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Last modified: Thursday, March 30, 2006

Denis Sinor

John W. Ryan Award for Distinguished Contributions to International Programs and Studies

Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Uralic and Altaic Studies
College of Arts and Sciences
University Graduate School
Indiana University Bloomington
Appointed to IU faculty, 1962

In 2004, Denis Sinor visited the North Pole, nearly a century after Robert Peary first planted the Stars and Stripes in a destination that had eluded explorers for centuries. Peary was 53 when he completed his Artic adventure. Sinor was 88.

Sinor spent his pre-Pole days as a trailblazer, leading academics, historians, and students into the lives, languages, histories, and cultures of Inner Asia.

Inner Asia comprises Central Asia, Mongolia, and Tibet. Central Asia occupies 1,542,200 square miles of this region, nearly half the area of the United States. As Sinor's entry in Encyclopedia Britannica explains, Central Asia consists of the republics of Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, countries and peoples who only since 1936 "have identified themselves with politically defined areas and have been recognized by others as ethnically and culturally distinct."

Born in Hungary in 1916, Sinor received a rigorous academic training in Altaic linguistics. Between 1939 and 1948, he received several fellowships in Hungary and France, where he held various teaching and research assignments. After the war, where he served as a member of the French Resistance and later in the Free French Forces, he joined the faculty of Oriental Studies at Cambridge University. During that time, he wrote History of Hungary and more than 100 articles and reviews on the linguistics and histories of Inner Asia.

In 1962, he moved to the United States, bringing his expertise to Indiana University where he created the Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies, now Central Eurasian Studies. In and outside of the department, through scores of publications, articles, reviews, and encyclopedia entries, Sinor worked to promote an appreciation of Inner Asia beyond its geographical and political neighbors, China and Russia.

"What Herman Wells was to IU's area studies in general, Denis Sinor is the Department of Central Eurasian Studies," says Kumble R. Subbaswamy, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "Professor Sinor took the initial spark in this study area and nursed it to flame, bringing in grant money, hiring faculty, and expanding the course offerings, degree areas, library holdings, publication series, and IU's international reputation."

At IU, Sinor established two key and renowned resources for Inner Asian Studies. In 1967, he founded, and until 1981 directed, the Asian Studies Research Institute, known today as the Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, whose collection of materials, notes Subbaswamy, is "unparalled."

Sinor has received many honors within and outside the United States. He is a member of the French and Hungarian Academies, he is an Honorary Professor of the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy, was twice the holder of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was repeatedly honored by UNESCO. The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain has established a medal named after him.

But perhaps Sinor's most significant contribution to Inner Asian studies and Indiana University is the since 1963 federally funded Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center (IAUNRC). The only one of its kind in the country, the center has helped train and support a strong lineage of scholars and has helped support the study of such languages as Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Mongolian, Persian/Tajik, Tibetan, Turkish and Uzbek. IAUNRC "is certainly recognized as the best in the nation, if not in the world," notes University Chancellor Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis.

As his adventure to the North Pole indicates, Sinor hasn't slowed in his quest for knowledge or his mission to increase awareness and appreciation of diverse cultures. He remains active in various national and international scholarly societies and currently works with UNESCO, the U.S. Department of Education, and other government organizations.

"To put it succinctly, there is no other person currently on campus who has worked so long and tirelessly to maintain IU's presence in diverse international fora while simultaneously playing a crucial role in developing IU's preeminence in what is now one of its most important international units, the Department of Central Eurasian Studies," says Elliot Sperling, chair of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies.