Exhibition worthy of visit while in Saint Petersburg

Russian Folk Museum’s unique collection over a century old
By Viktar Andrejeu

On arriving in St. Petersburg, tourists rarely visit the Russian Folk Museum but it’s a site worth seeing, to learn how 19th century Belarusians lived and dressed. The unique museum opened back in the early 20th century but, even today, its employees visit Minsk to work with the Institute of Arts, Ethnography and Folklore (at the NAS of Belarus). The St. Petersburg museum recently organised a major international conference, entitled The Culture and Way of Life of Belarusians in Ethnographical Research and Museum Collections. 

Valentina Gavrishina, an expert in the folk history and customs of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, joins Aishat Gadzhieva, a research officer in specialised storage and musical culture, in hoping that we can learn more about our ancestors. The foremost task is to create a full catalogue of Belarusian folk collections in Belarus and Russia, including not just those held by large museums but by small schools.

How did St. Petersburg’s Folk Museum begin gathering Belarusian items?

The first exhibits arrived from the All-Trade Show, held in 1902 in St. Petersburg: fishing equipment, utensils and embroidered clothes worn by Belarusian rural residents. Ethnographers Alexander Serzhputovsky, Yevdokim Romanov, Yevgeny Lyatsky and V. Kostko (a student of St. Petersburg University) then began to gather items from Polesie, and the Vitebsk, Minsk and Mogilev provinces. We’ve preserved the richest archives, describing their work. In 1908, the Belarusian collection was expanded by A. Miller’s items collected from the Mogilev Province: household utensils and decorative pieces, including a bridegroom’s outfit and other clothes.

The same year, A. Rogozina brought clothes and baby items, as well as ritual accessories from the Minsk Province, while museum employee I. Akimov acquired a mid-19th century batleika (a Puppet theatre) with 25 puppets. 

However, by 1930, such expeditions ceased, only being renewed in the 1960-1980s. They stopped again as the USSR collapsed. Now, rushniks and old shirts are brought to us by Belarusians residing in St. Petersburg.

How closely linked were the folk traditions of Russian and Belarusian people in the early 20th century?

When our museum collection was formed a hundred years ago, Belarusian exhibits were often marked as ‘Russian’ in the card index; Russian ones were always marked as ‘great Russian’ (velikorusskie’). Our cultures do share much in common, as is to be expected from neighbouring states.

How does your collection differ from that of the Museum of Ancient Belarusian Culture at the Institute of Arts, Ethnography and Folklore (of the NAS of Belarus)?

The major difference is that the Minsk museum was formed in the 1970s, while ours was created a hundred years earlier so we boast much older pieces.

Why haven’t we seen an album or catalogue from St. Petersburg’s Folk Museum?

It’s high time we did. Moreover, we should compile a common Belarusian-Russian catalogue of Belarusian folk items. In Karelia, they’re compiling a register of small museum collections. I’m working with my colleagues from Petrozavodsk and it would be interesting to also liaise with Minsk historians in this direction.
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