LEBEDEV, Gerasim Stepanovič (Herasim Lebedeff). Jaroslavl 1746 (1749?) — 15.7.1817. Russian Traveller in India and Pioneer of Indology. Son of a poor clergyman, who did not allow him to obtain higher education. The family moved to St.Petersburg, where he studied music and became a professional musician. In 1777 he left for Naples in the retinue of Russian Ambassador, but separated in Vienna from others and travelled alone. In May 1782 in Paris, then to England and India. Made his living playing cello. In 15th August 1785 he arrived at Madras, where he tried to learn Tamil. In 1787 he moved from Madras to Calcutta, worked as musician and learnt Bengali, Urdu and Sanskrit from Pandit Golak Nath Das. In 1795 he founded a theatre, which, however, did not succeed, and its crash ruined his means. As a poor man he left Calcutta in 1797 and after a while in London returned in 1801 to Russia, where he was appointed an interpreter in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He obtained some means from the government for literary work and founded a printing press with Bengali types in 1802. He worked fifteen years in St.Petersburg.
In Calcutta HL is remembered as the founder of the first Bengali theatre (1795). It attracted in fact numerous audience, but the competition of English theatres was hard, and after just two displays he was forced to close it. For his scene he translated and adapted two farces, The Disguise by R. P. Jodrell and the Love is the Best Doctor, from English into Bengali. Of his literary work in India he gave an account in a letter to the Russian ambassador in London. According to Dasgupta it contains: “The heroic poem on the marriage of the daughter of the Maharajah of Burdwan by a great poet Shri Bharat Chandra Roy [Russian translation], a dictionary, some conversations, arithmetic division, a calendar [these probably in Bengali], and several different collections of the Sanskrit, Bengali, and mixed Hindustani languages.”
HL was the second founder of Russian Indology, but, like Bayer before him, was soon forgotten. In any case he was a pioneer, and according to standards of his time his description of Indian civilization and religion has been deemed as remarkably accurate, detailed and free of religious, political and racial prejudices. Derived directly from observations and studies during his 12 years in India the book has retained some interest, although it is somewhat marred by his proneness to allegorical interpretation. He rightly understood the Indian character of the Romani language. He referred condescently to the works of Halhed, Jones and the Asiatic Society, thinking himself better than them, but his grammar bears out the opposite, and the criticism contained in it is often excessive. In spite of its name the book does not deal with Sanskrit. He shared the linguistic ideas of the age before Rask and Bopp and saw NIA languages as mixed and corrupt dialects. Still, his grammar is interesting as description of the Hindustani as spoken in Calcutta in the end of the 18th century.
The literary remains of HL contain i.al. material for a Hindustani-Bengali-Russian phrase-book, a Bengali-Russian dictionary, essays on Indian arithmetics, the Bengali translation of The Disguise, and a collection of Indian manuscripts. Fortunately, they have been preserved.
Publications: A Grammar of the Pure and mixed East Indian Dialects, with Dialogues affixed, spoken in all the Eastern Countries, methodically arranged at Calcutta, according to the Brahmenian System, of the Shamscrit Language. Comprehending literal Explanations of the Compound Words, and circumlocutory Phrases, necessary for the Attainment of the Idiom of that Language, etc. Calculated for the Use of Europeans. With Remarks on the Errors in former Grammars and Dialogues of the Mixed Dialects called Moorish or Moors, written by Different Europeans; together with a refutation of the Assertions of Sir William Jones, respecting the Shamscrit Alphabet; and several Specimens of Oriental Poetry, published in the Asiatic Researches. 23+10+84 p. L. 1801 (repr. 1963).
– Bespristrastnoe sozercanie sistemy vostočnoj Indii Bragmenov, svjaščennyh obrjadov ih i narodnyh obyčaev. St.P. 1805, perhaps also in German translation.
– Probably he was also the author of the tractate, anonymously published in Russian and French: Rapports entre la langue sanscrite et la langue russe. 1811.
– A selection of posthumous papers edited by K. A. Antonova in Istoričeskij Arhiv Akad. Nauk 1956.
Sources: *M.G. Altšuller, “L. i Deržavin”, NAA 1963, 126-129; *N. Altuchow, IT 8-9,9-14; Buckland, Dictionary; Bongard-Levin & Vigasin 1984, 40-45; R. K. Dasgupta, “G.S. Lebedeff (1749–1817): The first Russian Indologist”, Oxford Slavonic Papers 7, 1957, 1-16; Gamajunov Sovetskoe vostokovedenie 1956:1, 145-154; *Grierson in LSI 9:1, 1916 and *Calcutta Review 3:9, 1923, 84; Kaljanov 1962, 143f.; *A. Sternberg, Ogonek Mart 1947 & in Bengali transl. *Krānti 1:6, 1947; *Vigasin 2008, 38-47; *V. S. Vorob’ev-Desjatovskij, OIRV 2, 1956; *G. A. Zograf, “Kal’kuttskij hindustani konca xviii v. v osveščenii G.S. Lebedeva”, KSINA 61, 1963, 142-153.