Troubetzkoy’s Children

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March 5, 2017 by AK

The sculptor Paolo Troubetzkoy was born in 1866 in Intra, by Lago Maggiore in the north of Italy, to Ada Winans, an American pianist and singer, and Petr (Pyotr) Petrovich Trubetskoy, a Russian diplomat of aristocratic lineage. Paolo grew up in Italy and spoke little Russian but lived and worked in Russia for almost ten years, 1897-1906, and created memorable sculptural portraits of various Russians. The best known, perhaps, is his equestrian statue of Alexander III, now standing near the Marble Palace by the Neva in St. Petersburg.

There are a fair number of first-rate sculptures by late 19th century masters in the Russian Museum: Antokolsky, Troubetzkoy, Golubkina, the early Konenkov. On my latest visit, last month, I stopped by Paolo Troubetzkoy’s 1900 sculpture, Children. It depicts, if I’m not mistaken, the master’s first cousins, once removed. That is, Nikolai and Vladimir, the sons of Paolo’s first cousin, prince Sergei N. Trubetskoy (1863-1905), who taught philosophy at the Moscow University and was elected chancellor months before his death in 1905.

Vladimir Trubetskoy (1892-1937) was a career soldier and an amateur musician. He stayed in Soviet Russia after the Civil War and for a while supported his family by writing fiction and light music. Having survived through the 1920s, he was exiled to Uzbekistan in 1934 and executed in 1937, the peak year of the purges. His daughter Varvara, born in 1917, was executed on the same day as her father. Her younger sister, Alexandra, died in a penal camp in 1943. Trubetskoy’s wife was arrested in 1943 and died in prison a month later. One of his sons served ten years in prisons and labor camps. See A Russian Prince in the Soviet State, a selection of writings by Vladimir S. Trubetskoy translated by Susanne Fusso.

Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890-1938), to quote the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics,

was a Russian émigré scholar who settled in Austria in 1922, serving as Head of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Vienna and participating in the Prague Linguistics Circle. Trubetzkoy wrote nearly 150 works on phonology, prosody, comparative linguistics, linguistic geography, folklore, literature, history, and political theory. His posthumously published Grundzüge der Phonologie (Principles of Phonology) is regarded as one of the key works in the science of phonology.

One can find Trubetzkoy’s portrait in the gallery of notables associated with the Institute of Slavic Studies at the University of Vienna. It begins with Siegmund von Herberstein, includes Josef Dobrovský, the founder of comparative Slavistics, and ends with Fürst Nikolaj von Trubeckoj, who headed the department in 1923-1938. The Oxford encyclopedia provides a helpful comment on the transliteration of the family name:

The surname Трубецкой is variously Romanized as Trubetzkoy, Trubetskoy, Trubetzkoi, Trubetskoi Troubetzkoy, Troubetskoy, Troubetzkoi, Troubetskoi, Trubet͡skoĭ, and Trubeckoj…

Three volumes of Trubetzkoy’s works have appeared in English under the auspices of Anatoly Liberman, including Studies in General Linguistics and Language Structure. This books were published, appropriately, in the Roman Jakobson Series in Linguistics and Poetics: Jakobson, six years Trubetzkoy’s junior, was his close friend and colleague in the 1920s and the 1930s, when they co-founded, together with other linguists, the so-called Prague School. Jakobson was based in Prague and Trubetzkoy in Vienna so the collaboration was largely through correspondence. Jakobson kept the letters received from Trubetzkoy and later published them. However, his own letters to Vienna disappeared.

They could have been seized during the Gestapo’s investigation into Trubetzkoy’s affairs after the Anschluss in 1938, which further weakened his chronically poor health. He died in Vienna seven month after his younger brother had been shot in Uzbekistan.

One reason for the Nazis’ suspicion of Trubetzkoy was probably his leading part in the so-called Eurasianism, although by the mid-1930s he had expressed growing disappointment in his earlier ideas. The Eurasianist circle became a target of Bolshevik infiltration and some of its members, like Pyotr Suvchinsky (Pierre Souvtchinsky), were leaning far leftwards. Trubetzkoy’s “Eurasian” theories deserve a separate post, but whatever their nuances, they precluded biological racism of the Nazi kind, as he made clear in his 1935 article On Racism. In the 1930s, Trubetzkoy witnessed disturbing polarization among the Russian émigrés: some of his fellow anti-Communists accepted Fascism and even, to a degree, Nazism, while some Eurasianists became increasingly tolerant of Bolshevism.


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