Saul Matveevich Abramzon has been a key figure of the Soviet school of ethnography in Central Asia. As different from Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, where the scientific expertise has been more diverse, the ‘small’ republics of the former Soviet Union used to have each a renowned specialist: Sev’ian Vainshtein for the Tuvins, Tatiana Zhdanko for the Karakalpaks, Saul Abramzon for the Kyrgyz. In spite of the latter’s fundamental contribution to the ethnography and history of the Kyrgyz, his arguments, and methods, have been contested as early as the mid 1970s and, for different reasons, remain under scrutiny. The explanation lies in the fact that Abramzon, as many of his contemporaries, was a “politicised scholar”. Moreover, his major research topic—the ethnogenesis or the ethnic history of the Kyrgyz—was and remains politically sensitive. This article marks the 95th anniversary of the scholar and examines his materials on the Kyrgyz living in the XUAR of the People’s Republic of China (termed “Central Asian Kyrgyz” in the article, as opposed to or compared with the Kyrgyz of Kyrgyzstan, referred to as “Middle Asian Kyrgyz”). It thus supplements the already existing articles on Abramzon (referred to in note 19) that focus mainly on the latter’s contributions to the ethnography and history of the Kyrgyz of Kyrgyzstan. The major topic, viz. the Chinese Kyrgyz as I will call them here, is developed against the background of several questions of major importance for social research, namely the complementary nature of fieldwork and of the compilation of published data, of individual and team research, but also the dependence of scientific endeavours on political agendas.
A. M. Reshetov gives quite an exhaustive record of Abramzon’s major expeditions in Kyrgyzstan. So doing, he not only contextualises Abramzon’s activities, but also gives an insight into the organisation of ethnographic research in Kyrgyzstan up to the 1950s. The relation between random field encounters, such as those of Abramzon with otkochevshchiki (“migrants / exiles”) in the Osh region, and the genesis of an ambitious research programme, such as the one on Chinese Kyrgyz, is cleverly introduced. The specificity of this particular research programmes is made clear: In fact, as opposed to his long-term fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan, Abramzon never had the occasion to perform fieldwork among the Chinese Kyrgyz; as a consequence, his data results (1) from interviewing migrant Kyrgyz or Kyrgyz exiles; (2) from epistemological exchanges with a Chinese scholar, Hu Zhenhua; and (3) from compiling published data on Chinese Kyrgyz. Having described the hazards of scientific publishing in the Soviet Union during the 1950-1960s, the author presents Abramzon’s materials on Chinese Kyrgyz. As usually, Abramzon’s detailed ethnography is presented briefly (by a marriage ritual, p. 144), while the bulk of the article (pp. 144-146) follows Abramzon in one of his favourite subjects: the genealogy of the Kyrgyz, the history of various Kyrgyz genealogical lines as well as their “ethnogenesis” in different social surroundings and political settings. The examples discussed by the author are fragmentary but they give an idea of the richness of Abramzon’s materials.
Yet, the interpretations and contextualisation of these materials have had shortcomings not only in Abramzon’s life time. They still remain problematic as illustrated by certain statements in the present article (such as those on the “archaic features of marriage rituals” preserved by Chinese Kyrgyz, cf. p. 144, or on the meanings and functions of genealogical identification among the Kyrgyz, cf. pp. 144-145). In Abramzon’s time, it was not possible to measure arguments and theories in a broader context (let’s not forget that Fredrik Barth and Saul Abramzon are contemporaries; Barth’s Ethnic Groups and Boundaries was published in 1969 and Abramzon’s Kirgizy i ikh etnogeneticheskie i etnokul’turnye sviazi in 1972); this seems possible today. And I bet that Abramzon’s legacy will gain in importance if it is not approached only through the narrow prism of ethnogenesis. These remarks notwithstanding, A. M. Reshetov and his article constitute a valuable contribution both to the history of Soviet ethnography and to the history of Kyrgyz studies. In a period when Kyrgyzstan is the favourite destination of the majority of American and Western social scientists, it is useful to remind that this is not a no man’s land, and that the composite legacy of Soviet ethnography remains often unknown or underestimated.