Troubetzkoy’s Children


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.

Lucilla in Lipetsk


March 3, 2017 by AK

Good to hear about Russian entrepreneurs doing something cutting-edge and producing something immediately marketable:

Amid the satellites, virtual reality headsets, 3D printers and other hi-tech products on show at Skolkovo’s recent Startup Bazaar, the stand housing a cage of buzzing flies and jar of writhing maggots stood out. Also on the table were jars of dried and crushed maggots – and this, according to Novye Biotekhnologii, the company behind the stall, is the future of our food.

Not sure about our food (one of the owners adds larvae-sourced protein to his morning milkshake) but the medium-term objective is to substitute for some of the fish- and soy-derived protein in chicken and hog feed:

Some 14 per cent of the world’s ocean fish catch is fed to farm animals and growing demand for soya-based feed is driving deforestation and undermining staple food crop production in South America.

Plus, it’s got to be cheaper. Insects are rather good at converting their food – in the case of greenbottle flies, organic waste – into pure protein. The devil is in the details, as usual: it seems the owners have built all the equipment themselves, by trial and error. The larvae come from the good old greenbottle fly, Lucilia Caesar, and feed on dead chickens – there’s always some die-off even at the best-run farms. They can also feed on dung and droppings.

Skolkovo is merely providing an exhibition platform: there’s no mention of their role in financing the enterprise. The owners say they have invested about $850,000 in the project (500 million roubles), 70% contributed by the family and friends and 30% by banks and other investors. That should be enough to produce 120 tons per year of protein, which would be $200k in sales with a roughly 50% operating margin. Not bad – but the protein segment of the cattle feed market in Russia is at least 100,000 tons per year and growing. I’d consider investing if they went public.

Trump did not invent unprofessionalism


March 1, 2017 by AK

Australian children’s writer Mem Fox reports on getting mistreated by an American immigration officer at the Los Angeles international airport:

When I was called to be interviewed I was rereading a novel from 40 years ago – thank God I had a novel. It was The Red and the Black by Stendhal… I was buried in it and didn’t hear my name called. And a woman in front of me said: “They are calling for Fox.” I didn’t know which booth to go to, then suddenly there was a man in front of me, heaving with weaponry, standing with his legs apart yelling: “No, not there, here!” I apologised politely and said I’d been buried in my book and he said: “What do you expect me to do, stand here while you finish it?” – very loudly and with shocking insolence.

The officer’s behavior was disgusting, typical of a petty soul invested with too much authority over fellow human beings. (Some specialize in yelling at polite old ladies.) Trump’s election may have disinhibited the man: if Trump is president, everything is permitted, as long as the receivers are all docile non-citizens.

However, I rather doubt the officer was hired under Trump. Since he is in his mid-30s, chances are he joined the force on Obama’s watch. In the comments section, people write of having experienced similar treatment years before Trump. These episodes are symptoms of chronic unprofessionalism. It doesn’t look like Trump is going to try and fix it but it didn’t break out last November or January.

Irrelevant does not mean wrong


February 28, 2017 by AK

A statement that is correct on its face can be irrelevant and – if wrongly presumed to be relevant – misleading. It won’t become “mostly wrong” in itself, no matter how misused.

President Trump tweeted on Feb. 25:

The media has not reported that the National Debt in my first month went down by $12 billion vs a $200 billion increase in Obama first mo.

If the national debt did what Trump said it had done, and if the media had not reported it by the time of Trump’s tweet, the statement above must be correct. (It can be logically correct even if the subordinate clause is not, as in “the media is not reporting the Earth is flat.”) Politifact agrees with the former, does not discuss the latter, but calls the tweet “mostly wrong” nonetheless. Why?

Certainly the most natural interpretation of the tweet is (a) the decrease in the national debt means something, probably something good; and (b) Trump deserves some credit for it. There’s no arguing with Politifact that (a) is wrong. To begin with, I would be looking at net debt, that is, total debt less the cash balance. Taking Politifact’s numbers for granted, it follows that the net national debt actually went up by $117 bln from the inauguration day to Feb. 22. As for (b), well, whatever.

Which still does not make the original tweet “mostly wrong,” merely pointless.

“Far right news sites entirely in Cyrillic script”


February 27, 2017 by AK

About two weeks ago, Mark Townsend wrote in The Guardian:

Another Briton said to have had an influential intervention in the US elections is 52-year-old Jim Dowson, a Scottish Calvinist who founded the far right, anti-Muslim party Britain First. Dowson, from a hub in Hungary, set up a network of US-focused websites and Facebook groups with the intention of promoting Trump and denigrating his rival during the US election.

It’s all somewhat hard to believe – a Scot intervening in a US election out of Hungary – but it’s also impossible to rule out. Why Hungary, though – for its Calvinism or its Orbanism?

A recent Dowson alliance involves Aleksandr Dugin, a facist with alleged links to the Kremlin and who is understood to be helping Dowson construct a new office in the Serb capital Belgrade that will promote far right news sites entirely in Cyrillic script.

It pleases me to see “alleged links to the Kremlin” rather than designations of Dugin as Putin’s spiritual guru and geopolitical brain. The rest is unintentionally amusing. “Fascist” misspelled as “facist” suggests, by accident of course, that Dugin is almost there but not quite: the F-word has to be shortened to apply. The “Cyrillic script” could be a trope for the languages using it, such as Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian. I suspect it was meant to be taken literally, akin to “far left news sites entirely in Latin script.”

The funny passages aside, the story of Dowson’s networking could be mostly true. Is there a way to gauge his impact on the American presidential election? What if it gets reliably measured one day and is found to be negligible?

Who should have the last word?


February 26, 2017 by AK

The Economist‘s Erasmus wrote last Sunday about the “row” concerning Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg:

After the Bolshevik revolution a century ago, [the building] became a museum, dedicated at various times to science, atheism or simply its own history. Services have been held there since the fall of communism, but it continued to be administered as a secular tourist attraction.

However last month, the regional governor announced a dramatic change: the control of the building would be transferred to the church for at least 49 years, although the city would retain the title deeds…

The announcement triggered a civic furore…

I wish some of the opponents of this move would argue along the following lines. St. Isaac’s is a national treasure even if, due to an accident of post-Soviet history, it has come to be owned by the city of St. Petersburg. The city’s mayor should not be able to transfer away buildings of such enormous value and significance without the consent of his constituents or the whole nation. (The incumbent mayor of St. Petersburg, officially styled governor, has not been elected by popular vote, in contrast to his Moscow counterpart.) It’s unimaginable that the mayor of Moscow could have similar authority over St. Basil’s or any of the Kremlin cathedrals.

As for legal arguments against this long-term lease, it appears that a bill enacted in 2010 allows regional governors to transfer buildings to religious organizations if these buildings were originally intended for religious use. The bill also covers the case of “monuments of culture,” allowing for them to be handed over with special conditions. One could argue that St Isaac’s was built by a caesaropapist regime for purposes well beyond Christian worship, but that would be a thorny route to take.

Zhukovsky’s note from February 1821


February 22, 2017 by AK

I’ve come across an English translation of Zhukovsky’s comment on his 1821 poem, Lalla Rookh – not a Russian version of Thomas Moore’s long work but a lyrical essay on beauty and imagination. The brief prose note complements the poem.

The book is Russian Romantic Criticism: An Anthology compiled by Lauren G. Leighton, who taught Russian literature at University of Illinois at Chicago in 1978-1997. The translation is by J. Thomas Shaw of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “the doyen of Pushkin studies in North America for half a century.”

Zhukovsky first wrote down the comment on his own Lalla Rookh in his diary (pdf, heavy) on February 16, 1821 (p. 156. The dates are given as X(Y), where Y=X+12: X is Julian, Y is Gregorian.)  Three weeks earlier, on January 27, he wrote: “An incomparable feast.” No doubt it was this Festspiel mit Gesang und Tanz.

Apart from Zhukovsky’s poetry and observations, the diary is remarkable for its cast of characters. “I was supposed to dine at Hufeland‘s but ended up at the King’s.”

Executed for treason? Not in the US.


February 21, 2017 by AK

Reviewing The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound by Daniel Swift, Robert Crawford claims that “Pound was lucky not to be executed as a traitor.” In theory, the death penalty was applicable but in practice, how many people have been executed for treason in the US? Not espionage, sabotage or sedition but treason? Zero, I think.

On the other hand, a decade in a federal prison could not be ruled out. Was the psychiatric ward preferable before the experience? Pound’s doctors at St. Elizabeth’s were good to him, but such treatment was by no means guaranteed at any time. All in all, this was an acceptable fix for all the parties involved. Whether Pound was insane or not, he would have appeared unhinged at his trial, embarrassing the prosecutors.

Adam Shatz’s violent fantasies


February 18, 2017 by AK

Adam Shatz, a contributing editor at The London Review of Books, writes on his blog:

Many, perhaps most of us who live in coastal cities have found ourselves having criminal thoughts and violent fantasies since 9 November. Some involve Trump and Steve Bannon… still others involve the fabled white working class that is supposed to have voted for Trump… which most of us have found it easier to hate than persuade…

He can only be removed before the end of his term by impeachment or death, natural or otherwise. That many are fantasising about the last of these is hardly surprising…

People living under tyranny often dream that their leaders will come to a violent end… Still, it’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era…

Yes, that’s notable – although “notable” is quite an understatement here. Shatz proceeds to draw a parallel to the Palestinian cause, unbelievably. A Palestinian might claim: “They took my ancestral home; they took my land; they turned my people into second-class citizens”: if substantiated, the grievances would be profound. Shatz and the “we” of his blog post cannot even claim to have suffered at the hands of Trump’s regime. Trump has not and could not have harmed them: their pain is the work of their imagination.

To Shatz’s credit, he admits:

These thoughts are, in a way, a tribute to the power Trump has over our imagination.

But unlike the Palestinian conundrum, the author’s problem can be solved by freeing his captive imagination.

The gifts of liberty?


February 15, 2017 by AK

Alexander Pushkin wrote this poem in November 1823, shortly after news of Rafael del Riego’s execution reached Odessa. It was first published in Russia in 1866, almost 30 years after Puskin’s death. The translation below is by Nabokov: I copied it from his notes on Eugene Onegin.

Of freedom solitary sower,
early I went, before the star.
With a hand pure and guiltless
into the enslaved furrows
I cast the vivifying seed;
but all I did was lose my time,
well-meaning thoughts and labors.

Graze, placid peoples!
What are to herds the gifts of liberty?
They have to be slaughtered or shorn.
Their heirdom is from race to race
a yoke with jinglers and the whip.

As usual with Pushkin, the poem is more complex than in seems at first glance or in translation. It has an epigraph from the parable of the sower in the Gospels. It is not a straight quotation from the Old Church Slavonic (OCS) text of any of the three Synoptic Gospels but a synthetic OCS sentence with a similar meaning. In plain English, it would be almost identical to Luke 8:5 in the King James version:”A sower went out to sow his seeds.”

The first line ends with the adjective пустынный, which Nabokov translates as “solitary” in my edition and as “eremitic” in another. It is related to the noun пустыня, meaning “desert” but also “wilderness.” Their common root, пуст-, suggests emptiness or void. Wilderness, empty of human habitation, has been the destination of eremitic monks since the third century A. D. Deserts, caves, mountains. In the north and northeast of old Russia, woods.

Vasmer draws a parallel between the Slavonic precursor of пустыня and ἐρημία. However, пустынный is more commonly used to describe natural scenery than humans: it appears again in the first line of The Bronze Horseman (1833) as a modifier to “waves” and is commonly translated as “desolate.”

I’m not sure why Nabokov put “went” for вышел since “went out” or “went forth” would be more in line with the Russian verb, the KJV texts of Luke, Mark and Matthew, and the OCS изыде in the epigraph. The Russian term свобода gets rendered as “freedom” first and “liberty” second – I can try and guess why but can never be certain. I would also use the somewhat old-fashioned “ought to” instead of “have to” and avoided the awkward “their heirdom” by substituting “inheritance.”

T. J. Binyon finds, in his biography of Pushkin, that the poem expresses a newfound cynicism. I only see disillusionment and bitterness. The young Pushkin had a reputation as the author of dangerously Voltairean poems. His readers, mostly land- and serf-owning gentlemen, were still hoping for a transformation of Russia’s autarchy into constitutional monarchy. However, during the early 1820s, Alexander I evolved from the enlightened (potential) reformer of the 1810s into something entirely different, a kind of Metternich on the Neva. Pushkin was exiled to Kishinev, then to Odessa and finally confined to his ancestral manor in the Pskov governorate.

Obviously, it’s a very superficial account: Pushkin’s disappointment cannot be described in terms of mere politics or sociology.


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