Tatiana Passek: the Soviet Union’s most successful female archaeologist

Olga S. Sveshnikova
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Figure 1. Portrait of Tatiana Passek.

Figure 1. Portrait of Tatiana Passek.

Many women were involved professionally in Soviet archaeology, but usually as auxiliary personnel, rarely progressing up the career ladder beyond the position of research assistant. Occasionally, however, women managed to become expedition leaders and a few women were awarded doctoral degrees. Examples of women taking senior positions in academic institutions or periodicals were extremely rare. The great Soviet encyclopedia (Prokhorov 1978: 322a)—the most comprehensive reference encyclopedia of the Soviet Union—listed 30 archaeologists but only one of them was female: Tatiana Sergeevna Passek.

Passek was the principal specialist in the study of the Neolithic–Eneolithic Tripolye culture which extended across large parts of modern-day Ukraine, Moldavia and Romania, c. 4800—3000 BC. She was the only female editor of a central Soviet archaeological periodical, editing the Brief Reports of the Institute for the History of Material Culture between 1945 and 1968. Along with Soviet Archaeology magazine, this was the main periodical for Soviet archaeologists. She was awarded the USSR State Prize and a number of orders and medals. To this day, Russian archaeologists still celebrate their professional holiday on Passek’s birthday (15 August).

Passek was born in 1903, in Saint Petersburg. She came from a famous aristocratic family and was a relative of Alexander Herzen, the father of Russian socialism. Tatiana’s parents chose collaboration with the Soviet government over emigration; their daughter’s perfect knowledge of French and impeccable manners were their legacy. Contemporaries remembered Tatiana as someone “always calm, tactful, quite lively, cordial, [and who] could make a good joke” (Formozov 2003: 157). It also cannot be ignored that Passek was a rare beauty (see Belanovskaya 2001–2002: 11; Formozov 2003: 156).

In 1924, Passek graduated from the Social Sciences faculty of Leningrad University and was accepted for postgraduate study. She chose Trypillian pottery as the theme of her dissertation, a choice which determined her future academic career. Accompanied by her colleague and friend, Boris Latynin, Passek spent three years travelling numerous museums in the south of Russia, thoroughly gathering materials (Gorbunova 2000). Without excavating a single Trypillian site, she based her study on the formal analysis of pottery. From this, Passek was able to describe the geographical extent and the developmental phases of the Tripolye culture. By the end of 1928 Passek’s dissertation was complete, but she was not allowed to defend it until 1931—and not in Leningrad but in Moscow, where Tatiana moved to live with her husband, Ivan Gremislavskij, an artist at the Moscow Art Theatre (Guliev 1967). Her dissertation came to print only after the Communist Party’s decision to resume the teaching of history in 1934 (Klejn 2012: 27–30; Platonova 1999: 469–70). The well-illustrated book was published in French and it made Passek a famous scholar (Passek 1935). Later, further large-scale research verified the correctness of her scheme, only adding minor changes.

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Figure 2. Pottery of the Trypillian culture from Passek’s excavation. Dated to 3600 BC.

Figure 2. Pottery of the Trypillian culture from Passek’s excavation. Dated to 3600 BC.
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Figure 3. Passek (back row, middle) and other expedition participants, 1936.

Figure 3. Passek (back row, middle) and other expedition participants, 1936.

In 1934, Tatiana started excavations of a Tripolye site, Kolomijshchina 1, which continued for seven years (1932–1938). In 1937, the leaders of the excavation were repressed as Ukrainian nationalists, so Passek published the site materials (Passek 1940). She continued to head archaeological expeditions for over 30 years, in Ukraine (until 1947) and then in Moldavia. A brilliant field researcher, she developed her own methodology for studying Tripolye sites, and engaged a wide range of experts to take part in excavations such as ichthyologists, palaeoanthropologists and petrologists (Dergachev 2001–2002: 38). The materials gathered in Ukraine were summarised in Passek’s doctoral thesis, defended in 1947 and published as a book two years later (Passek 1949).

Following Stalin’s death, Soviet scholars were permitted to visit other Socialist countries. Passek used this opportunity to familiarise herself with the literature on the archaeology of Eastern Europe. In 1962, she presented a synchronisation of the archaeological cultures of the Dnieper and the Danube from 5000–3000 BC at the International Congress of Historians in Rome (Passek 1962). This marked the beginning of her international recognition, but by this time she was seriously ill. She died in hospital on 4 August 1968, remaining aristocratically calm and charming until her last days.

Half a century later, Passek’s works remain the foundation for the study of the Tripolye culture (for the full list see Gruenberg 1969). To a generation of archaeologists of the former Soviet Union she is still known as the ‘Soviet countess’.


  • BELANOVSKAYA, T.D. 2001–2002. Cherished memory of Tatiana Sergeevna Passek (August 15 1903–August 4 1968). Stratum Plus 2: 11–13 (in Russian).
  • DERGACHEV, V.A. 2001–2002. In an urn gathered from a foreign funeral pyre (to the 100th birthday of T.S. Passek). Stratum plus. 2: 32–43 (in Russian).
  • EVTIUCHOVA, L.A. 1969. In memory of Tatiana Sergeevna Passek. Sovetskaya Archeologiya [Soviet Archaeology] 2: 236–38 (in Russian).
  • FORMOZOV, A.A. 2003. About Tatiana Sergeevna Passek. Rossijskaya Archeologiya [Russian Archaeology] 3: 156–65 (in Russian).
  • GORBUNOVA N.G. (ed.). 2000. Sud’ba uchenogo: k 100-letiju so dnja rozhdenija Borisa Aleksandrovicha Latynina [The scholar`s destiny: to the century of Boris A. Latynin]. Sankt-Petersburg: Izdat. Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha (in Russian).
  • GRUENBERG, G.E. 1969. List of T.S. Passek’s research publications. Sovetskaya Archeologiya [Soviet Archaeology] 2: 239–41 (in Russian).
  • GULIEV, A.G. (ed.). 1967. Ivan Jakovlevic Gremislavskij. Moskva: Iskusstvo (in Russian).
  • KLEJN, L.S. 2012. Soviet archaeology. Schools, trends, and history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • PASSEK, T.S. 1935. La céramique Tripolienne. Moscou: Editions d’état, Section sociale et économique.
    – 1940. Trypolie settlment Kolomnijshchina. Tripil’s’ka kultura [Trypillian culture] 1 (in Russian).
    – 1949. The periodization of Trypillian settlements 3000–2000 BC. Moscow: Izdat. Akad. Nauk SSSR (in Russian).
    – 1962. Relations entre l’Europe Occidentale et l’Europe Orientale à l’époque néolithique in VI congrès international des sciences préhistoriques et protohistoriques: les rapports et les informations des archéologues de l’URSS. Moscou: Izdat. Akad. Nauk SSSR.
  • PLATONOVA, N.I. 1999. M.I. Artamonov, the director of the IHMK. Archeologicheskije vesti [Archaeological News] 6: 466–78 (in Russian).
  • PROKHOROV, A. (ed.). 1978. The great Soviet encyclopedia, volume 19. New York: Macmillan.