Prof. Alexander Fedotov, director of the Centre for Eastern Languages ​​and Cultures, Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski " - The whole of Asia is in my heart

 In May, during the ceremony in the Mongolian Embassy in Sofia, prof. Alexander Fedotov received the highest award of the country - the Order "Polar Star" for contribution to the development of the Bulgarian-Mongolian relations and the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bulgaria and Mongolia. The principal of the Centre for Eastern Languages ​​and Cultures, Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski ", is an outstanding erudite and polyglot, Doctor of philological sciences, professor of Korean, Mongolian and Tibetan literature. Born in the city of Novosibirsk, Russia, he graduated from the Faculty of Oriental Languages ​​and Cultures at St. Petersburg State University. He is married to a Bulgarian and connects all his life with Bulgaria. He also specialises and gives lectures in the Republic of Korea, China, Mongolia, India, Thailand, Hungary, Romania and Russia. He is a member of the World Association for Korean Studies, Mongolian Studies, Tibetan Studies and Altaic Studies. He is a traveller, who has visited over 120 countries, a philatelist and a numismatist.

 - Prof. Fedotov you are on your way to Korea, what is the reason for this consecutive visit of yours there?

- In late June, we are going to have a final meeting in connection with a comparative study made by Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski "and the Korean" Songyunguan. " The latter is a few hundred years old, it was once the Royal University and today it is one of the best research universities in the city of Seoul. The subject of our study was the comparison of the two societies – the Bulgarian and the Korean. More precisely, it examines the period of restoration of the Bulgarian state after the liberation from Ottoman rule in 1878 and the Korean after the liberation from Japanese rule in 1945. The time difference generally does not prevent us from dealing with the study of the economic, political, cultural and educational situation in both countries, because things are really comparable. Moreover, all Korean ambassadors who have a mandate in the country, found a surprising similarity between the two nations. And they say that Bulgaria might well benefit from the Korean experience in the recovery of the Korean economy since 1945 that helped build that powerful, dynamic economic mechanism by which the country was known everywhere in the world.

-What exactly is this study?

- It is a five-year project in which we published several books, implemented many joint visits, made field studies. Over the past two and a half years we also studied many archival materials that we found in our State Archives, the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs concerning the relationship between the People's Republic of Bulgaria and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and also later the relationship between the Republic of Korea and the Republic of Bulgaria. This activity is a special part of our project as we aim to make an inventory of these materials and write the history of our relations, based on them. We have also published many articles. This year we published a book about Korea that focuses on its most recent history - from 1945 to the end of the Korean War / 1950-1953 /. It found a very good response among fellow professionals. For the first time there was a publication abroad /published by the Sofia University press/, which introduces readers to the most important pages in the recent history of Korea.

Usually when we visit Seoul, we arrange a conference at the University "Songyunguan", then we do a field research and travel around the country. For example, we saw places where during the Middle Ages Korean intellectuals were sent into exile; we get involved into the reconstruction of the history of the new Korean literature since Japanese bondage / 1910 - 1945 g / when it was forced to develop secretly.

- What will follow after this project?

- We have prepared a new one, again a serious, modern, five-year long project and hopefully we will soon submit the documents. The Centre for Eastern Languages ​​and Cultures at Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski " is involved in using grants for projects as all Korean centres and universities around the world are. They are funded by the Academy of Korean Studies - a state institution that deals with the promotion of Korean culture in Korea and worldwide.

- In addition to the Korean Studies, you also deal with Mongolian Studies, Tibetan Studies and Altaic Studies. Which of those closer to your heart?

- In my heart is the whole of Asia. Of course, I am dealing in particular with Korea, Tibet and Mongolia - the three areas that I do research because they are connected to my language skills. However, as an orientalist I love Asia. That is the truth. Firstly, because I was born in Asia - in the city of Novosibirsk / Russia /, which is in South Siberia. Secondly, Asia has always interested me much more than Europe because it remains unknown. We must learn step by step to absorb it. As once the Cossacks discovered Siberia, and then they discovered the Far East. They were sent by Russian tsars further to the east, all the way to the border with China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, etc. Since seventh grade Asia has been very interesting to me. And since my mother was from St. Petersburg, I spent every summer holiday with my parents there. And by eighth grade I already began to dream to become a student at the St. Petersburg /then called Leningrad/ university, more precisely in the eastern department that deals with Asia and Africa.

- And it happened. You graduated from the most representative, the best university in Russia.

- It was a legend. Even the building of the faculty is. Built in the XVIII century on the banks of the Neva River in central St. Petersburg, it housed so many great Russian scientists, orientalists, it contains so much history within itself, there is no way a person not to be attracted by this phenomenon. And we had a whole cohort of wonderful, brilliant teachers and this cannot do but affect us, their students. Of course, there is no reason to believe that academicism is transmitted from generation to generation without any problems. But I must admit that today teachers are not the same as those – the great, who gradually fade. Unfortunately, this year my favourite professor died at the age of 91 - Lyudmila Gerasimovich. Back then our diplomas (those of the excellent students) were personally signed by Academic Boris Piotrovski, the very famous scientist-orientalist, who was the director of the Hermitage. You know, there is stored one of the largest collections of oriental art objects in the world. Today for me what I do is on the one hand a vocation, on the other - a hobby, on a third - a favourite work. It is related to teaching and meetings with young people, which are always pleasant, with many trips, with a lot of research work, with many meetings, with the discovery of many unknown moments of history, literature and culture of the peoples, with the discovery of a new world, which is called Asia.

- The first part of the East, which you visited as a student, is Mongolia. Mongolian and Tibetan are the first languages ​​that you began to teach at Sofia University...

- I was a child, a student, when my father did a year of work in Mongolia –he helped build one of their great national gardens. Every week he sent me some of their stamps that were terribly beautiful - bright, colourful and made me enthusiastic not only about Mongolia, but about philately and numismatics.

- Is the first stamp in your wonderful collection Mongolian as well?

- Not first, but certainly one of the first stamps in my collection are Mongolian. As for the visit to Mongolia, it happened when I was a student. When we completed the fourth year of our course the whole group went to specialize for one year in the Mongolian State University. Then we returned and continued the studies. So my studies were not five but six years, for which I'm not sorry.

It happened that when I arrived in Bulgaria, I began work in Sofia Press as a translator and editor. I did there six years, but alongside I started to teach Mongolian and Tibetan part time at Sofia University since 1980. Back then there were many willing to study those languages. I will never forget my first lecture. As soon as I entered the room I was 22, but looked as young as 17. And I saw in front of me some very serious uncle-looking men and venerable women. It was my first course, absolutely unforgettable. Some of those people I see from time to time today pleasant; others are no longer among the living.

- Then you began to translate - from Mongolian and later from Tibetan.

- It was the time of socialism and in the famous publishing house "People's Culture" there was a section, which dealt with the literature of Asia, Africa and Latin America. We had to translate works of contemporary Mongolian artists, and they did the same with Bulgarian ones. I translated a historical novel - Troubled Times of Donrovan Namdag, a collection of three novellas by Sengiyn Erdene - The Year of the Blue Mouse, two books of poetry. However, I did translations for other publishers too. For "Science and Art" I translated from ancient Mongolian "The Secret History of the Mongols". This is the first Mongolian historical text written in 1240. I began to make translations from Tibetan, including the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" and any Buddhist treatises.

- The second Eastern country that you visited was Laos...

- It was, I believe in 1982 when I had to teach philosophy there for three months. I went with a team from the International School of Journalism "Georgi Dimitrov" - it dealt with the training of adults from the so-called third world. I was lucky to get into it and it was a memorable experience. Then the largest aircraft was TU 154. For Vientiane, capital of Laos, you had to travel with stopovers in Tashkent, Karachi, Delhi, Rangoon / Yangon today - the capital of what was then Burma /, and only the fifth stop was Vientiane. Further the Laos plane continued to Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon. It was an adventure, of course, very interesting. It made me even more tied to Asia, especially to tropical Asia.

- How can we complete this Asian tour, with China or India?

- With everything at once. Both civilizations are huge, unique, like universes. One cannot know them, neither together nor separately. Because it is not that you just have to read a bunch of books or live at least ten years in each country; you have to be born there, even then you cannot know them. They are so different within themselves. And in both many different people live, who speak many different languages ​​so that sometimes they do not understand each other.

I have lived in India. The first time I went there, I stayed three months in the northern part of the country in Dharamsala, where is the residence of the Dalai Lama the 14th. I met him, I had a special audience. I arrived there from Tibet, where he unfortunately could not go. I brought him a white ritual scarf kata as a gift. He also gave me such and an ancient Tibetan coin. He later allowed me to translate a book about his daily meditation without paying copyright. I had a research in Dharamsala, at the invitation of the Tibetan Centre for archives and a research related to the "Tibetan Book of the Dead."

- You are the director of the Centre for Eastern Languages ​​and Cultures at Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski". What is the situation there now?

- It is absolutely unique not only for Bulgaria but for the whole Balkan Peninsula, I would even say for South-eastern Europe. There is no other bigger or with more specialists. Recently I was at the University of Ljubljana. They have one department in which they have collected all their Orientalists. We have five departments, nine undergraduate majors, that study the main languages ​​such as Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Turkish, Armenian, but many others that go as a second and third Eastern languages. We have a very wide range of teachers. The Ministry of Education now even voiced support for East Asian Studies and Arab Studies because the state needs such specialists.

- And what are your students?

- They enter with the highest score, especially in East Asian Studies: Korean Studies, Chinese Studies, and Japanese Studies. They are intelligent, passionate with intellectual pursuit. You have to be a little wacky to learn such things. You also need to be dedicated; you should know that you will work with non-Europeans, people who have not only a different appearance, but also a different mentality. They are different from us; they have another way of thinking, another way of speaking. Another feature is that our students are not only from Bulgaria, but also from other countries: Macedonia, Serbia, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Black Sea region.

- What interests you scientifically?

- I am completing a book about medieval Korean prose with allegorical content. These are interesting pseudo-biographies in which the characters are flowers, insects, natural disasters, objects, animals, birds, that act like people, talk and think like them. They have quite of a satire and grotesque, and allusions ... This is a very old tradition that originated in China in the 2ndcentury AD and gradually spread throughout East Asia, including Korea and Japan.

- You are a traveller. You have visited more than 120 countries. How did you develop this passion at such commitments? Or you simply combine business with pleasure?

- That's exactly the wording. I must say even if all the professors get angry with me that we are not so overloaded. We have teaching hours - yes, but we have free time and longer holidays. Of course, I often participate in various trips abroad; I was also a two-term vice-rector for international affairs, so I had to travel frequently. But I always make use of winter and summer vacations to visit one or several countries, because this is the best time for the purpose. I have visited all continents, but there are many places that I would still like to see. I travel alone as when the destination is more extreme and with my partner when the destination allows the presence of a woman.

- Which is your extreme adventure - the conquest of Kilimanjaro or the moorings in Antarctica?

- In Antarctica it was very easy because we had good weather. I was there ten years ago with a Canadian expedition. We had extraordinary luck at all times by having absolutely clear blue sky, with the small exception when light snowflakes fluttered. It was relatively warm, between 0 and 5 degrees Celsius. In many places even snow had melted and we stepped on stones and shells. We managed to make nine moorings - something extremely rare, and only thanks to the good weather.

While climbing Kilimanjaro is a difficult but unforgettable experience. There you pass through the zones of the tropics to the top, where there is snow. Well, life in a tent is definitely not my favourite, but there is no other way in such climbs.

- Which is, or are, the most beautiful view/s you will never forget?

- Lately I am interested in the tropical islands. They suggest laisure, white sands and coconut palms leaning over the ocean as well as a half-forgotten primitive traditionalism of the local people- the residents of these small islands. At first when you see it, it has everything, and then you see that this ‘everything’ does not solve all the problems that arise. I am talking about the small island of Yap in Micronesia, where I had a bike accident. There is a very good hospital for the 12,000 population that works for everyone, but not for my case. However, the feeling that you are a speck of dust thrown into the ocean is distinct.

On my desk at home I have a globe, a gift from my mother, and from time to time I turn it to one point or another for my trip. Lately, I've turned it with the Pacific Ocean towards me. And I’ve been attracted by a point called Rapa Nui / Easter Island / - the most east-lying island in Polynesia. A piece of dust thrown 4000 km away from Chile / the island administratively belongs to this country / where I had the pleasure to be with my colleague. It was a successful combination of a business trip to Chile and a private trip to Rapa Nui – absolutely unforgettable with its giant stone heads that look inwards to the island where there is something imaginary, mysterious. Another example is the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean with the remnants of the former mainland and one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, or the unforgettable beauty of the tranquil Pacific Ocean in the Maldives with its colourful underwater world, or the giant mantas in Micronesia.

- Which is your unconcured Kilimanjaro?

- The one that I have still not reached. I have planned this year to go to Vanuatu –an island country in the Pacific, but you know, it was struck by the tsunami, and unfortunately, absolutely destroyed. I realized that Vanuatu will have to wait for five or six or seven years, hopefully. So I will probably go to Solomon Islands, a little further north.

And with regard to Kilimanjaro in a professional aspect I am a modest man; I am not placing any big unattainable goals. I am continuing to discover for myself interesting things in what I do. Perhaps this will be a chain of small ‘Kilimanjaros’.



Photos: personal archive of Professor Fedotov and magazine "Diplomatic spectrum"

1. The cover of the book "Korea in the period after liberation from Japanese rule until the end of the Korean War / 1945-1953 /

2. Opening of the exhibition "Roerich Pact. History and Modernity ", prof. Fedotov adopted the honorary "Banner of Peace” on behalf of the Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski ".

3. During one of the voyages

4. During the feast "Sabantuy" in Sofia, June 2015