The Historical-Ethnographic Society of St. Petersburg, which oversaw the ethnographic expedition led by Ansky, was created in 1908 by several members of the St. Petersburg Jewish community, including the philanthropist Moisei Akimovitch Ginsburg, the celebrated Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, and Ansky. Its goal was to gather, study, and analyze historical and ethnographic materials about the Jews in Russia and Poland from the appearance of the first Jewish settlements until the present day. It lasted until 1930.

Jewish Museum set up by Ansky, St. Petersburg

The ethnographic expedition was funded by Baron Vladimir Guenzburg, and included two specialists in Jewish musical folklore, as well as the photographer and artist Solomon Yudovin. The Expedition ended with the outbreak of World War I.

In 1916, Ansky set up a museum to house the expedition's artifacts in a building at 50 Fifth Liniya in St. Petersburg that contained the Jewish almshouse and several Jewish cultural preservation organizations. There were about 1000 items exhibited, including wax phonograph cylinders of folk songs; collections of folklore; manuscripts, and old books; photographs of synagogues and scenes from daily life; ritual utensils and objects; clothing; wedding decorations; and tableware. The members of the expedition also wrote down stories, histories, remedies, legends, sayings, and spells that were told to them.

The museum was closed around 1930, its exhibits divided and transferred to other museums. The ritual objects were said to have gone to the Soviet Government Museum of Ethnography in Leningrad (the name for St. Petersburg after the Russian revolution), where some were exhibited, and they are still stored. The museum's archives were sent to the Institute of Jewish Proletarian Culture in Kiev. There is evidence that in 1938 a large portion of the items were transferred to the Jewish Museum in Odessa, but their fate after the war is unknown. In 1992, the collection from the Soviet Government Museum of Ethnography was finally brought to the world outside Russia in a multi-national exhibition that traveled to Amsterdam, Cologne, Frankfurt, Israel, and New York City.

Tally of Items gathered during the expedition:*

A member of Ansky's expedition taking notes, 1914
Click to view enlarged

2,000 photographs
1,800 folktales and legends
1,500 folk songs and mysteries (i.e. biblical Purim plays)
500 cylinders of Jewish folk music
1,000 melodies to songs and niggunim without words
Countless proverbs and folk beliefs
100 historical documents
500 manuscripts and books
700 sacred objects acquired for the sum of six thousand rubles

Sample questions posed by the ethnographers to Jews they met during the expedition


excerpted * From: David G. Roskies, ed. The Dybbuk and Other Writings. Copyright © 1992 The Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature (New York: Schocken Books), p. xxiii.

Mikhail Beizer, Michael Sherbourne trans. The Jews of St. Petersburg. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, pp. 92-122.

Tracing An-sky: Jewish collections from the State Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg 1992-1994. Exhibition catalog.

ANSKY Introduction



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