Passing of Professor Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak (1918-2009)

On April 16 this year, my teacher and the man who basically created the Korean history studies in the former USSR, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak, has passed away. His death greatly saddened everybody in the Korean studies in Russia and many other parts of the “post-Soviet” space, and was marked by obituaries in some South Korean newspapers (Tonga Ilbo, Hangyoreh, Seoul Sinmun and a handful of others). Not that much, however, emerged on Mikhail Pak and his scholarship in English, and his death seemingly did not attract that much attention in the Anglophone academia. In order to convey some understanding about what Mikhail Pak and his scholarship meant to me and many of my colleagues, I decided to put here the obituary commissioned to me by Acta Koreana. It is expected to appear in Vol. 12, No 1, in June this year:

Obiturary: Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak (Pak Chunho), (21.06.1918–16.04.2009)

Vladimir Tikhonov (Pak Noja, Oslo University)

In the world of the Korean Studies in the successor states of the former USSR, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak was widely recognized as a ”living legend”. He is known as the scholar who made the historical studies on Korea into a legitimate field of its own in the Soviet and Eastern European academia. He is also credited with creating a systematic, analytical framework for understanding Korea’s ancient and mediaeval history, which largely defined the way Korea’s past has been described in the Soviet and post-Soviet academic world since the 1950s onward. His lifelong enterprise, the fully annotated, academic translation of Samguk Sagi into Russian, firmly put Korea on the map of the Russophone world history studies, giving the non-Korean studies majors a direct access to a first-hand source on Korea’s ancient history and thus largely succeeding in “de-ghettoizing” the Korean history field as a whole. A caring pedagogue, whose extremely liberal approach and respect for the individuality of each and every student looked like a rare bright spot in otherwise quite authoritarian world of the Soviet humanitarian academia, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak tutored several generations of the Soviet and post-Soviet Russophone Korea specialists, who further developed his approach to the Korean past.

Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak (Korea name: Pak Chunho) was born on June 21, 1918 in a large Korean village, Yanchihe, in the border region of Russia’s Maritime Province, to a family of a well-educated second-generation Korean immigrant. His native village, Yanchihe, was famed in the 1900-1910s as a breeding ground of the nationalist movement, and his family was on close terms with some of its leaders, including a legendary Korean self-made man and one of the chief sponsors of the 1907-1908 ‘righteous armies’ movement, rich trader Ch’oe Chaehyǒng (1860-1920). In the 1920s and 1930s, in Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s formative years, the leadership of the Soviet Union-based Korean national movement was firmly in the hands of ‘national Communists’, the people who envisioned future, independent Korea as a beacon of Asian socialist revolution, but also struggled to preserve Korean cultural legacy among the émigré community. One of these ‘national Communists’, Kye Pongu (1880-1956), a former activists of the early 1900s ‘enlightenment’ movement who became, after Russia’s 1917 October Revolution, one of the closest comrades of a renowned Korean Communist leader, Yi Tonghǔi (1873-1935), was Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s teacher of classical Chinese and Korean history in the early 1940s. At that time, both met in Kzyl-Orda in Kazakhstan, where so many Russian Koreans were forcibly exiled in 1937. In many ways, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s scholarship and personality were animated by Russian-Korean Communists’ ethos and élan – by their deep attachment to the Korean cultural legacy as the nucleus of the “cultural nation”, and by their quest for social justice and modern development. The forcible removal of all the ethnic Koreans to Central Asia in 1937 added a sense of urgency to this commitment. Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s translation of Samguk Sagi, started in early 1950s, was partly motivated by his ardent wish to transmit the Korean traditional culture to the new generation of Soviet Koreans, who no longer could study their language and legacy in the place of their exile and had to read Korean sources in Russian. In this way, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak was definitely a Soviet-Korean intellectual with a deep sense of ethno-cultural commitment. His later engagements with the Russian-Korean associations of the 1990s-2000s (he used to chair the All-Soviet/All-Russian Association of Koreans from 1989, and remained its honorary chairman until his death) was a logical continuation of his passion for the case of Korean national culture. He also retained the Marxist beliefs of his youth, albeit in more critical and self-reflective form, until his death.
The sense of mission as a guardian of the endangered Korean tradition aside, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak as an intellectual was largely formed by MIFLI (Moscow Institute for Philosophy, Literature and History). He studied there in 1936-41, side to side with such future luminaries of the Soviet culture as novelist K.Simonov (1915-1979) and poet A.Tvardovsky (1910-1971). MIFLI was renowned for its commitment to erudite cultural education – Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak majored there in Latin for three years, before switching to East Asia and eventually to Korea – and for its tradition of non-dogmatic, open-minded Marxism, which contrasted a lot with the growing fossilization of Stalinist ‘Marxism-Leninism’ elsewhere in the USSR. Creativeness in applying the Marxist formulae to the Korean material was amply showed by Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak when, after getting his junior doctorate in 1947 with a dissertation in late 19th century Korean political history, he was appointed in 1949 to teach Korean history at the mecca of the Soviet scholarly world, Moscow State University (MGU).

In mid-1950s, in several articles published in the most authoritative historical journals of the USSR (some of them were then republished in Chinese), Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak directly challenged an influential Marxist interpretation of Korea’s ancient history by a group of veteran Korean Marxists who ended up becoming a nucleus of North Korea’s humanitarian academia, including mighty Paek Namun (1894-1979), North Korea’s long-time Minister of Education. While Paek Namun and many others viewed 1-7th centuries Korea as “slave-owning society” – thus mechanically applying the classical Marxian model based on the experiences of the Mediterranean society, to the Korean case – Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak suggested that Korea at that point was at the “early feudal stage”. Korea’s “early feudalism” as viewed by Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak, was characterized by a pronounced role of the state-centered redistributional apparatus and much more developed bureaucratic organization that the feudalisms in contemporaneous Europe, and also demonstrated lots of “transitional” traits, archaic clan-based communities inherited from the pre-class era still remaining the backbone of the societal structure. While the wholesale characterization of all the developed pre-capitalist state societies as “feudal” is hardly acceptable for today’s historian, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s challenge to the mechanical application of the “slave-owning mode of production” dogma was hugely productive. Eventually, the North Korean scholarship moved to recognizing the 1-7th centuries proto-Korean states as “feudal” as well (but the “slave-owning society” was applied to Ancient Chosǒn rather than discarded). In the USSR, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s disciples – including such prominent historians of ancient Korea as Roza Shataevna Dzharylgasinova and Sergei Vladimirovich Volkov – were now free to describe the first states of the Korean Peninsula for what they really where, namely agrarian bureaucracies ruled by the aristocratic classes. At least at the Korean historical studies, the deadly grip of the Stalinist orthodoxy was almost not felt, since anybody who did not wish to custom-tailor the Korean history to the rigid model of “primitive communism to slave-owning society to feudalism” could resort to invoking Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s authority. This authority was firmly buttressed by the scrupulous textual research. Silla Chronicles of Samguk sagi, translated and published in Russian in 1959, brought him the prestigious senior doctoral degree (Russian version of habilitation – 1960). Then, the successive translations and publication of the Koguryǒ Chronicles and Paekche Chronicles (1995) and the whole text of Samguk Sagi (2001) made him one of the best-known experts in the Korean historical texts study in the whole world.

A Soviet/Russian-Korean national activist and one of the greatest living specialists in Samguk Sagi and Korea’s early history, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak was also a great manager of scholarship. Much of his organizational talent was demonstrated after the Soviet collapse in 1991, when much of the humanitarian scholarship in the former USSR became a victim of a headlong “transition to capitalism” followed by general disorder and impoverishment. In 1991 he managed to attract South Korean sponsorship and to establish an independent International Center For Korean Studies (ICFKS) at Moscow State University, which, to this day, published more than 30 monographs on Korea, played host to many important international conferences and provided access to a well-stocked Korean research library to growing numbers of students and researchers. Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s authority – cemented also by several South Korean governmental medals he received in the 1990s and 2000s – was crucially essential for ICFKS fundraising in South Korea, and, by extension, for the survival of the Korean studies as such in post-Soviet Russia. It remains a matter of serious concern whether ICFKS, Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak’s most-loved brainchild, will be able to continue its activities on the same level without its founder’s unparalleled charisma.

Mikhail Nikolaevich Pak died on April 16, 2009 at his own home, while checking his granddaughter’s draft translation of yet another Korean classic, Samguk Yusa. He died with a Korean classical work at his hand – a death which represents well the very essence of his life.


  1. Pak Noja, Thank you very much for this obituary to you mentor. I found it “educational” in the truest sense of the term.

  2. Thanks for this Noja. Quite apart from emphasising the importance of Prof Pak’s life and work your obituary reminded me of how parochial we can be in the English-speaking academic world. It is all too easy for scholars in Western Europe and America to completely forget about the whole world of Soviet/Russian scholarship on East Asia. We should not forget for two reasons: first because we may find great insights in that scholarship and second because Soviet academia was very influential on historiography in many parts of Asia.

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