Ibn Sina Foundation

Die Welt des Islams 59 (2019) about monografiia “A.E. Shmidt: biografiia, nauchnaia perepiska, izbrannye trudy, bibliografiia” by R.I. Bekkin

2020 Feb 10

Eighty years have passed since the death of Alexander [von] Schmidt (1871-1939), the tragic pioneer of academic Islamic studies in Russia and Central Asia. The present volume, edited and provided with a long biographical essay by Renat I. Bekkin, is a worthy contribution to Schmidt’s memory. Schmidt was one of the scholars around St. Petersburg Arabist Baron Victor von Rosen (d. 1908), and his case demonstrates the close links between Russian and Western European Oriental studies. Like Rosen, Schmidt decided to travel to central Europe to collate Arabic manuscripts and to meet leading Orientalists (in 1897 Schmidt briefly studied with Goldziher in Budapest and Michael Jan de Goeje in Leiden). Back in Russia, Schmidt positioned himself as a propagator of Goldziher’s ideas, in particular his rejection of hadith authenticity.

To sustain his family, Schmidt had to accept all kinds of journalistic, administrative and teaching jobs, leaving him with no time for producing impressive monographs. Formally, his only qualification work was his master’s thesis (of 1914) on a mystical work by ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Shaʿrānī (d. 1565). Many of his research projects remained unfinished, either because of his pedantic nature or because he heard that a colleague had started work on the same subject (as was the case with his Russian translation of the Qurʾān). Often, he interrupted a project because he got carried away by another one. Schmidt’s last major work, a translation and analysis of Kitāb al-kharāj by Abū Yūsuf (d. 798), saw the light of day only in 2001, after several Russian scholars had done their best to finalize it.

In late 1918, Schmidt obtained a chair of Islamic studies – the first in Russia, designed by Schmidt himself, and closely connected to the other Orientalist units at Petrograd University. Yet, in 1920 Schmidt moved to Tashkent, where he became director of the Turkestan Oriental Institute (Turkestanskii vostochnyi institut, TVI). While fighting against endless university “reforms” – his TVI was soon absorbed into Central Asian State University, and reduced in scope – Schmidt was not in a position to attract disciples who would follow and continue his agenda.

From Tashkent, Schmidt remained in postal exchange with his colleagues in Petrograd/Leningrad, and the surviving letters that Schmidt wrote to Rosen, to the Central Asianist Wilhelm Barthold (d. 1930), and, in particular, to the Arabist Ignatii Iu. Krachkovskii (d. 1951) are the major sources of the biographical sketch from the pen of Renat Bekkin that forms the backbone of the present volume (pp. 15-246). Through this correspondence, and other archival materials from Russian and Uzbekistani archives, we learn about Schmidt’s scholarly plans and achievements, his enduring feeling of belonging to what was left from the Rosen circle, and the hopes he placed in his two sons, in particular Eduard Schmidt (d. 1942 in a Soviet forced labor unit), who studied and then taught at Schmidt’s TVI. In the run-up to the Cultural Revolution, political pressure on the ‘old professors’ (and in particular against the Germans among them) increased, and certain colleagues and students harassed Schmidt by denouncing him as a dangerous anti-Soviet element. In 1930, not only Schmidt’s own chair of Arabic and Islamic studies was abolished but the whole Oriental faculty; he was jobless. A year later, Schmidt was arrested for the first time, and then exiled to Kazan. In 1934 Schmidt returned to Tashkent, where he obtained a cataloguing position in the Public State Library of Uzbekistan; the descriptions of Oriental manuscripts that he and his colleague Aleksandr A. Semenov produced at that time are still a major prerequisite of the Central Asian historian. Schmidt resumed research, but his works (including a translation of Ibn ʿArabshāh’s history of Timur) did not see the printing press. In June 1938 he was again arrested and now forced to confess that he himself as well as Semenov, and other colleagues of the old school were in fact anti-Soviet plotters. Surprisingly, he was not shot or sent to the camps; instead, in the summer of 1939 he was simply released (and Semenov was not even arrested). Yet Schmidt was sick and broken, and he passed away in October of that year.

In his biography of Schmidt, Bekkin provides brief historical introductions to the various subjects that Schmidt studied at a given time. But the major merit of the present book is that Bekkin guides the reader through the history and internal life of the various institutions and journals with which Schmidt collaborated, offering portraits of the individuals with whom Schmidt came into contact. The book therefore contains many charming vignettes, for instance of the extravagant nobleman Esper E. Ukhtomskii (d. 1921), owner of the Sankt Peterburgskie vedomosti newspaper, whom Schmidt served as secretary from 1899 to 1916; when the master was absent from office, Schmidt had to feed Ukhtomskii’s domestic crocodile. A similar “Orientalist” character in the book is Professor Evgenii D. Polivanov, who when teaching at Schmidt’s TIV in Tashkent appeared in complete Muslim garb, in order to fully immerse himself in Eastern culture, as he had done in Japan. Particularly interesting is the chapter on the journal Mir islama (“The World of Islam”), in the first numbers of which (in 1912) Schmidt published his essays on the early history of Islam; here, Bekkin focuses on the conflict between the academic interests of the journal’s editor, Barthold, and the ‘practical’ expectations of the ministry that funded the journal (and that eventually dismissed Barthold and his team).

One episode in Schmidt’s scholarly life, namely his role in the 1918 transfer of the famous “Qurʾān of ʿUthmān” from the Public Library in St. Petersburg/Petrograd to Russia’s Muslim religious authorities in Ufa (and later on to Tashkent), is covered in a separate chapter (pp. 247-65) written by the Tashkent scholar Rinat N. Shigabdinov who also supported Bekkin by identifying Schmidt-related documents in Uzbekistan’s archives. The volume furthermore contains two corpora of Schmidt’s letters: fifteen letters that Schmidt sent to his supervisor, Victor von Rosen (mostly, euphoric messages from Schmidt’s 1897 trip to Budapest, Vienna, and Leiden), and twenty-three addressing the Leningrad Turkologist Aleksandr N. Samoilovich (executed in 1938), most of them reflecting Schmidt’s misery inTashkent between 1922 and 1935. The letters are furnished with useful notes. The volume also reproduces four of Schmidt’s shorter works, including his historical sketch of Shii-Sunni relations. A fifth text is published here for the first time, namely Schmidt’s analysis of Arabic inscriptions from the mausoleum of Abū Saʿīd Abū l-Khayr (Meani Baba, d. 1049) in Turkmenistan. The book contains marvelous photos of Schmidt and his colleagues (including Semenov, who in 1946 married Schmidt’s German widow), as well as a bibliography of Schmidt’s published and unpublished works.

Renat Bekkin’s skillful contextualization of Schmidt’s trajectory within a broader scholarly network, combined with the above-mentioned first-hand sources, makes the present volume an excellent introduction to the history of Russian Oriental studies in the late imperial and early Soviet periods. Shortly after Islamic studies was born as a discipline, out of Russia’s dynamic academic landscape, it was already torn down, for ideological reasons imposed by the Bolsheviks.

Michael Kemper, University of Amsterdam