Transoxiana, Journal Libre de Estudios Orientales

Transoxiana 12
Agosto 2007
ISSN 1666-7050


The Biggest Expedition
Studying the Ancient Iranian World: Chorasmian Expedition of S.P. Tolstov

Dr. Sergey A. Yatsenko

Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow. Email: sergey_yatsenko[@]
Among the ruins, in the clay and dust
A smile was found by the archaeologists
From crocks that were scattered here and there
A face appeared that was fair.
It was enlightened with a smile
And wonderfully differed from
All the others, irreproachable ones but soulless,
The ones of pompous goddesses and queens.
Valentin Berstov (Berestov 1962, 83)
See Tolstov's Chorasmian Expedition Pictures at Transoxiana Image Gallery

January 2007 – is the hundredth anniversary of one of the most famous archaeologists who investigated monuments of Central Asia – Sergey Pavlovitch Tolstov (1907– 1976). The man became an alive legend, the embodiment of severe desert romance and wonderful discoveries of new cultures, which has always been the most attractive aspect of archaeological science. He amazed everybody by his original vision of common things, by his indomitable energy, by the talent to discover a distant perspective in any venture at its initial stage, by the ability to get his exotic projects financed by Russian authorities by well organized data processing and publishing of expedition materials.

His childhood and social origin seemed not to give any hope for such a breathtaking career in the post revolution communist Russia. Indeed, he was born to the family of monarchical oriented high ranked officers and originated from military settlers – the Ural Cossacks who later became strong opponents to communists. His grandfather was a general and took part in military actions in the Caucasus and the Balkans. His father was an officer in the Emperor’s guard in the capital of the Russian Empire – Saint-Petersburg and its suburbs. The parents of the famous scholar got acquainted during the Russian – Japanese War of 1904–1905. (Maria Badaeva worked as a sister of charity in the zone of war actions). Sergey “was lucky” as his parents of “non-proletarian, class enemy origin” died early enough of serious diseases – tuberculoses and cancer (father died a few months before the October Revolution of 1917, and soon after that his mother also died, before her death having placed her four sons into an orphanage not far from Moscow). Sergey’s three brothers were very gifted; one of them became an artist, another one made a career of a famous military mathematician and general, the third – a ship captain. In the orphanage S. Tolstov met his future wife and they got married rather early.

In 1923 Sergey became a student at the Department of Anthropology of Moscow State University. He got a very good education, his teachers once being students of the most famous in pre-revolutionary Russia anthropologist and ethnologist - professor D.N. Anuchin. According to his conception, scientific expeditions should be organized as complex ones, both archaeological and ethnological. Being a student S. Tolstov took an active part in such expeditions beginning from 1925 in the Middle Volga at Nizhniy Novgorod where representatives of different peoples, both Christians and Muslims lived together. It was just that time when he got interested in the culture of Islam. In 1929 a future great explorer of Central Asia, a student at that time, for the first time took part in the expedition under the direct guidance of P. Preobrazhensky to Chorasmian (Khwarezmian) Oasis in the Low Amudarya and studied traditions of one of the most powerful among 24 nomadic tribes of the Turkmen (Yomuds). It turned out that a future leading ethnologist in the Soviet Union – Sergey A. Tokarev (who was 8 years of his senior) also worked in the expedition.

S. Tolstov went on working in this region in 1932–1934 being the expedition leader from the Museum of Ethnography of the Peoples of the USSR. These years were very unpleasant for specialists in the sphere of culture and history, productive scientific work became a very difficult occupation. In 1929 the personal dictatorship of I. V. Stalin had practically been established, and in 1930–1933 the peasants of almost 130 peoples in the vast country were subjected to a monstrous experiment – the so-called “collectivization”, which meant disappearance of their traditional culture, mass repressions against rich and most hard-working peasants and, in fact, revival of feudal serfdom in the form of so-called “collective farms”. In Turkmenia anti-communist partisans - “basmaches” with Junaid-khan at the head – were very active, and it was very dangerous for visiting scholars to work among natives. In 1930 ethnology was proclaimed for some time to be a false bourgeois science by marxist radicals. Young and ambitious Tolstov, if he wanted to continue his work, should follow new rules and convict “class enemies” from tribunes. In 1933 the system of scientific and cultural institutions studying regional specificity (kraevedenie) was destroyed and its leaders were done away with, as active supporters of “nobility and counter-revolutionary clergy heritage”. Temples of different confessions were often being closed and even demolished everywhere. Under such circumstances S. Tolstov became one of the ideologists of the new “marxist” cultural regionalistics, also having added some rational ideas in it.

To interpret S.P. Tolstov’s behaviour at that period and later on from the right point of view it is necessary to know that his uncle – a Cossack general-lieutenant – Vladimir Sergeevitch Tolstov – in 1919, the most terrible year of the Civil War in Russia, was elected Head Ataman (chieftain) of the Ural Cossacks and commanded an army which was later on surrounded by the Reds in the Mangyshlak desert at the Caspian Sea. The high command of the Reds suggested capitulation, and the grandfather of Sergey Tolstov was among those who believed (soon the Reds broke their word and fired him); but his uncle with a small group of friends and his wife refused and managed to break out of encirclement, came the most difficult way across the desert and survived. His memoirs in the Russian language “From the Reds’ Paws to Unknown” (Istanbul, 1921) were kept in secret departments of some Moscow libraries (unfortunately, living in Soviet Russia Sergey never had an opportunity to read it). But the book was well-known to his enviers and undisguised enemies (this talented man always had many of them even after his death). It was mortally dangerous to have such a famous relative for any citizen of communist Russia notwithstanding his social position. Of course, his “opponents” in “scientific discussions” let neither him, nor secret services of the country forget about the fact that he was a close relation of the most dangerous class enemy and a White emigrant. Not only his career, his life itself was hanging by a thread, and, evidently, each publication seemed to him to be the last one. But nevertheless, to be differed from many others, he never denied completely having a family with such past and in official papers he usually mentioned his origin “from Cossacks”.

In 1935 Tolstov completed his PhD Dissertation devoted to the social struggle in 586 in Bukhara region. At the period when the main official methodological text on the interpretation of history of ancient societies was a small book by Karl Marx’s friend F. Engels “The Origin of the Family, the Private Property and the State” Sergey dared to propose a number of his own ideas. Tolstov was one of not numerous scholars and scientists in the capital who managed to get a separate apartment for his family whereas the majority of people at that time had just a room for a family in common flats for several families sharing a kitchen, a toilet and a corridor. As a matter of fact the flat was situated in a premises not adjusted for living (a former stable) with windows on the level of the ground (as if in the cellar) and the yard all covered with grass, but it seemed to be a miracle then.

But the main wonder of Sergey’s life was still waiting for him. In 1938 the famous Chorasmian (Khwarezmian) Archaeological-Ethnological Expedition was started under his leadership. The district chosen for research was situated in the Low Amudarya, in Karakalpak Autonomic Republic after a series of prospecting trips by a number of scholars as a lot of ancient ruins had been marked on Russian military topographic maps long ago. The USSR Government was interested in the research of additional possibilities for widening of lands under cultivation in the district and the research seemed very actual. The prospecting groups of the expedition moved across the desert by camels or just walked. There is Sergey’s recollection about the discovery of Toprak-kala – a famous monument of the world archaeology, a cultic complex of a king’s dynasty of ancient Chorasmia (Khwarezm) (the 2nd – 3rd cc. AD) in one of the evenings in October 1938. Having seen some huge ruins lost in a gloomy flat salt marsh with a sucking surface from a neighboring fortress, Sergey asked his local guide what fortress it was and got an answer: “It is Toprak-kala, there is nothing interesting there.” At sunset a small group of prospectors were having supper at the foot of the “uninteresting fortress” (Rapoport, 2000, 7-8). The same year another monument, which became famous later on, – Koy-Krylgan-kala (the 4th – 2nd cc. BC) was discovered in barkhan sands by the group of Tolstov.

In 1939 Tolstov simultaneously headed two leading institutions studying the culture of pre-industrial societies – the Department of Ethnography in Moscow State University (he headed it till 1952) and Moscow Branch of the Institute of the History of Material Culture (now – the Institute of Archaeology), Russian Academy of Science. He practically completed his third Dissertation (Diss. h.c.). But it was interrupted by Hitler’s aggression against the Soviet Union in 1941.

His first days of the Second World War Tolstov dreamt to volunteer and get to the most dangerous sector of the front. In July 1941 many scientific workers of the Historical Faculty of Moscow State University tried to volunteer although they did not have any special military qualification. However, soon all professors were ordered to come back to their working places. Only three people refused to do it (two of them were soon killed) Tolstov being among those three (Rapoport, Semenov 2004, 194).

As many people who displayed courage in war Tolstov did not like to talk about it. Small wonder that his colleagues having worked many years together with him knew about his war period only after his death from some recollections of other people and official documents (Zhdanko, Rapoport 1995, 63-64). During the war many talents and organizing abilities of Sergey rapidly became apparent. Soon, to contradict general regulation, he started to head a small group of scouts. Meanwhile, superbly equipped “Fuhrer’s invincible armies” strained to Moscow (as it turned out later, to their own destruction). The 8th infantry division of the Red Army was surrounded in the district of El’nya to the west from Moscow. At one of the most tragic moments of Moscow defense, on the 5th of October 1941 the platoon under Tolstov’s command had to cover the retreat of a number of regiments in the district of village Ust’-Demino. Here during one day his group was able to beat off three attacks of German motorized infantry considerably outnumbering them in people, weapons and equipment and supported by artillery. In this battle Sergey was wounded for the first time. On the 21st of October he was wounded again, in the leg but with the help of one of his friends he could not only get to the hospital but save the cannon he was responsible for, and all that in the condition of German breakthrough, encirclement of regiments and partial panic! However, his wound not being treated for a long time, he felt considerably worse. A hospital train took him to the east – first to one of the cities in Central Asia – Tashkent and then – to South Siberia (Krasnoyarsk). After hospital Tolstov insisted on coming back to the front, but the professor was ordered to come to Moscow. Both scientific institutions where he had worked were evacuated to Tashkent and soon Tolstov turned out there too (his colleagues considered him dead and had even performed an official ceremony of civil funeral).

As the director of the Institute of Ethnology of RAS Tolstov had to evacuate the personnel of Leningrad Department from the huge dying city blockaded by Germans for 2.5 years to Moscow; he had to bring back another part of his colleagues from Central Asia. He managed to accumulate the best part of survived specialists of the country at the Institute. In the hardest conditions he could renew publishing of two Institute’ magazines, he was preparing the issue of the first volume of the famous “History of the peoples of Uzbekistan”. Much younger Ya.H. Gulyamov and R.N. Nabiev became his co-authors and friends. Much attention should be paid to the critic of fascist “racial theories” (as it is well-known in case of Hitler’s victory he and his adepts were planning to terminate many peoples inhabiting the Soviet Union including the multi-million Russian people as the representatives of “inferior racial groups” with “primitive” psychology and culture) (Zhdanko, Rapoport 1995,72-73). A lot of young people coming back from the front appeared at the Institute and Tolstov became not only their leader in science but also a life guide. At the same time together with seven of his colleagues he thought of publishing a series of generalizing works on traditional cultures of all main regions of the world (“Peoples of the World”), which had no analogies in the world then; later on these publications resulted in 18 volumes. Tolstov also managed to organize the re-edition of many classic works by pre-revolutionary Russian ethnologists.

The Second World War cost the Soviet Union great sacrifices (only direct losses in manpower according to the modern data made more than 30 000 000 people). The country was ruined, lots of outstanding scientists and scholars died, thousands of museums were plundered by occupants. People lacked everything in everyday life. However, S.P. Tolstov managed not only to obtain the renewal of work for Chorasmian expedition but its considerable extension as well in those difficult years. In 1946-1950 the main object of research was the king’s cultic center Toprak-kala and in 1952-1957 – another cultic center – Koi-Krylgan-kala. During field work Tolstov was a strict leader and sometimes gave way to rage, he often risked his life and lives of his subordinates (both did not realize it to a full extent at that). His style of guidance at the Institute was rather authoritative on the whole. But his subordinates respected his intelligence, organizing talents, bright unusual ideas and many of them loved him.

Tolstov managed to gain a great support for his expedition at that difficult time from both the central government and local authorities of Kara-Kalpak Republic. There were simultaneously several groups working in different regions of Central Asia. There were planes, portable power-stations, the whole caravans of special automobiles at their disposal. But the most important factor in the expedition was manpower, the people who left the capital every year and heroically worked for several months during sand storms in the desert, in infernal heat and late autumn coldness. It is very important to remark that Tolstov was a genuine internationalist and could not stand any discrimination of people on the national basis. For example, from 1948 Stalin and his adepts openly revived the policy of anti-Semitism inherited from the position of Russian emperors (after helping in the creation of Israel and the refusal of its leaders to provide a pro-Soviet political approach, Stalin prepared a plan of deportation of all Soviet Jews survived in the Second World War to East Siberia). Anyway’ Tolstov notwithstanding clear directions of authorities took many young and talented Jews into the collective of his large expedition. It should also be mentioned that he willingly helped talented young women to take good jobs, (which was not a typical matter at that time).

At the beginning of 50-ies comparatively young Tolstov was literally overstrained with a great amount of work created by authorities and circumstances: he headed the Institute of Ethnology and the Institute of Oriental Studies RAS, the Department of Ethnology in Moscow University, magazine “Soviet Ethnography“, Chorasmian expedition and was one of the leaders of Soviet (Russian) Academy of Science. But an unpleasant “surprise” – one of many more in his life was waiting for him again. Not long before his death Stalin unexpectedly decided to discrown his former idol – linguist N.Ya. Marr. Tolstov who had often quoted his works was made to “repent before the Party” in the assembly hall of State Moscow University in 1951 and it was a great humiliation. Many people got a “good” chance to insult a famous scholar with impunity. Soon after that Tolstov suffered from a stroke. Doctors helped him recover and come back to work, but one of his legs did not function properly and his speech ability became worse. However, despite doctors’ advice nobody could forbid him to return to his work in the desert (Rapoport, Semenov 2004, 204-205). Soon, beginning from 1959-1960 the sphere of expedition work was extended to the Low Syrdarya where Olga A. Vishnevskaya and Maryanna A. Itina excavated famous barrows of nomadic Sakas – Uygarak and Tagisken (7th -5th cc. BC).

Tolstov aimed at fast and qualitative publishing of expedition materials which accumulated abundantly. He was the first one in the Soviet Union to organize the issue of operative observations on discovered monuments in “Materials of Khorasmian Expedition” and simultaneously the publication of large volumes of capital generalizations in “Works of Khorasmian Expedition”. His book “Ancient Chorasmia. Attempt of the Historical – Ethnographical Study” (1948) may be considered the top of his research work. It is an excellent example of a combined archaeological, historical and ethnological approach. The book played a considerable role in forming scientific interests even of those archaeologists who had never been interested in Central Asia specially and due to fine analysis and vast erudition of the author it has not lost its meaning so far. In 1962 the second book by Tolstov about ancient Chorasmia actually summed up his long-term study (Tolstov). From 1958 after the new leader of the country N. Khrushchev made the “iron curtain” much lower and more transparent Tolstov got a chance to tell his colleagues abroad about the results of his excavations in the Low Amudarya and Low Syrdarya.

The years of hard work in deserts of Central Asia could not but effect the health of the famous scholar. In 1964 he had the second stroke and next year had to leave his leading posts (being the leader of Chorasmian expedition for some years more). Being seriously ill for the last 12 years of his life Tolstov had to stop active work. His death was agonizing. Chorasmian expedition continued its work after the death of its founder gradually lessening the amount of work; serious difficulties for Russian scholars appeared in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, cutting in financing and a burst of nationalism in Central Asia. Officially the expedition stopped its activities approximately by 2003. And the small Department of Ethnoarchaeology (Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology RAS) headed by Irina Arzhantseva became its successor.

As I have already mentioned above there have always been Tolstov’s enviers and enemies up to now. And it goes without saying all these people have known neither him nor the specificity of work in his expedition; they have even not read his main scientific publications attentively. A few years ago in some French newspapers and even in articles of some archaeologists – former citizens of the Soviet Union who settled in France and Germany there appeared rather strange publications about him. In addition to it their authors imply that if they had been him 70 years ago under the condition of one of the most terrible in the history of mankind dictator regimes they would always have been men of principle absolutely without any doubt; they would have waged relentless struggle against the communist rule; they would have been uncompromising in anything and that Tolstov himself was a thoughtless satrap of tyrant Stalin etc. (Some authors also offer “alternative”, both absurd and fantastic interpretations of the monuments explored by him). Unwillingly one letter by the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin written almost 200 hundred years ago to his friend Prince P.A. Vyazemsky concerning Lord Byron comes to my mind:” The crowd… in its meanness is joyful to see the humiliation of a great wit, the weakness of a powerful person. Having discovered any abdomination the crowd is in delight as he is as loathsome as we are! Liars you are, scoundrels: he is loathsome and worthless but not like you– otherwise!” (Pushkin 1937, 143). Nothing to add! A very important role in popularization of S. Tolstov’s activities has been played for the recent 15 years by Yury A. Rapoport, one of his main assistants, the main explorer of Toprak-kala and a specialist on Zoroastrianism. Indeed, his memoirs and articles about S.P. Tolstov nowadays look the most interesting and informative ones.

A modest (as far as its size is concerned) exhibition “History of One Expedition” devoted to the largest archaeological expedition in the Soviet Union and one of the biggest ones in the world – Chorasmian – started in 1938 by Sergey Tolstov, was functioning in Moscow in January 2006 in the State Museum of Orient Art. Two active participants of Chorasmian expedition from “a younger generation” – Yu. A. Rapoport’s daughter – Nadezhda Yu. Vishnevskaya (Museum of Oriental Art) and Irina A. Arzhantseva (Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology RAS) became the main organizers of the exhibition. I am grateful to both of them for presenting unique photos from personal archives of the expedition participants for my article. These photos (except the last) were made between 1946 and 1957. The photos were restored due to the financial support of I. Arzhantseva and were also exhibited. The exhibition had tens of pictures demonstrating everyday life of its workers in the difficult condition of desert: tent interiors, excavation work, observation of new monuments, free time entertainment. There was a number of S. Tolstov’s depictions, ones in his favorite English cork “colonial helmet” being among them.

Due to its psychological and cultural message the exhibition has had no analogies in world archaeology. One could hear the texts of expedition songs, created in 50-ies of the 20th century (the records being restored by the opening of the exhibition), visitors could also see the official newsreel of 1952 devoted to the expedition routs between the Caspian and Aral Seas. On the exhibition opening day there were about 300 people who came from different countries. Once they were working in the expedition from generation to generation. Many of them found devoted friends and happiness in privet life there, meet the possibility to see the severe scenery of Central Asian desert, the beauty of ancient constructions of raw bricks created 2000 years ago but looking as if being built only yesterday. Many people in the hall were crying. Everybody was recollecting a wonderful spirit of creativity and friendship in the expedition and also amiable relation between the scientific workers and common workmen, guides and cooks from local population. Today looking at these old photos we see young faces unusual faces of people from the previous generation at a very difficult period in Russian history. These are faces of happy people doing their favorite work.

Chorasmian expedition was not only a scientific organization in the Soviet Union but also a specific cultural center. Yu.A. Rapoport was together with Valentin Berestov the author of about 40 lyrics of the famous expedition songs (music by Ryurik Sadakov) the texts of which were recorded for the 50th anniversary of Tolstov in 1957 and published officially not long ago (Songs 2001). Several well-known photographers and painters worked in the expedition (artists depicted desert landscapes and monuments being explored in oil and water-color). Bulat Okudzhava, the most popular bard with oppositional intellectuals, dreamt to volunteer the expedition but his wish did not come true. Valentin D. Berestov a very well-known poet and writer of Russia creating for children worked there for many years. His popular books, such as “Queen Desert”, “Sward in Gold Sheath”, “There will Be No Adventures” were born there. They reveal beautiful romance of Central Asian deserts and all of the best that archaeology gives us not only as a science but also as a style of life. The youth in 1970-1980-ies volunteered Chorasmian expedition with enthusiasm. There was not only interesting work but remarkable, talented people, there were amateur performances staged there, people from different cities, of different nationalities and professions made friends (for example, among the volunteers there were several mathematicians, architects, biologists and others).

The phenomenon of Chorasmuan expedition still needs to be properly thought over in full detail. This article is only a small step on the way to fulfill this task.


Berestov V.D., 1962. There will Be No Adventures (Priklyucheniy ne budet). Moscow: Molodaya gvardiya. 158 pp.

Pushkin Alexandr S., 1938. The Complete Works in Six Volumes (Polnoe sobranie sochineniy v shesti tomah). Vol. 6. Moscow: Goslitizdat.

Rapoport Yu.A., 2000. Introduction (Vvedenie) – Rapoport Yu.A., Nerazik E.E., Levina L.M. In the Lower Oxus and Yaxsartes. The Images of Ancient Aral Sea Region (V nizovyah Oksa i Yaksarta. Obrazy drevnego Priaral’ya). Moscow: Indrik, 5-14.

Rapoport Yu.A., Semenov Yu.I., 2004. Sergey Pavlovitch Tostov: the Famous Archaeologist, Ethnologist and Organizer of Science (Sergey Pavlovitch Tostov: vydayushchiysya etnograf, archeolog i organizator nauki) – The Prominent Native Ethnologists and Anthropologists (Vydayushchiesya otechestvennye etnologi i antropologi XX veka) (Ed. by V.A. Tishkov, D.D. Tumarkin). Moscow: Nauka, 184-232.

Songs of the Chorasmian Expedition (Pesni Khorezmskoy expeditsii) (1947-1955), 2001. (Ed. by Yu.A. Rapoport). Moscow: Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology RAS. 92 pp.

Tolstov S.P., 1948. Anchient Chorasmia. Attempt of the Historical-Archeological Study (Drevniy Khorezm. Opyt Istoriko-arkheologicheskogo issledovaniya). Moscow: Moscow State University Press, 352 pp.

Tolstov S.P., 1962. Along and Ancient Deltas of Oxus and Jaxartes (Po drevnim del’tam Oksa i Yaksarta). Moscow: Vostochnaya literatura Publ., 325 pp.

Zhdanko T.A., Rapoport Yu.A., 1995. The War Years in the Life of S.P. Tolstov (Gody voiny v zhizni S.P. Tolstova) – EO, 1995/2, 62-75.


EO - Etnograficheskoe obozrenie (Ethnological Review), New Series (Moscow).


Tolstov's Chorasmian Expedition at Transoxiana Image Gallery

Fig. 1. Toprak-kala. Sergey P. Tolstov examines the Chorasmian documents on wood, dated back to the 2nd-3rd cc. AD.

Fig. 2. Sergey P. Tolstov: there must be peace between the participants of the Expedition.

Fig. 3. Sergey P. Tolstov and Ol’ga A. Vishnevskaya in the excavation trench.

Fig. 4. Exploration group of Chorasmian expedition in Karakum sound desert.

Fig. 5. Meeting of the air observation and automobile exploration groups of Chorasmian expedition in Kyzylkum desert (1948).

Fig. 6. Air observation of Chorasmian expedition near Adamli-kala.

Fig. 7. Tent camp of Chorasmian expedition near the High Palace of Toprak-kala, Kyzylkum desert (1950).

Fig. 8. Chorasmian expedition group in Toprak-kala palace (1946).

Fig. 9. Site Janbas 4. Supper near the fire in desert (1948).

Fig. 10. Topographic works near ancient ruins.

Fig. 11. Pilots of airplane of the air observation group.

Fig. 12. Bekdillya – the first local desert guide of Sergey P. Tolstov with his hunting golden eagle.

Fig. 13. Early morning. Bella I. Vainberg wakes the expedition colleagues in desert.

Fig. 14. Reading of the self-made expedition’ newspaper.

Fig. 15. Koi-Krylgan-kala after the excavations (1957). Air photo.

Fig. 16. Yakke-Parsan castle, Kyzylkum desert. Air photo.

Fig. 17. Jigerbent fortress, Karakum desert. The non-official all-Russian Day of Archaeologist (August 15, 1976). The volunteers dinner. The transparent: “Lets turn the excavation trench into blossoming garden!”; text on the balloon: “Jigerbent is the light future of the whole mankind!” (parody on the official Communist Party slogans).

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