The formation of the Lithuanian ethnic ‘type’: The case of Povilas Višinskis’ ethnographic photography

Authors: Adomas Narkevicius*,
Topics: Ethnicity and Race, East Europe
Keywords: Ethnic Type, Racial Anthropology, Russian Empire, Ethnographic Photography, Povilas Višinskis
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Virtual 42
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper explores a pivotal part of the un-theorised and under-historicised archive of
Lithuanian political and cultural activist Povilas Višinskis (1875 – 1906), a significant figure
in the development of Lithuanian modern national identity. As a case study, the paper
investigates Povilas Višinskis’ 1896-98 expeditions to his native Samogitia to conduct
ethnographic research including anthropometric photography. It traces the underlying
relations between the Western European colonial anthropological theory and its ‘scientific’
appropriation in the Russian Empire to construct a body of political knowledge about the
‘underdeveloped’ Others of its North-Western peripheries.

At the time Višinskis studied in the University of St. Petersburg under Eduard Petri (1854 –
1899), the first scholar to introduce the German school of ethnography and anthropology to
the Russian Empire, owing to the racial and evolutionist theories of Francis Galton among
others. Through the Russian Anthropological Society, Petri provided funds for Višinskis’
anthropometric study. Self-identified first-generation Lithuanian, Višinskis travelled back to
his birthplace to determine the Lithuanian ‘type’. His photographs and writings lay bare the
Russian Imperial gaze entangled with Višinskis’ nationalist agenda and the unspoken class
tensions between the activist-cum-photographer and his subjects.

The attempts to essentialise the identity of Lithuanian inorodtsy towards different political
ends are undermined upon ethnographer’s family members entering the picture frame.
Dwelling closely with the archival material, this paper argues that Višinskis’ project is a site
of identity contestation and renders visible the nuanced web of power relations forming
within the region at the turn of the twentieth century.

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