More on Mongolian and Kalmyk Studies

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One of our last posts was on a German Mongolist named Julius Klaproth (1783-1835) who was a specialist on Kalmyk.  This prompted a regular reader to send the following interesting account about another German Mongolist who was also an expert on the Kalmyks and their language, Nicholas Poppe (1897-1991):

From what I understand, the Russians confiscated the Kalmyk's cattle in WWII, which pushed them to collaborate with the Germans (who were then close to Stalingrad). Nicholas Poppe, the well-known Russian linguist of Mongolian, who was of German ethnicity and (I understand) had a relative among the invading Germans, served as an interpreter and eventually had to flee to the West because of this. Stalin took out a savage revenge on the Kalmyks for their betrayal.

Actually, the confiscation of “cattle” probably refers to the earlier forced collectivisation of agriculture, under which herdsmen owning more than a certain amount of livestock were exiled.
The Communists always had trouble with defining “capitalists” and “proletariat” in nomadic pastoral societies. Not that such societies were necessarily egalitarian—they had both nobility and serfs (bool), but the traditional Marxist concepts and categories didn’t always fit neatly.
(As the Wikipedia article on Poppe states: During World War II Poppe lived in the Caucasus, in a region which was overtaken by the Germans. Poppe served as a translator between the local population and the German invaders. When the Germans withdrew he and his family also took the opportunity to leave the Soviet Union. In 1943 Poppe moved with his family to Berlin. After the war, he spent several years underground in hiding from the Soviets. In 1949, he managed to emigrate to the United States, where he joined the faculty of the Far East and Russian Institute at the University of Washington. He continued teaching there up to his retirement in 1968.)

My reliable informant for the information in this account got it from a NUM (National University of Mongolia [Монгол Улсын Их Сургууль]) lecturer.  It mutually corroborates much of what is in the Wikipedia article (a portion of which is quoted after the next paragraph).

I was at UW from 1967-68, so I had a one-year overlap with the great man.  That was a real powerhouse for Inner Asian Studies, Central Asian Studies, East Asian Studies, Buddhist Studies (why I went there), etc.

Nicholas N. Poppe (Russian: Никола́й/Ни́колас Никола́евич Поппе, Nikoláj/Níkolas Nikolájevič Poppe; 27 July 1897 – 8 August 1991) was an important Russian linguist. He is also known as Nikolaus Poppe, with his first name in its German form. He is often cited as N.N. Poppe in academic publications.

Poppe was a leading specialist in the Mongolic languages and the hypothetical (and controversial) Altaic language family to which the Mongolic, Turkic, and Tungusic languages belong. Poppe was open-minded toward the inclusion of Korean in Altaic, but regarded the evidence for the inclusion of Korean as weaker than that for the inclusion of Mongolic, Turkic, and Tungusic.

The entire rest of the Wikipedia article on Poppe is fascinating and leads one to wonder how a single person could have done so many different things and encountered so many difficulties in his life, all the while maintaining such an amazing degree of productivity.  The list of his "Books authored" is mind-boggling in its scope and length, from Yakut Grammar for students in 1926, through History of the Mongolian Script. Vol.1: The square script (1941), Tsongol Folklore: Translation of the Collection the Language and Collective Farm Poetry of the Buriat Mongols of the Selenga Region (Harrassowitz [ISBN 9783447019422], 1978), to Mongolian epics XI with English translation and notes in 1985.

How Poppe could have maintained this torrid pace, despite all the obstacles he encountered, is partly explained by the last paragraph of the last section of the Wikipedia article about him:


Poppe was a highly prolific scholar. A bibliography of his publications from 1924 to 1987 includes 284 books and articles and 205 book reviews. Between 1949 and 1968 — a period during which he was teaching 16 to 17 hours a week at the University of Washington, with only three months in the summer for uninterrupted research — he wrote 217 works, including over 40 books.

The secret of his high productivity, as he jokingly described it, was that while other people were enjoying "the beautiful surroundings of Seattle, climbing the mountains or sailing the waters", "he sits at his desk, wearing out one typewriter after the other like other people wear out their shoes".

That will surely bring a glimmer to the eyes of those who have had the good fortune to spend quality time in Emerald / Rain City!


Another great German Mongolist in the United States was Ferdinand Lessing (1882-1961), who taught at UC Berkeley where he was named the university's fourth Agassiz Professor of Oriental Languages and Literature in 1935. (source)  Lessing was followed by James Bosson, who was of Swedish extraction and taught Mongolian, Manchu, and Tibetan languages and linguistics at Berkeley starting in 1963. (source)


Selected readings



  1. Jonathan Silk said,

    April 7, 2024 @ 3:34 am

    Dearest Victor,
    Appreciation of Poppe as a scholar as one thing, but I would urge you at your earliest convience to read "Social Scientists and War Criminals" by Martin Oppenheimer
    from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 23, Summer 1997, which one can easily find online.
    I am eager to hear your reaction to this article, especially in terms to your regard for Poppe.

  2. Forrest said,

    April 25, 2024 @ 3:50 pm

    For those interested, Poppe's autobiography is available for free and legal download here:

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