Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890-1938)
In Search of a Moral Compass for the Ukraine War
I have long professional ties with Russia. Indeed, the first ‘Chair in Social Epistemology’ was held not by me but by Ilya Kasavin, a philosopher affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences. He founded the journal Epistemologja i Filosofija Nauki (‘Epistemology and the Philosophy of Science’), which is the main Russian journal in the field, and on whose editorial board I sit. He and his colleagues regularly publish in Social Epistemology and other academic forums with which I’m associated. I don’t plan to end those ties, and I look forward to their full resumption after the war’s conclusion. Nonetheless, my Russian colleagues have been concerned from the outset about the war’s impact on future scholarly collaborations. Their thoughts probably turned to boycotts that academics have staged in the past over policies taken by the governments of South Africa (under apartheid) and Israel (for various Palestine-based issues). And to be sure, as I write, Australian National University has announced a boycott of Russian scholars. They join a lengthening list of European universities and academic bodies formally severing financial and intellectual ties with Russia. Meanwhile, 700 Russian university rectors have come out in staunch support of the Kremlin’s line in the Ukraine War. I hope my university does not sever its ties to Russia, notwithstanding the solidarity it has already justifiably expressed with the Ukrainian people.
In many respects, war – especially when carried out with the ferocity of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – tests academic universalism. Does the European Enlightenment’s much-vaunted ‘republic of letters’ truly transcend location? Is it a Platonic ‘metaverse’ of discursive exchange that requires everyone to translate their material differences into a common intellectual currency? After all, such had been the seventeenth-century origins of what we now call ‘peer review.’ The secretaries of the early modern learned societies, Marin Mersenne and Henry Oldenburg, were largely in the business of censoring correspondence from the likes of Descartes, Hobbes, Huygens and Newton to ensure that their idiosyncratic and often heretical religious and metaphysical views did not serve to obscure rather than clarify genuine differences in findings and interpretation. A more fully embodied version of the same attitude existed between the US and German academic communities up to the formal declaration of war between the two countries in 1941, even when the German academics were known to be Nazi sympathizers. Indeed, among the biggest promoters of such US-German intellectual exchange was Harvard President James Bryant Conant, who became the first US ambassador to the newly established West Germany after the war. The self-censorship involved in such encounters now passes under the rubric of ‘scientific diplomacy’ and is generally applauded (see Schroeder-Gudehus on ‘Nationalism and Internationalism in Science’).
Of course, one might take a more ‘Aristotelian’ view of the matter. It would see Russian academics as ‘always already’ embedded in the politics of their societies. In that case, one should treat them as one would treat any other Russian who does not openly denounce the Ukraine War. Much of the animus driving the boycotts of foreign academics in the past has been of this sort. It implies that academics are something else before they are academics – and perhaps even that their academic status should enhance that something else. While it would be easy to say that this ‘something else’ is that the academics are ‘humans’ in some deeply moral sense, it would also be too fast. The boycott mentality is modern. It is predicated on some imagined rule of law across nation-states, which then implicates academics as citizens of those countries. This subtlety highlights a point to which a Kantian would be sensitive: namely, that academics living in the countries that fall foul of international law are easily made proxies for an attack on their governments by virtue of their legally and morally offensive policies. This explains the external pressure for academics living in those countries to oppose their government’s policies. Regardless of the results, such academics are being treated as means to vindicate the moral agendas of the outside critics, not as ends in themselves.
Of course, the Platonic and Aristotelian paths do not exhaust the possible responses to the Ukraine War. There is a more ‘sublime’ response, which approaches matters in a more directly Kantian fashion. It involves what Bernard Williams, inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre, called ‘negative responsibility,’ whereby the failure to act against injustice is itself to commit an injustice. The allusion behind the idea is Sartre’s famous claim that all of humanity was complicit in the atomic explosion over Hiroshima in 1945 simply because it was allowed to happen. In medieval theology, these failures were called ‘sins of omission,’ but without assigning such high moral import. However, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the moral reach of the human will became greater, as Bible readers came to understand themselves more literally as created imago dei. (In this respect, ‘secularization’ is about transitioning the ‘Church’ out of its role as the vehicle for this sensibility once the ‘State’ had adopted it as its own.) This demands thinking beyond our immediate circumstances through a process of self-abstraction, whereby we imagine ourselves as a decision-maker at any point in a morally relevant context where we could have acted. It provides an existential basis for the frame of mind required of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.
But what does it mean here to be a ‘Kantian’ in practice? It means that we identify with past decision-makers because we regard ourselves as, in some morally relevant sense, their ‘heirs.’ In that sense, we participate in their agency. In the context of the Ukraine War, it may mean identifying with the West’s failure to follow through on informal understandings with Mikhail Gorbachev immediately after the Cold War that would have permitted a vast Eurasian demilitarized zone and restriction of NATO expansion into the former Soviet empire. The Western European countries originally behind this prospect did not challenge America’s veto, the consequences of which are now arguably being realized. Getting the full moral measure of this problem requires a perspective that is ‘universalistic,’ but not quite in Plato’s sense. It requires our identifying with those who took decisions in the past that, in retrospect, are not only regarded now to have been in error but also could have been seen originally to have been in error. This is a rather Kantian way to look at the situation before us. Thirty years ago, Western European leaders lacked the courage of their convictions to go against the ‘Pax Americana’ first proposed by George Bush and then actively pursued by Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
Trubetskoy’s Eurasian project
All of this begins to explain Vladimir Putin’s determined prosecution of the Ukraine War. It is clear that he has always remained in the Russian mindset at the end of the Cold War, and the current war is his attempt at completing this ‘unfinished business’ from the past. He, too, is ‘Kantian’ in the sense of trying to bring about what he believes would be a just world order. Eurasianism as an ideology is crucial to Putin’s positive vision. While Aleksandr Dugin may be the most visible proponent of this ideology today, its source is Nikolai Trubetskoy (1890–1938), whom Westerners know mainly as co-founder (along with his friend Roman Jakobson) of ‘formalist linguistics’ in the 1920s and ’30 s. This became the basis of ‘French Structuralism’ in the postwar period, which by the 1960s was subject to ‘deconstruction’ by the likes of Lacan, Foucault and Derrida. However, Trubetskoy is also usefully seen as the Leo Strauss figure of Eurasianism: that is, someone whose deep understanding of the human condition came from a deep understanding of the dynamics of language, albeit one that stressed speech over writing.
Trubetskoy’s Eurasian vision has several distinct elements that are worth recalling to explain Putin’s mindset, if only because the vision was conceived before the full history of the Soviet Union had passed. More to the point, Trubetskoy’s Eurasian imaginary predates the mythologizing of that history. The key text is the long essay, ‘Europe and Mankind’ (see this recent translation), originally published in Russian in Sofia in 1920. Trubetskoy regarded the Bolshevik Revolution as inadequate in itself but sufficient to enable a ‘Slavic’ world centred in Russia to break from both Liberalism and Nationalism, which he saw as two sides of the same coin of the ‘Romano-Germanic’ worldview, his pejorative way of talking about Europe. Of course, he underestimated the appeal and tenacity of the Soviet Union on its own terms, but what he disliked about ‘Europe’ as an idea is still relevant.
On the one hand, Trubetskoy shared the Soviet view that European Liberalism is a kind of imperialist ideology, masquerading as ‘cosmopolitanism,’ which aims to disorient Slavs from their common roots in the name of ‘progress,’ so as to make their subjugation easier. On the other hand, he objected to Woodrow Wilson’s idea – enshrined in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles – of breaking up the great empires of Eurasia into a collection of nation-states divided largely along ethnic lines. When Putin speaks of ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine as one of his military objectives, he echoes this point. Putin sees Ukraine’s quest for nationhood as driven by a false sense of ethnic autonomy that remains a baleful legacy of the settlement of the First World War.
As for Trubetskoy’s positive vision, one must recall that he was one of the twentieth century’s great phonologists, someone with an ear for the significance of sound across vast regions of space and time. Unlike Leo Strauss, who operated with a relatively restricted sense of vision as the preferred medium of intellectual transmission (i.e. in the private activities of writing and reading), Trubetskoy and his fellow formalists imagined that ordinary speech was a potential unifier of vast swathes of humanity. In this spirit, Trubetskoy’s Eurasianism proceeded from a kind of de-racialized philological mentality, whereby the link between language and ethnicity would be severed, but not the link between language and land. Within philology itself, this was quite a radical move that contributed to the establishment of modern linguistics. Keep in mind that philology had been heavily racialized at least since the late eighteenth century, starting from the invention of the idea of an ‘Aryan’ people whose common ethnolinguistic roots reach back to the Indo-Iranian world of the first millennium BCE. In contrast, Trubetskoy not only rejected the Europe-facing Peter the Great as the Russian epitome but also provocatively proposed the great Mongol warrior Genghis Khan as a replacement.
To be sure, this is a peculiar worldview. It is certainly not universalism in the familiar Platonic or Kantian senses because it does not completely remove material embodiment. Indeed, Trubetskoy seemed to believe that deep phonological history enabled people speaking similar languages from quite different regions of the world to hear together the past in the present, however faintly, which provides the platform needed for a sense of unity. It may even provide a scientific basis for a new geopolitics. From this standpoint, there is a big difference between people living in such common phonic regions appropriating outside influences for their own purposes (desirable) and the outright replacement of the native phonic system by an alien one (undesirable). Trubetskoy saw the former as poetry and the latter as conquest. It explains his strong opposition to ‘diffusionism,’ a doctrine popular among early twentieth-century evolutionary anthropologists, since it seemed to suggest the inevitability of conquest, whereby the foreigners simply supplant the natives. To Trubetskoy’s eyes, this looked like contemporary European expansionism inscribed in deep history.
More recent versions of Eurasianism, such as Dugin’s, tend to stress land over language as the unifying principle of peoples, perhaps reflecting the influence of the Nazi mentality of Lebensraum and an accommodation to the Chinese (‘Han’) version of the unity of blood, land and language. Nevertheless, Trubetskoy remains an intriguing and important figure, whom even Dugin continues to acknowledge as Eurasianism’s founder. Interestingly, Trubetskoy dealt with what, in a 1927 essay, he called ‘The Ukrainian Problem.’ He contended that Ukrainian nationalism was the alloyed product of pro-Europe propaganda stemming from at least the times of Peter the Great and unsubstantiated claims about ethnic differences from residents of ‘Greater Russia.’ Trubetskoy believed that this combination of factors would ultimately prevent Ukraine from developing an autonomous cultural identity, which he took to be separate from its entitlement to self-governance within the newly formed Soviet Union (which he granted). Of course, the problem we see today is that issues of politics and cultures are not so neatly separated in practice as they are in theory. Moreover, it is not obvious that living humans are best treated as actors in a prescribed historical narrative, especially if their role is reduced to a set of opportunities for the expression of phonemes.
Fuller, S. (2022). Eurasianism as the deep history of Russia’s discontent. Educational Philosophy & Theory. Advanced online publication. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131857.2022.2054330