Oldenburg S.F. Etiudy o liudiah nauki [Sketches of men of science]

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Oldenburg S.F. Etiudy o liudiah nauki (“Sketches of Men of Science”). Ed. by S.D. Serebryany, compilation, introduction and commentary by А.А. Vigasin. - Moscow: RSUH, 2012. - 478 p. The book Sketches of Men of Science was published by the Russian State University for the Humanities on the threshold of a significant date-the 150th anniversary of the birth of Academician Sergei Fedorovich Oldenburg (1863-1934). The idea of producing such a book had been forming among Orientalists over a period of many years. Oldenburg’s essays about personalities of Russian and foreign academic world, especially Oriental Studies, appeared in the author’s lifetime in various publications, which are now available only in the reading rooms of the largest national libraries. These essayistic works have not lost their informative value over the course of time. Most importantly, they retain the vivid essence of the scholarly thinking of a man who was an outstanding organizer of Russian academic research, a classic figure in the Russian school of Buddhist Studies and the Russian school of Oriental Studies in Archaeology. It is high time to introduce the modern reader to the entirety of his essays in one volume. Now, when the classical traditions of Russian Oriental Studies are coming back to life, it is more important than ever before. The book Sketches of Men of Science was prepared by Alexei Vigasin, an Indologist historian with encyclopedic erudition, as a scholarly publication which is not restricted to Oldenburg’s essays alone. It also includes epistolary and archival materials which had never been published before as well as official documents-expert reviews (“notes”) as part of his professional duties assessing the scholarly activities of his colleagues-representative of the classical period of Oriental Studies. The main text of the book is followed by the compiler’s commentary that brings together significant historical, academic and bibliographical information. In the introduction to his book Vigasin reconstructs the image of Sergei Oldenburg against the historical background of the Russian scholarship in the pre-Soviet and early Soviet period. This introductory section presents a rather laconic, but extremely informative study whose details are documented in the references. Oldenburg’s essays appear in the book in chronological order by the date of their first publication. This order is only rarely disrupted where the compiler found it more appropriate to connect architectonically works published in different years. The book begins with two memorial sketches about Ivan Pavlovich Minaev (1840-1890), Sergei Oldenburg’s teacher. The first was produced in the year of Minaev’s death in the form of an introductory lecture to the course of Sanskrit Literature that S.F. Oldenburg taught at the department of Oriental Studies, St. Petersburg University, and published that same year in the periodical of the Russian Geographical Society’s ethnography department, the Zhivaia starina (“The Living Past”). Aiming to characterize Minaev as a student of India, Oldenburg paid most attention to the Buddhist aspects of his researches. He pointed out that Minaev became interested in Sanskrit after taking university course under the guidance of Academician Vasilij Pavlovich Vasil’ev (1818-1900) who studied Buddhism from Chinese and Tibetan sources. In that period Minaev’s idea of a genetic connection of Buddhist traditions was rooted in Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia and China, as well as in Buddhist Sanskrit written heritage from ancient and early mediaeval India. This northern branch of Buddhism sparked Oldenburg’s particular interest, while foreign scholars of the time preferred to study the sources of southern tradition in Pali. Oldenburg, however, understood very clearly that Buddhism had developed into a world religion precisely through the process of its propagation in Central Asia and the Far East. And this historical and cultural process engaged his thoughts more and more. This forward-looking interest of the young man increased in the first half of 1890s when reports of newly discovered fragments of Indian literary works from Central Asia began to reach the Asian Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences. At the same time, he was fascinated with the idea of working out a theoretical approach to the study of history of religions as a form of spiritual activity of human society. Examining Minaev’s unpublished scholarly legacy, Oldenburg came across reflections on the same problem in his notes. His other essay, dedicated to the memory of his teacher and published in 1896, includes a large extract from the methodological introduction to a short course of lectures on the religions of India that Minaev taught at the department of Oriental Studies shortly before his death. Later Oldenburg and another outstanding disciple of Minaev, Academician Thedor Stcherbatsky (1866-1942), the co-founders of the Russian school of Buddhist Studies, used the theoretical ideas expounded in that passage as a basis for the development of a systematic historical approach to Buddhist Studies. A prologue to the foundation of the school took the form of Oldenburg’s especially fruitful organizational initiative for a series of scholarly publications, the “Bibliotheca Buddhica”, to be brought out by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Established in 1897, the series was intended for the publication of northern Buddhist literary texts as well as of their translations into European languages and researches into them to unite the efforts of Russian and foreign scholars towards the exploration of this new object of study. Significant information about the young Oldenburg’s growing interest in Buddhist Studies can be found in his correspondence with Minaev published in the Sketches of Men of Science. Letters dated 1890 show that Oldenburg was at that time enthusiastically studying the nomenclature of Indian literary works which, in the form of translation from Sanskrit to Tibetan, constituted part of the Buddhist texts canonized in Tibet. He confided in his teacher a legitimate fear that the previously selected sources for his master’s degree research, namely Buddhist legends, stories and fairy tales, would not give fruitful results, so he was quite aware of the necessity of “devoting himself to Buddhism”. He wanted to put much more serious work into the introduction of the important Buddhist sources of the Mahayana, which was only slightly known among scholars at that time, into academic circulation-for example to publish the Ghandavyuhasutra or to focus on the translation and study of the seventh-century philosophical treatise Madhyamakavritti by Chandrakirti. However, Minaev, who was greatly concerned about Oldenburg obtaining an academic degree, insisted on him continuing his work on the subject previously selected. The correspondence between Oldenburg and Minaev helps us picture not only the background of their academic and private relationship but also social life at St. Petersburg University in the second half of the 1890s. It was a particularly valuable academic contribution by Vigasin to publish it. He patiently tracked down the epistolary materials, which are kept in various archives, and commented thoroughly on them. It is hard to believe that someone else besides the compiler of the Sketches of Men of Science could have brought the introduction of these valuable archival materials into scientific circulation to a triumphant conclusion. Oldenburg’s essays about the Orientalist-Buddhologists Vasily Vasil’ev, Richard Pischel, Otto Rosenberg and Hermann Oldenberg outline the formation of Buddhist source studies in the 1890s-1910s in Russia and Western Europe. In two memorial publications devoted to Academician Vasil’ev Oldenburg paid most attention to his works which remained unpublished - a full review of Chinese sources, a terminological dictionary, a translation of the notes by Xuan Zang (7th cent.) about his pilgrimage to India. If those comprehensive and extremely informative works had been prepared in a timely manner for publication, Oldenburg asserted, worldwide Buddhist Studies could have already progressed to a new stage in the second half of the 19th century and the subject of research would not have been limited to the study of sources in Pali. In his commentary on the essay “In memory of Vassilii Pavlovich Vasil’ev and his works on Buddhism” dated 1918, Oldenburg tracks the development of ideas from Vasil’ev through Minaev to Stcherbatsky and his disciple Rosenberg (1888- 1919) and describes that transformation of the object of Buddhist source studies which came about through the activities of those Russian scholars. This area of concern for Oldenburg can also be clearly seen in the official document, “A commentary on scholarly works by Theodor Ippolitovich Stcherbatsky”, which provided the ground for electing Stcherbatsky a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences “in the Literature and History of Asian Nations” in 1918. The essays dedicated to Russian and foreign Sanskrit scholars-Kaetan Kossovich, Otto Böhtlingk, Vsevolod Miller, Hendrik Kern-make it possible not only to trace the history of Sanskritology and its connection to Indology but also to find the distinctions between them. Through comparison of these publications with Oldenburg’s memorial essays about Minaev it emerges that Ivan Minaev was actually the founder of the Russian school of Indology, which is a very important fact for the history of Russian classical Oriental Studies. The issues that concerned Oriental Studies, the connections between Russian scholars and their foreign colleagues, the characteristic features of the research carried out by Orientalists-older contemporaries, coevals and younger colleagues of Sergei Oldenburg-were recorded in historic-scholarly portraits of Carl Salemann, Alexei Ivanovsky, Valentin Zhukovsky, Vassily Radlov, Eduard Chavannes, Vassily Bartold, Boris Vladimirtsov, as well as in expert reports on the works by Vassily Alexeev and Ignatii Krachkovsky. In this regard, S.F. Oldenburg’s letters to Salemann which were published in the Sketches of Men of Science for the first time are of great interest too. The range of Oldenburg’s archeological interests relating to the study of newly discovered palaeographical material-manuscripts and epigraphs-is clearly visible in the memorial essay dedicated to Nikolai Petrovsky as well as in the letters addressed to Petrovsky and the letters from Dmitrii Klements which were included in the book. Petrovsky, the Russian Consul in Kashgar, and Klements, an eminent researcher of Central Asia, were actively involved in uncovering archeological relics of the Buddhist civilization of the 1st millennium A.D. in that historical and cultural region and in adding manuscripts from there to the collections of the Asian Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Central Asia, especially the area which was conventionally called Eastern or Chinese Turkestan at that time, was of particular interest to Oldenburg in this respect. He was planning research expeditions to that region at an international level, but his own expeditionary activities were delayed until 1908 due to financial difficulties. In particular, we learn from Klements’s letters to Oldenburg that the German archaeologists had broken previous international agreements. The team headed by Albert von Le Coq was especially active in that process, and it troubled Klements greatly. Later on, when in the course of his first and second expeditions to Turkestan Oldenburg saw that some cultural monuments had been damaged by that German scholar in the effort to remove the art treasures of Buddhist Asia to Europe, he established a new-culture-saving-principle of archaeological work. Oldenburg appealed to scholars urging them not to destroy monuments and take away only those fragments that were a result of their destruction over time and that might otherwise be lost to scholarship. The Russian academician proposed active use of technical means for displaying archaeological artifacts recording their actual condition in its entirety. The second Russian expedition to Turkestan headed by Oldenburg, which brought to Russia exceedingly valuable scholarly materials connected with the investigation of the Buddhist monastic complex in Dunhuang, worked exactly in this manner. The Russian academician suggested a new way to introduce Oriental Buddhist art treasures to the scholarly community-by publishing illustrated albums with an introductory study report. He himself produced two such albums of Buddhist iconography. Oldenburg paid careful attention to the inception of Oriental Studies in India, Nepal and Japan. He considered Eurocentrism to be a fundamentally wrong position and reasonably believed that classical Oriental Studies would develop as an equal cooperation between Western, Russian and Asian scholars. A good illustration of this is the way Oldenburg described Klements’s attitude toward Asian nations in the memorial essay “Dmitry Alexandrovich and Elizaveta Nikolaevna Klements”: “For Klements they are masses full of latent energy and mysterious potential. He reminds us that as recently as if it were yesterday our Western neighbours considered us barbarians and now they have to work hand in hand with us as equals” (p. 218). Oldenburg also stressed the idea of a future scholarly partnership between the West and the East in his formal speech for the 80th anniversary of Grigory Potanin, one of the great Russian explorers (p. 247). The issue of moral and ethical guidelines for scholarly research and organizational activities runs like a golden thread through Oldenburg’s personological essays. It is from just such a perspective that he characterizes in his essays the representatives of other, non-Oriental fields of scholarship-the researcher of ancient Greek literature Piotr Nikitin, the historian Alexander Lappo-Danilevsky, the philologist Aleksei Shakhmatov, the vice-president of the Academy of Sciences mathematician Vladimir Steklov and the biologist Karl Ernst von Baer. The humanistic features of Oldenburg’s worldview are clearly visible in three articles included in the book-“Renan as apostle of free thought” (1902), “Baron Wrangel and true nationalism” (1916), “Andrey Ivanovich Shingarev” (1918), as well as in his memorial essay “Tolstoy-a teacher of life” (1920). Referring in the introduction to the Sketches of Men of Science to the article devoted to Renan, Vigasin pointed out, that Oldenburg was “only slightly interested in the results of the scientist’s particular activities in the sphere of Semitology. It is important to him to emphasize by the example of Renan the necessity for freethinking and malignancy of intolerance” (p. 22). Indeed, the article was written in those years when the issue of freedom of conscience was particularly contentious in Russian society. Yet Oldenburg’s interest in Renan was not limited to this topical issue. Ernest Renan, as a philologist and scientist, argued against the imposition of Eurocentric value judgments in the scientific field, in particular against overestimating the cultural superiority of the ancient Mediterranean world. He saw philology as the study of historical paths of human development which express itself in ethnocultural variety of languages and texts. Sergei Oldenburg held the same ideological viewpoint. For both of them, the ancient languages and texts were a unique instrument for gaining a thorough insight into the mentality of peoples who created the world’s cultural history. In this respect they both assigned a purely methodological meaning to the thesis by the founder of French Buddhist Studies, Sanskritist Eugène Burnouf-“in the language of Indians we will study India with its philosophy and its myths, its literature and laws”. It should be emphasized that Oldenburg’s many-sided interest in Renan has not received adequate attention in works on the history of Oriental Studies and it certainly deserves detailed study. Oldenburg’s scholarly views determined his social stance. He rejected not only Eurocentrism but also any manifestation of nationalistic self-importance, especially the chauvinism that gripped the minds of a great part of the Russian intelligentsia during the First World War. In the article in memory of Nikolai Wrangel, an active member of the Russian Geographical Society’s ethnography department, Oldenburg contrasted chauvinism with true nationalism-serving the national culture. Oldenburg’s article “Andrey Ivanovich Shingarev” is transfused with a rejection of the needless cruelty unavoidably associated with revolutionary changes in political history. It was a response to the tragic death of that eminent member of the Cadets (Constitutional Democratic Party) and colleague of Oldenburg due to his participation in the Provisional Government. Shingarev was killed by anarchist sailors in January 1918. The scholar was stunned by the absurdity of that crime committed by common people whom Shingarev had served as a doctor from an early age. But even in the years of fratricidal national catastrophe Oldenburg did not lose his faith in the spiritual and moral potential of Russian culture. This is evidenced by his memorial essay “Tolstoy-a teacher of life”, published in the midst of the Civil War. The book Sketches of Men of Science ends with an autobiographical essay “Thoughts on Scholarly Creativity” published one year before the scholar’s death. This work shows the internal logic and correlation of various aspects of Oldenburg’s activities- studies of Buddhist written monuments, archaeology and science coordination. In concluding the review of this admirably compiled book, it is worth mentioning one rather strange passage in the introduction dealing with the characterization of Sergei Oldenburg’s personal contribution to scholarship (p. 19-21). Vigasin quotes something the scholar said when he was a student-“I have no great talent, only the wit of a scientist”-and meaningfully adds his own judgment: “This harsh self-appraisal probably accords with reality”. This is followed by a list of works based on the results of his expedition to Central Asia which the scholar failed to publish. As a matter of fact, Oldenburg’s contribution to scholarship supposedly boils down to “short notes, with a significant portion of publishing works” and a brochure presented as a thesis (p. 20). The reader will be puzzled-for what merits, then, was Sergei Oldenburg elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences? Unfortunately, the absurd reasoning about the perceived insignificance of Oldenburg’s personal contribution to Oriental Studies, which stems from a misunderstanding of its course of development, has been quite common in a succession of scientific publications over two last decades. In this respect, it is only for the better that in the informative and beautifully worded introduction to the Sketches of Men of Science there is not much space for such an argument. Helena Petrovna Ostrovskaya, Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, Russian Academy of Sciences


About the authors

Helen P. Ostrovskaya

Institute of Oriental Manuscripts RAS

Author for correspondence.
Email: iom@orientalstudies.ru
SPIN-code: 9457-7382
Russian Federation


  1. Oldenburg S.F. Etiudy o liudiah nauki (“Sketches of Men of Science”). Ed. by S.D. Serebryany, compilation, introduction and commentary by А.А. Vigasin. - Moscow: RSUH, 2012. - 478 p

Copyright (c) 2015 Ostrovskaya H.

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