Summer exhibition 2017

adventures in siberia - photographs by kai donner 1911 - 1914

When Kai (Karl) Reinhold Donner was born in 1888, Finland was an agricultural country in the process of industrialization and a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. Finns served in various administrative and military institutions in different parts of Russia. The rise of national romanticism in Finland included an emphasis on the past of the nation and the significance of the Finnish language. It was known that languages related to Finnish were spoken in Russia as far as Siberia, which became a focus of research in both the humanities and natural sciences. The collection of materials for research required funds and organized activity. Kai Donner’s father, Senator Otto Donner, was interested in the Finno-Ugrian languages. Upon his initiative, a new learned society, the Finno-Ugrian Society was founded on 15 November 1883.


Donner went on two expeditions to Siberia. The first one lasted from August 1911 until June 1913, extending to the wilderness regions, tundra and taiga between the Ob and Yenisei rivers. This journey of over 500 kilometres was full of adventures with the threat of frostbite and even starvation. At the same time, it was an opportunity to experience the everyday life of indigenous people. Donner’s subject of study was the Selkup language, known as Ostyak-Samoyed at the time. 
A year later, in June 1914, Donner travelled once again to Siberia and succeeded in recording in his notes the language of the last Kamassians on the slopes of the Sayan Mountains. After the outbreak of the First World War, Donner had to interrupt his expedition earlier than planned and return to Finland in October. 

Photographs of siberia

Donner kept a diary during his travels, recorded the songs that he collected on wax cylinders. He also acquired a collection of over 200 objects for the present collections of the Museum of Cultures / National Museum of Finland. 

Donner had two cameras in Siberia. Both were roll film camera and Donner apparently developed the films himself on his journeys. Explorers of the period mostly used German cameras of folding type, while Donner chose small American-made cameras. His choice proved, however, to be correct in the exceptional conditions of Siberia.

Donner carried out anthropological measurements of the Selkups and Kamassians of the River Tym, with photographs complementing physical-anthropological typology. He systematically took photographic portraits of the Samoyed peoples that he studies, and even succeeded in photographic shamans who agreed to have their pictures taken after hesitating for a long while. The group photographs are mostly of families.

The other area of Donner’s photography concerned the dwellings, hunting and fishing equipment and dress of the Samoyeds, but there are only a few pictures relating to religious practices. In addition, he photographed landscapes and the various stages of his travels. In the Russian towns and villages that he visited, Donner also noted the merchants, officials, priests, monks, doctors and descendants of Finns, Swedes and Germans exiled to Siberia.

Donner’s collection of photographs containing over 500 negatives is included in the Picture Collections of the National Board of Antiquities. .




Senaste nyheter