The Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, the Russian Academy of Sciences


IOMIn Russia, by the end of the 17th century, the necessity to know the languages and customs of the neighbouring countries of the East meant that it became necessary to train specialists to deal with the cultures of those countries. The collecting of books in Eastern languages, as well as cultural objects, began. Books were both bought by diplomats and merchants and presented to the Imperial Court by ambassadors from Eastern countries. By the beginning of the 18th century, a special library of the books in Eastern languages was required which could be used by state experts and scholars.

The first institution where Eastern books (including manuscripts, block prints and lithographs) were gathered was the Kunstkamera of Peter the Great, in 1714. As acad. Dorn pointed out a hundred years later, “intentional gathering of Eastern manuscripts was initiated at the first quarter of the previous century [18th century] when Peter the Great founded the Academy and paid his attention to the study of the East. In his reign gathering of the Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan writings as well as Mohammedan manuscripts began”. During the 18th century, the Imperial Court repeatedly instructed Russian diplomats, merchants, and members of different missions abroad to buy books in Eastern languages. In 1724, the Kunstkamera’s library was merged with that of the Russian Academy of Sciences so that its books became a part of the academic library.

In November 1818, the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) decided to buy a collection of 700 Muslim manuscripts from the French consul in Aleppo and Tripoli, J. L. Rousseau, a relative of the famous philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The project which was later fulfilled in two steps, in 1819 and 1825, and which cost FF51,000, led to the formation of a new department within the RAS — the Asiatic Museum (AM) which later was transformed into the Institute of Oriental Studies (IOS). On November 15 (27), 1818, the RAS’s President, count Sergey Uvarov applied to the Board of Academy with a letter where he suggested that a special cabinet for Eastern medals, manuscripts and books to be kept should be granted. Thus, the AM was formed and this new division of the Academy “was opened for all the people interested in the study of its materials”.


A year later, in November 1819, the first director of the AM, academician C.-M. von Frähn published the annual report of the AM in the newspaper St Petersburg News (Sankt-Peterburgskie vedomosti). In 1849, the AM began issuing the magazine Asiatic notes (Mélanges Asiatiques) in French.

The AM became the only state center for the storage and studying of Eastern manuscripts: it guaranteed their safety and access to them for both academic and practical purposes. Alongside Kazan University it became the second center for Oriental studies in Russia, until 1855 when the Faculty of Eastern languages was opened at St Petersburg University. The AM served as a specialized institution for the needs of both Russian and foreign scholars. Manuscripts were not only studied in St Petersburg, they could also be sent to scholars in the Russian provinces and even abroad. Thus, the AM fulfilled Russia’s constant duty to be a bridge between the East and the West. Moreover, it took an active part in the organization of the third International Congress of Orientalists which was held in 1876 in St Petersburg (the first was held in Paris, in 1873, the second in London, in 1874).

Collections of the AM were constantly replenished and, by 1917, it had become one of the world’s largest specialized collections of manuscripts and early printed books of the countries of the East, a real treasury of cultures of Eastern peoples on the shores of the Neva.

After the Russian Communist revolution, during the 1920s, the AM continued to be the only center for Oriental studies within the RAS as it was pointed out in a report of the special commission formed to check out the entire apparatus of the Academy, on August 30, 1929. The practice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR showed that it was necessary to carry on Oriental studies within the Academy and the universities. There was a lack of fundamental research, as well as a lack of grammars and dictionaries of Eastern languages. Also in 1929, a special Declaration announced the necessity for extensive study of the countries of the East. This was accepted and a decision was made to form a research institute of Oriental studies where the scholars “could receive the full access to a rich storehouse of true documentary materials” such as the AM.

The 1929 Academy elections resulted in that V. M. Alekseev (a Sinologist), B. J. Vladimirtsov (a Mongolist), I. A. Orbeli (the specialist in Caucasian studies), V. V. Struve (a historian of the Ancient East) were made academicians. On 23 May, 1930, the Branch of Social Sciences was formed at the Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Oriental Studies was organized. Acad. S. F. Oldenburg was appointed the Director of the Institute which also absorbed the AM, together with all its collections and experts.

The Institute was located in the building of the Academic Library of the RAS. First, one of its main activities was to create new Romanized alphabets for the languages of the Asian republics of the USSR and for the Mongolian language. The processing and cataloguing of the manuscripts kept was also undertaken. Moreover, the Institute’s researchers took an active part in the compilation of new dictionaries which lasted many years. Thus, the Chinese-Russian dictionary in 4 volumes was completed at the beginning of the 1980s, the Japanese-Russian dictionary in 1970, whilst the three-volumed Mongolian-Russian dictionary has recently been published.

During the years of repressions and the WW II, the Institute lost many scholars. Those who had to leave Leningrad because of the blockade formed the Moscow group of the Institute, in 1943. Soon after the war, on June 1, 1950, the Presidium of the RAS asked the Soviet government to move the Institute into Moscow. But it was decided that the Institute’s core library and its collection of the Eastern manuscripts and early printed books would be kept in Leningrad in the Novo-Mihailovsky palace (Dvortsovaya emb., 18) to where they were moved in 1949 and where the IOM RAS is now located.


After the IOS moved to Moscow in 1951, the Department of the Eastern manuscripts remained in Leningrad. In summer of 1951, a special commission was gathered and it came to the following conclusion: “The collection of manuscripts belonging to the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR represents the national treasure of the Soviet Union and one of the largest collections of written monuments in Eastern languages, with some of its parts being purely unique”.
In February 1956, the Department of the Eastern manuscripts was reorganized into the Leningrad Branch of the IOS which was headed by acad. I.A. Orbeli. After that a number of catalogues and academic descriptions of various collections were issued, and many precious pieces of Eastern literatures published, translated and studied. Several lost writings and languages were deciphered and brought back to life. Hundreds monographs were written and published. On October 29, 1970, the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR fixed the precise differentiation of Oriental studies between Moscow and Leningrad which is actual until now. So the St Petersburg Branch of the IOS has been in charge of the description and critical edition of texts kept, the fundamental study of Oriental ancient and medieval history, classical literature and culture, religions, philosophies and law, meanwhile the Moscow IOS has focused on the modern studies. Moreover, the St Petersburg Branch carried out the major representative functions in the communications between Leningrad/St Petersburg and the countries of the East.

Principal academic achievements. The staff of the Branch consisted of about 100 scholars who published annually 30 to 40 monographs and 250 to 300 papers. Three members of the Branch were awarded the State Prizes such as N. A. Nevsky in 1962, albeit posthumously, M. A. Dandamaev in 1987 and O. G. Bolshakov in 2001.

A number of unique research branches were established such as Dunhuang studies (by L. N. Menshikov, L. I. Chuguevsky), Tangut studies (by N. A. Nevsky, E. I. Kychanov, K. B. Keping), Sabaen studies (by A. G. Lundin), Turkic runes (by S. G. Klyashtorny) and Kurdish studies (by K. K. Kurdoev). Many catalogues of mss collections were compiled and published such as the catalogues of literature in Persian (O. F. Akimushkin), Arabic (A. B. Khalidov), Turkic (L.V. Dmitrieva), Mongolian (A. G. Sazykin), Korean (O. P. Petrova), Japanese (V. N. Goreglyad) and other languages. Fundamental research was carried out on various aspects of the Ancient East (V. V. Struve, I. M. Dyakonov, M. A. Dandamaev), Sinology (V. M. Alekseev), Japanese studies (N. I. Konrad), Korean studies (M. I. Nikitina, A. F. Trotsevich, D. D. Yeliseyev) and Sogdian epigraphy (V. A. Livshits). Translations of the great written monuments were published such as The Secret History of the Mongols (S. A. Kozin),Risala (Ibn Fadlan’s Journey) (A .I. Kovalevsky), The Collection of Annals of Rashid-ad-Din (O. I. Smirnova). Moreover, works of the famous Russian scholars of the past were edited and published such as those of V. V. Bartold (by N. N. Tumanovich).

Principal achievements during 1990s to early 2000s. Three volumes of “The History of Caliphate” were issued, for which O.G. Bolshakov received the Russian Federation State Prize, in 2001. Four volumes of the reference-book Islam on the territory of the Former Russian Empire: Encyclopaedic Lexicon (S. M. Prozorov) were issued. The catalogue of Arab Christian manuscripts was prepared by Val.V. Polosin & Vl. V. Polosin. The translation and fundamental research of the Ancient Chinese treatise Dispute on Salt and Iron by J. L. Kroll was also edited.


On June 19, 2007, the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences ordered to reorganize the St Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Oriental Studies into the independent Institute of Oriental Manuscripts.

The processing and study of mss collections kept at the IOM remains the core of the academic activities and research projects of the Institute’s scholars.

The collection of manuscripts and early printed books consists of more than 100 thousand items in 65 living and dead languages such as Abyssinian (Ethiopian), Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Hebrew, Chinese, Korean, Kurdish, Manchurian, Mongolian, Persian and Tajik, Sanskrit and Sogdian, Turkic, Tangut, Tibetan, Uigur, Japanese, etc. The IOM has also the Archives of the Orientalists that contains some extremely valuable documents on the history of the Oriental Studies in Russia. It includes manuscripts and xylographs
The Institute possesses a specialized library of books, exceeding 800 thousand volumes, on various branches of Oriental studies. The collection of books in languages of the peoples of the former USSR especially those issued in the 30s is also of a great value.
The Institute runs doctoral programs. Its Dissertation Council has the right to consider PhD and Habilitation theses written in the area of history and source criticism.
The site of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts is located at