Guangzhou, China (/r/Cyberpunk)
Some time ago a commenter asked me about the state of China Studies in Russia, an issue that is pretty germane as they increasingly align with each other.
TL;DR – Catastrophic. Simply put, Russia does not have the cognitive tools to understand the country that Kremlin talking points describe as Russia’s “strategic partner.”
Longer answer: Alexander Gabuev, who has a BA/MA in Chinese History from Moscow State University, wrote a couple of comprehensive articles on the state of Sinology in Russia when he was deputy foreign editor of Kommersant:
- Illiteracy on China (2012)
- “The State has Left Sinology”: What remains of China Studies in Russia (2013)
This post is heavily based on Gabuev’s material.
History of Russian Sinology 101
The first Russian mission to China was in 1714, with contacts for the next 150 years dominated by religious figures (Illarion Rassokhin, Alexey Leontyev, Osip Kovalevsky, Nikita Bichurin). There was a faculty of Eastern languages at Kazan University from 1807-1855 (Nikita Bichurin, Palladiy Kafarov, Vasily Vasiliev), which relocated to Saint-Petersburg State University (SPBU) around 1854. The Eastern Institute was set up in Vladivostok in 1899.
The Oriental faculty at SPBU was disbanded in 1919 and was spread out across other faculties, but Eastern Studies continued flourishing during the 1920s. However, the Soviet Oriental Studies community was devastated by the late 1930s purges, with several prominent Sinologists such as Nikolay Konrad and Julian Shutsky being sent to the Gulag or shot on charges of being Japanese spies.
In the next 50 years, Sinology would recover and develop further, but strongly tied to the perceived needs of the state and, like all social sciences, under tight Marxist-Leninist ideological strictures. The collapse of the USSR brought ideological freedom, but also a collapse of funding (salaries for top Sinologists plummeted from a comfortable level of 400-500 rubles during the 1980s to $30-$50 by the mid-1990s) and spiraling corruption that preempted any flowering of Russian Sinology to this day.
“Sinology is dead”
In June 2011, President Medvedev was presiding over a state prize awarding ceremony. The only Russian social scientists to be recognized were a group of Sinologists, including Artem Kobzev and Mikhail Titarenko, for their work on compiling and editing a six tome Encyclopedia of Chinese Spiritual Culture: “Their work helps us better understand the traditions and spiritual culture of China, they deepen and enrich modern Sinology. Their work is read all over the world…” proclaimed Medvedev. Kobzev followed it up with a short history of Russian Sinology: The first Chinese-Russian dictionary was compiled under a 140,000 ruble grant from Alexander I, and the USSR also financed a Big Chinese-Russian Dictionary. This was a pointed comment; as he soon clarified in a smaller discussion with the President, the Encyclopedia had actually been financed by the Chinese Development Bank at the personal direction of its CEO Chen Yuan, in honor of his late father, who had warm feelings towards the USSR. According to Kobzev’s account, Medvedev was rather distraught by what he had heard, and the Sinologist soon got a letter from the Kremlin telling him that his suggestions were considered important. Soon after, the Russian Fund for the Humanitarian Sciences allocated a total of 6 million rubles [$200,000] in the form of five grants for the study of China. It’s unclear if anything useful was done with them; one of the five grants went to the Philosophy faculty of Saratov State University, which didn’t have a single Sinologist.
This anecdote appears to be pretty representative of the sorry state of China Studies and social science in general in Russia.
There are fewer than 200 academic Sinologists, of whom only about 50 can be considered active (he compares this with 15,000 in the United States, but apparently, this was a big overestimate; Gabuev says: “this figure appears to be wrong, my mistake. picked it up from an American colleague back in 2012 without critically assessing it”). The average age of these researchers is rising inexorably; the director of the Institute of the Far East RAS is 78 year old Mikhail Titarenko [he died in 2016]. Whereas there were 500 experts at that institution in the 1980s, there are now just 147 of them, according to Sergey Luzyanin, the Institute’s deputy director. There isn’t a single academic expert in Russia on the finances, law, or military of China.
This is linked to low academic salaries, even at Russia’s top institutions for Sinology. Here are some of the figures when Gabuev wrote his article:
- 16,000 rubles ($500 at 2012/13 exchange rates) for a Research Fellow, 27,000 rubles ($900) for a senior researcher at the Institute of the Far East RAS.
- 30,000 rubles [$1,000] for an Assistant Professor, 45,000 rubles [$1,500] for a full Professor at Moscow State University’s (MSU) Institute of Asian and African Countries.
- Salaries are 20% higher at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-affiliated Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) than at the MSU.
- Literally the only institution where Russian Sinologists get an internationally respectable salary is at the Higher School of Economics – salaries of 150,000-200,000 rubles ($5,000-$6,500) are not atypical.
Things are even worse outside the capital. Saint-Petersburg State University, the second most prominent China Studies center in Russia outside Moscow, had to close down a program on the Chinese economy around 2011 due to lack of financing, and the third center of Russian Sinology, the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, closed down its Eastern Institute, an organziation that traced back its lineage to Tsarist times, at around the same time.
Only a few dozen scientific articles on China are produced per year, and their quality lags English language output, even though the latter produces orders of magnitude more material. Many of their articles aren’t even open access; a significant percentage are merely reference works for the country’s leaderships, prepared whenever there are big summits or other major state events in China. Furthermore, many articles aren’t indexed by international databases. “We do not subscribe to the Journal of Contemporary China, it’s too expensive. From 1991 the state doesn’t finance any international scientific partnerships. Not a ruble on literature, on travel, only just the occasional grant for a conference or a book…” says Vladimir Portnyakov, another deputy director of the Institute. New literature is acquired by renting out the Institute’s properties, which have emptied out as a result of so many people leaving after 1991.
Consequently, there is large-scale brain drain amongst young researchers to the private sector, or abroad (it is noted that Israel has seen large improvements in its Sinology in recent years, in no small part thanks to immigrants from Russia – even though, I would add, other business sectors have to the contrary seen a “backflow” from Israel back to Moscow in the past decade). Even those those specialists who stay on have to spread themselves out across multiple institutes to make a halfway decent living, leaving no time for research.
This has also resulted in a generational chasm within the Sinologist community; there are hardly any serious middle-aged researchers. Although there are several respectable Sinologists over the age of fifty who were produced in the USSR: Alexander Lomanov, Sergey Luzyanin, Andrey Ostrovsky, Vladimir Portyakov, Viktor Larin, Alexey Voskresensky, Vladimir Korsun, Andrey Karneev, Alexander Lukin, Mikhail Karpov, Nikolay Samoylov, Alexey Maslov – the author could name only one significantly younger figure, Vasily Kashin, at the CAST thinktank.
The state of affairs is no better at the state level
The main source of China talent in Russia is in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Gabuev’s sources mention several particularly competent people: Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, Thailand ambassador Kirill Barsky, China ambassador Andrey Denisov, and a few other members of the Russian diplomatic staff in China. (This makes sense; in one of my Twitter conversations with Chinese Russianist Xin Zhang, he pointed out that “one related problem is agenda for bilateral communication between specialists are still highly state-sactioned”). However, according to a business source, this doesn’t apply to people in the lower rungs: “The people at the top level can be okay. But the people on the ground are not the best, in the sense of helping out businesses or even as a source of expertise, they are quite useless.” This reflects the narrow focus of China experts in the Russian state structures, who focus on highly specific areas such as classic “high diplomacy,” nuclear non-proliferation, and the banalities of arranging Putin’s meetings with Chinese leaders. And this is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In contrast, there is almost a singular lack of Sinologists within Russia’s economics-related Ministries.
The situation in the “silovik” agencies is, if anything, even worse. In Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, there is precisely one (!) analyst working on the Chinese military (before Serdyukov’s reforms, there were two). During the Russian-Chinese military exercises “Maritime Cooperation 2012,” the Chinese had nearly 200 young officers with a solid knowledge of Russian at hand to provide linguistic support; the Russians could only muster three translators. Evidently, the Chinese military has made efforts to build up a large base of Russia expertise, unlike Russia with respect to China. So do bear this in mind whenever you read the next Andrei Martyanov article about Russia’s supposed military dominance over China. Even if that is an accurate assessment – and I have my doubts – do note that there would be almost no-one to translate intercepted Chinese communications within the Russian Army (hopefully the Americans don’t block access to Google Translate).
I would note that many of these observations are backed up by the aforementioned Xin Zhang, who in 2014 corrected me on my prior belief that the state of Sinology and Russianology in Russia and China were similarly dismal: “… likely more Russian experts in China than the other way… In Shanghai, we held conferences & seminars in Russian, although translation is needed for some participants.”
No China expertise in the media
Both RIA and ITER-TASS only had around half a dozen journalists each in their Beijing bureaus as of when Gabuev wrote his articles. None of Russia’s major broadsheets, even the “serious” ones like Kommersant and Vedomosti, have a presence on the ground in China. For comparison, major Western news agencies have bureaus of 15-20 people in Beijing, as well as employees in the provincial centers. It also far less than the attention China devotes to Russia: There are 70 people in the Xinhua bureau in Moscow. Consequently, there is far less news about China in the Russian press relative to the other major countries. I would also add as an observer of both the Western and Russian media that much of it basically consists of reprints of Western coverage of China, as opposed to original journalism.
The business sector isn’t interested either
Despite China being Russia’s largest trading partner – and its main bulwark against more serious Western sanctions – Russia’s state corporations aren’t rushing to avail themselves of China expertise, with predictable consequences – Gabuev cites a $3.5 billion loss in Rosneft from an unsuccessful pipeline to China, and Gazprom’s repeated failed attempts to enter the Chinese gas markets. Neither is the situation in the private sector much better. There only partial exceptions to this dismal picture are nuclear power monopoly Rosatom and development bank Vnesheconombank in the state sector, and Deripaska’s En+ Group in the private sector.
Certainly there is nothing on the scale of Chinese business analysis of Russia, such as that of the Chinese state-owned oil company CNPC. Not only does it maintain a large in-house staff of Russia specialists composed of Chinese Russia experts, Russian China Studies majors, and catches from the Chinese bureaucracy and security services, but it even orders reports from thinktanks on topics such as the “prospects of Russia’s political system to 2024 and its influence on Russia’s oil sector.”
Can one imagine anything like this under Rosneft’s Igor Sechin? To ask the question is to answer it.
There are very few instances of state bureacracies or corporations ordering expert analyses from Russian academia, as is typical in both China and the West. “The state has simply left Sinology. And this is a huge mistake. In China, the opposite is happening – the state is developing Russia Studies,” says Alexey Maslov, dean of Oriental Studies faculty at the Higher School of Economics (and a shaolin master). On the other hand, business and bureaucrats aren’t too satisfied with the academic Sinologist community either. “There is no practical benefit from communicating with them. You ask them a simple question, and they start their answer from the time of the Yellow Emperor, and don’t end up clarifying anything. Typical professors,” says one federal bureaucrat.
The future of Russian Sinology
Alexander Gabuev wrote these articles four years ago. In the meantime, the author himself – who can be considered somewhat of a China expert himself – left Kommersant to work for the US-financed Moscow Carnegie Center thinktank, which also happens to be the most highly rated thinktank in Russia. One can consider this as just one more depressing anecdote in the context of all the dismal things he wrote about Russian Sinology and social science in general.
The following is based largely on my own impressions.
In the years since 2012-13, the situation of Russian academia has improved, especially in the elite universities that are part of Project 5/100 – the state program to get five universities into the world’s top 100 (currently, only Moscow State University qualifies, and that by a hairsbreadth). Salaries there are now quite respectable, and are at least minimally comparable to those at the Higher School of Economics. However, I suspect financing at the Russian Academy of Science, at least if my impressions of the Institute of Psychology are anything to go by, remains catastrophically low.
There has also been a massive increase in the numbers of Russians studying Chinese in the past two decades. Whereas there were just 5,000 Russians studying Chinese in 1997, by 2007 it was 17,000, and by 2017 there were close to 56,000 of them (this is not entirely bad by comparison with the 200,000 Chinese learners in the United States, many of whom I suspect are Chinese-Americans).
On the other hand, the average quality of Chinese instruction in Russia leaves much to be desired, so optimism is premature. As Alexander Gabuev also pointed out in 2013, quoting Alexey Maslov: “Today we have more than 160 universities that offer Chinese… But many of these people are almost impossible to use in real life. This creates the impression that we have a lot of Sinologists. But in reality, they are not Sinologists, their level of Chinese language knowledge is very low.”
Nonetheless, the overall situation does seem to be improving, even if at a slow rate and from a very low base. And there’s no obvious reason for things to get worse.
However, so long as Putin remains more interested in financing the Rotenbergs than RAN – for instance, the planned bridge to Sakhalin might consume about as much money per year as the entire federal budget for science – there can be no serious talk of Russia starting to produce a lot of world-beating research in Sinology or any other brance of science.