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Sydney Morning Herald




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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 meeting.

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 removalists.

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 "shoe-banging" incident.

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 Manchu.

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 philosophy.

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 morality.

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 written.

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.


Editor: Pyotr Patrushev’s books and articles can be found on his website,


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