The Russian Institute of Oriental Studies marks not only 200 years of its founding but makes a statement about a changed world
Some institutions are resilient and survive the ups and downs of fate. Others cannot sustain themselves and fall by the wayside. A great survivor is the Institute of Oriental Studies (IOS) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which commemorates the 200th anniversary of its founding this year. The bicentennial was recently celebrated in October in Moscow with a congress. The congress itself, where I was invited to speak, was a gala event — essentially a Russian affair with marginal input from Western scholars, which is what made it remarkable. In Pakistan, we are used to only hearing about and from Western academics about the region. It coincided with Russian’s tilt to the East in world affairs, a celebration of the Asian part of its Eurasian identity. President Vladmir Putin did not attend the congress but a message from him was read out at the inauguration. As much as anything, the gathering signalled the increasingly multi-polar nature of our world.
The IOS was founded in 1818, in Russia during the reign of Emperor Alexander I. It has gone through many vicissitudes through empire, wars, invasions, revolution and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was originally established in St. Petersburg as the Asian Museum under the Imperial Academy of Sciences, as a depository of oriental manuscripts and a library facilitating scientific research. In 1950, the institute was shifted to Moscow, becoming a major centre of oriental studies. Today its depositories house more than one million volumes of ancient books and manuscripts. In 2008, the St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) branch was reorganised into a separate Institute of Oriental Manuscripts. The institute in Moscow is a unique venue for the study of the problems in history and cultures of the Orient, especially the countries of Asia and North Africa. Hundreds of experts work there.
Its scholars follow a multidisciplinary approach based on history, culture, economics, politics, language, literature and linguistics. Structurally, it is divided country-wise into regional centres and special departments. It has a prolific publications programme and partners with many other academic institutions throughout the world.
From 1977 to 1985, the Institute was nurtured by the legendary Yevgeny Primakov who served as its director but later rose to great political heights as foreign minister, speaker of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, chief of the intelligence service and prime minister. He was the leading Soviet expert on the Middle East and author of Russia and the Arabs, which gave a behind-the-scenes non-Western view of the problems of the Middle East. As a diplomat, he was an ardent supporter of a multi-polar world.
Pakistan is covered by the Centre for the Study of the Near and Middle East. Their recent publication on Pakistan is Database: Pakistan and Neighbouring Countries, 2017, by Sergey Kamenev.
When The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs first established links with this centre, it was headed by Professor Yuri Gankovsky. He was a versatile scholar and an expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Gankovsky was regarded as an eminent Soviet specialist on the Afghan war and criticised the Soviet Union’s policy in 1988 for having failed to recognise Afghanistan’s special features, including the importance of Islam. Later, his bold words appeared in The New York Times about the role played by Soviet troops in the 1979 palace-storming coup in Kabul: “I believe” he wrote, “it is time to tell the whole truth no matter how bitter it is.”
He hailed from Kherku, now the second-largest city in Ukraine and fought in the Second World War. Arrested by the KGB in 1947, he was rehabilitated several years later in 1957, after which he began his career at the Institute of Oriental Studies. He was the author of several acclaimed works on the history of Pakistan, its social structure and ethnicities, its constitutions and national movements and on Russia-Pakistan relations. He was also the chief editor of an Encyclopedia on Asia and co-edited The Encyclopedia of Pakistan with the Pakistani-American scholar Hafeez Malik.
After Gankovsky passed away, Vyacheslav Belokrenitsky became the chair of the Near and Middle East Centre. Belokrenitsky has written extensively on Pakistan, including A Political History of Pakistan 1947-2007 which was launched at the Karachi Literature Festival in 2013. At the launch, Belokrenitsky described Pakistan as “a success story.” On the eve of the bicentennial celebrations, he published a selection of his works on Pakistan, South Asia, Islamic World, East, 2008-2016. The same optimism about Pakistan resonated in his remarks at the congress held in Moscow to celebrate the bicentennial of the IOS when he referred to a Gallup poll that deemed Pakistanis as the happiest people in South Asia.
The congress may be considered as a statement, as a reassertion of Russia’s political and academic links with the Central Asian States, Mongolia, China, Japan and even Azerbaijan, although scholars from other Asian and North African states also spoke in different panels. It sought to redefine the future of Oriental studies and its place in the modern knowledge system and addressed the changing international landscape — the bitter legacy of the Arab Spring, the chaos and never-ending war in Syria, the fractured state in Iraq now coping with the Western invasion of 2003 — which, according to one scholar was launched not for the sake of Iraqis but for international traders, big commercial concerns and lobbies — terrorism and the universal refugee crisis. This is a landscape that Russia has a longstanding interest in.
At the end of the day, however, what the congress sought to do was to blend different academic streams and create a synthesis of East and West in the shape of the unity of human civilisation. In today’s multi-polar world, Pakistan would do well to take note of these efforts.
Dr Masuma Hasan is Chairperson of the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs and a former cabinet secretary