Trubetskoi, Nikolai Sergeevich (1890–1938)

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A Russian linguist, ethnologist, and student of culture, Nicolai Trubetskoi was one of the founders of Eurasianism. His father, Sergei Trubetskoi, was a well-known philosopher and the first elected rector of Moscow University. Although a descendant of an old aristocratic family, he played an outstanding role in the democratization of Russian life. Unfortunately, his life was cut short: He died less than a month after his election at the age of forty-three; the same fatal ailment (heart disease) killed his son, who lived to be only forty-eight.

It is hard to determine to what extent Trubetskoi's family was responsible for his future scholarly and political views, but certain influences are apparent. He grew up in a devout Orthodox family and owed a great deal to his religious upbringing. The history and meaning of Christianity interested both father and son. The same holds for the relations between Christianity and other religions. The least one can say about Trubetskoi's worldview is that it was formed in a highly cultured religious family with a strong interest in Russia's history and destiny.

In 1905, when Trubetskoi was fifteen years old, he published his first article, but his scholarly interests date back to 1903. He was a typical child prodigy and in this respect he continued the tradition of his incredibly gifted family. Trubetskoi's article was published in the prestigious Etnograficheskoe obozrenie (Ethnographic review). It treats the Finnish song "Kulto neito" in light of the theory of survivals. His contributions to the same journal appeared regularly until World War I.

Like many of his peers, Trubetskoi did not go to school: His teachers were private tutors. In 1908 he entered Moscow University and declared his major in the philosophical-psychological department. Disappointed with its curriculum, after two semesters he transferred to the Department of Linguistics but never lost interest in philosophy. His indebtedness to Georg Hegel is unmistakable, and in matters of history he was an extreme determinist. However, his Orthodoxy can explain his teleological position as well as his affinity with Hegel. As a prospective philologist Trubetskoi studied old languages and the comparative method. He also continued his studies of non-Indo-European languages and folklore (especially Finno-Ugric and Caucasian).

In 1913 Trubetskoi graduated with a work on the expression of the future in Indo-European and stayed at the university to prepare for advanced exams and eventually to join the faculty. He spent the next year in Leipzig, where he heard the lectures of the greatest comparative scholars of that time. On his return to Moscow, he married Vera Petrovna Bazilevskaia (18921965). In 1915 he passed his master's exams and in 1916 received the rank of adjunct professor. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution found him in the Caucasus, and he never saw Moscow again. He migrated south with the White Army and eventually came to Constantinople. There he received an offer from Sofia University and spent two years as a docent in Bulgaria. In Sofia in 1920, Trubetskoi published his book Rossiia i chelovechestvo (Russia and mankind), which inaugurated Eurasianism, a trend that later enjoyed great popularity among the Russian émigrés between two world wars.

The main idea of Eurasianism is that Russia belongs to the East rather than to the West and has little to do with "the Romano-Germanic" world. Trubetskoi's diatribe against the West is oddly at variance with his upbringing, for he was a classic product of European culture, but it accords well with his lifelong interest in non-Indo-European languages and oral tradition and his glorification of the morals of nomadic peoples. It therefore comes as no surprise that his next book bears the title (in translation) The Legacy of Genghis Khan: A Perspective on Russian History Not from the West but from the East (1925). Trubetskoi's attack on European ethnocentricity found many supporters and many opponents among his contemporaries, but after World War II his theories merged with those of the anticolonial movement, which explains a renewed interest in them. His Eurasianist works and the trend he initiated have been studied extensively in many countries, and the foundational texts have been translated into several "Romano-Germanic" languages. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were also published in Russia.

Trubetskoi's position in Bulgaria was precarious, but an offer from Vienna University to become a professor of Slavic secured his future, and in the autumn of 1922 the most productive period of Trubetskoi's life began. In Vienna he taught all the Slavic languages and literatures, and his lectures, published posthumously, provide a good idea of his activities. Eurasianism too remained at the center of his interests. However innovative his ideas on Russian history and its future and however original his contributions to the study of Russian literature, especially medieval, may be, it is his linguistic work that made him world famous. Trubetzkoi is the founder of a branch of linguistics known as phonology. His main ally in that endeavor was Roman Jakobson, another expatriate from Moscow, who lived in Czechoslovakia. He and Trubetskoi became the main inspiration of a group of linguists known as the Prague Circle.

The focus of phonology is not on the production of the sounds of speech but on their ability to distinguish meaning, form oppositions, and change as elements of a system and a self-regulating code. Sounds viewed from this perspective are called phonemes. Phonology (that is, functional phonetics) served as the basis of what came to be known as structuralism. The conceptual apparatus of phonology was later extended to the other areas of linguistics, mythology, folklore, literary studies, anthropology, psychology, and even geography, with varying success. Although the Prague version of structuralism is not the only one, it is arguably the most influential. Trubetskoi developed his ideas in numerous publications, but his main book appeared posthumously.

On March 13, 1938, German troops occupied Austria. All his life Trubetskoi suffered from various illnesses; the spring of 1938 was an especially hard period for him. The Gestapo subjected him to a long interrogation, and his papers were impounded. The search and the interrogation had a devastating effect on Trubetskoi. Dangerous symptoms developed in his lungs, and on June 25 he died.

See also Eurasianism; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Phonology; Trubetskoi, Sergei Nikolaevich.


works by nikolai trubetskoi

Principles of Phonology. Translated by Christiane A. M. Baltaxe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Originally published as Grundzüge der Phonologie (Travaux du cercle linguistique de Prague 7. Prague: Cercle linguistique de Copenhague et Ministè, publ. de la Rèpublique Tcéco-Slovaque, 1939). The book contains a bibliography of Trubetskoi's works through 1968.

Theory and History of Literature. Vol. 72: Writings on Literature, edited, translated, and introduced by Anatoly Liberman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990. Includes, among others, Trubetzkoy's lectures on Dostoevsky.

works about nikolai trubetskoi

Liberman, Anatoly, ed. The Legacy of Genghis Khan and Other Essays on Russia's Identity. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1991. Liberman's postscript contains a detailed biography of Trubetzkoy and an analysis of his Eurasianist works.

Liberman, Anatoly, ed. Studies in General Linguistics and Language Structure. Translated by Marvin Taylor and Anatoly Liberman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.

Nos. 24 contain numerous references to the literature on Trubetzkoi.

Anatoly Liberman (2005)