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The failed lingua franca of Eastern Europe?

The Russian language may have failed as an imperial project of becoming a lingua franca in Eastern Europe, but many brilliant minds of the region are inextricably linked to the language. Today, Russian is increasingly seen as a tool of political domination over the former republics of the Soviet Union.

May 5, 2014 - Leonidas Donskis - Articles and Commentary

Miniature Volume of Pasternaks Doctor Zhivago - Flickr - The Central Intelligence Agency

This essay is from issue 2/2014 New Eastern Europe: 

Jokes are not terribly kind to the Russian language and its political reputation. One of them, for instance, deals with anticipations of the emergence of a new global lingua franca as the outcome of the rise of the economic and political power of a respective nation. It holds that while an optimist is still inclined to proceed with English and polishing all forms of its use for business and leisure, a pessimist works hard on his or her Russian. A realist, however, chooses neither. Instead, he or she opts for Mandarin Chinese. Curiously enough, the worst-case scenario comes straight out of the imagination of the Cold War era without giving much consideration as to whether the world, dominated by the Chinese or any other non-Western power emerging after a successful authoritarian modernisation, would be any better off and happier.

Another joke immortalised by the humourist and author Leo Rosten appears even harsher towards the Russian language. Having observed an old Jew sitting on a bench and studying, a KGB officer approaches him and asks what he is studying in such a painstaking fashion. “Hebrew,” the old man answers. “And why do you need it?” smiles the KGB guy. “You will not go to Israel without special permission, won’t you? Additionally, you are much too old to need a new language.” “That’s the whole point,” sighs the old Jew. “When I die, suppose I will go straight to Heaven and then I will badly need Hebrew.” “Yes, but what if you go straight to Hell?” asks the nosy KGB officer. “No problem,” smiles the Jew, “I already speak Russian fluently.”

Vasily Sesemann: a Baltic philosopher

For Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, whose histories and cultures had long been tied to Russia, the Russian language does not appear as something that we can paint in black and white. Imperial languages do have their centres of gravity, as Lithuanian poet and dissident Tomas Venclova once noted. In the Baltic states, some of the most eminent thinkers and world-class scholars were native speakers of Russian. Along with Poles in Lithuania and Baltic Germans in Latvia and Estonia, without whose influences and works it would be impossible to understand the role and place of the Baltic region in the world, Russian speakers make up an entire trajectory of culture in the Baltics. Riga alone was the birthplace of such great Russian speakers of the world as Isaiah Berlin, Sergei Eisenstein, Arkady Raikin and Mikhail Baryshnikov, just to name a few.

One great Baltic Russian speaker, Vasily Sesemann (Vosylius Sezemanas in Lithuanian), unquestionably merits honourable mention. Born in Vyborg (Viipuri in Finnish) in the former centre of Karelia, Wilhelm Sesemann (1884–1963) was the son of a Finnish-Swedish father and a Russian-German mother. This family also gave us Henry Parland (1908–1930), a talented Finnish poet who wrote in Swedish and was Wilhelm Sesemann’s nephew. Until his premature death, Parland lived for some time in Kaunas and often met with his uncle, who was already a professor at Vytautas Magnus University. Well before that, Sesemann had spent many years in Saint Petersburg (or Petrograd, as it was then called) where he was deeply affected by Russian culture and became Vasily Sesemann. While studying philosophy in Saint Petersburg and Marburg, Sesemann continued his friendship with his secondary school classmate Nikolai Hartmann, a great Baltic German born in Riga who later became a famous German philosopher. Influenced by the neo-Kantians and phenomenologists, Sesemann also remained close to Russian philosophy and its theoretical orientations.

In 1923, he was invited as a professor to the newly established University of Lithuania, which became Vytautas Magnus University in 1930. In Lithuania, Vasily Sesemann became Vosylius Sezemanas, quickly learned the Lithuanian language and actively joined Lithuanian academic and intellectual life. He was undoubtedly the most authoritative and internationally recognised philosopher in Lithuania during that period. His works in logic, epistemology and aesthetics became classics of modern Lithuanian philosophy. Sesemann’s Aesthetics, first published in 1970 after having been miraculously preserved in a village barn during the post-war Stalinist repressions, earned him the reputation of being Lithuania’s most renowned academic philosopher.

Despite his many-layered identity and affinity to Russian culture, Sesemann did not avoid the fate of many Lithuanian intellectuals. After the Soviet Union occupied and annexed Lithuania in 1940 and then again in 1944, Vytautas Magnus University ceased to exist and part of it – not only the library, but the staff as well – was transferred to Vilnius. Teaching at Vilnius University after the war, Sesemann soon fell into official disfavour for his connections to Russian émigré circles and keeping “subversive literature” in his house. In 1950, he was sentenced to 15 years in a camp in Taishet (Irkutsk). In 1956, he was released by the Khrushchev regime, and two years later he was again allowed to teach at Vilnius University.

Vasily Sesemann is a Baltic philosopher. This description fits him better than the long, cumbersome “Finnish-Russian-German-Lithuanian philosopher.” A builder of intellectual bridges, Sesemann joined German and Russian currents of thought with a sensitive attention to Lithuanian culture and a universal philosophical approach. Thus, he was an innovative theoretician close to the Russian formalists in aesthetics and theory of literature, one who enriched the study of culture, but who also, as the Finnish semiotician Eero Tarasti claims, was on the threshold of discovering the science of semiotics. He may in fact be regarded as one of the fathers of semiotics. Eero Tarasti’s teacher in Paris, the eminent French semiotician of Lithuanian background Algirdas-Julien (Julius) Greimas, had a high opinion of Sesemann and his Aesthetics as well.

Traces of Russian culture and Eurasianism in Lithuania

An examination of several interwar Lithuanian philosophical texts reveals just how strongly Lithuanian philosophy was affected by 19th and 20th century Russian philosophy. Key Lithuanian intellectuals wrote their doctoral dissertations on the prominent Russian religious thinker and social philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. During that period, in addition to Vladimir Solovyov, other Russian thinkers and writers, especially Nikolai Berdyaev and the Russian nihilists, influenced many Lithuanian academics and intellectuals. Roughly speaking, the philosophical vision of Lithuania as a bridge between the civilisations of the East and West put forward in pre-war Lithuania is nothing but another term for the specifically Russian notion of Eurasia, though this concept is usually reserved exclusively for Russia and its historic mission. Stasys Šalkauskis, a Lithuanian philosopher and a devout reader and follower of Solovyov, wrote Sur les confins de deux mondes (In the Confines of Two Worlds, 1919, Switzerland) in French where he described Lithuania as a bridge between the civilisations of East and West. Šalkauskis’s concept of a synthesis of civilisations is merely a Lithuanian variation on a classic theme in Russian philosophy.

“Eurasianism,” both as a philosophical tendency and model of cultural identity, was a central concept in Lev Karsavin’s work and writing. Karsavin spent several decades lecturing in Lithuania and fundamentally influenced the development of Lithuanian philosophy of culture and cultural history. In 1928, he was offered a professorship at the then newly-founded University of Lithuania in Kaunas, where he had arrived from Paris. Like his close friend Vasily Sesemann, Karsavin deeply believed in Eurasianism both as a philosophical reference point and as a concept of uniquely Russian spirituality that is impossible to explain by putting Russia into Western cultural categories or squeezing it into the world of Oriental civilisational trajectories.

An eminent Russian religious thinker and an erudite cultural historian, Karsavin (1882–1952) soon became a fluent speaker of Lithuanian and established his reputation as one of the most brilliant lecturers at the University of Lithuania. His five-volume magnum opus, Europos kultūros istorija (The Cultural History of Europe, 1931–1937), written in Lithuanian and published in interwar Lithuania, is a work of European significance and has yet to be surpassed among Lithuanian contributions of this type. When the Soviet Union repeatedly occupied Lithuania after the Second World War, Karsavin was exiled to the Komi ASSR, where he died in 1952. A man with several planes of identity and also of multidimensional spiritual and moral existence, Karsavin converted to Roman Catholicism.

Lithuania symbolically reciprocated with Jurgis Baltrušaitis (1873–1944), a Lithuanian Symbolist poet and diplomat who wrote in Lithuanian and Russian, and who was to be included in the gallery of noted Russian poets. He is mentioned among other great Russian poets and writers whose names start with “B”: Alexander Blok, Andrei Bely, Valery Bryusov and Konstantin Balmont.

Juri Lotman and Estonia

In the late 1960s, an interest in semiotics and literary theory drove Tomas Venclova to Tartu where he attended Juri Lotman’s seminar in semiotics and structural poetics. From 1966 to 1971, Venclova studied semiotics and Russian literature in Tartu University’s doctoral programme. Lotman was a world-class semiotician and literary theorist who after the antisemitic cleansing in what was then called Leningrad (today’s Saint Petersburg) was offered a professorship in Estonia. He attracted many writers and literary scholars from political dissident circles that resisted Marxist-Leninist ideology and sought an alternative to dialectical and historical materialism as the compulsory methodology for the humanities and social sciences. Unable to gain a position in Leningrad, Juri Lotman succeeded in this respect at Tartu University in 1950, where he created the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School. The first structuralist in the former Soviet Union, he became the famous pioneer of structural semiotics and a new type of literary and cultural theory. Members of the Tartu-Moscow school included such illustrious scholars as Boris Uspensky, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Vladimir Toporov, Mikhail Gasparov and Alexander Piatigorsky.

Needless to say, in those times choosing such disciplines as semiotics and structural poetics was in and of itself an overt and significant expression of dissent. Lotman, by the way, was not the only one who found a place at Tartu University after the antisemitic purges. The same fate befell the Leningrad philosopher and well-known aesthetician Leonid Stolovich. In this way, Estonia became one of the global centres for structural semiotics and literary theory. Juri Lotman’s work and tradition are carried on in Estonia today by his son, Tallinn University Professor Mikhail Lotman.

Language of Courage and Dissent

Adam Michnik, who cleverly depicts himself as an anti-communist Russophile (the vast majority of Eastern and Central European intellectuals would share this view, as they could best be described as political Russophobes and cultural Russophiles), once confessed to me that he had long been a decent Polish patriot in the sense of disdain for the Russian language. Yet the critical moment came, according to Michnik, when he started reading Russian dissidents and found himself a brother-in-arms with Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner, Vladimir Bukovsky, Sergei Kovalev and all other great Soviet dissenters and human rights defenders. I remember how Michnik once described Russian as the language of courage and dissent. He strongly refused to confine Russian to political oppression, censorship and Russification, a move that did not seem particularly common and widespread in Eastern and Central Europe.

However, a great European speaking Russian is far from something unique. Fluent Russian speakers among the greatest European thinkers include Emmanuel Lévinas, Isaiah Berlin, Czesław Miłosz and Zygmunt Bauman. Russian circulated and lived its own unique life among the most eminent European Jews as well: Marc Chagall, Chaïm Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz and all other Parisian painters of Litvak origin spoke Yiddish and Russian. Paul Celan, who was born in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, and may well be described to have had several planes of identity, became one of the greatest Austrian poets. Celan, who read Ukrainian and Russian, admired Ossip Mandelstam’s poetry and translated some of his poems from Russian into German. There are ample grounds to believe that Martin Buber, who spent his early years in Lviv, spoke and read Ukrainian and Russian as well.

Far from Leo Rosten’s joke, Russian does not appear to have been a strong candidate short-listed for the competition of the best linguistic option in hell, but, instead, a true lingua franca of Eastern Europe due to its poetic and overall literary credentials, not to mention the depth and breadth of modern Russian culture comparable in terms of modern intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities only to fin-de-siècle Viennese cultural life.

Therefore, the Russian language seems to have had a parallel existence on its own in Europe, the existence that may have had nothing in common with Russian as a language of communism as a Secular Church. As conventional wisdom holds, since Moscow established itself in the 20th century as the Jerusalem of the World Proletariat, Russian became for communism what Arabic was and continues to be for Islam, Hebrew for Judaism or Greek and Latin for Christianity – the language of scripture. In fact, even on a closer look at such phenomena as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in painting (Rivera’s works containing some references in Russian as well as details linked to the Russian language), it may be suggested that Russian for pious European and Latin American communists was a holy language, a medium and a message at one and the same time.

On a personal note, I subscribe to Adam Michnik’s point of view. It is difficult to expect average Europeans to restore the status and prestige of Russian only out of their reverence for Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Mikhail Bulgakov or Vladimir Nabokov. Yet the Russian language is deeply revered and engraved in the political memory and sensitivity of those who do understand and value the role of Russian dissidents and human rights defenders in the EU and its value system.

Great Europeans in Russian culture

Pyotr Chaadaev, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vladimir Nabokov, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitry Shostakovich and Joseph Brodsky all appear to have been great Europeans in Russian culture. I will never forget how the noted American scholar George L. Kline, a towering figure in the area of Russian philosophy studies, greeted me in an academic seminar at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania when he understood that I was from Lithuania: “The Lithuanian Divertissement.” That was the title of Joseph Brodsky’s poem, a token of Brodsky’s friendship with Tomas Venclova and his affectionate love for Vilnius and Lithuania. Kline said it in his elegantly fluent Russian.

Great Russian humanists and writers had their intriguing stories in the United States during the Cold War. Some disciples of Mikhail Bakhtin, Yuri Lotman and Sergei Averintsev – major world humanists of Russian origin – got jobs in the United States. Yet make no mistake: during the Cold War era the Soviet Union, i.e. Russia, was an archenemy whose cultural codes and nuances of history and identity had to be studied. In fact, much of the West’s infatuation with Islamic studies nowadays stems from a similar, if not identical, impulse.

Russia was full of men and women of ideas fluent in several languages, translating William Shakespeare, François Villon and William Blake, and who were second to none in the world (among them are Boris Pasternak, Ilya Ehrenburg and Samuil Marshak). Yet these people were perceived as lesser Europeans or, at best, as “poor cousins” of Europeans. This applies to all Eastern European intellectuals and scholars, especially humanists. Becoming a hostage of your country’s politics or economic performance is a curse of modernity due to the fact that predominant historical-political narratives and interpretations that sell well come from the West. If you are not a product of the Western educational system and, if your views have not been moulded in Western institutions of higher education, you will have to find a specific niche not to challenge or otherwise put into question the narratives that reflect the existing distribution of power and prestige. Great Russian speakers and all other eminent Eastern Europeans know this sad truth better than anyone else.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia: The evil of banality

Whereas the former Soviet Union that captivated much of Europe and Latin America with its ideological charms and powers of deception and seduction seems to have been a Shakespearean tragedy, present-day Russia appears as a farce. It is a mafia state and a banal kleptocracy rather than a former Jerusalem of the Proletariat or the proud heir of the Enlightenment project. The former Soviet Union was able to fool millions of ambitious and dissenting minds, while Vladimir Putin’s Russia is capable of attracting and corrupting only a European political Russophile of Gerhard Schröder’s type or casting the spell on the far right – the new useful idiots of the Kremlin now appear to be the xenophobes, racists, antisemites and homophobes of Europe, such as Marine Le Pen and her ilk, instead of the folks of Lion Feuchtwanger or Jean-Paul Sartre’s cut.

All of these reflect the role of the Russian language. After the policy of intense Russification practiced in Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union stood much closer to the goal of the Sovietisation of local elites and societies than to the objective of linguistic and cultural Russification. On the contrary, highbrow Russian culture – especially classical and modern literature, academic music, and independent film and theatre directors – has always been an ally to the non-conformist parts of the local elites and Soviet republics in their intellectual and cultural resistance to the Soviet propaganda and ideological indoctrination. The Russian language offered writers and scholars a far wider readership and a broader space for self-fulfilment.

In Putin’s Russia, the Russian language is increasingly seen as a tool of political domination over the former republics of the Soviet Union. Subsidising Russian-language radio and television channels in what the Kremlin perceives as the “near abroad” and their influence zone as well as fuelling antidemocratic debates and anti-EU sentiment there does a disservice to Russia and its immortal culture in terms of promoting the Russian linguistic and cultural presence in the world. The Russian language could have become a lingua franca of Eastern Europe. It failed irreversibly precisely because Putin and his regime stripped the political vocabulary of Russia of its potent moral imagination and alternative potential. What is left is not even the banality of evil practiced by the Kremlin with no impunity and in the moral and political void created by the West and its impotence – the West that attempts to reset relations with a regime hostile to every single political and moral sensitivity of the EU and the US. Instead, it is the evil of banality whose essence lies in exercising power for no meaningful reason and with no love for humanity.

And this sounds like funeral music for the role the Russian linguistic and cultural presence in the world played in the 20th century.

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Leonidas Donskis (1962-2016) was a member of the Editorial Board of New Eastern Europe. He was a philosopher, writer, political theorist, commentator and historian of ideas and member of the European Parliament for Lithuania (2009–2014).


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