Nikolai Berdyaev
1874 - 1948

Philosophy ... is the creative perception by the spirit
of the meaning of human existence.
-- Solitude and Society



Biographical Note
    by E. L. Allen
Brief Biography
    by Nino Langiulli

Berdyaev's Philosophy

Berdyaev Quotes
8th Day of Creation

Articles & Essays


Discussion List




Freedom in God
A Guide to the Thought of Nicholas Berdyaev
by E. L. Allen

1. Russia

A glance at the map will show us the stage on which the drama of Russian history has been enacted, the basic conditions within which every regime must work. We see before us an enormous landmass which extends across two continents, a large part of which is made up of plains which stretch out before the eye into limitless distance. The country faces in two directions, towards the East and towards the West; it is at once in Asia and in Europe. Hence arise the two problems with which Russia has always been faced. First: shall she shrink back within herself in isolation or shall she seek contacts with the outside world? Second: shall she turn East or West? In point of fact, of course, to turn East has been to withdraw, to turn West has been to establish relations with a world outside her own borders. Russian thought took shape in the nineteenth century as a debate between two schools, the Westerners, who wished to bring their country into line with the nations of Western Europe, and the Slavophiles, who were confident that in her traditions and her institutions Russia had all that she needed. A moment's reflection will show us that the Soviet regime, with its fusion of Communism and nationalism, is the heir of both these tendencies.

That being the case, we can only understand what happened at the Revolution as we realise that, while from one point of view it was a decisive break with the past, in another sense it was the consummation of the development which had gone before it. The first years of the present century were distinguished in Russia by a literary revival and a fresh appreciation on the part of the intelligentsia of the national religious inheritance as preserved in the Orthodox Church. But this was operative only in the upper strata of society and it was powerless to meet the urgent needs of the peasantry and the urban proletariat which had begun to arise in the great centres with the beginnings of industrial development. Hence the Revolution of 1917. Berdyaev has affinities with both these movements. A disciple of the great Russian thinkers of last century, he served a term of banishment at one time for his political opinions. After the revolution he joined with others in founding in Moscow a Free University in which he himself held the chair of philosophy, but he was banished by the Soviet authorities in 1922. Since then he lived mainly in Paris, attracting students not only from the Russian emigration but also from the Balkan countries.

Perhaps the best introduction to his thought is to single out four main ideas of his and to show how they were present already in certain typical thinkers of nineteenth-century Russia.

To begin with, whoso would understand Russia, must come to terms with that word sobornost, which connotes a conception of human life which is equally removed from our individualism and our collectivism. It is a solidarity of persons in love and freedom, a community whose members at once make and share in the life which pulses through the whole. In Khomiakov (1804-60) this conception is applied especially to the Church. "The Church," he writes, "is not a multitude of people in their separate individualities, but the oneness of Divine grace indwelling in reasonable creatures who freely submit themselves thereto." (1) From this point of view, the Russian Christian rejects with horror what he conceives to be the Roman Catholic view of the Church as a legal institution, in which the rank and file submit to authoritative direction from the hierarchy. "The Church is not authority, as God is not authority, as Christ is not authority, for authority is external to its subjects. The Church is truth and life. She is the inner life of a Christian, more intimate than the blood in his veins." (2)

Behind all this lies, of course, a passion for freedom. There is something anarchic in the Russian temperament, the inner counterpart perhaps of that absence of limits which is characteristic of those steppes which form its natural background. Hence the only governments which have been able to maintain themselves or to win the consent of the people have been despotic; hence, too, the constant tales of sabotage and indiscipline in the factories. The Russian love of freedom has found classical expression in the description of the Grand Inquisitor by Dostoievsky in his great novel The Brothers Karamazov. The Inquisitor incorporates features borrowed in part from Western European Socialism and in part from the Roman Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus. He represents for Dostoievsky the coming horror of a tyranny of the well-intentioned few over the great mass of the people. These men will correct what they consider the great mistake of Christ in calling men to the liberty of the children of God; they realise that men cannot bear the burden of freedom, and so they set out to organise their lives for them, their work, their homes, and their recreations. The conflict so vividly dramatised in this scene is that between the good as something we must see and follow for ourselves and the good as something which we shall only reach as it is imposed upon us by those who know better than ourselves what it is.

A third writer who needs to be referred to is the greatest of Russian philosophers, Vladimir Solovief (1853-1900). As a young man he travelled much not only to London but also to the Near East, and he was concerned all his life to bring together what was specifically Russian and what the rest of the world had achieved. Of peculiar interest for our own purpose is the fresh interpretation which he gave to the decisions of the great Councils and the traditional doctrine of Christ as the God-man. "Christianity," he wrote, "is the revelation of a perfect God in a perfect man,"(3) and he understood the Incarnation less as an event which had taken place at one point in history than as something continually taking place. God is for ever becoming incarnate in the world; that indeed is the meaning of the historical process, that God becomes man so that man may one day become God. The root of the division of Christendom into East and West was, so Solovief urged, that each had grasped but one half of the truth. The West laid emphasis on man with its busy activities and its absorption in the things of this world; the East erred because in its liturgy and piety it withdrew from the world. The reunion of Christendom will come when at last we learn that truth is neither in God without man nor in man without God, but in the unity of the God-man; this will bring with it both the healing of the nations and the unity of the Church. Indeed, it will bring with it the Kingdom of God.

One more point deserves to be mentioned. In all three of these writers there is a strong sense of Russia's unique worth and of her Messianic mission. In the diary which Dostoievsky kept of his visit to Paris and London in 1862 we see how distasteful to him were the two capitals with their mediocrity, their comfort, their conventions, and their middle-class respectability. Even among the Westerners there were those who felt that Western Europe was corrupt and decadent and that new life could only come from Russia. Just because Russia had remained outside of European history for so long, just because she had preserved the institutions of an earlier social phase, she had kept her vitality unimpaired and would step one day into the place vacated by the moribund nations of the West. The Slavophiles gloried in the Orthodox Church as the one form of Christianity which had remained faithful to type and in The Idiot Dostoievsky makes one of his characters predict that the Russian Christ will one day shine forth upon the world. At the same time, he touches upon the possibility that something quite different from this may happen, that a fanatical atheism may seize upon the Russian soul and use it for a missionary purpose. But whether for God or against him, the future lies with Russia and from her the renewal of Europe will come.

1. Zernov: Three Russian Prophets, 61.
2. Ibid, 62.
3. Ibid, 144.


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Last revised: February 22, 2008