Since the mid of 1950’s, rare new books – a series of books of the heroic epics of ancient India “Mahabharata” – a priceless gift for book lovers –began to appear on the shelves of bookstores in Ashgabat. The title page of publications reported that Academician of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan B.Smirnov made the translation from Sanskrit.
To the outsider reader, this name, typed on the title page in small print, said about nothing. And only a few people knew that the translation of texts, notes and explanatory dictionary belong not to a philologist, not to a linguist or a literary critic, and not even to a scientist-orientalist, but to a renowned medical professor, neurosurgeon Boris Leonidovich Smirnov.
Writing about Boris Leonidovich Smirnov is an extremely interesting and, at the same time, quite complicated task, because you don’t know which of his two hypostasis to begin with, since two unlike vocations are intertwined closely in the fate of this outstanding person.
A district doctor in Chernigovka region was the father of the future translator of “Mahabharata”. Two out of four sons have already followed in the father’s footsteps. A third son, Boris, who had just graduated from high school in Kiev with a gold medal. was preparing too. Brilliantly passing the entrance exams, he became a student at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg.
It is hard to say how a seventeen-year-old medical student received a dictionary of Sanskrit language. According to one version, he found it at the St. Petersburg railway station by chance; according to another, he bought it in one of the bookstores in Kiev; according to the third, the brother presented a dictionary to Boris, bartering for several crackers during the starving time on the eve of the October revolution in 1917.
How to explain such an exotic choice?
What it is: a random acquisition to collect dust in a bookcase, or a sincere desire to touch the history of a distant and mysterious country, where “you can’t count diamonds in stone caves …”.
Whatever it was, there was the happiest incident, when the book was at the right time in the right place.
A young man has always been attracted by everything new and unexplored, as travelers and seafarers are attracted to open countries and islands. For Boris Smirnov, foreign languages were such islands. By that time, he already knew Polish, German, English, French, and Latin. Later he learned Italian, Spanish, Turkmen, Turkic dialects and Hebrew languages.
But it will be later, for now, the medical student began to study Sanskrit in depth, being amazed with its fabulous wealth and diversity. The dictionary was always with him, even in the academy. He did not stop the study of Sanskrit even during the First World War, when he was a regimental doctor.
It was that time, operating the wounded soldiers, Boris Leonidovich began to collect data on craniocerebral trauma. Accumulated experience did him a good turn years later, when he joined to neurosurgery – a new direction in medicine, which he was interested a lot in.
In the 1920’s-1940’s, a wave of repression swept the country, called the Soviet Union. Its black wing touched Smirnov also. Indeed, it did not last long. In 1935, Boris Leonidovich Smirnov moved to live in Ashgabat. He liked this quiet, kind, calm, green city with gardens, he liked the people too – friendly, sincere and generous.
In Ashgabat, he was appointed to the position of a researcher at the Turkmen Institute of Neurology and Physiotherapy. It was during the years spent in Turkmenistan (Boris Leonidovich lived here for the rest of his life) that his creative powers flourished. He works hard and enthusiastically.
The field of activity in various fields of medicine – balneology, neurology, pathological anatomy – is huge.
It is here that Boris Leonidovich starts the neurosurgical practice, to which he prepared himself for many years. At that time, the neurosurgery was the least studied area of medicine.
He was the first in Turkmenistan to perform complex brain surgery, restoring health to dozens of people.
Boris Leonidovich was the first in the USSR, who performed the most difficult spinal surgery in the Ashgabat clinic.
During World War II, he saved the lives of wounded soldiers sent for treatment in Ashgabat.
He can be called reasonably the founder of neurological and neurosurgical medical care in Turkmenistan.
He wrote his doctoral dissertation here and successfully defended it, becoming an Academician, Chief Neurosurgeon of the Ministry of Health of Turkmenistan.
And, most importantly, with all heart, he loved this land, his small comfortable home in the center of Ashgabat, the clinic where he worked, the department at the Turkmen State Medical Institute where he delivered lectures.
Why look for a good thing when you have one? Therefore, when in 1944 he was offered to head the Department of Neurosurgery at the Kiev Institute for the Advanced Training of Doctors, he refused and stayed in Ashgabat.
During the day, Boris Leonidovich lived like two lives.
The first day was given to medicine. In the evening hours, the professor lived another life – same interesting and intense. Two and a half thousand years ago, the Mahabharata, the legendary epic to intelligence and state wisdom with philosophical and devotional material, started its history.
The idea to read one of the greatest books of the world in original language did not leave Boris Leonidovich from the day when he received the dictionary of Sanskrit language. However, before proceeding with the translation of the Mahabharata, he pored over dictionaries and textbooks for many years, read a number of literature on history of India, its culture and philosophy. After all, the Mahabharata is not only a literary work.
First of all, it is a philosophical work, a kind of code on spiritual and ethical norms that formed the popular consciousness.
It took twenty-three years to translate the first book of the Mahabharata.
Why it took so long?
From the very beginning, Boris Leonidovich set himself the task of doing not a word-for-word, but a literary translation, in order to give correctly not only the meaning and rhythm, but also the inner music of Sanskrit writing. It should be noted that the translator did not have any special linguistic and philosophical education.
Sanskrit is one of the most difficult languages. Its features 48 phonologies. As a rule, Mahabharata was translated to other languages from already existing translations in English and German. However, Smirnov worked with the original. He translated ten, the most significant parts of the epic, out of eighteen books of the Mahabharata.
The special importance is given to Bhagavad Gita, part of the Mahabharata. It is the best known and most famous of Hindu texts. The philosophical schools of modern India refer to the Gita as the spiritual dictionary.
It should be noted that in addition to the translation, Boris Leonidovich annotated each book with notes to the text and explanatory dictionary. As of today, the translations and comments made by Boris Leonidovich Smirnov remain unsurpassed.
Work on translations required not only time, but also tremendous patience and grit. After the day at the surgical table, after the lectures at the institute, it was not easy to be concentrated on translations. But Boris Leonidovich didn’t allow himself such luxury as slackness, realizing that it was worthwhile to do something like this once and all the work would get stuck.
This small man had an incredible human spirit and will. He was so thin and feeble, so one would wonder: how he keeps body and soul together.
He had another important feature – courage. Without it, he could not have done a hundredth of what he had done.
The following fact describes his personal courage…
On the tragic night of October 5 to 6, 1948, Boris Leonidovich, as usual, was working on the Mahabharata manuscripts, when there was a hum, the earth shuddered, and the city plunged into darkness.
Within a short time, Ashgabat was almost completely destroyed by the underground element. Boris Leonidovich was under the rubble of his house, destroyed by a terrible earthquake. Nevertheless, when somebody began to dig it, he said: “I still have air, help my wife.”
Getting out from under the rubble, he ran to the clinic, where the first wounded started to be delivered, and stood at the surgical table, the door of someone’s destroyed home served as this operating table.
Only on the second day, the professor reached his falling-home. He took a shovel and began to clear ruins. Then, next three days he operated non-stop in a tent hospital, built up in the central square of Ashgabat.
Most of the Mahabharata’s manuscripts was destroyed during the earthquake, and they had to be restored again.
The Latin proverb says, “Hurry slowly”. It means that the one who are not in a hurry is always has time. Boris Leonidovich worked as if there was an eternity ahead. Although the time measured to him, as it turned out, was not too long. In 1956, heart disease forced him to retire. He could no longer deliver lectures at the department, and even had to refuse to perform an operation – it became difficult to withstand the tremendous daily stress.
The professor sank under the gave illness. However, he did not give up. He still worked on the Mahabharata, with all the attention. Boris Leonidovich translated the last seven books, already being confined to life in bed. Every day, as he used to do for many years, he was sitting down the table, and if he could not, he was laying in bed with dictionaries, with a knitted glove on his hand – blood, hardly passing through the affected heart, barely warmed the body, and was continuing to concentrate on translations of intricate plots of stories and legends of ancient Indian sages.
His family members assisted him. His wife Lyudmila Erastovna helped to print the text of the translations, the wife’s sister Anna Erastovna helped to keep correspondence (Boris Leonidovich received the bundle of letters). His foster son, Yuri Mikhailovich Volobuyev, also a neurosurgeon, candidate of medical sciences, was the graphic-designer of translated books of Mahabharata. They also prepared for publication the text of the last, tenth book, which Boris Leonidovich did not manage to finish.
Over the years of life in Turkmenistan, under the guidance of Boris Leonidovich Smirnov, employees of the Turkmen State Medical Institute successfully defended 15 Ph.D thesis. He has over 70 scientific publications on endemic medicine, balneology, neurosurgery, pathological anatomy, vein anatomy. He prepared a pleiad of outstanding neurosurgeons.
Moreover, a great work has been done, which began once with a happy acquisition of the Sanskrit dictionary. It is the translations of the Mahabharata by Smirnov, which have long become a bibliographical rarity, were elected to The Library of World Literature mega-volume edition.
His translations of the Indian epic received a number of enthusiastic feedbacks both from the scientists-specialist in Indian culture of the world and India itself. There are such words in one of the letters of the Russian specialist in Indian culture to Boris Leonidovich “What you have done alone, the team could perform only.”
Trying to find free time from his busy work schedule, working on manuscripts at the nights, he did not wait and did not look for an award for the work performed. The years that Boris Leonidovich was dealing with translation, were gratis.
At the very end of his life, Boris Leonidovich Smirnov was admitted to the Union of Writers of the USSR, which was a recognition of his professionalism not only in medicine, but also in literature, a rare combination of a doctor’s talent with a philologist’s talent.
How did one person manage with all this?
It is very simple. From an early youth, Boris Leonidovich Smirnov followed the strict principle: if you started to do something, then bring it to the end. His principle of life was: “To study and work while the heart beats.”
In 1967, Boris Leonidovich was gone. He is buried in the Ashgabat cemetery.
On the modest tombstone, the lines from one of the Mahabharata books “There is no Law Higher than Truth” are carved …
On December 15 to pay tribute to Boris Leonidovich Smirnov on his 127th birthday.