20 March 2019

Can we still get a Chomsky from Trubetskoi?

In the Western press especially, the idea of ‘Eurasianism’, along with the ‘Russian world’, has become a watchword for a specific and virulent form of Russian state ideology which is irredeemably anti-Western, totalitarian and fascist. It is also immediately understood in conjunction with the primary contemporary theorist of Eurasianism, Aleksandr Dugin. But the question is still worth asking: is Eurasianism actually an intrinsically totalitarian ideology? Or is this simply another case of Orientalist projection encouraged by the racist attitudes engendered by the rightward-lurching political climate in Central and Eastern Europe (and indeed, closer to home)? The answer to this lies in the thought and principles, not of the last of the Eurasianists, but of the first – Prince Nikolai Sergeevich Trubetskoi. For various reasons, I think it particularly apposite that I am posting this on the evening of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year which is celebrated throughout much of Central Asia: for which again, with my whole heart and soul I wish my dear Georgian, Armenian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Azeri and Iranian friends and readers all a very happy, blessed and light-filled holiday. Наурыз құтты болсын! !نوروز مبارک

But: about Prince Trubetskoi. This younger Prince Trubetskoi was the son of Prince Sergei Nikolaevich Trubetskoi, one of the very close friends of Vladimir Solovyov, who made a similar turn in his thinking in his youth from positivism and atheism toward an Orthodox Christianity coloured by both German idealism (similarly to Khomyakov and Kireevsky) and a modernised Platonism (the same sort that would be espoused by George Grant and Simone Weil in the West). Solovyov and the elder Trubetskoi not only had much the same intellectual experience, but they also mutually influenced each other. Trubetskoi, however, for his part was drawn more to the Orthodox theological tradition than Solovyov was – whose own philosophical leanings brought him very close to Roman Catholicism. The elder Trubetskoi, however, shared one of his friend’s less-attractive traits, in his rank bigotry against East Asians. Trubetskoi unfortunately shared Solovyov’s wild-eyed terror of the barbarian Mongol hordes to the east, and viewed the rise of Japan with an undisguised apocalyptic horror and revulsion.

The elder Prince Trubetskoi’s life, however, was cut tragically short by a brain hæmorrhage in 1905, which in truth was also the same year that Old Russia died with New Russia having yet to be born. Sergei Trubetskoi left behind him a brother Evgenii, and a son Nikolai – both of whom were first-hand witnesses in Moscow to the revolutionary upheavals that took place in the following decade. Both of them, being both aristocrats and intellectuals of, in Bolshevik eyes, the wrong kind of leftist bent, were exiled from the Soviet Union. Evgenii died en route, of camp-fever.

Very early in his own exile, however, Nikolai Trubetskoi began to detect certain dialectical patterns that connected the professed liberal, cosmopolitan and ‘world-civilised’ ideas of his émigré compatriots to the brute blood-and-soil chauvinism of the Nazis on the other. He began to see within the liberal-cosmopolitan mindset a certain attitude that centred the concerns of Europe in world history; and that relegated the rest either to the forces of barbarous darkness to be overcome, or to the ‘raw material’ that must be moulded by the self-same ‘world-civilised’ ideas. The new ‘racialism’ kept all of the underlying assumptions of cosmopolitanism but emptied them of any pretense to altruistic ethical content. In short, Trubetskoi became an anti-racist and an anti-imperialist very early in his exile – and this provided the basis for his Eurasianism. It was as much against some of his own prior biases and those of his compatriots in exile, as against Western civilisation per se, that he wrote Europe and Mankind from the University of Saint Kliment in Sofia in 1920.

These convictions of his only deepened during his tenure in Prague, where he would spend the rest of his life. Many if not most of the intellectual émigré Russians landed in Paris: including Berdyaev, Bulgakov, Mother Maria and her circle. But Nikolai Trubetskoi managed to land, significantly enough, in the very heart of an accidentally-independent republic with a newfound intellectual craze for things Byzantine and a penchant for populist peasant politics. Prince Trubetskoi, an intellectual’s intellectual, could not help but be swayed by the general academic atmospheres of the two cities. He could not help but observe both the good and the bad – the liberated atmosphere of historical and cultural inquiry on the one hand; but on the other hand, the tensions between German, Slav, Magyar and Jew. In this atmosphere, one can certainly see the allure of particular readings of Nikolai Danilevsky and Oswald Spengler!

He also could not help but note the dual (and in his own view, hypocritical) attitude of his own cohort of fellow Russian émigrés in Prague. On the one hand, their attitude toward their ‘brother Slavs’ was everything sweet and amiable; however, there was a certain kind of superiority complex toward the Czechs amongst his fellow-intellectuals that repelled and incensed him. He also witnessed with great alarm the inroads that fascism, ‘scientific’ racism, anti-Semitism and Nazi ideology were making among the émigré community. The Nazis were particularly quick to exploit the Austrian ideology of ‘Ukrainianism’ to racialist ends and specifically to divide the Slavs, and this did not escape Trubetskoi’s notice either. In such a spirit, perhaps he cast a suspicious eye back on his own intellectual roots.

It was in Sofia where Trubetskoi first developed the Eurasianist tendency, but the idea really took off in Prague. It cannot be emphasised enough that Trubetskoi’s energies in developing Eurasianism as an idea were aimed directly against the racism he witnessed around him within the émigré community and in the Central European intellectual society in the main. Ironically enough, Trubetskoi’s opposition to the Eurocentrism (a term he himself coined, by the way) of the Russian exile community seems to have stemmed from his own father’s Christocentric, Incarnational theology. For him, taking seriously a fully-human Christ who is also fully God – a Christ who, being human, was also Middle Eastern and belonged to a specific civilisation, a specific gæography and a specific time – could not be squared with the gharbzadegi (an Iranian term he did not coin, but a concept which is still useful for understanding Trubetskoi’s turn of thought) of the exiles or of the European intelligentsia more broadly. Before Christ, any civilisational construct based on either a Eurocentric cosmopolis or a European race-nationalism could be nothing short of idolatrous, could do nothing but offer a false Christ. Underwriting his opposition to both the empty, abstract ‘ideocracies’ promised by both fascism and atheistic communism, and his adoption of a specifically-Christian socialist polity, was precisely this Orthodox Christology. It was his father’s Christology, in fact – Solovyov’s and Berdyaev’s personalist Christology – shorn of the nineteenth-century scientific racism and irrational paranoia of Asia that unfortunately cast a shadow over some of Solovyov’s thought.

For a certain portion of Trubetskoi’s intellectual life – between roughly 1929 and 1934 – he stopped writing about Eurasianism and distanced himself from the project. Perhaps he felt his Eurasianist colleagues (i.e. Savitsky, Vernadsky and Florovsky – the first and the last of whom had likewise come to Prague via Sofia) did not share his priorities. Instead, he directed his energies to the study of linguistics, which contributed significantly to the structuralist theories of the Prague linguistic circle. However, it was Savitsky who ultimately prevailed upon Trubetskoi to return to the Eurasian circle; and he did so with an article aimed squarely against Nazism which was entitled, fittingly, ‘On Racism’. He continued writing on anti-racist themes, which brought the wrath of the Nazis down upon him. The Nazis, having undertaken a campaign of intimidation in Austria in 1938, began harassing Trubetskoi on account of his writings, and he subsequently died of a heart attack.

I am going to be slightly controversial here, and propose that neither the more prominent of Trubetskoi’s followers nor his detractors fully understood this aspect of his work. In particular, Berdyaev and Bulgakov – who both saw themselves as following in Solovyov’s footsteps – seem to have trod directly into the trap of misunderstanding Trubetskoi, and twisting his writings into something of a caricature of their polar opposite. Trubetskoi was no worshipper of Xerxes; he chose Christ and only Christ, and left the movement when he believed it had failed to make that choice. Likewise, the later ‘friendly’ ideological interpreters of Trubetskoi – for example Lev Gumilyov – despite their admirable goodwill to various indigenous peoples of Asia, still do not quite seem to grasp the importance of Trubetskoi’s polemics aimed at swaying the émigré community as a whole.

Intriguingly, one Russian-Jewish scholar and indirect pupil of Trubetskoi who did seem to inherit much of his political leanings and penchant for internal critique of his own societal milieu, was Noam Chomsky, who belonged specifically to Trubetskoi’s structuralist school of linguistics, and who also ventured out of his linguistic circle into political commentary. Although Chomsky is much more of a political anarchist than Trubetskoi ever was (and I personally find that a problem, along with several other of Chomsky’s political choices), the same attitude of prophetic critique against material wealth and power on the civilisational scale, and the ideological structures that accompany them, pervade Trubetskoi’s writing. Even though some of Chomsky’s political priorities and calculations must be laid aside, it is precisely this prophetic language and mode of explication that Eurasianism must maintain. In the present miasma of ‘ideocracies’ rising around the globe – from Brasília to Washington and Kiev, and from New Delhi to Tôkyô – anything less would be tantamount to a surrender to a grim and godless nihilism. If Eurasianism played in its original key can conjure a Christian Chomsky, I would be overjoyed to see it. That is a wish for this Nowruz in which I hope my gentle readers can join me.

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