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Oriental Studies in Russia

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By Leonid Kulikov

One of the most striking peculiarities of the infrastructure of Russian science as a whole and Oriental Studies in particular consists in the subdividing of scientific activity into two main “streams”, namely the so-called “academic” science as opposed to university (high school) science. All the academic institutes are dominated by the Russian Academy of Sciences, the main co-ordinator of scientific activity in Russia. Most importantly, most of the scholars affiliated to academic institutes do not teach at all, some of them have only a few (max. 3-4) post-graduate students (”aspirants”), so they do not need to distribute their working time between teaching and research proper. In some periods, the staff of such large institutes as the Institute of Oriental studies in Russia reached about 1,000 researchers.

One more striking feature of the Russian science (at least of the Humanities) consists of a clear-cut concentration of scientific activity in the two chief cities of European Russia, Moscow and St.Petersburg. This is due to the fact that the major budget assignation for scientific research is forwarded to the academic institutes, of which almost all are situated in Moscow and St.Petersburg. Furthermore the great majority of recent scientific publications from all over the world are received by only two or three main libraries situated in these two cities. This creates a situation which is very unusual for such countries as the USA or Germany where the scientific resources are distributed more or less proportionally among various centres (in particular, small university cities).
These peculiarities may probably explain why fundamental science in Russia is concentrated mainly in the academic institutes, and the leading centre of the Oriental Studies is an academic institute as well, not a university, the Institute of Oriental Studies (IOS) with two branches, in Moscow and St.Petersburg.

The Institute for Oriental Studies
The history of the IOS may be traced back to 1818, when the Asiatic Museum was founded in St.Petersburg. Its collection included oriental manuscripts, various objects of ethnographic interest, Asian coins and curiosa. The first director was
Chr.D.Fren, a German orientalist who had been invited to Russia. In 1930, in view of the presence of the Asiatic Museum, the IOS was founded in St Petersburg, then Leningrad. The Moscow branch of the institute was created in the years of the Second World War and in 1950 the institute as a whole moved to Moscow, whereas the Leningrad branch remained in Leningrad. The Oriental Studies the IOS currently cover a wide range of topics. The structure of the institute meets two principles of subdivision. On the one hand, a number of departments concentrate their activity on various regions of Asia. These are the Far Eastern Department focusing on China, Japan, Korea and Mongolia; the Southeast Asia Department, the Indian Department, and so forth. It should be emphasized that in the Soviet period the term “oriental” was treated in a quite specific way, being applied only to the foreign (non-Soviet) countries of Asia. Thus, the Asian regions situated within the territory of the former Soviet Union, namely the Caucasuses, Central Asian Republics (Turkmenia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan) and Siberia (including the Soviet Far East) did not fall within the scope of the research of the IOS, nor of the Oriental faculties of universities. Only now, after the collapse of the Soviet Union has this situation started to change slowly.
On the other hand, some departments focus on several liberal arts disciplines (history, linguistics, and so forth) applied to various eastern regions. These are the Department of the Ancient Orient dealing with the ancient history of Asia and Northern Africa, the Department of ancient texts; economic problems; literatures; languages.
The IOS, especially its Leningrad (now St.Petersburg again) branch, possesses large collections of oriental manuscripts and xylographs: the Chinese collection (one of the biggest of the IOS), Caucasian and Turkic collections representing all stages of book printing in oriental regions of the former Soviet Union, and other countries. Some of collections are catalogued and described, yet others are still being researched by the institute staff.

Publishing House of Oriental Literature
In 1957 the Publishing House of Oriental Literature, affiliated to the IOS (later transformed to the oriental department of the Publishing House “Nauka” [”Science”]) was founded. During the period of less than forty years “Oriental Literature” published thousands (!) of monographs (most of them prepared by the institute staff), a number of ancient oriental texts and/or their translations. “Oriental Literatures” also issued a few series such as “Oriental Texts”, series of handbooks on Asian and African countries, “Languages of Foreign Oriental Countries and Africa” (more than 150 short grammars of various ancient and modern oriental languages!); a few encyclopedic editions, such as “History of India (in 4 vols), “History of Eastern and Central Asia”, and so forth. This period, albeit belonging to the difficult years of non-democratic communist rule, may be labelled, in a sense, the Golden Age of the publishing of scientific books in Russia. The members of the IOS staff had a guaranteed possibility to publish their monographs quite regularly (some of them did so almost yearly!) in the series “Oriental Literature”. Of course, this system was not without its short-comings; sometimes the delay between proof-reading and the publication of the book could mount up to a couple of years, and the determining of the priority of publishing was not impartial in many cases. The end of this Golden Age (guaranteed by the despotic Soviet system) is now felt as a sore loss. The publishing of scientific books turned out to be unprepared for the numerous financial difficulties which are the outcome of the introduction of free market rules into the system of selling books in Russia. In a paradoxical way, hundreds of books, formerly prohibited from being published and distributed may now be legally published, but at the same time hundreds of books cannot be published, since their distribution cannot cover the costs of publication (traditionally, books have been very cheap in Russia, even right up to the present day). During the last few years the Oriental Publishing House has almost ceased to exist, annually publishing scarcely more than a few dozen books (mostly if the author of the book is lucky enough to get a financial support from a fund, or simply from a rich person). I personally know a lot of scientists who have already prepared a few monographs which cannot be published.

The Kunstkammer
The IOS is the principal but not the only academic centre for oriental research. Such institutes as the Institute of the Far Orient in Moscow focus on some specific areas, whereas academic institutes like the Institute of Linguistics, the Institute of World Literature, or the Institute of Historical Research include the Orient in the scope of their investigations alongside other areas. Among these institutes one which cannot escape mention is the, Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkammer) in St.Petersburg. The Kunstkammer (”Chamber of Curiosities”) was established by Peter I in 1714 as the first state public museum in Russia and it greatly influenced the development of sciences and understanding in the country. The Museum collections were augmented significantly by the academic expeditions of the eighteenth century that studied the nature and peoples of Russia and different parts of the world. Currently, the Museum is a well-known academic centre. The ethnographic researches of the Museum staff are based mainly on the rich Museum collections and cover all the principal oriental areas: India and Sri Lanka, the Arab countries, Japan, China, Siberia, and so forth. The researchers at the Museum are preparing, or have already prepared a number of collective monographs dealing with various cultural and material objects from an anthropological perspective: “Caste and Ethnic Groups in South Asia”, “Oriental Calendar Systems”, “Hunting Birds in Central Asia”; a series of monographs on the ethnographic status of beings, objects, and natural events (”Rain”, “Dog”, “Knife”).
Traditionally high school science offered fewer rich possibilities for fundamental research than did the academic institutes. Publications issued by Moscow and St.Petersburg (Leningrad) university press are mostly (student) handbooks rather than purely academic monographs. Nevertheless, a number of eminent orientalists are affiliated to the universities dividing their working time between teaching and researching. Some of them teach at the faculties and departments of history, philology, philosophy but the majority part are affiliated, quite naturally, to the Oriental Faculty of the St.Petersburg University and the Institute of the Countries of Asia and Africa with the status of a faculty of the Moscow State University.

Teaching oriental disciplines
The teaching of several oriental languages in Moscow University started in the middle of eighteenth century, in St.Petersburg at the beginning of nineteenth century. In 1854 the Faculty of Oriental Languages, later transformed into the Oriental Faculty, was established at St.Petersburg University. At present, this is the main university centre for teaching classical orientalist disciplines such as Sanskrit, Sumerian Studies and many more. The numerous courses are taught by not only about 100 university professors and teachers but also by some scholars from the St.Petersburg academic institutes (IOS, Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, Institute of Linguistic Researches). The Faculty is subdivided into eleven departments (chairs): Arabic Philology, Chinese Philology, History of Near Eastern countries, History of Far Eastern countries, and so forth
In conclusion it is worth mentioning oriental disciplines are currently being taught not only in the oldest Russian universities. Over the past few years a number of universities have been founded on the basis of several non-academic (student) institutes which have introduced the teaching of oriental languages and cultures. First of all there is the Russian State University for Humanities recently established on the basis of the Moscow Institute of History and Archive Sciences. After its transformation into a university, the structure of the faculties has been considerably developed; particularly important was the creation of the Faculty of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics with the chair of oriental languages, which introduced teaching such languages as Hindi, Persian, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Tamil, Tibetan and others, thus competing with the oriental faculties of universities of Moscow and St.Petersburg.
I am much indebted to V.M.Alpatov (Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow) and N.G.Krasnodembskaya (Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, St.Petersburg), who provided me with much helpful information related to the oriental researches in Russia.

Written by calligrapher

October 25, 2006 at 6:05 pm

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