Friday, September 27, 2013

Sergey Oldenburg and the Russian Academy

Kira Samosyuk presenting a paper in the Reading Room of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, St Petersburg, September 2013.

From St Petersburg, where the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts (IOM) are honouring the great scholar and explorer, S. F. Oldenburg (1863-1934), with an international conference. Noon here and the daily canon fire from the Peter and Paul Fortress has just punctuated proceedings in the wonderful reading room of the IOM — although given the situation with the proposed reform of the Academy, it is not clear where the IOM and its extensive Central Asian manuscript collection will be next time we come.

Oldenburg was part of a generation of pan-European scholars of Central Asia, the treaties between Russian and Britain enabling exploration and archaeology. The results were shared at the regular International of Congress of Orientalists, which had its inaugural meeting in Paris in 1873. The 1899 Congress in Rome was instrumental in bringing Central Asian explorations and scholarship to the centre of the agenda and Oldenburg was confirmed as a member of the International Preparatory Committee on Central Asian exploration. M. Aurel Stein (1862-1943) was also at this Congress, although it is probable that he and Oldenburg had met previously when they were both in Britain in 1885-6: Oldenburg's name appears in the address book Stein started using in 1884.

Much as the scholars of this earlier time might have tried to transcend its concerns, politics was never out of the picture in the story of the exploration and study of Chinese Central Asia. Some, such as Stein and Oldenburg, managed to avoid letting political competition taint their scholarly collaboration. Theirs was a relationship of respect. This respect is clearly shown in their correspondence, held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford and the Archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences, here in St Petersburg. Professor Wang Jiqing of Lanzhou University has researched the Oxford correspondence and we are currently preparing a joint paper for publication.

There are twenty five letters extant, although this is not a complete record. The first is from 1903 but most date from 1923 onwards. In 1923 Oldenburg is staying with Sylvain Lévi in Paris and Stein writes from his Kashmiri mountain camp expressing the hope that Oldenburg will publish the results of his explorations in Dunhuang:

‘I am greatly pleased to learn of the abundant results which our visit to Tun-huang has bourne and shall look forward with keenest interest to their publication. I have long ago learned to appreciate fully the unfailing thoroughness of all your investigations and know how much room there was left for them at many a site.’

This is a hope was not realized at the time: one of the six volumes of typescript prepared by Oldenburg on Dunhuang is currently on display at an Oldenburg exhibition at the Hermitage, curated by Maria Menshikova. However, the volumes remained unpublished for a century: a Chinese translation appeared recently. We are now discussing publication of the original Russian edition and a English translation.

After this time Stein’s letters start show a subtle concern for Oldenburg’s professional position at the Academy. For example, in March 1925:

‘It is truly comforting & encouraging for all fellow students to know you still occupying that leading position in the Academy, which has enabled you in times past to do so much for the studies we have at heart. May it become easy for you to exercise the same beneficient influence also thereafter.’

Oldenburg’s position in the Academy was not secure: he lost his position there in 1929 but continued his work at the then Asiatic Museum, a division of the Academy. This was to become the Institute for Oriental Studies and Oldenburg appointed its Director in May 1930.

IOM has been a collaborating member of IDP for many years and we hope that its valuable work in conserving, curating and researching the Central Asian manuscripts will long continue.

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