USSR: FI Shcherbatskoy (1866-1942) – Expert in Buddhism


There is much disinformation not only in the West, but also in modem (capitalist) Russia, about the history of the Soviet Union (1917-1991). A number of contemporary Russians, in their haste to make a living, are prone to taking on the flawed anti-Soviet perspective of the Cold War (emanating from the USA), and mindlessly replicate all this false propaganda as if it were true. Obviously this is not the case with all Russian historical literature, but the reader is advised to remain forever vigilant. For instance, as the Nazi Germans invaded the USSR in 1941, many important Soviet intellectuals and innovators were relocated to the relative safety of Kazakhstan, where there existed well-stocked, well-supplied and well-protected Soviet towns and cities. In fact, this area became known as the scientific heart of the USSR, and the place where the Soviet Space Shuttle would eventually be developed. Being sent to Kazakhstan was always a privilege and never a punishment, but one modern Russian text, playing to the Western anti-Russian agenda, falsely stated that FI Shcherbatskoy was ‘exiled’ to Kazakhstan – as if being sent to safety to continue one’s work was a punishment. Certain other Russian texts follow the Western texts by implying that the USSR attacked ‘religion’ and this included Buddhism, again, this is false. State was separated from church, and the church from the classroom, but religion continued as a ‘private’ matter, with uncorrupted Buddhist thinking not being included as ‘religion’ due to the fact its philosophy did not conform to the inverted thinking inherent within Judeo-Christian theology. In fact, a Buddhist temple (replete with Buddha statues) is featured in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 Soviet film entitled ‘October 1917 (Ten Days that Shook the World)’. It was also a matter of historical fact that Marx and Engels had positive viewpoints about Buddhism (with Marx even claiming to have once tried Buddhist meditation).

Fedor Ippolitovich Shcherbatskoy (1866-1942) was Polish born, and dedicated his academic career to the study of Indian philosophy. In 1889, he earned his PhD from the Historical-Philological Faculty of St. Petersburg State University in Russia, after presenting (and defending) his thesis regarding the pronunciation of two types of Indo-European languages. So impressed were the educational authorities that FI Shcherbatskoy was immediately employed by the university, where he pursued his studies for a professorship. Also in 1889, he was sent to Vienna to further improve his knowledge. In Vienna he studied Sanskrit and Indology under Prof G. Buhler, a renowned expert in the field of Indian poetics and broader Indian culture. Prof G. Buhler played a significant role in the development of Indian Philology. This is where he was introduced to Brahmanic texts and the Sanskrit language, (a book he wrote on the Sanskrit language was considered so good that it was published by the Soviet authorities in 1923). He was introduced to Buddhism proper by Prof. Jacobi in Bonn during another of his travels to acquire reliable knowledge. Meanwhile, between the years 1893 to 1899, FI Shcherbatskoy left his studies to deal with matters in his homeland, but permanently returned to academia when he attended the 12th Congress of Orientalists held in Rome during October, 1899. This conference dealt with the discovery of ancient Northern Buddhist texts in the oasis of Tarim, which included remarkable works of art and pieces of Buddhist manuscripts written in both Sanskrit and Tibetan script, that attracted much interest in the West. This is where FI Shcherbatskoy transitioned from the exclusive study of Brahmanic texts, and decided to specialise in the field of Buddhology. 

FI Shcherbatskoy was able to read Sanskrit to a very high level of accuracy, and was therefore ideally positioned to translate Mahayana Buddhist texts into Russian. So good were his Russian translations, that they were soon translated into many other European languages. Following the October Revolution of 1917, FI Shcherbatskoy was left to continue his Buddhist studies, but such was his reputation amongst the Bolsheviks, that in 1918 he was elected a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (under Lenin).So encouraged was he by the revolutionary mood in Russia that in 1923 he published his work entitled ‘The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word Dharma’ to widespread acclaim (from both within and without the USSR). In 1927, he published his masterpiece ‘The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana’ which revolutionised the manner through which Mahayana Buddhism was understood in the West. In the same year, FI Shcherbatskoy worked upon a comprehensive ‘Buddhist Encyclopaedia’ for use in the Soviet education system, whilst in 1928 (under Stalin) he was appointed to head a new academic facility dedicated exclusively for the study of Buddhism within the USSR entitled ‘Institute for the Scientific Study of Buddhist Culture’ (ISBC). The remit of the ISBC was to establish a scientific dialectical history of the development of Buddhism in ancient India, how the teaching spread throughout Asia, how Buddhist culture integrated into previously existing cultures, and how contemporary Buddhism functioned in the modern world. This undertaking required a precise and accurate interpretation of the Buddha’s philosophy, together with an assessment of Buddhist art and culture in Tibet, Mongolia and China (as well as Russia, which had at least two Soviet Buddhist Republics). The ISBC developed such a good academic reputation throughout the world, that it established permanent academic relations with its German counterpart – the Heidelberg Society for the Study of Buddhism – a very good working relationship that was abolished by Adolf Hitler in 1933, after the rise to power of his fascist Nazi Party. FI Shcherbatskoy continued to specialise in the translation of important Mahayana Buddhist texts up until his death in Northern Kazakhstan in the village of Borovoye, on March 18th, 1942. 

Russian Language Sources:Щербатской,_Фёдор_Ипполитович




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