29th Meeting Tashkent, 1986: Speech by Denis Sinor

Original English version of an article published in Russian “Prolegomeny k 29j sessi i PIAC” in the special issue of Uzbek tili va adabieti (1986,4) which appeared on the occasion of the 29th PIAC Meeting held in Tashkent; later also published in the PIAC Newsletter No. 17 (1987): 4–8.

Prolegomena to the 29th Meeting of the PIAC

The lives of organizations are usually punctuated by anniversaries marking, for example, the 10th, 25th, or 50th year of their existence. By such criteria the occasion of our 29th meeting would not call for any special remarks to be made. Yet, I think that the fact that, for the first time in its existence, the PIAC meets in the Soviet Union—and more specifically in one of its Turkic republics—is of sufficient importance to warrant some reflexions on the state of Altaic studies in general and on the aims and activities of the PIAC in particular.
Although various aspects of Altaic studies have been actively practiced since the 18th Century, their autonomy was slow to be recognized. Thus, for instance, within the framework of the International Congresses of Orientalists, the 23rd—held in Cambridge (England) in 1954, of which I was the Secretary General—was the first to have an independent section exclusively devoted to “Altaic Studies”. Since the Cambridge congress was also the first of its kind at which a Soviet delegation (some twenty strong) participated, this newly-introduced section could profit by the contribution of such outstanding scholars as E. E. Bertels, A. N. Kononov, and L. P. Potapov. There was also a special section on Central Asia to which S. Azimjanova and I. M. Diakonov contributed. Henceforth, the administrative autonomy of Altaic and Central Asian studies within the framework of these big international gatherings was firmly established. But more was to come.
On the occasion of the 24th International Congress of Orientalists, held in Munich in 1957, at the initiative mainly of Annemarie von Gabain, Walther Heissig, Karl Jahn, Omeljan Pritsak, and with the participation of others, including myself, it was decided to set up an independent organization called Permanent International Altaistic Conference (PIAC) with the aim of creating an informal, international forum at which, at yearly meetings, and away from the “big congress” syndrome, matters of common interest could be discussed. Another fortunate result of this meeting was the creation of the periodical Central Asiatic Journal which, until his recent death, remained under the editorship of Karl Jahn whose place has now been taken by Giovanni Stary. The first meeting of the PIAC was held in Mainz in 1958 and, since that time, every year without fail, a meeting has taken place in one country or another.
The administrative organization of the PIAC is extremely simple; the burden of running it rests on the shoulders of the Secretary General. The first to have this title was Professor Walther Heissig (Bonn, 1957–1960). On his resignation in 1960, his place was taken by the present writer, several times reelected, whose present five-year term runs until 1987. Since 1963 the PIAC has had a President in the person of the scholar who hosts that year’s meeting. The PIAC has no permanent membership and does not collect membership fees—all bona fide scholars who show a genuine and lasting interest in any aspect of Altaic studies are welcome at the meetings—but voting rights are limited to participants who have attended more than two meetings. Clerical help and ongoing administrative expenses are provided, principally, by Indiana University (Bloomington, Indiana), which, however, does not in any way interfere with the PIAC’s activities. The university has helped the PIAC also in another way. In 1962—on the occasion of the 5th meeting of our organization—the Indiana University Prize for Altaic Studies (generally known as the “PIAC MEDAL”) was established to honor an outstanding scholar for his/her life’s work in the field. The prize, consisting of a gold medal, is awarded by secret ballot to one of the nominees presented to the meeting by an international commission whose members had been elected, also by secret ballot, at the previous meeting. So far, seventeen scholars have been thus honored, among them our Soviet colleagues, I. Cincius (1972), A. N. Kononov (1976), and N. A. Baskakov (1980).
The main aim of the PIAC is to ensure that its annual meeting takes place and offers an informal opportunity for scholars to meet colleagues of similar interest, to get to know or know each other better, and to exchange ideas and information. A modest Newsletter, published at irregular intervals and free to all on the PIAC’s mailing list—beyond containing news items sent by its readers—also serves as a quasi-permanent record of the activities of the organization. Beginning with 1962 many local organizers of the meetings have found it possible to publish the Proceedings of the deliberations.
Soviet scholars are no strangers to the PIAC, they attended several of our previous meetings where their presentations and reports have always commanded great interest. The reason for this special attention goes beyond what is due to the achievement of any individual scholar and is rooted in the respect shown to Soviet scholarship everywhere where Altaic studies are pursued. I have made this Statement, not with the intent of flattery, but to justify my initial remark on the special importance of this first PIAC meeting held on Soviet soil.
Humans are fallible, scholars, even excellent scholars, make mistakes, and with the advance of knowledge old conceptions or opinions often have to give way to new ones. In all these respects, Soviet scholarship is not different from that of any other country. Yet, in the field of Altaic studies, in the study and Soviet scholarship holds a special place. It is easy to understand why this is so. If abstraction is made of Turkey, by far the greatest number of people speaking an Altaic language live within the boundaries of what once was the Russian Empire and what is now the Soviet Union. Much of what has been the history of Altaic peoples happened on the same territory; to it belong important segments of Central Asia, the immensity of Siberia, and the arctic zones. Within the Russian Empire, the challenge to explore the present and the past of all these lands and populations was met as early as the 18th Century—relevant research was greatly encouraged also by Catherine the Great—and successive generations of scholars have always been ready and willing to take up the burden.
Let me quote for example the pioneering works of I.J. Schmidt and O. Kovalevskij who, in the 1830’s, laid the foundations of the study of Classical Mongolian. The Mongol’sko-Russko-Francuzskij slovar’ published by the latter in Kazan (1844–1849) has remained, ever since, an indispensible tool. In the field of Turcology the same Claim can be made for V. V. Radloff’s Opyt slovarja tjurkskikh narechi or his monumental Narechija tjurkskikh’ plemen’. No historian of Central Asia can disregard the huge opus of V. V. Barthold whose exploration of the rieh manuscript treasures of Central Asia laid the foundation of modern historiography of the region. But perhaps no discipline contributed as much to the widening of our historical horizons as did archaeology. And if Altaic history or linguistics can, and have been, successfully studied outside Russia or the Soviet Union, the sensational results of the excavations are, by necessity, soil-bound. The expeditions that laid bare the ancient civilizations which once flourished in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, or Kirgiziya have shed light not only on the past of these regions but, also, have helped us towards a better understanding of the earlier periods of human history. Written sources contained no hint of the marvels of the old Khorezmian culture, nor could we ever guess the existence of some of the civilizations unearthed by the JUTAKE. Of course it cannot be my aim to mention, let alone describe, the principal achievements of Russian and Soviet scholarship pertinent to the activities of the PIAC. But it is important to bear in mind that, for instance even in Altaic linguistics—a domain in which West European and American scholarship can boast of important achievements—the sheer volume of Soviet production is the multiple of whatever has been written on the subject in the rest of the world. And even here we—who work in what is usually referred to as the “West”—must very often rely on the primary material provided by Soviet scholarship. Those of us who started work on Altaic comparative linquistics remember well the times when the hunt for, say, Turkic words was an almost hopeless task. Today, literally hundreds of dictionaries, grammars, synchronic descriptions of all kinds help the task of the comparatist. The accomplishment of such a tremendous task could not have been achieved without harnessing the immense, previously untapped intellectual resources of the populations native to the area. A “Turk” is not necessarily a “Turcologist”, but through acquiring the proper academic education, through mastering the methods of scholarly research, he who has a direct experience of the subject to be studied (e.g., by being a native Speaker of a given language) can often obtain results which may be beyond the reach of an outsider. There are subject matters which are virtually inaccessible to anyone working outside the territory. Of course archaeology is a good example, but the study of toponymy (still very much neglected) is also, necessarily best undertaken by those who live in the area where the material has to be collected. Or let us take literary studies. Of course the reading and editing of texts, their analysis and interpretation can be and has been undertaken by “outsiders”. But the sheer volume of the material makes it imperative that those who are the spiritual heirs to the civilization which produced these texts should also apply themselves to the task of reading, editing, interpreting, if needed, of translating them, making thus available to a wider scholarly world, and even to the greater public these valuable documents. If familiarity with local circumstances helps in understanding the past of a given area or people, it becomes truly essential in modern and contemporary studies. I know full well of personal experience how far off the mark outside observations and comments on the internal phenomena of a given country can be. So many aspects of American life which baffle the outside observer are perfectly understandable to those who live there. It would be ridiculous for us “outsiders” to pretend that our understanding of the Contemporary Central Asian scene is better than that of those who live there. It is probably the recognition of this basic truth that by tacit understanding, as a rule, the PIAC steered clear of contemporary issues. These are best left to the care and expertise of those intimately connected with them.
If Soviet scholars seem to have an a priori situational advantage over their foreign colleagues, the latter can bring, and have brought, most valuable contributions to Altaic studies. The fact itself, well known, would not need further elaboration yet I think that some remarks on this topic may not be superfluous. All scholars, indeed all men, are greatly influenced by the schooling they received in their youth. It ensues that in all scientific research “national schools” tend to exist, characterized by a certain uniformity of approach determined, as I have just said, by basic education. This statement applies to the Soviet Union as well as to all other advanced nations. There is—and I have just praised it—a definite “Soviet approach” to scholarship. But, in the same way, there are also German, French, English, or American “approaches”, all different from one another, all valuable in one way or another, and their very differences have a beneficial effect on progress. One should not ignore them; scholarship must be inter-and supranational.
There are also fields in which “western” scholars have a situational advantage. Such has been, for instance, their access to archaeological sites lying outside the Soviet Union, or—to give an example close to my own research—better access to the Chinese, Greek, or Latin sources and bibliographical tools needed for detailed research on medieval history.
Also, I must say this, in my experience major West European or American libraries are much better equipped with Soviet publications than vice versa. I am quite aware of the difficulties that all of us have to face in obtaining the publications we need and we know that scholars on both sides try to overcome them. The active exchange of publications between the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Uzbek Academy and Indiana University is a good example to follow and I sincerely hope that the meeting in Tashkent of the PIAC would provide further opportunities for similar activities.
The spectacular development of Altaic studies over the last few decades could not have been achieved without the vigorous and expert help of those for whom the area we study is homeland. For this reason alone, it would be fully justified to consider the 29th meeting a landmark in the history of the PIAC.
There are other reasons for considering this meeting as a special occasion. Whether we like it or not, our world is plagued by considerable political tensions. It has always been the PIAC’s policy to disregard these and to look for and emphasize not what divides, but rather what links us, to concentrate—with the complete exclusion of all political consideration—on the common bond which, in our case, is clearly defined: the pursuit of knowledge pertinent to the Altaic world, to Central Asia—or to use a term more comprehensive—to the whole of Inner Asia. On the world scale, our association is a modest one. It never tried to grow for growth’s sake and what developments have taken place in its existence were always organic, determined by scholarly needs, by the desire to know more. And what better means can there be to increase knowledge than to meet, to get to know each other to exchange ideas? It is always with special joy that the PIAC visits a country for the first time. The Soviet Union is the fourteenth country to extend hospitality to our meetings. We particularly appreciate the gesture coming as it does from a “senior partner” and are convinced that it will achieve a double goal: the advancement of our knowledge and the strengthening of friendly Cooperation between all participants.