Planet Kant

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Immanuel Kant is rightfully considered the most famous personality of Königsberg, today’s Russian Kaliningrad

By Kirill Privalov, Editor-in-chief

All wars begin absurdly and given the irreparable loss of life and massive destruction, usually end horribly. And many wars are also inglorious. The Seven Years’ War is no exception. Historians sometimes call it “World War Zero.” And there is a significant grain of truth in this: the scene of fierce battles included Canada and India, the Caribbean and the Philippines… And above all, Europe: Silesia, Saxony, East Prussia… In other words, Central Europe. These tragic events would seem to have no direct connection to the borders of Russia. And yet, it was Russia, for which it was the largest military conflict since the Northern War of Peter the Great time, that became one of the main protagonists in the long-term battle for the reorganisation of international spheres of influence, which cost humanity about two million victims and determined the global geography until the predatory Napoleonic wars.

It must be said that for very subjective reasons, Russia ultimately found itself on the side-lines in summing up the trophies of the Seven Years’ War. But, in any case, there was one positive fact in this, admittedly, chaotic historical ordeal: one of the greatest sons of humanity, Immanuel Kant, became a subject of Russia.

King, bon vivant and Russian Scotsman

“World War Zero” began quite banally as another dispute in the mid-fifties of the 18th century between the “patchwork” multinational empire of the Habsburgs of Austria and the monolithic Prussia that arose just half a century earlier, which grew largely on the site of the knightly possessions of the former Teutonic Order.

Berlin, the main centre of historical Brandenburg, became the capital of the young kingdom, which emerged as the largest and most influential German state. However, Königsberg was the second largest and most strategically important city of the Hohenzollern dynasty that ruled the country. A stronghold of German knighthood on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Hanseatic city of merchants and artisans. The pearl of a militarised, burgher, ambitious Prussia (“hatched from a cannonball,” according to the precise formulation of Napoleon Bonaparte), simply aggressive Prussia, given the specifics of such an explosive, irrepressible behaviour of King Frederick II. If was before his loyal subjects and their descendants shaped him as Frederick the Great, and he was eager to prove his strategic and tactical talents on the battlefields, which he initiated continuously.

In the so-called Silesian Wars, launched by Prussia in a hereditary dispute with the House of Habsburg which took place in 1740–1742 and 1744–1745, Frederick II managed to tear away significant territories of Silesia, a densely populated, mineral-rich and industrially developed region, from Austria. And in general, during the years of his reign, Frederick II almost doubled the territory of Prussia and already in the fifties turned his state with its trained army into one of the powerful players on the continent. Given the “concert of nations” already shaped after the devastating pan-European religious Thirty Years’ War in the middle of the 18th century, it naturally did not suit many in Europe.

King Frederick II was well aware of this. He was ready to defend the territories he had previously conquered, and preferred to act his usual way: he attacked first! And not only on the battlefield.

Portrait of General William Fermor by A. P. Antropov. 1765

Frederick II began with what his descendants would later call the “diplomatic revolution”: he tried to dissolve the alliances established among the European states in the post-Petrine period. And first of all, taking into account Prussia’s hostile relations with Austria and strained relations with France, he tried to do everything to keep England away from Russia. He acted according to the classic Roman principle: “divide and conquer.” He counted on restraining St. Petersburg from participating in hostilities in the event of a Prussian attack on one of its neighbouring countries and using British subsidies in the war against Vienna.

The cunning monarch overreached himself: Frederick, who had his agents in many high courts of Europe, was not aware that back in 1746 Austria and Russia concluded a secret treaty aimed at joint actions against Prussia. And it practically meant the engagement of the Russian army if the Prussians started a war against the Habsburgs.

In August 1756, Frederick II invaded Saxony. Defeating the small principality was not particularly difficult, and Prussia, in addition to supplementary material resources, obtained an excellent position for an attack on Bohemia, the patrimony of the Austrians. Less than a year had passed before the Prussians attacked it. Prague was besieged. However, near the city of Kolin, on the banks of Laba river (in German, Elbe), the Austrian army, significantly larger than the Prussian army, drove it out of Bohemia and Silesia. The Prussian retreat was so rapid that the Austrian cavalry even entered Berlin. But this triumph was so unexpected for the Austrians that they themselves did not believe in their victory and left the Prussian capital…

However, Frederick II was not on the eastern front; at that time he was fighting in the west against the French and their allies. And, it must be noted, very successfully. On December 5, near the German village of Leuthen, the 32,000-strong army of the Prussian king defeated the 80,000-strong army led by the Austrian prince Charles Alexander of Lorraine. Frederick also defeated the Hanoverian army (German Hanover was then part of the Kingdom of England).

And then the crushing “Russian steam roller” came into action, as Western experts would later call the Russian army during the World War I.

Troops under the leadership of Field Marshal Stepan Apraksin entered East Prussia. In the summer of 1757, the Russians, with the support of the Baltic Fleet, took Memel, present-day Klaipeda in Lithuania, and on August 30, near the village of Gross-Jägersdorf in the vicinity of today’s Chernyakhovsk, Kaliningrad region, they completely defeated the half-sized Prussian army under the command of General von Lewald in five hours. The Russian army could have built on its success and marched on Königsberg; instead, it first stood in camp for a week, and then – incredibly! – began to retreat to Courland. The Prussians managed to recover from the shock of the deafening loss and rushed to pursue Apraksin’s units until they were completely squeezed out of East Prussia.

The field marshal himself – a big, fat and full-blooded gourmet and bon vivant, who carried a collection of gilded uniforms and a whole team of cooks with him on campaigns everywhere, – explained such confrontation with hunger in the army and the lack of provisions in the areas occupied by his soldiers. But most likely, the reason for the lost victory was more complex. The intriguer Stepan Apraksin, an arrogant, spoiled man of little intelligence, was not distinguished by decisiveness. And then he learned that palace games were going on in St. Petersburg around the potential legacy of the ill Empress Elizaveta Petrovna. According to one version, Apraksin received a dispatch from his benefactor, Chancellor Alexey Bestuzhev-Ryumin, who instructed the Russians to retreat – to please the Grand Duke Peter Fyodorovich, whose idol was Frederick the Great. According to another version, taking advantage of the empress’s illness, Bestuzhev-Ryumin openly hated by Peter Fyodorovich, planned to bring the heir Pavel Petrovich to power under the guardianship of his mother, the future Catherine the Great. And therefore, he urgently needed Apraksin’s army in St. Petersburg…

All these intrigues turned out to be in vain – Empress Elizaveta Petrovna successfully recovered and began to make up her palace household.

Portrait of King Frederick II of Prussia by Wilhelm Kamphausen. 1870

Apraksin was removed from office and put on trial for self-will – not for mediocrity, but for non-smart voluntarism! – and William Fermor, who had previously served under Apraksin and, in fact, ensured all his victories, was appointed commander of the Russian army. This general-in-chief, unfortunately, belongs to the category of those outstanding Russian commanders who were not deprived of glory during their lifetime, but found themselves almost erased from the memory of their descendants. In fact, it was Fermor, who came from a noble Scottish military family (who served faithfully the Russian Empire), who actually took Memel and ensured the victory at Gross-Jägersdorf with his decisive actions. According to Ivan Dolgorukov, a famous Russian statesman, Villim Villimovich, “an excellent commander, a learned artilleryman and engineer, a courageous warrior, was respected for the unselfishness and nobility of his soul.”

In 1758, under the leadership of Fermor, the Russian army quickly regained the territories it had previously abandoned, moreover, after a short siege, it triumphantly occupied the capital of East Prussia, Königsberg. Fermor successfully resisted Frederick II in the Battle of Zorndorf (now this Polish village is called Sarbinowo). This bloody battle, in which 27 thousand soldiers and officers died on both sides, brought Fermor the Order of St. Andrew the First-Called and St. Anne and the title of “first commander of the century” granted by the Empress. Alas, Russian victories ended under Peter III, who was an ardent admirer of Frederick II. In the spring of 1762, the new Russian emperor concluded an inglorious peace between Russia and Prussia and voluntarily returned the territory occupied by Russian troops, to Prussia. Thus, all of Russia’s sacrifices on the battlefields were in vain.

However, the conversation now will not be about a battle genius forgotten by ungrateful descendants or not about a nervous emperor who spoke Russian with difficulty, who was overthrown after six months of reign in St. Petersburg, but about the glorious city, which symbolic keys the burgomaster solemnly brought on a tray with a gold border to the scarred Russian commander – about Königsberg. Or rather, about the most amazing of its inhabitants.

First of the first

The history of Königsberg is rich in events and heroes. The city arose on the site of the Prussian (Prussians are a people of the Baltic language group, almost completely wiped out by the Germans) settlement of Tvangste and had more than seven centuries of existence by the middle of the 18th century. These are sailors, traders, conquerors… However, none of them is known or revered in the world as an absolutely peaceful, civil, civilian, one might say, non-practical person. Not a general, not a builder or an engineer, but a philosopher. Yes, I mean Immanuel Kant, who is rightfully considered the most famous personality of Königsberg, today’s Russian Kaliningrad. The major thinker of the Enlightenment, one of the most influential figures in Western philosophy of the modern era, the author of comprehensive works in the fields of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, astronomy, history… You name it!

Immanuel Kant was born in Königsberg which he never left, on 9 April (22 April new style) 1724. Further generations were given three centuries to recognise his greatness. And he more than justified the name given to him by his parents and the Lutheran pastor (in Hebrew, Immanuel means “God with us,” and the name is associated with the Messiah). Kant, indeed, became the true Messiah of bold, free, truly cosmic thought. “Philosophy is to learn how to think, and not to learn thoughts,” he instilled in his students. “The death of dogma is the birth of morality,” he taught. “One who makes himself a worm cannot complain afterwards if people step on him,” – he addressed his contemporaries. He instilled faith in life in people: “One, looking into a puddle, sees dirt in it, and the other – the stars reflected in it.” And of course: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

His work is completely modern, timeless and universal. Like a precious diamond, they do not lose their shine over the years: Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, Universal Natural History, Critique of Practical Reason, Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason, Metaphysics of Morals… We will reproduce quotes from the works of Kant, his timeless aphorisms more than once in this issue of Russian Mind. For Immanuel Kant presents a planetary depth of thought, high Christian morality and an unlimited flight of fantasy: “What is beautiful is what is liked regardless of the meaning.” Or: “An evil person cannot be happy, because remaining alone with himself, he remains alone with the evildoer.”

We can endlessly talk about this giant of thought. His philosophy is modern because it is optimistic and imbued with faith in man. It represents a breakthrough to another – spiritual – world. Rising to the one and only ideal truth. However, I am not a professional philosopher at all, but simply a journalist. Therefore, in defining the main topic of this issue, I proceed from the fact that it is better for experts to talk about the various, most diverse forms of Kant’s life and work. Scientists will speak on these topics; researchers from the same University of Königsberg where the great philosopher once worked. Today, the illustrious alma mater, the Baltic Federal University (BFU) in Kaliningrad, the Russian city of Königsberg, bears the name of Immanuel Kant.

“By the 300th anniversary of Immanuel Kant, Kaliningrad will become a world centre for the histories of ideas,” said the rector of the Immanuel Kant BFU, Alexander Fyodorov (by the way, himself a philosopher and historian).

History, as we know, does not always lead earthlings to correct, reasonable ideas. It is no coincidence that we have many questions for today’s Kant followers. What type of critical thinking should a person of the 21st century have? Is Kant’s Cosmogony capable of helping us understand the structure of the Universe? Is Kant’s philosophical legacy applicable in the context of emerging challenges of our time, from global warming to tension in international relations? Is it really necessary to fly on an interplanetary rocket in order to talk about space? Connoisseurs, take earthly star maps into your hands! But I would like to draw the readers’ attention to something else. Paying tribute to the memory of the great thinker, we Russians fully perceive him as our compatriot. And this is not a figure of speech, but the truth based on irrefutable facts.

University of Königsberg on a 19th century postcard

After all, East Prussia was part of the Russian Empire for four years from January 1758 to July 1762. All classes of Königsberg and its outskirts then swore allegiance to the Russian crown. In January 1758, Immanuel Kant, a university professor elected as Rector of the University two times, also did so together with other professors and students. The Russians, who granted freedom of faith and trade to residents, opened up their access to Russian service. And Kant, one might say, an official person, took advantage of this: he continued to teach, taking on Russian students in addition to German ones. There is a historical anecdote, that just after a protracted table conversation with Russian officers, Kant wrote his treatise The Only Possible Argument for the Demonstration of the Existence of God. Why not? In any case, Russian East Prussia happened. In St. Petersburg, they began minting a coin with the image of Empress Elizaveta and the Latin inscription: Elisabeth rex Prussiae – Elizaveta, Queen of Prussia. The Russians opened Orthodox cathedrals and monasteries and did not hide the fact that they intended to settle in East Prussia for a long time and firmly. If not forever…

However, on 5 January 1762, the Lord took his eyes off Russia: Elizaveta Petrovna died, and the pro-German Peter III, born Karl Peter Ulrich, the first representative of the Holstein-Gottorp dynasty on the Russian throne, ascended the throne. The rest is known… And less than six months had passed before the Königsberg city newspaper was already published, crowned with the Prussian coat of arms on the front page. A characteristic detail: King Frederick II, who was forced to admit: “It is easier to kill Russians than to defeat them,” never visited Königsberg again and considered the inhabitants of East Prussia to be traitors. Probably, he had the reason. The more so as, Kant called on humans to “live with one’s own mind,” which is relevant for all times. It means that each country must be guided by its national interests, and it is on this basis that the state can develop its international position.

Yes, Immanuel Kant became a German again, but, according to historians, he never renounced Russian citizenship. And today the philosopher’s grave is located on Russian territory. So, the 300th anniversary of the great ultimate thinker is rightfully our national holiday. And the main venue for the event will be the university named after Immanuel Kant. It is not for nothing that its rector Alexander Fyodorov called the celebration of the remarkable thinker, accompanied by the International Kant Congress and the Philosophical Olympiad, “the world philosophy championship.”

In that sophisticated intellectual competition, the absolute winner has been determined long ago. And for all time. His name is Immanuel Kant.

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