI Sound Archive). Folder 65 - which only recently received an inventory number - and another folder without a number contain recordings of Nenets folklore performed by A.M. Shcherbakova in the nineteen-sixties. The material in these folders is diverse and comprises the following types of documents: 

  1. texts in languages spoken by the peoples of the North corresponding to the sounds recorded on the cylinders;
  2. translations of the texts of the recordings on the cylinders;
  3. brief presentations of texts of recordings on the cylinders performed in Russian;
  4. notes of the recordings on the cylinders;
  5. various descriptions of material from separate collections belonging to different collectors;
  6. a variety of documents related to the work done in recording the folklore samples from the peoples in the North onto the phonograph cylinders.

According to the ethnic composition of the manuscripts we studied in the IRLI Sound Archive, the folklore samples originate from folklore recordings of the Khanty, Evenki, Nanai, Even, Itelmen, Nivkh, Chukchee, Eskimo, and Saami.  Among the folders studied, there is also some material on Mari, Udmurt, Altai, Mongols, and Buryats. The majority of the manuscripts concerns the Evenks (almost all of folder 51) and the Nanai (a large part of folder 57). The material in folder 28 is also interesting: it relates to the Saamis and has texts in the Saami language, together with translations. Folder 34 refers to the Nenets and also contains texts in Nenets with translations in  Russian.

The type of documentation of certain texts affixed to their sounds and written in the original language or in translation on the cylinders may vary. Among the documents studied, there are both original texts without a translation and texts with a translation. Some text samples among the manuscripts only have a Russian translation. The original text documents may have been lost or were not affixed in written form when the cylinder texts were deciphered and compared  with the recordings which correspond to the written texts.  Still, the performer's name is often mentioned in the text, and this tremendously facilitates the search for cylinders with recordings corresponding to the written texts, since we have the existing catalogue of recordings on the cylinders.

It goes without saying that this material is truly unique and of great interest to the history of language study concerning the peoples in the North in the 1930's. As far as we know, there is no information on similar documents in other archives.

The text material we studied mainly includes recordings of songs; some recordings relate to stories and tales in prose and their number is not so great. They are of importance to those studying folklore of the peoples in the Russian North, as well as to those studying history and those gathering folklore of the northern people in the period from around 1900 up to the nineteen-thirties. The existence of written texts and translations stored in the IRLI sound archive facilitates linguistic study of the sound material. The recordings do not require deciphering, but only a comparison between the recorded sound and the written text.

A series of texts with folklore samples from the peoples of the North, which forms part of the range  studied, is of interest as far as the history of writing is concerned regarding the peoples of the North. There are texts in the IRLI sound archive written in Latin, texts written in Cyrillic and also parallel texts with both the Latin and Cyrillic version.

For those interested in the study of ethno-musicology and the history of folklore, there is a large collection of notes to the recordings on cylinders, compiled by S.D. Magid (folder 54).

The supplementary material offers descriptions of collections containing material investigated by S.M. Shirokogorov, B. E. Petri and V.K. Steinitz.  These collections carry their autographs.

The autographs of some poets and writers from the North are also present among the recording texts, manuscripts and various annotations - such as those of A. Samar and possibly A. Platonov and N. Tarabukin.

Among the material investigated and studied, the material in the Itelmen language and that on Nivkh folklore is most important from a study perspective, as are the texts in Khanty - not very abundant but of high quality -  and a comprehensive body of texts in Evenk and Nanai.

For scholars interested mainly in Ob-Ugric languages, there are two audio anthologies on Khanty and Mansi dialects, composed in 1956-1957 by A.A. Balandin with the help of M.P. Vakhrusheva-Balandina (folder 65). This material includes audio recordings of folklore and literary texts in the dialects of the Khanty and Mansi languages. Also, the manuscript fund has a written version of the audio texts in the original language, as well as a Russian translation (unfortunately, not all the Mansi texts have Russian translations). These readers represent quite a treasure for those studying Khanty and Mansi folklore.

There are two directions research can take in using the material from the IRLI audio archive collection for the preservation of languages and traditional ethnic cultures of minority groups in the Russian North, Siberia, and the Far East.  The same options are available for the future study of languages and folklore of these peoples, and also for the propagation of traditional ethnic culture of the peoples from the North and their cultural achievements in the last three quarters of the 20th century.  The two options are discussed below.

The First Direction

  1. First, philological processing of the material takes place.  The next move concerns deciphering and the ensuing translations into Russian or English, following which publication can take place - all of which in turn leads to the following stage, namely:
    • linguistic studies of the recorded language, definition of dialect features and peculiarities of the folklore language;
    • a repertoire study of the topic, after which it can be compared with folklore material available in archives and made known through publications.
  2. Ethno-musicological study of the song recordings, melodies, song fragments of epic events and shaman ritual texts in song.
  3. The ethnographic study of shaman documentation - types of rituals and specifics of performing them.  This  covers a wide area of interest: the chanting and singing by a shaman without external support;  rituals with the help of assistants; accompaniment of musical instruments when ritual texts are chanted and executed; dealing with the dissemination of shaman knowledge; dealing with newcomers within the community; the ritual practice itself and the practice of recreating these rites; the degree to which outside observers and collectors are allowed to use shaman texts, and so forth.


Considering the fact that the IRLI Sound Archive funds contain a large amount of material - collected during field expeditions - on the topic of shamans, it becomes clear that it was not difficult to record ritual texts. The large number of recordings from a significantly abundant number of shaman recordings - made by students of the Institute for Peoples of the North in the nineteen-thirties - tells us that shaman knowledge, mainly in the area of medicine, was widespread among the young generation of representatives of the peoples of the North in the nineteen-thirties. Apparently, some years after that period, the shaman rites were no longer so  popular, due to changing cultural priorities of that generation of peoples from the Russian North.

 The Second Direction

  1. Familiarise the representatives of minority groups from the North, Siberia and the Far East living in their traditional habitat with the best samples of prose, music and decorative folklore (dating back about 70 - 100 years) in order to raise the prestige of ethnic cultural traditions. One should draw attention to the traditional culture of minority groups of the North on behalf of the scientific community in different countries, and one should create the possibility of using this material in the educational process in educational institutions, at intermediary levels and in higher regional establishments.  One should also compile archive material and make it accessible for regional museums and cultural centres.
  2. Produce CDs with samples of oral national creativity, and vocal and musical art concerning the peoples of the Russian North.  The material should be aimed at regions within the Russian North.
  3. Compile and distribute material on CDs from collections on the languages and folklore of the peoples of the Russian North, as compiled by famous scholars - such as S.M. Shirokogorov, L.Ya. Sternberg, V.K. Steinitz and others.  Thus, scholars and scientific groups in Russia and in European countries can be offered an opportunity for continued, independent work with material dating back to the 1900's and 1930's.

The work carried out within the framework of the above-mentioned project has significantly widened the presentation of what has been achieved by several generations of researchers in the field of languages and folklore of peoples from the Far North, Siberia and the Far East in the 20th century. The catalogues of collections at the IRLI Sound Archive make it possible to fill in the gaps in the list of  folklore collectors.  The catalogues also enable us to consult the abundant supply of recordings gathered in the 1900's and 1930's, and to open up new pages in the history of the study of folklore of the peoples from Russia in the last quarter of the 20th century.  We have truly unique recordings at our disposal which have a great value for the study of almost all genres of folklore of various minority groups.  Thanks to the catalogues and the Archive, we are able to form ourselves a picture of various folklore traditions of individual groups and of the voluminous material on different genres.

The audio material in the IRLI Sound Archive enables us - in the widest sense of the term - to picture the development of the sound track recording devices formerly used by collectors.  This material should be accessible to those involved in phonetics in their research - geared both towards the study of archive recordings and also to the history of science itself related to learning the audio structure of the language with the help of  various techniques. The recordings on the cylinders and magnetic tapes, and the various manuscripts stored at the IRLI Sound Archive will play an important role as a source of authentic linguistic material for linguists specialized in the study of  languages spoken by minorities in the North, Siberia and the Far East of Russia, and also, very importantly, for those interested in the Uralic, Tungus-Manchurian and Turk languages. The only item left to bemoan is that the contemporary generation of linguists working with the languages of the peoples of the Russian North has certain difficulties with audio-recording the original language material in situations beyond the contacts with the informant-executioner.  Today's linguists working with the languages of the peoples of the Russian North do not have enough experience to translate oral speech from the language being studied into Russian. It is hoped and desired that, in the long run, the rich funds of the IRLI sound archive will be available to their full extent to specialists in languages and folklore of the peoples of the Russian North.

Contribution to the Conference of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives

Building an Archive for the Future

Riga 15 - 20 September 2007