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About the Project
'HSE University's Age-Mates'

2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of HSE University. Many of the university’s peers—those born in 1992—now work and study here. Thirty-year-old HSE graduates work in various fields, from business and fintech to IT and contemporary art. As part of the new ‘HSE University's Age-Mates’ project, some of them have shared their stories and talked about what they like about the university.

Four years ago, orientalist and Vietnamese philology expert Yulia Minina began teaching at HSE University’s newly-opened Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies. In this interview with Age-Mates, she spoke about an expedition to describe the language of the Gelao people that she joined as a second-year student, how Oriental studies determine a person’s perceptions, and why she is grateful to her new academic home.

How did you start teaching at HSE?

I have a classical education in Oriental studies. I graduated from the Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies of the Russian State University for the Humanities in 2013 and began teaching there. And then it happened that we were forced to look for a new home, and HSE University took us in as a complete team, along with all of our programmes. Now we are called the Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies.

It was important for our director, Ilya Smirnov, to indicate in the name that we provide a classical education in the best traditions of Russian Oriental studies. In our study of ancient cultures, we focus on the academic component, on encouraging our students to become involved in scholarly pursuits and to join expeditions even as undergraduates.

Did you also go on an expedition?

Yes. Early in my second year of studies (I was 19 years old), we were taken on an expedition to an area on the border of North Vietnam and China.

We worked with locals, the Gelao people. They are one of the officially recognised minority peoples of both Vietnam and China. They speak an unwritten language and we had to describe it

Diving into this work was very interesting and challenging. We worked 18 hours a day and practically didn’t sleep because we had to go through the entire so-called dictionary and thesaurus in three weeks. You would explain to the local person what word you wanted to hear but, for various reasons, this didn’t always work out. Maybe he didn’t understand you or maybe that word didn’t exist in his language.

All this is recorded with a very powerful microphone, and then, for several months, you stay up nights processing these materials. It was an amazing experience. My college classmates and I saw how many Vietnamese live far from the big cities. The world is completely different from the one we are used to. That was when I understood that I want to do science, research, and not just desk work. I want to be out in the field working with the locals.

Why did you choose Vietnamese in the first place?

There are several reasons. One is purely pragmatic: both then and now, our institute has admitted students to study certain languages about once every five years. These are the so-called periodic or revolving programmes. The year I was admitted, they were accepting students for Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese. Vietnamese attracted my attention the most; it seemed the most incomprehensible and unresearched. My father had also traveled a lot. He worked in Southeast Asia, visited Indonesia repeatedly, worked in Singapore and the Philippines, and brought me various curiosities. I had the impression that it was the most incredible world. As a child, I wanted to be a doctor or another Miklouho-Maclay—that is, an explorer of something very distant and unknown.

In what year did you first admit students to the programme at HSE University?

I began working at HSE University in 2018, but we didn’t admit students of Vietnamese until 2019. They will start their fourth year this September. They study Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese. We are philologists, not area studies specialists. Our faculty deals with ancient texts and provides serious training in literature, culture, and history. This is how we differ from the HSE University School of Asian Studies: we have classical oriental studies without a focus on political science or economics.

Another difference is the large number of languages and majors we offer. Our students study not only popular modern languages, but also rare, even dead languages: Chinese and ancient Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Thai, Mongolian, Turkish, Tibetan, Akkadian, Sumerian, Hebrew, Hittite, Arabic…This year, we’ll be admitting students to study Egyptology. In the first place, we don’t always have the resources for it (the scholars working here are unique and their time and energy are limited). And secondly, this is still a rare profession and probably can’t have a lot of specialists. According to our tradition, we only admit students for ancient philology and history every year. It’s wonderful that interest in classical philology has not declined. And the remaining majors, including the Languages and Literature of Southeast Asia, where I teach, are available every 3–4 years at most.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

What’s the reason for offering Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese in combination?

Vietnam was dependent on Chinese dynasties for approximately 1,000 years. In the early 20th century, they abandoned hieroglyphs and began using Latinised writing. But all ancient texts are written either in a Vietnamese version of classical Chinese, or in Chũ Nôm, the script based on Chinese characters for writing the Vietnamese language. And we chose Thai because we wanted to offer another language that is genetically closer to Vietnamese. For the 2022/2023 academic year, we are admitting students to this programme, but with other languages: Indonesian/Malay, Thai, and Arabic Jawi. This is because, starting in the 14th century, it spread into Malaysia along with Islam and was used to write the Malay language.

Where can your graduates find jobs?

When you spend five years studying two or three difficult languages, you gain a real superpower: you aren’t afraid of anything and you can quickly learn almost any new skill. I can judge by my classmates. Some have gone into business and some into science. There are also analysts, journalists and translators—both simultaneous and consecutive. There are those who don’t deal directly with the East, but still refer to it. For example, Olya Chicherova went into animation and currently works at Soyuzmultfilm. Our education gave her so many ideas that oriental images appear in her work. Once an Orientalist, always an Orientalist.

Do you ever regret having specialised in Vietnam?

Of course, there are always doubts, and there is a crisis that any student experiences, not only an Orientalist. We have a very serious workload, sometimes inhuman. This is a test of endurance, among other things. Desire and perseverance alone are not enough; you need physical endurance as well. We often compare our major to medical school, when you never get free from your studies, you have no personal life, and you have only your textbooks and 100 hieroglyphs that you need to learn by the end of the day. There are moments when you sit there at 2 in the morning looking at hieroglyphs and feel overcome with despair. It seems as though you can’t do it. But it’s alright, you manage, and somehow get through it. That’s how it was for me.

What did you specialise in?

My focus is on literature and poetry of the 20th century, as well as the history of Vietnamese dress from antiquity to the present day. My interest in the material culture and dress dates back to the expedition I joined. We were fortunate to witness a Gelao wedding ceremony. It is long and complex and they wear very colorful costumes. In general, the whole vestimentary culture is very interesting. At the same time, little study has been made—including by the Vietnamese themselves—of Vietnamese physicality and culture related to dress. There is nothing at all in Russian on the subject.

Western dress has won out over the national costume; the Vietnamese wear jeans and T-shirts. But the traditional áo dài costume is also used, primarily by women: at anniversaries, festivals, and weddings, and as a uniform for schoolgirls. For example, the city of Hue, which was the last imperial capital, has a special purple áo dài. To this day, women wear it and believe it is very natural and not some sort of strange relic. It is simply part of the culture of that city.

And why did you become interested in 20th-century literature and poetry?

I prepared material for my students to practice translation. I found a few poems that I really liked. They were written by Ngo Van Phu who is now over 80 but continues to work. His work is a bridge between the past and contemporary Vietnamese literature. He knows classical Chinese and Vietnamese-style Chinese. I have translated Li Bai into modern Vietnamese and offered commentary on classical Chinese poets and ancient Vietnamese authors. I have also experimented in new genres and forms.

I thought it would be possible to make something like a textbook for students on modern poetry from his poems and translations, so that they could see both classical and modern forms. I made selections and began to translate for myself. And then I was fortunate enough to meet Ngo Van Phu himself. I went to visit him: his apartment is small and filled to the ceiling with rare and ancient books.

He gave me permission to translate his works. I wouldn’t say that we collaborated—I was embarrassed to take his time—but I showed him what I was doing. He couldn’t evaluate my translation because he doesn’t know Russian. But I consulted with him and told him the nature of my work and how I understood this or that poem. Classical Vietnamese poetry of the luc bat genre contains rhyming in the middle of the line, and not only at the end. So it seemed important to me to preserve the rhyme. Hyperion of St. Petersburg published my translations in 2017. It is called, Ngo Van Phu—Clouds and Cotton. Selected Poetry. This is a bilingual publication: lay readers see the Vietnamese language in print, while the students can work directly with the original language.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Can you watch movies or read books in Vietnamese, just for your own enjoyment?

Soon, I hope, we will offer a minor on the visual culture of the East for which I will lecture on Vietnamese cinema, among other things. And now I catch myself on the fact that I can’t watch a single new film without taking out a notebook and starting to write down what I need to speak about with the students. This is new for me because I don’t usually teach film studies. Almost no one does it: the Vietnam specialist Anatoly Sokolov is probably the only expert on Vietnamese cinema in Russia.

Audiences aren’t very familiar with it either. There is also a problem of definition: what exactly is considered Vietnamese cinema? There is a term, ‘Viet Kieu’ that refers to Vietnamese who live outside Vietnam. And, for example, Tran Anh Hung, the author of the relatively well-known ‘Vietnam Trilogy’ (The Vertical Ray of the Sun, At the Height of Summer, and Vertical Summer) is a Vietnamese director who lives and works in France. There are Viet Kieu actors. For example, Dustin Nguyen played in many American action films and then began making films about Buddhists after returning to Vietnam.

How many times have you been to Vietnam?

Six or seven. But that’s not all there is to it. My first Vietnamese teacher, now deceased, said, ‘If you always focus only on the bullseye, you’ll never reach your goal. You have to look at the whole picture, then you’ll hit the bullseye’. He always encouraged us to look at the region more broadly and not to focus on just one or even several countries, to visit neighbouring countries, speak with antiquities experts and historians and exchange experience with them. That’s why my classmates and I traveled a great deal in the region, visiting not only Vietnam, but also Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, and Korea. When we were students, we were able to take a month in the summer and travel around Southeast Asia. It was relatively easy back then.

How has your long interaction with the East influenced your way of thinking?

It turns out that my whole life has somehow been connected with the East, only from different sides. My professional activity is connected with Vietnam. My husband is Korean. Although he was born in Russia, he has a fairly traditional family. Thus, our child is half-Korean. My hobbies are connected with translating songs of contemporary Japanese performers and, in general with their musical culture.

As for influence, it seems to me that it makes sense to talk not only about me, but in general about everyone who is involved in a culture that is different from their own. It seems to me that these studies eliminate all the filth and the husk because you learn to accept something very different from yourself, from your own culture.

When our director greets students at the start of the year, he always says roughly the same thing: ‘Here, we teach pursuits that cause no harm’. I think this is very important. I observe my students and the impression I get is quite pleasant and positive. They are very open, receptive, ready to learn new things, and bold. I think these are good qualities.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

How would you characterise a typical HSE University student?

It’s probably someone who isn’t afraid to try something new, who looks to the future with real interest. Whatever difficulty that comes along makes him excited, not depressed.

What do you like about HSE University?

At HSE University, the connection between students and teachers is very strong. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this anywhere else, although I’ve had contact with different universities. I like students’ attitude to the educational process, the overall atmosphere. The campus organisations are helpful: the student council, SOP practice, getting feedback and reading anonymous comments from students. And having minors, general university electives, makes it possible for me not to focus on my Oriental studies, but to get out into the world, see different students and their reaction to me and what I say—is it useful and interesting or outdated? Do I have to grow and stretch myself?

What else would you like to see?

In the future, I’d probably like to see a clearer separation between the academic and educational-methological tracks for teachers. As far as I understand, it all flowed together for a long time. I see that this demarcation has been outlined now, but has not yet taken shape. It will help specialists determine what they expect from their profession. Of course, a complete break is impossible. A person who teachers cannot be separated from research activities. But there are amazing scholars who like to work alone. They write amazing books and do brilliant research, but for various reasons, they can’t devote much of their time and energy to teaching. And there are brilliant teachers who draw energy from teaching. They have a great connection with their students and they have strengths and skills that they develop. They want to advance along this path. It seems to me that we need to recognise this difference and let people realise themselves in different spheres.

Do you feel like a part of HSE University?

I like our new home. I hope that our journey with HSE University is only beginning and that it will be as long and productive as possible. It seems to me that HSE University has given our team a lot of opportunities in terms of international cooperation (although we had those before) and in terms of the university as a springboard for development. We continue to expand; both administrative and financial opportunities have become available to offer new majors and broaden our team of specialists in rare languages. Some things might still be unfamiliar for us, but that’s to be expected.

What would you like to wish HSE University on its 30th anniversary?

I wish for HSE to combine the traditions that have emerged over these 30 years with an approach that is imbued with youthful enthusiasm and interest. Thirty years is still not that long. We can say that its youth has ended and its adulthood has begun, a time when you can dare to try new things by relying on your experience. On the other hand, 30 years is a lot. HSE University has managed to accomplish a lot and get a sense of the path it has travelled.