07.05.2024 Author: Yuliya Novitskaya

Alikber Alikberov: “The study of the East is the study of ourselves” PART 3

Alikber Alikberov. The study of the East

In the final part of our interview, Dr Alikber Alikberov, PhD in History, talks about his conversation with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, reports on preparations for the BRICS Academies Forum, and reflects on why you need to stay in your own environment to be happy.

– Alikber Kalabekovich, your Institute is involved in the preparation of the BRICS Academies Forum…

– Yes, this is an interesting new direction, which is a format of networked academic work. I can give the example of Network Orientalism. We have central institutes and regional institutes. A few years ago, the attitude towards the regional institutes was somewhat patronising. But now that we have started to work together more actively, it has become clear that they study many issues more deeply than we do. We study the whole spectrum broadly and deeply, while they study deeper and broader, each in their own area. Take, for example, the Institute of Mongolian Studies, Buddhology and Tibetology of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. There is a huge collection of Buddhist texts there. And their results in the study of Mongolian culture will be much better, because they have a whole institute dedicated to this work – in comparison, we have only four or five people. And Network Orientalism, if we are all embedded in the same matrix and helping each other, creates the possibility of such a form of collaboration, where we help each other and strengthen our own capacities as well as those of our partners.

–There is a synergistic reinforcement effect…

– Absolutely. If necessary, we involve our own specialists or publish joint works. With the help of the BRICS Academies Forum, these countries are being strengthened through such co-operation.

First of all, the new BRICS countries are of interest. In our institute we do not only work in this format. We are also working on the project of scientific and technical co-operation between Russia and the new BRICS countries, as it so happens that almost all the new members of this association have Eastern residence. The Institute’s task is to assess the prospects in various areas of co-operation, including investment, scientific and technical co-operation, development of our own innovative areas, and strengthening the digital economy.

Now it turns out that more than half of all food resources are produced by the BRICS countries, so there is a potential for further strengthening the competitive advantages of these countries. Consolidation of efforts of food exporters is directly called for here. In addition to food, there is also the energy sector, the information sector and many other areas where we can strengthen the competitive advantages of our country, thereby strengthening the advantages of the entire group.

– How closely does the Institute cooperate with the largest scientific centres of Eastern countries? I mean internships, joint scientific work and research.

– In the last three years, since I have been the director of the Institute, such projects have become very active. Thanks to our Institute and its Orientalists, scientific schools have actually appeared on the territory of the former Soviet republics. And we did not help to create them for the purpose of control. What is more, historically we have never been involved in the study of these peoples, their history and culture. They did it themselves. For example, the Georgian Academy of Sciences studied the history of Georgia, the Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences studied the history of Azerbaijan. We studied only what belonged to world culture.

In our institute there were specialists who read almost all ancient languages. And many discoveries are connected with the work of Russian Soviet scientists. Today we are continuing this tradition. We are in demand not only in the former Soviet Union. We have 12 scientific-archaeological expeditions.

– You have anticipated my next question about the participation of employees in scientific expeditions both in Russia and abroad. Scientists are always “insatiable and greedy” (in the good sense of these words) for work. Tell us a little about what your employees do on such expeditions, share their results with our readers.

– As I said, we have 12 scientific expeditions, including three Egyptological expeditions, one of them in Giza (Egypt). And our works in English are distributed all over the world. These expeditions reveal whole special worlds, which for centuries have been hidden under the thickness of the earth. I will try to tell you about them literally in theses.

We have a joint Russian-Italian expedition in Sudan and Lower Egypt. There is a joint Russian-Syrian expedition, which is excavating in the crusader city of Arwad in Syria. We are also conducting underwater archaeological research, incidentally in cooperation with the Expeditionary Research Group of the Ministry of Defence.

– But you also have your own good opportunities, because the work is carried out at the highest global level.

– That’s right. We have long since moved to the level of digital oriental studies, we have digital archaeology, digital linguistics, and we use the latest technology in our work.

We have created a laboratory of palaeoarchaeology, where we can get more complete and versatile, rich descriptions, because we study organics, fix each object as it was in three-dimensional space. Our Institute is a leader in the use of these world technologies.

We have an outstanding Russian-Iraqi expedition, headed by Alexei Yankovsky. On the Russian side, apart from us, the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences also participates in it. We have a joint Russian-Abkhazian expedition. The year before last there was a study headed by the late Alexander Yurievich Skakov. We found about 32 artefacts there, 12 of which were gold. These are figures of Heracles and other symbols characteristic of the early ancient Greek culture. The Mesopotamian expedition is excavating in the area where the most ancient cities, the first in the world, are located.

I would like to mention the Socotrian expedition, which is headed by Academician Vitaliy Vyacheslavovich Naumkin together with Leonid Kogan (the island of Socotra belongs to Yemen). By the way, their creation of the Socotrian alphabet was included in the top 10 outstanding world scientific achievements in the BBC rating. We are also studying monuments in Tajikistan, where Natalia Matveyevna Vinogradova has been working for a long time. We plan to resume our expedition to Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan – Zoroastrian and Iranian peoples have been exploring these areas since Scythian times. We are also getting interesting data there.

Now we are working on three new expeditions: in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. The Iranian theme was proposed directly by the President of their national Academy of Sciences during our personal meeting. The Islamic theme is also very relevant today, Saudi Arabia is our partner, including in BRICS. Of course, this is not a complete list. There are many areas in which we work. Since Oriental Studies is a complex discipline, each of our expeditions is also complex. In parallel with ancient history, we study languages, dialects, customs, and record folklore.

For example, we have an expedition in Papua New Guinea, headed by N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, the great-great grandson of Nicholai Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay. Do not think that this small country is of little interest to anyone now. Many countries would like to place their military bases in Papua New Guinea. I would like to note that there are no secondary zones in the world now.

What’s the status of African studies?

– We have an expedition to the Dogon Country (Mali), led by Pyotr Anatolievich Kutsenkov. The research conducted there is very important for understanding social mechanisms and norms, how they are formed, how they influence each other. We are also interested in the tribal zone in Algeria, and negotiations are currently underway there.

– At first glance, it may seem like unnecessary things for no one…

– That’s not true. In 50 years these people will be gone and everything they knew will be forgotten. And these are very important layers of folk culture that need to be preserved because they are part of world culture.

We have a humanitarian, people-centred approach to our work, which is why both scientific and academic centres want to work with us. We have introduced a format of joint research on contemporary issues, offering a cross-cutting approach at the intersection of interests. Together with Iranians we wrote a paper “Orientalism vs. Oriental studies”, in which we showed that Russian approaches do not fit into the concept of Orientalism. When we study the East, one of the things we study is ourselves. For example, the first Koran in Arabic was printed in Russia under Catherine II to meet the needs of the Tatar Muslims living in our country. And it turned out that it was the first Koran printed in Arabic in the world. It was done here in Russia.

– You have travelled to the countries studied by the Institute you head. What is most memorable about your trips? What is the first thing you pay attention to when you arrive in a country?

– It is incredibly difficult for me to separate professional interests from human interests. In human terms, I am always interested in trying new food, cuisine. The East beckons researchers, among other things, with the opportunity to plunge into another environment, to speak the language of this culture, to taste food, to listen to music. It is as if you get the opportunity to live a second life – as it would be if you were born in another environment, another culture. Buddhists have a theory of reincarnation – the doctrine of transmigration of souls. Orientalists have a purely scientific attitude to religion. Here we have a kind of alternative history – something that will not happen and did not happen, but could have happened.

I want to say that it is possible to live everywhere. Everywhere has its own standards of beauty, its own delicious food. But it is hard for me to stay somewhere for more than a week, especially difficult to overcome gastronomic habits. Simply put, I just want borscht. I am sure that a person to be happy should stay in his environment, in his culture. You should not think that somewhere will be better. It won’t. Now many people have left, thinking that they will be in a royal bush there. But it’s not. And they suffer. Firstly, nobody needs them there because they are people of our culture. Secondly, you can’t forget about daily habits, which are hard to change. And a lot of other things. In other words, where you are born, you are useful.

When entering other cultures, I am primarily interested in human contacts and communication. Since I represent an academic institution, I do not speak the official language of diplomats, where there are protocols and restrictions. I am not among the military or politicians, who also have their own limitations. We, people of science, come into contact through culture, a keen interest in the historical past that we study. And this brings us closer together, helping to build bridges of trust. And without trust, nothing can be done, it is the foundation of any creative action.

On my last trip to Tajikistan at the end of last year, I had the rare chance to speak personally with Mr President Emomali Rahmon. We spoke to him for about half an hour. He talked about why Russian capital does not go where it is expected, but goes to the West, where it is not only not expected, but also taken away. He talked about the strategic dimension of co-operation, economic rapprochement and economic integration. Of course, there are certain risks here, but there are risks everywhere. And we need to create mechanisms for reliable protection of investments.

The second point we need to pay attention to is that Tajikistan and I have a common enemy – terrorism, from which they are constantly suffering, because Afghanistan is close by. The Tajiks and I have common threats, common challenges. And if we had joined forces earlier, we would have been able to identify the terrorists at the farthest approaches. They would not have gone so deep, would not have struck from the rear. Within the framework of the strategic interests of the state, special attention should be paid to the nearest neighbours, which are connected with us by integration processes. This is in the vital interests of a single once political, but today only historical and cultural community that speaks the same language with us. In a conversation with me, President Rahmon said that they have studied Russian and will continue to do so. Every year they send students at state expense to study in Russia at different universities, because Russian is one of the languages of world science and technology.

I will say it again: the most valuable thing I take away from all my trips is human communication. And when there are people on the ground whom you can trust, any projects are easier to realise. I am still a relatively young director, but we have colleagues who have much more extensive experience in such communications. For example, the scientific director of our institute, Vitaliy Vyacheslavovich Naumkin, whose experience and potential we are trying to make the most of for the benefit of science and our country.

– Alikber Kalabekovich, once again we congratulate you on your anniversary and thank you for an interesting conversation.


Yulia NOVITSKAYA, writer, journalist-interviewer, correspondent of the “New Eastern Outlook

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