Soviet Ethnographic Maps

Displays of ethnohistorical advancements became increasingly important to Soviet politicians as the Soviet Union drew closer to building communism in the post-Stalin years. In these terms, ethnohistorical advancement translated into the national consolidation of the Soviet population. This generally took the form of assimilating minority, sub-republic communities into the so-called “principal” or “titular” nationalities that had republics named after them, such as the Azeris, Georgians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, and Tajiks.

The maps in this collection represent the assimilation story of one of these minority populations—the Talysh of Azerbaijan. When the Soviet census of 1959 was published, it revealed that the Talysh, an Iranian-speaking, Muslim population living in the Soviet-Iranian borderlands, had supposedly declined from nearly 90,000 persons in Azerbaijan’s 1939 census to 85 individuals. But removing a people from the census was an incomplete measure toward their erasure from the Soviet landscape. Census politics were informed and supported by interconnected narrative strategies that scientists and politicians generated and invoked to builds myths of assimilation. Through texts like the maps on display here, ethnographers, geographers, and other Soviet elites inculcated the pervasive sense that titular nations were an evolving part of Soviet modernity, but non-titular peoples and self-understandings—like the Talysh—belonged to the past.