In Russian there are two words for truth. The first is “pravda,” denoting a fact rooted in concrete detail and objective measure. The second word is “istina,” and it refers to a putative truth — to one that is ideal or regarded as such within a community. Istina can take on a philosophical connotation, as witnessed in Solzhenitsyn’s novel “The First Circle”: “In the midst of the jostling crowd of grown-ups, who did not understand this simple truth (istina), he felt desperately lonely.” Istina can also embed itself in a collective desire: For instance, a Republican congressman might consider trickle-down economic theory a “truth” which enables better governance. In short, pravda is when a mother scolds her child for a chore that was not done; istina is when that mother regards the chore as an essential part of her child’s development.
The nuance differentiating pravda from istina carries major implications for both national politics and campus culture.
To begin with, this distinction sheds light on the Trump administration’s behavior. On Jan. 21, President Trump boasted of enticing 1.5 million people to his inauguration when video footage and Metro statistics demonstrated otherwise (1.1 million riders attended Obama’s 2009 inauguration compared to 570,000 at Trump’s; 1 million took the Metro for the Women’s March). Following this debacle, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer stated that “these attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong,” thereby injecting negative affect into an otherwise objective question. Spicer has also doubled down on Trump’s claim that millions of citizens voted illegally in the 2016 election, contradicting the views of nonpartisan electoral experts.
Yet these examples of Trump istina merely foreshadow larger problems to come. The White House has told more than 100 diplomats at the State Department to “get with the program or go,” responding to a dissent cable circulating in Foggy Bottom which opposes Trump’s executive order barring immigration from seven Muslim countries. The executive branch’s “my way or the highway” attitude is propagandist in that it forces well-meaning bureaucrats to either buy into Trumpism or leave government. It provides no room for reason; it provides no room for pravda.
Trump istina might persuade millions of American voters that Putin’s Kremlin is worthy of reduced economic sanctions and more cuddle sessions with Uncle Sam, all while ignoring the fact that Russian airplanes barrel-bombed thousands of Syrian children to death in besieged Aleppo.
While not as deadly, the distinction between pravda and istina spurs major repercussions for our neo-Gothic campus as well:
Academia has long been blamed for fostering a neurotic intellectual culture which ignores pravda’s practical benefits. Professors, albeit noble in intention, can develop brilliant speculative ideas that entail no real-world application. These ideas exemplify Solzhenitsyn’s philosophical istina — they merely exist in academic journals and earn prizes at international colloquiums.
For instance, Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis makes grand projections for modern conflict yet not once cites concrete statistics. While academia’s fetishiziation of the theoretical is irritating at times, its real flaw lies in its inattention to pravda — to real problems entrenched in the community.
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The more pernicious effect is that Yale ignores factual reality when it disjoins the student body from the local New Haven population. The University has yet to establish a community outreach curriculum which would connect students with New Haven organizations. A class in this program might focus on AIDS prevention, for instance, with half of the syllabus providing a comprehensive history of the disease’s urban impact and the other half spurring cooperation with the AIDS Project New Haven. For a final project, students might propose and execute a specific initiative, like PrEP distribution to low-income, at-risk residents.
Yale’s intellectual ambivalence to New Haven residents is a ludicrous disavowal of pravda and a subliminal nod to the perils of istina. At the end of the day, heeding palpable concerns as opposed to theoretical ambitions advances the public good.
Isaac Amend is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .