Russian engagement with China goes back to a first ecclesiastical contact in 1700; but the development of a scholarly tradition of Sinology came much later. As in many European countries, that tradition has been notably unstable, especially in the 20th century.
Sinology in Russia is more highly centralized than in any other nation, but it gains piquancy by having two centers, a classical and literary one at St Petersburg, somewhat more internationally minded as befits Peter the Great's concept of "a window on the West," and a modern and theoretical one at the political center, Moscow. All learning, Sinological and other, is organized as a series of Institutes, with the Academy of Sciences at the apex. To this set of Institutes, any academic programs are pendant and secondary. The third center at Vladivostok is largely diplomatic and commercial in aim, and practical in method. Kazan hardly counts. Both geographically and institutionally, there are no significant countervailing elements to the pattern of central control.
One of Russian Sinology's central figures in the 20th century is Alexeev. The contortions of Sinology under Communism are tragically illustrated in the life and early death of his student Shchutskii.
The basics of a literary and cultural acquaintance with China bulk large in the work of Russian Sinologists throughout the 20th century: Tang poetry, the Lyau-jai stories, the Shr Ji. Especially after WW2, there has been a steady interest in Dauism and in ancient inscriptions. Exceptions are few and notable.
Russian is not a language standardly possessed by Europeans, and though Russian Sinologists have been aware of results published in English, French, or German, the reverse has been only sporadically true. Russian scholarship does not bulk large in the consciousness of European and especially of American Sinology; it remains largely at the level of rumor. This intellectual frontier is maintained on the Russian side as well. At present, as some have told us, younger scholars who reside elsewhere or publish in other languages are regarded by Russians back home as not being part of the Russian tradition. Isolation, that is to say, is somehow intrinsic to the Russian tradition.
It is perhaps not a very hopeful formula for the future.
- David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye. The Genesis of Russian Sinology. Kritika v1 #2 (Spring 2000) 335f
- St Petersburg Institute of Oriental Manuscripts (in Russian and English)
24 June 2003 / Contact The Project / Exit to Sinology Page