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Brian P. BennettMarch 20, 2020

Russia has been much in the news these past few years—and not in a good way. The takeover of Crimea, the military intervention in Syria and especially the skullduggery during the 2016 U.S. presidential election suggest to some that we are in a new Cold War against an aggressive adversary and disruptor of democracies. A Time magazine cover depicted the White House being overtaken by an amalgam of the Kremlin and the Candy Land cupolas of St. Basil’s cathedral—a kind of red menace redux. Gallup and the Pew Research Center report increasingly negative attitudes in the United States and much of Europe toward Russia. At the same time, just as “fellow travelers” in the West tended to idealize life under Soviet Communism, some Western conservatives now turn to Putin’s Russia as a lodestar of traditional values.

The Rev. John Meyendorff, the eminent Orthodox scholar, once observed that Russia, more than any other European nation, is “treated in the light of generalized theories.” Indeed, that country has often been assessed—by foreigners and natives alike—in simplistic and binary terms: Eastern as opposed to Western, Orthodox instead of Catholic, despotic not democratic, and so on. There is a long tradition of this type of discourse in the West, from pre-modern travelogues to popular television shows. Everyone knows, for instance, that the ruthless Klingons on “Star Trek” represented Russian Commies. Some years ago, Richard Hellie, a well-known history professor at the University of Chicago, suggested that pre-modern Russia was a “right-brained” civilization—artistic, creative, but prone to fantasy—unlike the “left-brained” West, which was soberly logical.

Russians have generated their own tropes and stereotypes about non-Russians. The term nemtsy, for instance—meaning “dumb ones”—was the traditional Russian designation for Germans or Protestants. Like the Greek barbaros, the expression implies linguistic and cultural oafishness. Ivan Kireyevsky’s 19th-century treatise “On the Nature of European Culture and on its Relationship to Russian Culture” reads like a funhouse inversion of Hellie’s hypothesis.

Russia, more than any other European nation, is “treated in the light of generalized theories.”

The West, says Kireyevsky, is characterized by “cold analysis...the self-propelling scalpel of reason...the abstract syllogism” and “frigid ratiocination.” A logic-chopping mentality prevails in the West, the end result being a heartless civilization dominated by “external, formal activity.” The West has shiny things, but at least Russia has soul.

So the West looks down on Russia, and Russia is only too happy to return the favor. A closer examination, however, can complicate this pattern of mutually assured disapproval. The relationship between Russia and the West is in fact quite complicated, with plenty of zigs and zags across the boundary lines. Case in point: Anyone who has read War and Peace is acutely aware that Russian elites were enamored of French language and culture.

In a very different context, “Runglish” (a mashup of Russian and English) has facilitated communication aboard the International Space Station. Lingua francas (or in French: langues véhiculaires) help bridge gaps between people who speak different tongues. A particularly striking example of this phenomenon is when Russians were immersed in Latin, the iconic language of Catholicism and the learned lingua franca of Western Europe. Jesuits played a part in this surprising turn of events.

The Latin Sickness

Why surprising? For one thing, Latin had not been part of the civilizational startup kit the Slavs received from Byzantium. Christianity came to Rus (the East Slavic polity that eventually became Ukraine, Belarus and Russia) in the 10th century, couched in Old Church Slavonic, a bookish language developed a century earlier by the Byzantine missionary brothers Sts. Cyril and Methodius and chock-full of Greek terminology. Over the centuries, Latin played a minimal role in Russian culture—a point often tsk-tsked by Western visitors, who tied the lack of Latin learning to perceived Russian backwardness. In A Curious and New Account of Muscovy in the Year 1689, Foy de la Neuville claimed, “Only four in that whole, vast country speak Latin.” Later in the text he unspools some familiar stereotypes: “To tell the truth, the Muscovites are barbarians. They are suspicious and mistrustful, cruel, sodomites, gluttons, misers, beggars and cowards….”

Moreover, in addition to the lack of Latin studies, there was a strain of rhetoric, inherited from Byzantium and amplified in Russia, against the “Latins.” Like a dungball, this term rolls linguistic, cultural and religious negativities into one. According to one clerical polemic, Latin books “are filled with guile and deception, heresy and godlessness.” “When I began to read Greek books,” wrote a Muscovite prelate, “I came to know the Latin deceit and to understand the innovations and errors and depravities in their writings; and I spat upon all of them….”

This was not just ecclesiastical contempt; similar themes sounded in folk culture as well. Syphilis was called the “Latin sickness.” To tell someone to “Go to Latinstvo!” was like saying “Go to Hell.” It was customary to believe that the Devil spoke Latin and wore Western clothes. In sum, in both Russian folklore and church polemics, Latinstvo (the Latin West, or “Latindom”) represented a no-go zone of heresy and debauchery, a kind of Evil Empire threatening Holy Russia. 

And yet, an inventory conducted in 1802 of a typical Russian Orthodox library (the seminary in Smolensk) revealed some astonishing numbers: 1,240 books in Latin, 467 in Russian/Slavonic, 167 in Greek, 40 in German, 39 in French, 33 in Hebrew and three in Swedish. How did this remarkable turnabout happen?

To tell someone to “Go to Latinstvo!” was like saying “Go to Hell.”

Peter the Great

The answer, in part at least, is Peter the Great (1672-1725). As is well known, the towering, energetic emperor was eager to learn from the West. He even ordered an entire city be built from scratch, St. Petersburg, as a “window on the West.” During his reign, Russian elites increasingly turned to Latin (as well as French, German, Dutch and Italian) as a way of plugging into European civilization. An ideological justification was articulated in the Trilingual Lexicon (Slavonic-Greek-Latin) of 1704. The preface contends that Greek is the language of the original “holy books and church rituals,” while Slavonic is the language of praise. As for Latin?

It has been included as a third language because today this language is used around the world more than others in civil and educational matters. The same [is true] for all kinds of sciences and arts that are necessary for human society. A great many books have been translated [into Latin] from other languages, and many are still composed in this language. To sum up, there is no one who can do without it, who would not desire to have it available for his needs, whether an artist or a soldier skillful in military matters.

In other words, Latin was viewed as an indispensable vehicle of knowledge. Thus began a century-plus of Latinity on Russian soil, a period when scientists and seminarians studied and even spoke the venerable language, much like their counterparts in the West.

Since Latin was the dominant language of science, it is no surprise that when the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg was established in 1724 (another brainchild of Peter the Great), Latin was the in-house language. Of course Russians, being new at this game, with no real history of scientific inquiry, needed to import scholars to get things going. These foreigners, mostly from German-speaking lands, brought with them the entire apparatus of Western academe—Latin-language lectures, debates, dissertations, report cards, ceremonial orations and more.

Since Latin was the dominant language of science, it is no surprise that when the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg was established in 1724.

Some, like the mathematical genius Leonhard Euler, did important work that was published in the academy’s flagship journal, Commentarii Academiae Scientiarum Petropolitanae (Transactions of the Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg). Scholars in traditional centers of learning like Vienna, Stockholm, London, Uppsala, Edinburgh and Leipzig sometimes wrote in Latin to their counterparts in “Petropolis.” Thus, Latin helped kickstart what would become Russia’s renowned track record of excellence in math and science. More unexpected was the way Latin scholarship penetrated Russian Orthodoxy. This is where the Jesuits come on the scene.

Fighting Fire With Fire

During the so-called Counter-Reformation, the Society of Jesus had been quite active in Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine, in their push for Orthodox Christians, deemed schismatic, to return to union with Rome. They established a network of schools that attracted the best and brightest of society. These schools had a successful academic formula: the famed Ratio Studiorum, the systematic “plan of studies” that started with several levels of grammar before moving on to poetics and rhetoric and culminating with philosophy and theology.

Seeing the proselytizing success of the Society of Jesus in Eastern Europe, some Orthodox clerics decided to defend their expression of the faith using the very tools that were challenging it. They borrowed the thoroughly Latinate curriculum of the Jesuit collegium and made it their own. The Orthodox Theological Academy in Kyiv was central in this fight-fire-with-fire endeavor. It would later serve as a blueprint for schools across Russia, where—rather stunningly—Latin became deeply embedded in ecclesiastical education.

“Our clergymen are regarded by foreigners already as almost illiterate, unable to speak either French or German. Our honor is supported by the fact that we can speak and write Latin.”

Latin was never used for prayer or liturgy, but it was baked into the curriculum, as with the Ratio Studiorum. The main grammar used was the three-volume De Institutione Grammatica, by Manuel Álvares, a Portuguese Jesuit. This was the same text studied in Jesuit schools all around the world. In terms of theology, pride of place went to the Compendium Orthodoxae Theologicae Doctrinae, by Hyacintus (Iakinf) Karpinski, an Orthodox monk from the prominent Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. The contents—complete with quotations from the Vulgate—read much like a standard-issue Scholastic-era handbook.

Whether in science or theology, Russian students had to learn to speak the Latin code. They adapted multilingual conversation books that were then commonplace in Western Europe (for example, Colloquia Scholastica—Shkol’nye Razgovory—Schul-Gesprache [School Conversations]), thanks to which they could say things like: “Salve, mi amice! Zdravstvuy, drug moi! [Hi, my friend!].” Or, perhaps, “Quid loqueris, inepte? Shto ty govorish, durak? [What are you saying, fool?]

By 1800, the archbishop of Moscow could declare: “Our clergymen are regarded by foreigners already as almost illiterate, unable to speak either French or German. Our honor is supported by the fact that we can speak and write Latin.”

Enduring Influence

Not everyone was happy with this state of affairs. Seminarians chafed against studying a subject they found useless for their priestly duties (the Divine Liturgy still being conducted in Church Slavonic). Some laypeople also weighed in on the matter. In 1835, Count Nikolai Protasov issued a blistering critique of the clergy and its Latinate jargon: “You are our teachers in faith. But we cannot understand you…. [Y]ou have invented a sort of a language for yourselves like physicians, mathematicians and sailors. It is impossible to apprehend you without interpreting. It is no good at all.” Thus, Russia joined not only the venerable tradition of Latin studies—but the equally old tradition of griping about the language.

Over the course of the 18th century, Latin gave way in the scientific domain to German, French and eventually Russian itself. It lasted longer, until about 1840, in seminary education. That would seem to be the end of the line. Yet Latin left its mark on Russian culture. Just consider the Cyrillic alphabet. Though we think of it as quintessentially Russian, the current shape of the letters is really the result of, once again, Peter the Great. The ever-meddling ruler demanded that typographers make the ornate Slavonic script simpler and easier to read, closer to the texts he knew from England and Holland—in a word, more Latinate.  This is the origin of the so-called civil script, as opposed to the church script used for Slavonic literature. To this day, then, the very letterforms of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet reveal a subtle but indelible Latin influence.

At this particularly fraught moment in national and international affairs, one marked by suspicion and antagonism, it may be salutary to set aside stereotypes and false dichotomies and pause to consider that remarkable period of intellectual and cross-cultural rapport when—mirabile dictu—Russia and the West spoke the same language.

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