The interplay of ‘pravda’ and ‘istina’ in the Russian language

Though it is not widely known, the Russian language contains two separate and distinct words which coarsely translate to ‘truth’, at least when put through Google Translate. I would argue that most native Russian speakers would consider the notion of any equivalence between the two to be entirely absurd, as pravda and istina represent not only two different conceptualizations of truth but also come at the question from two entirely different and distinct perspectives.

Pravda, also the name of the famous Soviet daily newspaper, is a fixed and factual truth. It is mathematical, rational, and debatable. You could imagine it at the end of a long two column proof. I think this is probably closer to the notion of truth or fact that most English speakers would relate to. But pravda is also limited by a certain subjectivity; specifically that it is something which requires definition and can only be achieved through a dialectical process. In addition to this, pravda implies a certain level of rigid control and determinism, certainly not a word much enjoyed by more literary or humanist circles.

Istina, on the other hand, is a far more complex and untranslatable word. Maybe the closest phrases to it would be ‘truth essence’ or ‘ultimate truth.’ Istina, unlike pravda, is completely uninterested in formal definition or structure. It’s defined by a certain undefinable certainty or intuition that’s collected through experience. Unsurprisingly, it’s often used when describing human emotion or complex dynamical systems which seem to exhibit phenomena that’s not reducible. Istina is also dangerous and uncontrolled, it speaks to some kind of primordial spirituality and fate over events in the world, and certainly is not defined by the subjectivity of argument in the way that pravda is.

If I may take one further step, I would argue that pravda is the embodiment of the language of science, politics, and mathematics, while istina is the language of poetry, philosophy, art, and love. In some sense, the Russian character is a constant interplay of these two forces, with pravda always trying to nail down fundamental truths and istina evading any definition time and time again. I found many parallels in the way in which Taoism and Confucianism play out a millennia long dance in Chinese society, with Confucianism representing the formality and rigid structure of social relations, and Taoism constantly challenging it through it’s ultimate notion of the un-definable nature of the Tao. In the same way, pravda is rigid and fragile while Istina is fluid and dynamic, always changing forms to accommodate the direct experience of the person who sees it.

It is no surprise that the mathematician Edward Frenkel wrote ‘istina’ as the backdrop to his mathematical romance, ‘The Rites of Love and Math,’ melding together the ultimate truths of the languages of nature and love. Somehow pravda just wouldn’t quite fit the bill.

 
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