Museum secret next to blasphemy
Interview by Oleg Kusov. Exclusively for Vestnik Kavkaza
The Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of Peter the Great of the Russian Academy of Sciences (the Kunstkamera Museum) is thought to be one of richest museums of the world. However, the attitude toward the skull of the legendary naib Haji Murad by the leadership of the museum is surprising for representatives of scientific and creative circles of the Caucasus. For the museum’s administration it is one of numerous exhibit items (there are about 1,883,412 of them), while for the Caucasus people it is a part of the relics of one of the most respected national heroes of the 19th century. Representatives of the St. Petersburg intelligentsia have also expressed their negative attitude to keeping the skull in the museum. Almira Tagirjanova, a scholar studying the Muslim History of Palmyra of the North, told Vestnik Kavkaza that in the late 19th century a demonstration of the skull of an enemy of the Empire could have had a political meaning. But today it is not relevant.
- We should ask scientists, staff of the museum, the medical community, whether the skull presents a scientific value. So many years have passed! I would like to know the points of view of religious scholars, what they think about the issue. As a woman, a regional scholar, a native resident of St. Petersburg (my family has been living here for 200 years), I believe the topic should be closed. A museum is not a place for the naib’s skull.
- Do you think it should be buried?
- Of course it should be.
- You have opponents. They say the skull is needed for scientific purposes.
- I think it could have been useful for science many years ago.
- Do you think the authorities could have used it for political purposes at the time?
- No doubt they could have. In 1852 it was the only evidence that the enemy had been defeated and such a person didn’t exist anymore.
We decided to follow Tagirjanova’s advice and addressed experts studying Russian-Caucasus relations. We telephoned Makka Albogachiyeva, a senior scientist of the Caucasus Ethnography Department of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography n.a. Peter the Great.
- Makka, do you think the skull of Haji Murad is valuable for science today?
- I am absolutely sure that it is not. Moreover, Gerasimov [a Soviet anthropologist, archeologist, and sculptor who reconstructed the appearance of Haji Murat in 1964, according to his skull] reconstructed the naib’s image many years ago. Even if the skull was scientifically valuable, it must not be kept in such a way. I think the reason for that is that museum collections are kept in foundations today, as we can see.
- Do you think it is impossible to bury the skull today? Why?
- I think it is possible, but we don’t know who should make the decision. People from Dagestan and Azerbaijan have many times visited Yuri Chistov (the director of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography n.a. Peter the Great). They asked him to return the skull. We have addressed our directorate many times, but we haven’t received a response. Moreover, the skull of Haji Murat was filed away in storage. There is a document which confirms it. I think it could be a reason for passing the skull.
- Where is it now?
- It is in our storage. We have never seen it, of course, and we don’t know where it is stored. The head of our department, Yuri Karpov, has dealt with Dagestan for all his life. He has visited it many times, and of course he is always asked about it. And people from the Caucasus visit us all the time – several delegations annually. We don’t know why the skull has not been returned yet. Probably I don’t have complete information.
- What should be done with the skull? Should it be buried? Should the issue be publicly discussed?
- I think it should be returned to the Caucasus for sure. As believers, we understand that the situation is wrong. It is blasphemy to bury a skull which was brought many years ago in the 21st century. I think it is inhuman.
Then we telephoned Dagestan, the First Deputy Minister for National Policy of the Republic, Zikrula Ilyasov.
- Isn’t it time to bury the skull of Haji Murad?
- This question was raised 15 years ago. The Ministry of Culture of Russia decided to dispose the skull from the St. Petersburg museum (the act on October 12, 2000). It was decided to bury it in a proper place. However, the problem has certain nuances. Haji Murad’s body was buried in Azerbaijan. And the problem of reunion of relics has not been solved.
- Should they be reunited in Azerbaijan or Dagestan?
- I think it is right to bring his relics here and bury them in his homeland. Dagestan has a republican foundation which deals with the issue. However, for various reasons, for instance economic ones, we cannot achieve complete success. But the issue remains on the agenda.
- So Dagestan’s position is that his body and his skull should be buried in Khunzakh?
- Yes. However, there is no final decision. There is a desire of successors and some representatives of the republic. Speaking about relations between Russian and Azerbaijan, the relics could be buried there as well. It should be discussed.
- So Dagestan has no clear position.
- Yes, it does.