Communism and Shamanism

Maurice Bloch

  • Karl Marx Collective: Economy, Society and Religion in a Siberian Collective Farm by Caroline Humphrey
    Cambridge, 522 pp, £30.00, July 1983, ISBN 0 521 24456 0

Most of us have very little idea of what life is actually like in the Soviet Union for ordinary people. We are so bombarded by various kinds of propaganda that the Communist world becomes a mythological place, to the extent that when we catch glimpses of the reality, we are surprised to find it peopled by ordinary human beings. Caroline Humphrey’s book, Karl Marx Collective, tells us what we want to know: what is the relation between theory and practice, what is the relation of the state and the party to the local unit – in this case collective farms – how much are individuals constrained in their lives by central planning, what is family life like, what are schools like, what are funerals like? This is not, however, a subjective account, such as we would find in an autobiography or a short interview. It is a very thorough study of the institutions, laws and government which apply to collective farms, but it combines this with the effect of external structures on daily life. This combination of levels would make the study an outstanding example of modern anthropological description, even if its subject-matter was not of such intrinsic interest in the first place.

Going down from general Soviet policy concerning the political economy of the Union and the place of collective farms in it, to a specific case, inevitably necessitates an understanding of the culture and history of the people studied. Nowhere can there be a typical collective farm, unmarked by the peculiarity of the place and people. Humphrey’s study concentrates on two farms, both named after Karl Marx and found in the part of south-east Siberia which constitutes the Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. The Buryats, who form most of the population of the Republic, are a people with close Mongolian affinities. As such, they are part of a group of cultures for which there have been very few recent studies. This makes the book even more interesting and important.

Caroline Humphrey started her study of the Buryat as a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at Cambridge. From there she set out in 1966 for the USSR with a view to examining kinship and shamanism, the old traditional religion of that part of the world. She studied in Moscow and at Ulan Vole, the capital of the autonomous Republic, and was able to do fieldwork for two months. She returned again in the winter of 1974/5 to do more direct observation. The conditions of research in the USSR have meant that she has done less ‘participant observation’ than is usual for British social anthropologists, but the perspective given by the period that elapsed between the two visits has been put to good use. In other ways, too, practical obstacles have been turned to advantage. Humphrey has scoured the available literature with a thoroughness and a care that is still often lacking in anthropology. In doing this, she makes us aware of the amount of ethnographic research carried out and published in the Soviet Union and by judicious quotations we get a good impression of its detail and the occasional surprising frankness. Also put to excellent use are newspaper articles and local novels which illustrate well many of the points she makes, often with intentional, as well as unintentional, humour. It is extraordinary to realise what can be done with a little field-work and much scholarship, care and sensitivity.

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