As the world watches this week to see whether the
bear hug in Beijing will turn into a T'ai Chi dance in Vladivostok,
three ghosts will lurk in the wings of the Forbidden City, reminding the
participants of the far from pacific past which led to this historic
The first is the long racial memory of the
Mongolian hordes, sweeping through the Eurasian plain like a giant tidal
way, leaving in its wake rape, pillage, destruction and subjugation.
But it had also left another imprint: the
tradition of a strong imperial power centered in Moscow; the Oriental
penchant for hierarchy which may have spawned the bureaucracy so loathed
by the present reformists in China and the Soviet Union; and the much
harder-to-measure effect on national consciousness and language.
The fear of the "yellow hordes" in time turned
into the more comfortable disdain for the inferior "little brother" to
the south of Amur river. During my childhood in Siberia, the only
Chinese I knew were shoe repairers, scrap metal collectors and sewage
The second ghost which will haunt the summit is
the Chinese mistrust of the former "big brother".
It will conjure memories of the Russians blatantly
elbowing their way right down to Amur in the south and Vladivostok in
the east in the wake of the French and English victories in 19th
century; of the proud Mao kept waiting by Stalin for many weeks before
the treaty of friendship was signed on February 14, 1950; of superior
and bombastic Khrushchev coming to see Mao after his famous
But there will be another, less familiar ghost,
which may well prove to be the least tractable to the colourful ritual
of political and ideological exorcism unleashed by the otherwise very
capable and charismatic Gorbachev and Deng.
Early in 1937, a brilliant young China specialist
by the name of Iulian Shchutskii was taken at night by the NKVD
(forerunner of the KGB), together with all his books and diaries. His
wife and daughter were spared, as well as a copy of his doctoral
dissertation which was buried somewhere in his institute's library.
This dissertation was later published posthumously
by Shchutskii's close friend and colleague, Nikolai Konrad, one of the
few Soviet sinologists to survive the purges.
Shchutskii's work is the only available Russian
translation of one of oldest and most venerated classics, the I Ching,
or the Book of Changes. It is now recognised by Western experts as one
of the major contributions to this field of study.
Five thousand copies of this book were printed in
1960 in Moscow. It is now a bibliographic rarity, and is far more
available in its more recent English translation.
Shchutskii perished in the camps, although he was
never brought to trial. Camp stories have it that he was found dead one
day with his skull crushed by a chain.
His great crime was his abiding interest in the
deeper aspects of Chinese thought and philosophy, including Taoism and
Buddhism. He was a deeply religious man.
His knowledge of Chinese language and dialects was
such that he used to make up humorous nicknames for his friends in
He admired Freud and loathed Marx. Shchutskii was
a student of V. M. Alexeev, leader of the Leningrad school of sinology
and possibly the greatest Russian scholar of Chinese literature and
The hallmark of the Alexeev school was a deep
involvement with religious and spiritual aspects of Chinese thought and
a great sensitivity, one can almost say love, for the Chinese culture.
Alexeev's diary of his travels through China in
1907 reads like a record of a spiritual pilgrimage. His descriptions of
old shrines, local customs and myths are almost poetic.
But during the 30s, the political climate was such
that people who represented cultural bridges between Russia and the rest
of the world were looked upon as potential or actual spies. Many of
Alexeev's students were eliminated. He died a broken man in 1951.
It is important to see that Alexeev and his
students represented a continuation of the love-hate affair with China
which, ever since the end of the TartarMongolian yoke, was integral to
the Russian national consciousness.
The first Russian caravan sent to China under Tsar
Alexis in the 17th century came back with favourable reports about the
effect of Confucian thought on Chinese population and its morals.
In 1839 Prince Odoevsky, one of the most highly
cultured and visionary men of the time, published a futuristic novel The
Year 4338. This remarkably daring precursor of the sci-fi genre is
supposedly written by a Chinese student living in Russia in the year
4338. He speaks of an almost utopian world largely shaped by the
blending of Russian and Chinese cultures.
Another visionary Russian philosopher, Nikolas
Fedorov, wrote at the end of the 19th century of the birth of a new
Eurasian civilisation which would colonise space and even learn how to
control global climate and atmospheric conditions around the Earth.
We may look upon such visions now as being
hopelessly utopian. Right now, Gorbachev and his analysts may be far
more concerned with pacification of the Pacific Rim and Far Eastern
countries rather then with joint colonisation of space.
The establishment of the free economic zone along
the eastern seaboard and in Siberia, which would give Soviets access to
the relatively cheap and advanced high technology of the region, may
have a higher priority for the Soviets (and indeed for the Chinese) than
the effect of Confucian thought (or lack of it) on contemporary Chinese
But as the Soviets and the Chinese engage in some
latter-day high-tech "cattle trading", they could perhaps spare a thought
for those human cultural bridges which in the past have helped to make
treaties and trade pacts more durable than the paper on which they were
The ghosts of Iulian Shchutskii and his Russian
and Chinese colleagues who perished during the purges in Russia and
during the Cultural Revolution hover over this very slim bridge. Let us
hope that neither side will ignore or thoughtlessly dynamite it again.