Yevgeny Dmtrievich Polianov

February 28th, 2014 Sections: Epics, Soviet Union, Who's Who
Yevgeny Dmtrievich Polianov

Yevgeny Dmtrievich Polianov

Some years ago I went on a trip and one of the places where stayed was in a homestay.  On the television that particular evening there happened be a performance by one of the leading manaschi … and our hostess, shamefacedly lowered her voice and almost whispering told me a secret … “I don’t really like Manas”, she said.

That took me aback … most Kyrgyz have a very strong affection for the epic hero.

The epic, and Manas himself, is such an integral part of the Kyrgyz psychology that the epic is often quoted and the “Spirit of Manas” is invoked as a source of inspiration.  To be fair, there are some who see the attempt to evoke the “Spirit of Manas” as a cliché – a gesture to try and replace the ideological gap that emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union – perhaps as embodied in President Akae’s adoption of the Seven Principle of Manas: National unity; Inter-ethnic harmony; national honour and dignity; education and knowledge; generosity; respect for the environment, and the strengthening of independent statehood.

Federico Mayor, the then Director General of UNESCO referred in 1995 to the fact that the epic contains much evidence of the traditions and culture of the nomadic Kyrgyz, providing a source of inspiration and embodiment of the spirit of the people … in addition to being a literary masterpiece.

Manas is one of the world’s great epic poems – joining the likes of Epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Hilaliyya, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Indian Mahabharata, the Tibetan epic of King Gesar, Britain’s Beowulf and the Norse Sagas.  It’s main claim to fame outside Kyrgyzstan is its length – at something like half a million lines it is claimed to be the world’s longest epic poem.

Although Kyrgyzstan celebrated a Thousand Years of Manas back in 1995, no-one really knows how old the epic is.  That is not really surprising because until the nineteenth century it existed as part of an oral tradition with manaschi traveling from ail to ail, yurt to yurt performing episodes from the epos. It was only with the arrival of outsiders that extracts began to be written down or recorded … and several versions now exist.

Apparently there are references to Manas in in a Persian manuscript that dates back to the end of the eighteenth century, but details only really reached the Russian and Western world through the expeditions of people like Valikhanov and Radlov in the nineteenth.

Then there was Polivanov … the linguist who translated the epic into Russian in the 1930s.


Yevgeny Dmtrievich Polianov was a Soviet linguist, orientalist and polyglot – producing learned works on Chinese, Dungar, Japanese,  and Uzbek languages.  He was an expert on Japanese, instating the study of dialects and devised a method for representing Japanese in Cyrillic which was adopted by the Soviet Union as a standard – and which is still in use today … as well as translating the Manas epic into Russian.

He was born into an impoverished noble family Smolensk on 28thFebruary, 1891, (O.S. so that was under the Julian Calendar – it was already12th March in much of the rest of the world which operated on the Gregorian calendar.)

In 1908, having graduated from school, he entered university in St. Petersburg here he studied linguistics.  He taught French, Latin, Russian and phonetics for a couple of years whilst he also worked on papers for publication – on Japanese.

Following publication he had a chance to travel to Japan under the auspices of the Russo-Japanese Society and studied several examples of local dialects.  When his funding ran dry, he returned to St. Petersburg, (which by then had changed its name to Petrograd) and began making plans for a subsequent trip the following year, (1915) … which was to be funded by a committee to study Russian Central and East Asia … headed by Radlov, who was also to play a role in bringing Manas to the outside world.  Apparently, he made a third trip in 1916, but little is known about that.

He became interested in politics sometime around 1914.   At the time of the Russian Revolution he was active in the Menshevik party, working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but eventually “crossing the aisle” and joining the Bolshevik Party in 1917.

He worked at the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs under Trotsky (including preparing text for the Brest Peace and a number of secret treaties) and then, for a time, in Comintern – the Communist International organization intended to fight, “by all available means , including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State.”  He was sent to Tashkent to concentrating on Xinjiang and the Dungans and here he resumed teaching as well as stated to study the languages of Central Asia.  Eventually he was recalled to Moscow in order to teach Japanese …

An disagreement over the prevailing linguistic  theories of the day led to him being blackballed from all the major scholarly institutions in Moscow and Leningrad, so he moved back to Central Asia; first to Samarkand, then to Tashkent and finally in 1934 to  Frunze, (Bishkek), and effectively lived in exile, working on local languages until his arrest in 1937 on charges of spying for Japan.  He was tried in a closed session of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, where he pleaded “Not Guilty” – renouncing an earlier signed confession saying it had been signed under torture, but he was convicted and sentenced to death – the sentence being carried out somewhere near Moscow on 25th January the next year.

Like so many other victims of the Stalinist purges, he was eventually rehabilitated, after the death of Stalin, but not until 1963 – along with, amongst others, Yadhukin …but more about him another time.

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