Vitaly A. Rubin (1976): Thoughts do not Die

In February 1972, Dr Vitaly A. Rubin, a Senior Research Fellow in Chinese Studies at Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies, applied for an exit visa to emigrate to Israel. Rubin was Jewish, educated in the orthodox tradition of his people. Following his visa application, he was pressured into resigning his position at the Institute, his works were withdrawn from circulation, citations of his writings disappeared, and many of his professional colleagues shunned him. *)

After several months of waiting, Rubin was denied his visa, ostensibly on the grounds that he was “an important specialist” whose services were needed in the USSR.

Wm. Theodore de Bary wrote in his preface to the English translation that

One cannot claim for Rubin’s work that it is the fruit of highly original research or the product of newly discovered materials. He has no access to previously unknown texts. If anything, working in isolation and handicapped by restrictions on his movements, he has experienced extraordinary difficulty in keeping up even with other work in the field. Hence these essays make no claim to being exhaustive or definitive; instead their singular merit and appeal are to be found in the interpretive insights and unusual perspectives afforded by Rubin’s personal experience in the twentieth century of problems already agitating classical Chinese thinkers in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.

According to Steven I Levine, who translated Ideologiia i kul’tura drevnego Kitaia (the Russian title of the book) into English, Rubin’s family went through hard times after Russia’s October Revolution.

Vitaly Rubin’s uncle, Isaac Rubin, a prominent economist, was charged with possessing docuuments sent to him by Social-Democrats abroad (a serious offense in Stalin’s Russia), and he was sentenced to prison and subsequent exile. Because of his brother’s crime, [Vitaly Rubin’s father] Aaron Rubin lost his job and was compelled to eke out a living by doing miscellaneous translations from more than a dozen languages.

The Rubin family were outsiders within the Soviet Union, but in the 1940s, there was an obvious need to take sides:

When war broke out in 1941, Vitaly Rubin, then a student at Moscow State University, volunteered for the army. He later wrote that, “As a Jew I felt my place was at the front”. In October 1941, while Soviet armies were retreating from the German onslaught, Rubin’s division was encircled and he was among the many taken captive. After three days, however, he escaped, rejoined the army, and fought in the bitterly contested battle of Kaluga.

In Stalin’s Russia, escape from a POW camp was viewed not as a mark of heroism and loyalty, but as grounds for suspicion. With the war still raging and the entire population mobilized for national survival, special labor camps were established for former prisoners of war.

Rubin contracted spinal tuberculosis after labor prison work for eighteen months. He was then informed that he had been politifcally rehabilitated and sent home on a stretcher. He resumed his studies aged 25, his interests included

Chinese archaeology, social institutions, and the political philosophy of pre-Han China. His work increasingly focused upon the theme of the relationship between the individual in society and the demands of the state.

Individual and State in Ancient China was an unusual publication, given censorship and the fact that Rubin had apparently neglected some or many of the confines of censorship when writing the Essays. His explanation later was that his topics were probably that exotic and marginal within Soviet science that his writings probably didn’t have to meet the same standards as more popular or mainstream issues – probably, there were no subsumable standards, and the number of readers who might take an interest in the essays was considered to be small and rather irrelevant. From conversations with persons who had no relationship whatsoever with sinology – doctors, engineers, scholars, and so forth – I know the degree of interest with which my book was read (Rubin).

The publishing house later got a dressing-down from the Central Committee of the CPSU, for “relaxation of ideological vigilance”, according to Mr Rubin’s own preface to the English edition of his essays. But his own troubles began with his visa application.

As de Bary (see first para) observed, it was Rubin’s own life and the constraints on his work inside the Soviet Union which made his essays special. When he wrote the essay about Confucius, there hadn’t been a translation of it into Russian ever since the Soviet Union had been established – Confucius was (rather unfavorably) interpreted by Russian sinologists, but the sage wouldn’t get a chance to speak for himself in Russian. Taoism was much more liked by the party orthodoxy then, because the Taoist philosophers were viewed in the USSR as materialists and dialecticians – in contrast to Confucian classics, all the classical works of ancient Taoism were available in Russian translation in the 1970s, according to Rubin’s English edition preface.

Rubin had to wait for his exit visa from 1972 to 1976 – and without international support, especially from individuals in the field of Asian studies, the visa might have been unattainable altogether. In the meantime, Rubin was subject to the kinds of harassment every totalitarian system seems to have in store for its “traitors”: a house search in 1973 by the KGB, confiscation of manuscript and archival materials, cutting off his phone line in 1974 during a two-week hungerstrike (it was never connected afterwards), or two weeks in jail without any charges during a visit to Moscow by US president Nixon also in 1974. Rubin suffered a heart attack in August 1974.

In a message to foreign supporters in the spring of 1975, Rubin wrote,

Each morning I wake up with the thought – three years have passed since I have been locked up here. It is impossible to wait. I have to do something, but I turn over in my mind every possible course of action and for the thousandth time, I come to the conclusion that every way ends up against a wall.

I cannnot help myself; there is nothing for me but to help others, as far as possible, to escape from this kingdom of violence and lies, to tell the truth and work in my own field.

Rubin’s exit visa came in 1976, just as the English translation of his Four Essays was about to go to press, according to the publisher. Rubin about his book:

In creating the book I perceived my task as seeking to understand the subject matter, as well as the central idea, of each of the philosophers. This thought, which probably seems banal to the Western reader, will become clear only somewhat later, once the appraisals of the ancient Chinese thinkers in the Soviet literature are set forth **) – appraisals to which I implicitly objected.

The second premise of my research was the conviction that thoughts do not die. In other words, I proceeded from the assumption that living in the second half of the twentieth century in the USSR, I could derive for myself something of essential value in Chinese writing of five centuries B.C. I felt, moreover, that these ideas could be most relevant for me because, despite the differing circumstances in which we live, what unites us is more important. We face the same questions about the meaning and goals of human action, of good and evil, of the relationship to authority, and of the value of culture. Such an approach seems to me imcomparably more fruitful and productive than attempting to deprive philosophical ideas of their transcendent meaning by emphasizing the dependence of a philosopher on the socio-political conditions of his time in a kind of historical reductionalism. […..]

Confident that it is possible for humans to make contact across the broad expanses of world culture, I believe it is also possible to solve questions of interpretation in the field of intellectual history by addressing one’s own interior experience. An awareness of my own place in history helps me orient myself in many theoretical controversies, and the study of ancient Chinese culture convinces me that man at that time confronted the same problems as he does now. If this is so, I have the right to resort to an experiment in thought through an analysis of my own path.

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*) All quotes and all information (if not otherwise stated) from the forewords and prefaces of Individual and State in Ancient China, Essays on Four Chinese Philosophers, by Vitaly A. Rubin, translated by Steven I Levine, Columbia University Press, New York, 1976. The book may no longer be for sale at regulary book shops, but should be available through online sources like amazon.co.uk or antiqbook.com. You may also find it in larger public libraries (that’s where I found it).

**) Rubin’s preface gives a short account of the appraisals of the ancient Chinese thinkers in the Soviet literature – this blog post may give you a small idea of it already, but it’s only meant to be a reading recommendation. I read Rubin’s essays as a student more than ten years ago, and will probably read them again over xmas…

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Rubin was born in 1923 and apparently died in a car accident near Beersheba in October 1981. In his late years, he was apparently a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

6 Responses to “Vitaly A. Rubin (1976): Thoughts do not Die”

  1. JR thanks for that.

    Your tribute to Vitaly Rubin reminds me of another great Chinese Studies scholar from the previous Soviet empire – Dr Marian GÁLIK from the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava. When I first met him back in the 1980s, he also described to me in great details how it’s like to work in isolation and under the constraints of censorship. However, he was of the opinion that these limitations also forced him to transcend disciplinary boundaries and to focus his research on topics with a broader appeal to humanities, rather than just to a small community of Chinese scholars.

    I lost touch with Dr GÁLIK after I’d been to China and back. I don’t even know whether he is still alive. If he is, he’ll be almost 88 years old by now. I still have an autographed copy of his book in my possession. It’s one of the few things from my student’s days I am still keeping. At the back cover of the book he wrote:

    “For Catherine as an expression of thanks, for all she had done for me during my visit, with wishes for her success in her scholarly life. Marian GÁLIK.”

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  2. It’s strange how many questions stay around through the centuries – the same questions about the meaning and goals of human action, of good and evil, of the relationship to authority, and of the value of culture. The old Iron Curtain that used to divide Europe is probably less than one hundred kilometers east from where I’m writing at the moment.

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  3. Dear Catherine:
    Thank you very much for your comment on Vitaly A. Rubin. I am surprised that you are still membering me. I shall be 76 on Febr. 21 this year. Not so old as you think. What is the title of the book I gave to you? Did we meet in Europe? Where were you when writing the lines devoted to me/

    Sincerely,

    Marian Galik

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  4. Dear Professor Galik,

    It’s good to hear from you and to know that you are doing well. My Internet connections had been on and off since late last week. That’s why I didn’t had a chance to read your comment until this afternoon.

    We met more than 15 years ago during one of your trips to Australia. The book that you gave me is not exactly a book, but a reprint of one of your papers published in Neohelicon – see if that will jot your memory. In any case, forgive me for not divulging too much of my personal details online. But I have just received your email as well (and I presume you got my email address from JR) and I’ll write to you later this week to catch up.

    Cheers for now,

    Catherine

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