An international academic conference dedicated to the 65th anniversary of Southeast Asian studies at the Faculty of Asian and African Studies has been held at St Petersburg University.

The unique online forum brought together about 50 experts in Southeast Asian studies. They discussed: the synchrony and diachrony of languages; literature and oral tradition; politics and economics; modern development and traditional culture; and the ancient and modern history of Southeast Asian nations.

The conference was opened by Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky, who is a Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, General Director of the State Hermitage Museum, and the Dean of the Faculty of Asian and African Studies at St Petersburg University. Professor Piotrovsky pointed out that research and academic programmes in the languages of Southeast Asia have been developed and implemented at the University in close cooperation with the countries of the region.

Our school of Oriental studies has always paid great attention to studying the languages of Southeast Asia. The destinies of orientalists – the first experts in Vietnamese, Burmese and Indonesian studies – bear a similarity. They all shared an extraordinary flexibility of the intellect and respect for linguistic diversity, which became integral to our unique field of research and scholarship: Oriental studies.
Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky

The participants were welcomed by Mikhail Dmitriev, President of the Society of Friendship and Cooperation with the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. He acknowledged the contribution of academic orientalists to the study of the cultural and historical heritage of Southeast Asia and expressed confidence that the forum will serve to promote friendship, understanding and mutually beneficial cooperation between our countries.

The well-known scholar, specialist in Burmese philology, Professor of the Department of the South-East and Korean Philology at St Petersburg University Rudolf Yanson spoke about the history of studying and teaching the languages of the region at the University. He emphasised the crucial role of the polyglot Nikolai Andreev in establishing academic programmes in rare languages in Leningrad.

It is an amazing story! Indeed, Nikolai Andreev studied English at the University. Then he worked as a translator in Southeast Asia, where he collected books and dictionaries. In 1955, he succeeded in his efforts to open a department of Vietnamese and Indonesian philology at the Faculty of Asian and African Studies, without being proficient in these languages. It was the time of the fall of Western colonialism, the time of establishing ties with Southeast Asian nations. Thus, Andreev’s initiative gained support.
Professor Rudolf Yanson

The following year (1956), native speakers from Indonesia and Vietnam came to Leningrad as lecturers. This facilitated the teaching and learning process immensely. Then in 1957, the Department of Burmese philology was opened.

Rudolf Yanson remembered the pioneering orientalists who studied and taught the languages of Southeast Asia. Yury Osipov was a graduate of the Department of Chinese philology. Later, he completed a postgraduate course in Burmese philology and subsequently taught the Thai and Lao languages. Indologist Dmitry Elovkov first studied the Burmese language, and then he went on to master the Khmer language. In 1963, the Department of Khmer philology was opened at the Faculty of Asian and African Studies at Leningrad State University; it was the first in Russia.

The scholarly works of Evgeny A. Serebriakov, Aleksandr K. Ogloblin and other University specialists in Southeast Asian studies are still highly regarded by today’s orientalists. According to Rudolf Yanson, their lifetime motto was: ‘We love what we do, and we are getting paid to do what we love.’

The plenary session was continued by Professor Vladimir Kolotov, Head of the Department of History of the Far East Countries at St Petersburg University. He stressed that the first school of teaching the Vietnamese language in Russia was established in Leningrad in the early 1930s. In 1931, the first textbook of the Annam (Vietnamese) language was published. One of its authors was J. Minin, whose real name was Nguyễn Khánh Toàn – the well-known Vietnamese historian and academician. The very first scholarly works dedicated to the Vietnamese language were published by Julian Shchutsky. It was Shchutsky who first gave courses in Vietnamese at Leningrad University in the 1930s. The revival of Vietnamese studies as an academic discipline at the University took place in 1955. The Vietnamese linguist Nguyễn Tài Cẩn made a great contribution to this.

The strong friendship between the two countries, established over 65 years ago, has maintained and developed the teaching traditions. This has resulted in stable relations between St Petersburg University and Vietnam. In 2010, the first worldwide ‘Ho Chi Minh Institute’ was opened at the University. Last year we were involved in organising a unique exhibition that presented ancient Vietnamese culture to the Russian public. Over two million visitors attended the exhibition in the State Hermitage Museum.
Professor Vladimir Kolotov

Anatoly Sokolov, senior research associate at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, talked about the political factors that affected Vietnamese studies in the USSR in the 20th century. Ksenia Efremova, a St Petersburg University graduate and Associate Professor at MGIMO University, gave an account of the stages of development of Burmese studies in Russia.

Svetlana Banit, Assistant Professor of the Department of the South-East and Korean Philology at St Petersburg University, paid a tribute to the world-renowned orientalist Aleksandr Ogloblin in her address to the conference. Aleksandr Ogloblin (1939–2020) was a professor of St Petersburg University, a specialist in literature and culture of Indonesia and Malaysia.

Within the framework of the conference, a separate panel focused on the theory and practice of ASEAN Regional Economic Integration was set up. At the panel, aspiring ASEANologists discussed both ‘militaristic’ and ‘peaceful’ topics: from the fight against drug trafficking and the Indonesian army to Russian-Vietnamese relations and personal pronouns in Thai.

Summing up the conference results, Rudolf Yanson emphasised that a most urgent task for researchers is to secure a prosperous stability in Southeast Asia. ‘Our goal is to establish contacts between civilisations, to demonstrate that the emerging conflicts can be resolved in a peaceful manner, and to make our voice heard,’ he urged.

More than fifty participants from ten countries – from Southeast Asia, Great Britain, Hungary, Germany, Russia and Belarus – attended the video conference.

The online format has several clear advantages and provides opportunities to reach a wider audience. Many of our conference attendees would have been unlikely to participate in an offline event.
Associate Professor Elena Kolpachkova, Department of Chinese Philology, St Petersburg University

Associate Professor Sergei Dmitrienko, Head of the Department of the South-East and Korean Philology at St Petersburg University, noted that the conference is one of the few events that have been held over the last six months. ‘We will do our best to ensure continuity of the work of the St Petersburg school of Southeast Asian studies. We will continue to teach students, to interest them in this region, and to carry on the good work of our predecessors,’ said Sergei Dmitrienko.

The participants proposed to turn the conference into an annual event and, if possible, combine online and offline formats. The proposal received general support.