Nicholas Poppe and Central-Inner Asian Studies at UW: An Interview with Dr. Ilse Cirtautas
By Indra Ekmanis
Dr. Ilse Cirtautas is a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. She has been active in Central Inner-Asian studies at the UW since 1968.
Central and Inner Asian studies had its start at the University of Washington in 1949 in the Far Eastern and Russian Institute — the precursor to the Jackson School of International Studies. Under the leadership of Dr. George E. Taylor, the Institute became a magnet for exceptional scholars, including Karl August Wittfogel, Franz Michael and Hsiao Kung-ch’uan. Among these was Professor Nicholas (Nikolaus) Poppe, an internationally-recognized scholar focusing on Altaic languages, including Mongolian and the Turkic languages.
“That was the quality of scholars [that] George Taylor brought here,” Cirtautas says. “[Most] outstanding of all these scholars, I have to say, was Nikolaus Poppe.” Born in 1897 to a German family living in the Russian empire, Poppe spent his early career from 1926 to 1941 traveling to and researching Mongolia and Buryatia. His work shone a scholarly light on the Mongolian language and had a lasting impact on the field.
When the namesake of JSIS, Senator Henry M. Jackson, traveled to Mongolia with an entourage from the School in 1983, he credited Poppe with his warm reception. Cirtautas says, “Senator Jackson said [to Poppe], ‘You can’t imagine how you are revered there in Mongolia. They extended their hospitality to me on account of you.’”
Visitors from Tashkent, Uzbekistan with faculty and one student from the UW in Denny Hall, 1988: (from right to left): distinguished poet Erkin Vahidov, Fatikh Teshabaev, director of the Uzbek Friendship Society, Associate Dean Richard Dunn, Kurt Engelman, student in REECAS (studied Uzbek), Prof. Nicholas Poppe, Karabaev (future prime minister), last person in line unknown).
Former JSIS Director Donald Hellmann had a similar experience when he travelled to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. He was warmly received on his visit to the Mongolian Academy of Sciences in 1987 and was told: “Prof. Nicholas Poppe saved [the Mongolian] language and our identity.”
A key quality of Poppe’s work was his attitude toward the communities he studied. “I follow the example of Professor Nicholas Poppe,” says Cirtautas. “As a scholar […] you have to consider the people. You cannot just consider them informants, but you have to get to know them. You have to live with them. You have to really become part of them. That is the mark of a good scholar.”
Poppe lived in Russia through World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Stalinist purges and World War II. Barred by the Soviet government from traveling to Mongolia in the early 1940s, Poppe concentrated his research on a Turkic-speaking community in the Caucasus, the Karachai. A popular vacation spot, Poppe took his family to the Caucasus during the summer months. “Every summer they would stay close to the Karachai area and he would do his research,” Cirtautas says.
When German forces invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, Poppe and his family were caught in the Caucasus. They retreated with the German army when Soviet troops began to advance. “No one wanted to stay [in the Soviet Union], particularly intellectual people,” Cirtautas says. “You ended up either immediately being shot or in Siberia.” One of Poppe’s professors, a turkologist, had been executed in 1937 during Stalin’s purges, and Poppe feared a similar fate for himself and his family if they did not leave. “To live under those circumstances and still be productive is rather unimaginable,” Cirtautas says.
Living as a refugee in bombed-out German cities after the German surrender in 1945, Poppe was warned by British officers that he was in danger of being sent back to the USSR. “Stalin had a list of people whom he wanted to have immediately returned,” Cirtautas says. “Professor Poppe told me his name was on it. [British officers] warned him and they even offered to take his two sons immediately to Great Britain. And that’s what they did.”
Professor Nicholas Poppe, in Denny Hall 215 A, in 1989.
After the war, Poppe was approached with several offers of employment from various universities, including Harvard. In 1949 George Taylor brought him to the Far Eastern and Russian Institute, which, at the time, was the University of Washington’s premier institute. Poppe wasted no time in establishing the prowess of UW in Central and Inner Asian studies.
“Immediately after he arrived here in 1949, he established an Inner Asian Colloquium,” Cirtautas says. The colloquium was designed to allow students and faculty to present papers and receive instructive feedback. “The papers had to be distributed a week ahead of the seminar meeting,” Cirtautas says. “At the meeting itself, the presenter was not reading the paper, but it became a discussion of what needs to be improved.”
This colloquium resulted in publishable papers, and was an impetus for the creation of the Central Asiatic Journal. The first journal of its kind, it was founded in 1955 by Professor Karl Jahn at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. “He could count on the papers presented here in Seattle at the Inner Asian Colloquium,” says Cirtautas. “[He said], ‘If it hadn’t been for Nicholas Poppe’s Inner Asian Colloquium, I would not have created the journal.”
“This accounted for astonishing international cooperation,” says Cirtautas. International ties were expanded through the annual meetings of the Permanent International Altaistic Conference, in which Poppe was an active member. “The purpose was to spread the news of Central-Inner Asia all over the world,”Cirtautas says. In 1986 the conference was held in the USSR, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. “Scholars were invited from Mongolia and from the Turkic republics of the Soviet Union,” Cirtautas says. “They were always on the list of people to be invited. And they would come.”
Poppe helped establish research centers at the University of Bonn in Germany and at Indiana University. His reputation as a scholar attracted many doctoral students who also went on to make large contributions to the field.
Ilse Cirtautas at the Writers' Union of Uzbekistan, Tashkent 1989, distributing her book on Uzbek Folktales (Usbekische Maerchen).
Though Cirtautas has been at the University of Washington since 1968, she met Poppe much earlier, as a doctoral student at Hamburg University in Germany. “When he gave a presentation at Hamburg University, as a student I told myself, ‘Oh, if I only could study under him,’” she recalls.
Cirtautas followed her husband, a professor at Misericordia College (now University), to the U.S. in 1959, but after his untimely death, she accepted a position at Indiana University in 1965. Not long after, Poppe contacted Cirtautas, asking her to relocate to UW in 1968 as a turkologist. “I was very, very happy to come here and meet with Professor Poppe and all the wonderful scholars I met at the Jackson School. They were excellent people,” says Cirtautas.
“That was my dream, to study under the guidance of Professor Nicholas Poppe. So, it happened this way.” Though Poppe retired in 1968, he continued to be active in academia until his death in 1991. A prolific writer, he published more than 60 books and 270 articles, in addition to hundreds of book reviews. “His personality was really unbelievable,” Cirtautas says. “The kindness, and then the knowledge that he had, but he would not bring it out and overwhelm you with it.”
Poppe and his colleagues laid a strong foundation for Central-Inner Asian studies at UW. “Nikolaus Poppe was remarkable,” Cirtautas says. “This is an example of one scholar’s influence, not just in his field, but worldwide.”