In The Spotlight: Russia

Do you sometimes have the feeling, that although you know and have met people from all over the world, you miss really understanding how they live? To broaden the international aspects of the IAA and to bring understanding among the different continents, every issue the Mār Šiprim Newsletter will pay special attention to one specific location where the Near-East is being studied. The insight will be achieved by conducting an interview with both a student and a scholar from that specific country. For our first issue we have chosen a country which, though great in size and a major contributor to knowledge, remains somewhat incomprehensible to most of us: Russia. We are guided in unravelling its mystery by Ksenia Somova, a student at St. Petersburg  and by Dr. Leonid Kogan of the Russian State Humanitarian University.

Dr. Leonid Kogan, Researcher/Teacher, Russian State Humanitarian University

Can you tell the readers something about what you are currently working on?

As far as Assyriology is concerned, Sargonic Akkadian has been my primary field of occupation during the past five years or so. Together with Walter Sommerfeld from Marburg and my Moscow colleague and former student Ekaterina Markina, we are preparing an annotated anthology of Sargonic texts of various genres, such as royal inscriptions, documents, letters, literary texts and so on. This will include an in-depth grammatical introduction, a glossary and a sign list. As by-products of this project, several articles have emerged (and will hopefully continue to emerge), dealing with various aspects of Sargonic grammar, style and lexicon.

Of course I am desperately trying to combine my teaching and research work in Akkadian with other, more traditionally oriented Semitological subjects. First and foremost the field research into the Modern South Arabian language Soqotri (Yemen) — one of the most exciting idioms ever used in the Semitic-speaking domain. My unfinished second thesis on the lexical factor in Semitic genealogical classification can perhaps be mentioned as well: the last chapter, dealing with the Akkadian/West Semitic dichotomy is close to completion now.

Could you describe a regular day in your life?

I arrive at the institute at 8.45, and leave at 19.00. From five to seven double hours of teaching per week (depending on the semester), mostly various types of Akkadian texts, but also other subjects such as comparative Semitics, Hebrew, Ugaritic, Quranic Arabic. As many other colleagues do, I am trying to clear some of the days of the week exclusively for research, but this is not always possible. Editorial work on our annual “Babel und Bibel” takes some time as well.

Describe the research-life at the Russian State University in three key-words. What is typical for Moscow-research?

Philology is still taken seriously in Russia.

What moment in your scientific life will you never forget?

Hard to answer, as my scholarly life has been rather monotonous, with no big changes except for moving from St. Petersburg to Moscow immediately after graduation. The first fieldwork season in Yemen was a major impression, but this is not an Assyriological topic.

What are the hardships of becoming successful in Assyriology in Russia?

The specifically Russian difficulties (such as to create one’s own library) are hard to explain to most of the Western colleagues. But what comes to mind is precisely this — to get books and journals which are difficult to access, with many hours spent at copy machines in a variety of places. The Munich Assyriological library was perhaps the most heavily abused one, and hence deserves our most sincere thanks.

What makes Assyriology your passion?

I love Akkadian. I miss appropriate words to explain how much it gives to a Semitist. And Sargonic is particularly fascinating at this point — touching upon every word, nearly every sign means to get in contact with the most archaic specimens of Semitic speech. This is an unforgettable feeling. But it is also a pleasure to realize (sometimes) that your expertise in Semitic can be helpful for specialists in a neighboring field, even if it is such an inherently rich and self-sufficient one as Akkadian and Sumerian philology.

By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Who do you look up to, or did you look up to when you where a student?

Klaas Veenhof and Marten Stol (in student times and forever since). To find most detailed, refined and persuasive grammatical and lexical discussions in at first sight completely un-linguistic contexts — that’s what I have always liked the most. Bert Kouwenberg’s work on Akkadian grammar during the past decade is another piece I admire and an excellent example to follow. (All from Leiden, I know…).

If you could make a change in the manner of research in the field, what would you like to do/incorporate/introduce?

More hardcore, traditional philological work. What I miss in particular are detailed and up-to-date commentaries for “classical” Assyriological texts. Laws of Hammurabi, to begin with. Lexical research is also very much neglected in my opinion (such as updating the early volumes of the CAD and many other things).

Ksenia Somova, Student,  St.Petersburg State University

Can you tell the readers something about yourself?

My name is Somova Ksenia, I’m 20 years old and I live in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. I study at Saint-Petersburg State University, the Department of Oriental Studies, and my specialization is Assyriology. I have a cat which is already 16 years old. I like meeting with my friends at the suburbs and in the parks of Saint-Petersburg. That is, when I have time due to my study! I play three musical instruments (Domra, it’s the Russian national instrument, piano and guitar), and I like to paint and read.

Please, introduce us into your university

My university is the largest and the oldest one in Saint-Petersburg. It is situated at the historical center of the city, and my Department is set along the beautiful embankment of the Neva river. The Department of Oriental Studies is located in one building together with the Philological Department. It includes specializations in the different studies of the Near East as well as Eastern- and South-Eastern Asia. It was founded in 1854.

Assyriology was at first established in the early 20th century, together with Egyptology at the other department of my university. In its current form, the Assyriology department was founded in the early 1950s. All of our tablet collections and libraries are kept at the Hermitage (which is near the university) and at the Institute of Oriental Research (of the Russian Academy of Science). The libraries are searched through paper catalogues and in some part (there are two departments) by computer as well. Our tablet-collections I haven’t seen yet, unfortunately. But I know they are great and numerous! I saw real tablets only in the exposition at the Hermitage. Of course, there are big public libraries at the Department of Oriental Studies itself.

By floridaguyjoe ( - image description page) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Which courses are available at your university and which courses do you take?

In our curriculum there are: Akkadian, Sumerian, Arabic, and English; during four years there were all kinds of histories, such as the history of Europe, of the Near East and of Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. Also of course, there are classes in Mesopotamian history and the history of Egypt and the Mediterranean regions. As you can see, there are philological as well as historical subjects. Further, we have some general subjects like IT, culture-studies and so on. All these courses are required. We have no additional courses.

Is Assyriology a popular/well known subject in Russia?

Unfortunately, in RussiaAssyriology isn’t a popular or even a well known subject. There is no advertisement of it. In so vast a country there are only two departments where you can study this science : In Saint-Petersburg and in Moscow at the Russian State Humanitarian University.

What does a day in the life of student look like?

Well, because I live in the suburbs, the way to the university takes a lot of time. A study-day in average is about seven hours. After classes if it is necessary, we go to the libraries to do homework or to find information for some tests or to prepare term-papers. But due to today’s Internet-era we find that almost 60% of the information we might need could be accessed through on-line libraries, on-line archives and so on. So we use them very frequently. I do not have time to have a part-time job besides my classes, because of the long way home and due to the study in general.

Why did you choose to study Assyriology?

Oh, it was an intuition! When I was studying during the last months at school and had to choose a future education, I knew only that I’m no physician or an IT-manager or anything like that! I thought about a  profession in the humanities but I didn’t know exactly which, because of the great selection of specializations, then as now. One day I was looking through the web-site of the Departments of the State University and saw a very interesting and mysterious thing – the Department of the Ancient Near East. It’s from that moment that I decided to try sample it. And I’m not disappointed!

What are your ambitions?

I like to study Assyriology very much but at this moment I don’t know where to specialize. This is because all of my term-papers were about different themes and different time periods of Mesopotamian history. If I decide to study it more in depth -as of now I am interested in Sumerian school texts- I will seek an opportunity to do so abroad. But at the moment I am not sure.

What would you like to ask another Assyriology student in another country?

What are the opportunities in your country to continue study at Assyriology? For local students and for those from abroad as well?

One thought on “In The Spotlight: Russia”

  1. I should take notice of third Russian department, which wasn’t listed by Ksenia – the Department of the Ancient History at the Moscow State University. The Akkadian is one of its main languages due to the efforts of Dr. Boris Aleksandrov.

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