The article sketches the development of ethnography as a scholarly discipline, both in the context of the Soviet political-ideological system and in the context of the evolving communist academia. Overall, in the workers’ state, ethnography became the leading discipline in the disproportionate research field concerned with phenomena of ethnicity and nationalism. Early on, however, ethnographers were merely adventurers, eager to discover new regions and cultures in the vastness of the Russian Empire. Their discoveries created the very idea of the Empire as a “multiethnic state” and placed the nationalities on the political agenda for the first time in the late 19th century. After the revolution, the ethnographers, who had been observers so far, came to play an active role in (re)shaping the cultures and nationalities of the Empire. Theirs was the gargantuan task of adapting the primitive peoples of the periphery to the modernity of Soviet ideological requirements. In the 1930s, the Stalinist reversal of the nationalities policy concerned with the advancement of small cultures and peoples, made the ethnographers return to their preference for primordial societies and archaeological findings – aloof from politics. Only the increasing complexity of the Soviet society in the 1950s and 1960s made politicians call upon the ethnographers once again. Julian Bromley, director of the Institute of Ethnography in the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, exemplifies the hegemonic position of the discipline in research on interethnic relations and the national identities of Russians and other titular nationalities alike. The key role of ethnography in the increasingly important policy area and its function as mediator between politics and academia provided the Institute with hitherto unknown prestige and resources. The heydays of ethnography ended when perestroika revealed that Soviet nationalities policies had failed to predict and contain the divisive power of nationalism. Recently, the post-Soviet ethnography has come to a new glory, doing just that: monitoring and analysing ethnic conflict potentials in the former Empire.