Reviews

This is a book that gets under the reader’s skin: a martyrology of more than 750 Orientalists (in the broadest sense of the word) who became victims of Stalinist and Soviet repression.

For the Soviet Union, Oriental studies were of outstanding political importance not only because the state bordered to “the Orient”, but also because the Soviets had their own large share of it—in fact, from the perspective of the centre most of the peoples of the Soviet Union were “Oriental”.  It is therefore no wonder that especially in the first decades after the Russian Revolution the border between scholarship and politics was quite fluent; while some Orientalists became active in politics, there were many politicians and party functionaries who, besides their party jobs, began to study, and later to teach, “Oriental” subjects.  In many parts of the Soviet Union Oriental studies meant research into local history (kraevedenie).  It is in this wide sense that Liudy i sud’by tells the tales not only of repressed Assyrologists and Egyptologists, Arabists and Semitists, Turcologists and Iranists, philologists on India, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan and Korea, but also the biographies of archaeologists, geographers, ethnographers, historians, as well as scholars of religious studies, literatures and languages who dealt with the “Soviet Orient”—the Crimea, the Volga and Ural regions with their various Turkic and Finno-Ugric peoples, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Siberia.

Almost all persons dealt with in this well-researched biographical dictionary obtained a higher education with some kind of “Oriental” specialisation or at least inclination, and many of them found a research or teaching position in institutes of the Academy of Sciences and the Communist Academy, in state universities, pedagogical institutes, military schools, museums, libraries and publishing houses. Others worked in the state administration or in the diplomatic and secret services, in the Komintern, and of course in various sections and positions of the Communist party.  While most of them were ethnic Russians, Liudy i sud’by  also includes many representatives of the “Oriental” nations and ethnicities, including Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Volga and Crimean Tatars, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs, to name but a few.  What all these people have in common is that they were persecuted by the Soviet state at least once in their life: they were arrested and tortured, sentenced to death and executed or sent to Gulag camps where many of them perished.  The focus of the book is on the 1920s and 1930s, the peak of the ‘Red Terror’.  There is still no way to really understand this drama, which is rightfully called auto-genocide in the introduction.  The destruction of a large part of Russia’s academic elite was senseless, and the accusations of espionage, conjuration, counter-revolutionary activities or terrorism that were invented to justify the individual arrests were simply grotesque.  The book cannot provide an answer to the question why Orientalists, like several other professional groups, became a special target of political terror.  However, it does not only track the individual fates of Orientalists but also gives an impression of the general mechanisms of the Soviet apparatus that were at work.

Of special interest are the entries on Russian Orientalists of the elder generation who obtained some reputation abroad.  While all of them found themselves under pressure from the secret police (OGPU, NKVD), they reacted in different ways.  The famous Arabist Ignatii Iu. Krachkovskii (1883-1951), who was shortly imprisoned in 1922-23 and repeatedly intimidated by the secret police, tried to keep distance to the Party and the system and is even well-known for his repeated intervention with the authorities for imprisoned colleagues.  Nevertheless he made a formidable career and became the most famous representative of Soviet Oriental studies abroad.  Others, like the Turkologist Aleksandr Samoilovich (1880-1938), chose to cooperate closely with the new government. Samoilovich was actively involved in the Sovietisation of Central Asia, which facilitated his career in academia—until he was imprisoned and executed in 1938.  The Iranist Evgenii E. Bertel’s (1890-1957), a well-known Soviet scholar of Persian literature in Central Asia, had his prison experience in 1925; after this incident his writings became ostensibly Marxist, and he is even reported to have played a part in the persecution of other scholars.

Still, Oriental studies had a central position within the Russian/Soviet Academy of Sciences, and it took the new regime more than ten years to gain control of the Academy and to replace “bourgeois” scholars by Marxist historians. A major blow was the so-called “Affaire of the Academy (Delo AN)” in 1929-30, when more than 100 renowned scholars of the Academy were accused of belonging to a (non-existent) monarchist party and to a network of the German secret service.  Liudi i sud’by shows that among the alleged “leaders” of this group were scholars who studied the Christian Orient (V. N. Beneshevich, 1874-1938), the history of the Khazars (Iu. V. Got’e, 1873-1943), the Crimea (P. P. Babenchikov, 1882-1947), Bashkiria (S. I. Rudenko, 1885-1969), India (A. M. Mervart, 1884-1932, and his wife Liudmila, 1888-1965; T. A. Korvin-Krukovskaia, 1900-1938), South East Asia (the geologist A. N. Krishtofovich, 1885-1953), Siberia (S. V. Bakhrushin, 1882-1950), the Arabists M. M. Girs (1877-1932), G. G. Gul’bin (1892-1941) and V. A. Eberman (1899-1937), as well as several historians of Russian-Oriental relations.  The Indologist Sergei F. Ol’denburg (1863-1934), at that time the secretary of the Academy of Sciences, is reported to have been taken from the list only in the last minute.  As the book shows, for most of these people the affair ended in exile or years of labour camps.  The repression of Orientalists also took place in Central Asia, where historian Mikhail M. Tsvibak pushed forward the politicisation of Oriental studies.  In 1931 he organised the hunting down and arrest of eleven of his colleagues at the Central Asian State University who stood in the tradition of the “old” Orientalist school of V. V. Bartol’d (d. 1930).  Among these scholars were A. E. Shmidt (1871-1939), a specialist on Islamic law, and the Iranist A. A. Semenov (1873-1958), whose multi-volume description of the Islamic manuscript collection are still the pride of the Oriental Institute in Tashkent.  Tsvibak, the instigator of this affair, authored several publications on the class struggle in Central Asia; he was himself persecuted and executed in 1937.

Orientalists also continued to be impacted by the huge political purges and mass processes of the 1930s (“Novatory” 1936; “Moskva-Tsentr” 1937).  In connection to the 1937 case against an alleged “All-Union United Centre Party” many representatives of the Muslim peoples who were engaged both in Marxist scholarship and in politics were eliminated: the Central Asian historian T. R. Ryskulov (d. 1938), the Volga Tatar economic historian G. G. Gubaidullin (d. 1938), the first Marxist historian of Kazakhstan S. Dzh. Asfendiarov (d. 1938), the Dagestani historian A. A. Takho-Godi (d. 1937), the Crimean Tatar linguist B. V. Chobanzade (d. 1937), the Azerbeijani Turkologist V. M.-Kh. Khuluflu (d. 1937?), and others.  A dense interplay of politics and scholarship is prominent in the career of Ahmed Zeki Velidi Togan (1890-1970), the famous historian of Turkistan and fighter for the sovereignty of Bashkiria.  Even the Tatar national communist Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev (1892-1940) is presented with an entry.  Very common in the persecution of Muslim scholars were allegations of Pan-Islam or Pan-Turkism, while huge parts of the Mari, Mordvin, and Udmurt ethnographers, linguists and historians were accused of striving for the establishment of a Finnish protectorate over their respective regions (“Delo SOFIN”, 1932-33, “Dela finskikh shpionov”, 1936-38).

Many records show that scholars made attempts to intervene on behalf of persecuted colleagues.  Thus Kulthum (Klavdiia) Ode-Vasil’eva (1892-1965), who taught Arabic in Leningrad and was linked to Krachkovskii’s circle of Arabists, tried to intervene in favour of Aleksandr M. Shami and his wife Sof’ia Roginskaia, both of them Arabists, too.  Shami exemplifies another type of the connection between academia and politics: he played a role in the organisation of Communist parties in Palestine and other countries of the Near East, became active in the Komintern, taught at the Communist University for the Toiling Peoples of the East (KUTV, Moscow), at the Moscow Institute for Oriental Studies (MVI) and the Leningrad Oriental Institute (LVI, as rector in 1931-32).  In 1936 he was accused of Zionism, and he and his wife were excluded from the Party.  In 1937 he managed to obtain a job in Krachkovskii’s “Cabinet of Arabic Studies” in the Leningrad Institute for Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences (IVAN) but was arrested again, this time accused of espionage for the British.  Ode-Vasil’eva’s courageous stand for Shami and his wife only led to her own arrest in 1938; yet even after her release she continued to lobby for Shami, who at that time had already been shot.  Another Leningrad Arabist whose fate was kept secret from his colleagues was Anatolii N. Genko (1896-1941), to whom we owe, among other things, valuable studies on Caucasian languages and on the role of Arabic in the North Caucasus; Genko starved to death in a Soviet prison in 1941, and yet the marble plate of honour in the Institute of Oriental Studies in Leningrad mentions him among those Orientalists who died as soldiers at the front in wwii. Adding insult to injury, many of Genko’s unpublished writings were made use of by other scholars without giving credit to the real author.  A similar fate awaited Nikolai A. Nevskii (1892-1937), who was shot on the same day as his wife Isoko, a teacher of Japanese in Leningrad.  After his death his important works on Japanese ethnography were plagiarised by other scholars.

Amazingly enough, many repressed Orientalists continued their studies even while in exile or in a labour camp.  The Udmurt Communist and linguist Trofim K. Borisov (1891-1943) collected spoken language samples while imprisoned in a camp in the Komi region.  The ethnographer Nikolai M. Matorin (1898-1936), former director of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in Moscow and a major functionary of the “Union of the Militant Godless”, still collected material on the local religious beliefs while exiled in a Kolkhoz near Tashkent.  In some cases the Soviets deliberately exploited the language skills of their inmates.  The well-known Sinologist Nikolai Konrad (1891-1970) was taken from a woodcutting camp and placed in the relatively better conditions of a house for imprisoned specialists (called sharashka in the prisoners’ slang), where he had to work on Japanese and Chinese texts.

The biographical dictionary also contains some entries on rather obscure “Orientalists”, like the Indologist and Anarcho-mystic P. A. Arenskii (1887-1941), member of several lodges and biographer of the Orientalist Miklukho-Maklai, or the freemason and occultist A. V. Barchenko (1881-1938), who taught that Buddhism was anticipating Marxism, and who entertained a secret “neuro-energetic” laboratory in a special OGPU unit.  A major nonconformist of Soviet scholarship mentioned in the dictionary is Lev N. Gumilev, son of the poets Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev.  His studies were interrupted by various spells in prison, in the Gulag and in the Red Army.  Eventually Gumilev was able to make his way into the Institute for Oriental Studies (IVAN) in 1945—as the institute’s fireman.  After finishing his dissertation he was again imprisoned in 1949; only after his return in 1956 was he able to work as professor and to publish his studies on the Caspian region, ethno-genesis, and world history.  Once a person was imprisoned, he or she would be fired by their respective institutions and stripped of all academic titles and membership in the Academy of Sciences.  If a repressed scholar was lucky enough to return from camp or prison they had to fight for reintegration.  Many were forced to take low level jobs in remote villages or military schools.  Still, some were able to resume their career quickly after release, as in the case of the Sinologist Konrad, but also of the Arabist Georgii V. Tsereteli (1904-1973). Tsereteli’s imprisonment in 1937-38 did not prevent him from becoming director of the Georgian Institute of Oriental Studies and Vice-President of the Georgian Academy of Sciences in 1960.  Many, but by far not all scholars obtained official rehabilitation beginning the mid-1950s, and often only posthumously.  As the book covers the whole of the Soviet era it also includes persons who suffered from political persecution in the late Soviet era, like Levon Ter-Petrosian, a specialist on Syrian and Armenian manuscripts educated at the Institute for Oriental Studies in Leningrad. Ter-Petrosian was in prison in 1988-89 for his nationalist activities but eventually became President of Armenia in 1991.

The collection of biographies of Soviet Orientalists that led to this volume was started in the 1970s by Feliks F. Perchenok (1931-1993).  It is based on oral history among colleagues as well as on all sorts of publications and archives, including KGB material.  The individual entries include not only a short biography of the respective scholars (in many cases with photos) but also a list of his or her major writings as well as the literature concerning them.  The appendix of the book contains the relevant portions of the Soviet Criminal Code under which the scholars were sentenced, very helpful lists of abbreviations of Soviet institutions, as well as bibliographical information on the topic.  The compilers are well aware that this is not a final word; anyway it is a very welcome basis for further historical inquiry.  Inevitably there are still some gaps, which are the result of the lack of previous studies on the topic.  For instance, while there seems to be a good coverage of Volga and Crimean Tatar scholars including people without “modern” higher education, there are only very few persons from the North Caucasus; one misses, for example, the Dagestani scholars and publishers Ali Kaiaev (d. 1943), Abu Sufyan Akaev (d. 1931) and Muhammad Mirza Mavraev (d. 1966).

With its focus on the dark side of Soviet Oriental studies this book is absolutely indispensable as a correction to the “official” bio-bibliography of Soviet Oriental studies compiled by Sofiia D. Miliband (Biobibliograficheskii slovar’ sovetskikh vostokovedov, Moscow 1975, revised and enlarged 1995).  It also throws a very different light on the historical sketches like Krachkovskii’s Ocherki po istorii russkoi arabistiki (Moscow 1950, Die russische Arabistik, Leipzig 1957) which are glossing so many things over.

Michael Kemper, University of Amsterdam
CER: I-1.2.A-53