Tribute to Prof. Bira Shagdaryn by ACMS Founder Dr. Charles Krusekopf

We here at the American Center for Mongolian Studies have been very saddened to hear about Professor Bira’s passing. He lived a very long and eventful life, and had a great impact on the development of Mongolian Studies and relations between Mongolia and international academics in the days before and after Mongolia’s opening in 1990.

Prof. Bira meeting ACMS First Resident Director Peter Marsh and Deputy Director Enkhbaatar

I wanted to share some of the photos from the early days at ACMS. That is our first Resident Director Peter Marsh in the middle and Deputy Director Enkhbaatar on the right meeting with Prof Bira at his office at the International Association of Mongolian Studies (IAMS).

By the way, many of the books in the collection in Bira’s office as shown in the glass cases were books donated by western scholars to Prof Bira during the IAMS meetings in Mongolia, which were held every 5 years, and were the only international academic gatherings for Mongolists back in the Communist Days. Several of the books were personally donated by scholars such as Owen Lattimore who was good friends with Bira.

 

This is Prof. Bira and Prof. Ishdorj at the opening of the ACMS office in Ulaanbaatar in 2004 at the National University of Mongolia together with Enkhbaatar Demchig.

Professor Bira and the founding of the ACMS

I first had the idea to create the ACMS while sitting and talking with Prof. Bira at his office in Ulaanbaatar. Bira was working on a project to investigate Genghis Khan’s tomb together with Prof. John Woods of the University of Chicago, a scholar of the Mongol period in the Middle East. Prof. Woods had worked with other CAORC centers in the Middle East and thought there should be a similar organization in Mongolia. However, he recognized that he was not an experienced scholar in Mongolia, and the Genghis Khan tomb search project was controversial, so he told Prof. Bira about the idea and suggested he think about how to move the project forward. A few days after Prof. Woods introduced this idea to Bira, I happened to be in Mongolia and meeting with Bira on a research project I was doing for IREX in the US on Mongolia’s opening to the West and their economic and political transformation. I was mentioning how hard it was for foreign researchers to do work in Mongolia given all the logistical hassles (this was well before the internet and everything had to be paid in cash in Tugriks – you had to bring rolls of $100 new bills to exchange and then carry suitcases of Tugriks around to pay for things such as apartments to rent etc.)

So Prof Bira’s eyes lit up and he said, “Prof. John Woods has an idea for an organization that can help foreign scholars” and he handed me a brochure about CAORC. I read it and thought the idea was interesting, so when I returned to the US I contacted Prof. Woods who put me in touch with Mary Ellen Lane at CAORC and I flew to Washington DC to meet with her and develop the idea for the ACMS. In 2002 at the Association of Asian Studies conference in DC we held an organizational meeting where we selected the name of the organization with the help of Prof. Chris Atwood, now at the University of Pennsylvania (formerly at Indiana University) and I set up the incorporation papers and applied for our first grant from the US Dept of Education. In 2003 we were awarded the grant, so in February 2004 we hired Peter Marsh and Enkhbaatar Demchig as our first employees, and I moved to Mongolia with my family to serve as a Fulbright Scholar at the National University of Mongolia’s School of Foreign Service.

In May 2004 we held the grand opening of the ACMS office at the National University of Mongolia Building 1, which is the photo of Bira and Ishdorj at the Grand Opening reception. Our first major ACMS project was a project to renovate the libraries of the IAMS to make the books in their collection more accessible and to provide them with a photocopier so researchers could make copies of books and other materials. At that time the IAMS collection was the largest collection of English language material related to Mongolian Studies in Mongolia. Many of the books were donated by foreign scholars when they visited the every 5-year International Conference of Mongolists, which in those Communist days was the only gathering of its kind. We started then developing our ACMS library so we could have a more up-to-date and larger collection of materials that local scholars and international visiting scholars could use in Mongolia.

Bira was a regular visitor to the ACMS offices and events, and we cooperated on several projects with IAMS helping to advertise their conferences and to support the development of Mongolian Studies. He and Ishdorj played a major role in helping to organize and lead the conference we held in 2008 to celebrate the life and work of Owen Lattimore. They presented and discussed their times meeting and working with Owen Lattimore during his visits to Mongolia.

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