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A Wittgensteinian Reading

Increasingly I find myself in the position of the dissident in an old Soviet joke, protesting against the regime on a street corner by handing out leaflets. A passerby takes one, sees that it’s a blank sheet of paper, and asks why there are no words. “Who needs words?” counters the protester. “Isn’t it all obvious?”

While I tell you this wordless, almost Wittgensteinian joke, Russia’s Northern Fleet, one of the five of which the Russian navy is comprised, is on manoeuvres in the Arctic – 38,000 soldiers, 3360 heavy weapons, 41 ships, 15 submarines, and 110 warplanes are deployed in the exercise – while Lithuania announces plans for general military conscription in September in order to increase the size of its army by three thousand men. “We need to hold out for 72 hours,” explain the locals, “until NATO arrives.”

Latvia and Estonia share a border with Russia, while Lithuania is squeezed in between a Russian satrapy, Belorussia, and Russia’s mammoth military enclave of Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, Prussian citadel of the Teutonic Knights and birthplace of that most Western of philosophers, Immanuel Kant. All three are NATO members, and all three have Russian minority populations – as do England and France, of course, to say nothing of Poland, Romania or, for that matter, Turkey. Even Sicily, after all, has a Russian or two to warrant intervention.

On September 13 last year a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs grandee, Konstantin Dolgov – his actual title may be translated as “Ombudsman Plenipotentiary of Human Rights, Democracy, and Legality” – delivered a keynote speech in Riga to a “Conference of Russian Nationals of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.” As with the protester’s leaflet, it was all obvious without words to begin with, but what this man actually said – if I may be permitted to render the gist by means of a Dostoevskian trope – was that the tears of a single Russian child oppressed anywhere on earth justify swift military retaliation against his oppressors.

Mind you, “Russian,” in this new terminology of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, means “Russian-speaking.” But what is Russian-speaking? What, for that matter, is English-speaking or Italian-speaking? Who is to say that a Tunisian towel seller on the beach here in Sicily, with his cry of Vous compra, is not a speaker of the language of Petrarch? What bigot will argue that Snoop Dogg does not speak the English of Shakespeare, or at least that of Jerome K. Jerome? Is it not enough for a single individual on the Jurmala boardwalk to know the Russian for “Free me from the yoke of my Baltic slave masters, for I am sorrowful unto death” to trigger border military exercises resulting in the annexation of Latvia?

“It has to be stated with sadness that a huge number of our compatriots abroad, whole segments of the Russian world, continue to face serious problems in securing their rights and lawful interests,” said a saddened Dolgov. “One of the obvious and, perhaps, key reasons for this state of affairs is the unrelenting growth of xenophobic and neo-Nazi sentiments in the world.” According to a report on the “conference” in foreign-owned Moscow Times, “in what seemed to be a call for ethnically based discontent and allying with Moscow, Dolgov appealed to his ethnic Russian listeners to preserve their ‘true priorities and the strategic vision that unites us all.’”

So there we have it. “Nowadays it is the fashion to emphasize the horrors of the last war,” mused Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1936 to his friend Maurice Drury. “I didn't find it so horrible. There are just as horrible things happening all round us today, if only we had eyes to see them.” Wittgenstein and Navrozov, neo-Nazi sentimentalists to the last, eh, Mr. Dolgov??

Andrei Navrozov

Andrei Navrozov, born in Moscow, lives in Palermo and is European editor for Chronicles.  The former publisher of the Yale Lit, he is a widely published author and translator.  His Italian Carousel: Scenes of Internal Exile was published by Peter Owen Publishers.

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