Ludwig Wittgenstein was no doubt a fascinating genius who was also very mysterious. He was known for doing outrageous things that no one saw coming, and there is one episode in particular that I find really baffling, which is his decision to go live in Russia (actually USSR at that point in time).

There are several explanations / theories as to what motivated him:

  1. He was influenced by Oswald Spengler. In his late 30s Wittgenstein discovered Oswald Spengler, and was very impressed by this philosophical historian. Spengler thought that the western civilization (Europe and the anglo-saxon America) is in it's dying stage and Russia will be the next great civilization.
  2. His spartan lifestyle. He lived a monk like existence much of his life, and it seems he thought living in Russia would rid him of bourgeois comfort he despised so much.
  3. A couple of Russian journalists have investigated the details of his visit to Moscow and came to a conspiracy conclusion that he was somehow involved with the famous Cambridge 5 spy network. The evidence is minimal, but while in Moscow he did meet with several people working for the intelligence services.

I don't find any of the above fully convincing. Do you?

What do you think was his real motive?

  • 1
    my guess is that he was curious about the Cambridge 5 and wanted to experience "Russian life" before committing himself. why do I say this? cos Wittgenstein was quite thorough. i know next to nothing about his life etc., but would suggest that, from what you said, he was threatened by soviet agents into never saying anything. what do you think about glenn gould? Conjecture is a strange bug
    – user64727
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 18:14
  • Those are the motivations expressed by Ray Monk into his Life of W, with reference to letters from and discussion with W: fascination with "spartan life", no "intellectual involvement, Tolstoy, the "new state" base on worldly religion. Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 6:54

2 Answers 2


None of those. There was a deep extensive and romantic fascination of intellectuals for socialism/communism and it was this current that drew him to the then newly for Soviet Union. Although his fascination was long lasting, from at least the early 1920s to the mid forties, and although during this period he spoke of settling in the USSR, he never did so and spent only three weeks there in 1935 when he visited with a friend - hardly an immigration! That he didn't do so was because of a hardening of political conditions in the '30s.

As evidence for this, there is a letter he wrote to a friend where he urged him to preserve for posterity some newspaper clippings of prize-winning poems by workers in 1924. Whilst Niamh O'Mahoney in his book, Doubtful Certainties quotes him as saying:

Russia: The passion it contains promises something, whereas all our gabble is impotent.

It's also worth remembering that Wittgenstein gave away most of his enormous inherited wealth, worked as a schoolteacher and as an orderly in a hospital.

There are also the personal recollections of his friends. For example, George Thomson, who was a Marxist wrote in his book, Wittgenstein: Some Personal Recollections about his

growing political awareness from the mid-1930s and onwards, his being kept informed about the current events and his sensitivity to the “evils of unemployment and fascism and the growing danger of war”, and his opposition to Marxism in theory, but support to a large extent in practise.

Interestingly enough, Fania Pascal herself [who belonged to the same circle as Thomson] also talks about a profound change in Wittgenstein’s political opinions around the time he was planning his trip to Russia ...

Moreover, Stephen Toulmin, co-author with Allan Janik of Wittgenstein’s Vienna, refers to Wittgenstein’s “intense distaste for private property” and “extremely strong belief (though largely a theoretical one) in the dignity of manual labour and the brotherhood of men unencumbered by material possessions”, a stance that has, apart from religious, strong political overtones as well.

The extracts are taken from Wittgenstein, Marx & Marxism: Some Historical Connections* by Dimitris Gakis and published in Humanities 2015.


It's an interesting question, and has been the topic of a number of papers and articles. The actual evidence of his motivations, are scant though. It's interesting to note the main front he fought on in WW1 saw an extensive retreat by the Austrians from an Imperial Russian advance.

I would focus on Wittgenstein's love of Russian literature, especially Tolstoy, and especially The Gospel in Brief, to understand his 'Russophilia'. See this interesting discussion: Wittgenstein Tolstoy and the The Gospel in Brief. It was a pivotal text for Wittgenstein at the time he was writing the notes that became the TLP, and it has been suggested it inspired him through it's structure towards the chapter numbering system he used, and the way the sections built a larger argument by unpacking summary lines. Tolstoy's life as a rebel prince preoccupied with an uncompromising search for meaning, was also clearly a primary inspiration to Wittgenstein in structuring his life.

  • 1
    Huh, The title 'Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus', was suggested by G.E. Moore to Wittgenstein as homage to Spinoza's book, The Tractatus Theologicus-Politicus. This is well attested to! Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 18:53
  • @MoziburUllah: Aye. No problem. Was he a fervoured of Spinoza though? No - scholars say he was at most a minor influence, although the form of his book Ethics also seems to have been an influence. "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present" can be read as an explicit criticism of Spinoza's thought. Was Wittgenstein a fervoured fan of Tolstoy? Yes, & that is well attested to. I'd go so far as to say mistaking Spinoza for a bigger influence than Tolstoy, is a major source of error around the TLP.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 19:33

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