Nikolai Berdyaev
1874 - 1948

The Russian Spiritual Renaissance of Beginning XX Century
and the Journal Put'

(For the Decade Anniversary of Put')


The ten-year existence of Put' turns us towards the past, from which the journal emerged, towards the spiritual movement in Russia at the beginning of the XX Century. The beginning of the century was for us a time of great mental and spiritual excitement, of tempestuous searchings, of the rousing of creative powers. The purposes of the world were disclosed for us in those years. Contemporary youth, living amidst social catastrophes and cultural reaction, can but with difficulty perceive those inner spiritual processes, which then occurred. At present it is possible definitively to say, that the beginning of the XX Century signified for us a renaissance of spiritual culture, a philosophic and literary-aesthetic renaissance, an acuity of religious and mystical sensitivities. Never yet had Russian culture attained to such refinement, as at that time. It is scarcely possible to say, that what we has was a religious renaissance. For that there was not sufficiently strong a religious will, transfigurative life, and there was not participation in the movement among the wider strata of the people. This was nevertheless a movement among the cultural elite, estranged not only from the processes occurring among the masses of the people, but also from the processes occurring in the wider circles of the intelligentsia. There was a similarity with the romantic and the idealistic movement of the beginning of the XX Century. In Russia there appeared souls very keen to every breath of spirit. There occurred stormy and swift transitions from Marxism to idealism, from idealism to Orthodoxy, from aestheticism and decadence to mysticism and religion, from materialism and positivism to metaphysics and mystical world-perception. The gusts of spirit carried over all the world at the beginning of the XX Century. Alongside with the serious searching, with the profound crisis of souls, there was also the foolish vogue in mysticism, in occultism, in aestheticism, in a disdainful attitude towards ethics, and there was a confusion of soul-erotic states with the spiritual. There was no little of foolish chatter. But there occurred undoubtedly also the emergence of a new type of man, oriented more towards the inner life. The inner spiritual turnabout was connected with the transition from an exclusive concern for "this here side", which long prevailed among the Russian intelligentsia, towards a disclosing of the "thither world side". The perspective was altered. Another direction of consciousness resulted. There was disclosed a view upon other worlds, upon another dimension of being. And for the right to contemplate other worlds a terrible struggle was had. In part of the Russian intelligentsia, the most cultured, the most refined and gifted, there occurred a spiritual crisis, there occurred a transition towards another type of culture, closer perhaps to the first half of the XIX Century, rather than to the second half. This spiritual crisis was connected with the breakdown of integrality of the revolutionary intelligentsia's world-view, of an exclusively social orientation it was a break with Russian "enlightenment", with positivism in the broad sense of the word, it was a proclamation of rights to moreso a "thither-sidedness". It was a liberation of the human soul from the oppression of socialism, the liberation of creative powers from the oppression of utilitarianism. During the second half of the XIX Century in Russia was formed an intelligentsia soul-type, in which all religious energy inherent to the Russian people, was directed to socialism ("socialism, socialism or death", exclaimed Belinsky) and to the matter of revolution. In this was its own great truth. But the rights of the spiritual were not acknowledged, spirituality was completely dissolved into the social struggle, into the liberation and welfare of the people. At the beginning of the XX Century there resulted a differentiation, the region of the spiritual was detached and set free. The entire social- revolutionary world-outlook of the intelligentsia was rent asunder. The struggle was declared for the right of spirit and of inner life, for spiritual creativity, for the independence of the spiritual from social utilitarianism. This simultaneously was the struggle for person-ness, for the fulness of creative life of the person, a struggle with suppressive sociality. The person, as free spirit, was set in opposition to society and to its pretensions to define the whole of life of the person. The destiny of person was set in opposition to the theory of progress. Philosophically this signified, that the values of the cultural, the spiritual, the religious, the cognitive, aesthetic and ethical, were set in opposition to the exclusive supremacy of social welfare and need. Religiously this signified, that the value of the human soul, that person-ness and personal destiny were put higher than the kingdoms of this world. This transvaluation of values signified another relationship towards sociality. But the problem of society continued to disquiet our thought at the beginning of the XX Century. The crisis of world-outlook of the intelligentsia found its expression in the anthology "Problems of Idealism", which had appeared at the very beginning of the century, and somewhat later in the sensation-producing anthology "Signposts" ("Vekhi"). It came out in conjunction with the "Religious-Philosophic Societies", at Moscow, at Peterburg, at Kiev. In these societies occurred lively discussions on very pertinently burning themes of the religio-philosophic, the religio-cultural, the religio-social. The gatherings of the societies was well attended. Formed first was the "Religio-Philosophic Society in memory of Vl. Solov'ev" at Moscow, in which the chief figure was Fr. S. Bulgakov, then not yet a priest, but a professor of political economics at the Commerce Institute. Later there was founded on my initiative at Peterburg the "Religio-Philosophic Society". In fact I barely took part in the society founded by me, since I was gone from Peterburg, and its chief actualisers were the Merezhkovskys. I however actively participated in the Moscow society. In the Kiev society, founded later, there actively participated professors from the Spiritual Academy [trans. note: i.e. upper level seminary], which did not occur at Moscow or Peterburg. These societies were one of the expressions of the spiritual unrest, a transmitter of the thoughts of that time.

The Russian spiritual renaissance had several well-springs. However strange this may be at first glance, yet one of its well-springs was the Russian Marxism at the end of the decade of the 90's of the past century. About it I can speak, as about a lived-through experience, since I myself was one of the spokesmen of the transition from Marxism to idealism, and then to Christianity. The Russian Marxism of the 90's was itself already in a crisis of consciousness of the Russian intelligentsia. In it was subjected to critique the traditional intelligentsia consciousness of the second half of the XIX Century, which had expression mainly in populist socialism. Russian Marxism, as an ideological tendency, was not initially adoptive of a totalitarian Marxist world-outlook, it was not a continuation of the whole of the revolutionary temperament of preceding generations. In it was disclosed great cultural complexity, in it were roused mental and cultural interests alien to the old Russian intelligentsia. And first of all this was detected in the sphere of philosophy. Part of the Russian Marxists from the higher intellectual culture initially adopted for themselves the idealistic philosophy of Kant and Neo-Kantianism and they attempted to conjoin it with the social system of Marxism. This tendency was represented by S. Bulgakov and myself, P. Struve, S. Frank and several others. Marxism in its character was inclined towards the construct of broad and totalistic historico-sophistical concepts in which were strong messianic elements. Marxism had more philosophical sources, than did populism. I am convinced, that for some, e.g. for Fr. S. Bulgakov, Marxism was a peculiar sort of theology and they inserted into it their own religious instincts. In my first book: "Subjectivism and Individualism in Social Philosophy" ("Sub'ektivizm i individualizm v obschestvennoi filosofii"), which came out in 1900, I myself attempted to construct an integrated synthesis of Marxism and idealism. Perhaps more than other Marxists of this tendency I confessed a proletarian messianism, but I did not ground it on materialism. I was always an absolutist in regards to truth, to meaning and to wholeness, and I remember, how certain of my social-democrat comrades said, that in essence I stand upon a religious grounding and am in need of a religious meaning of life. My religious life involved not so much the consciousness of sin and search for salvation from perdition, as rather a search for eternity and for meaning. An abrupt conversion is not characteristic to this type. I studied the philosophic school of German Idealism and the idea about the existence of class truth or class justice appeared to me absurd and meaning nothing. Truth and justice are absolute and rooted in the transcendental consciousness, they are not of social extraction. But psychological and social conditions exist, propitious or non-propitious, for the perception of truth by man or for the realisation by man of justice. There is not a class truth, but there is a class falsehood, a class non-truth. And herein I attempted to construct a theory, according to which the psychological and social consciousness of the proletariat, as a class free from the sin of exploitation and free from being an exploiter, maximally is co-incident with the transcendental consciousness, with the norms of absolute truth and justice. By such manner proletarian messianism is affirmed on a non-materialist soil. Basically for me it was a question about the relationship of the transcendental and the psychological consciousness. The psychological consciousness was however for me determined by the economic and by class social circumstance. I wanted to surmount the relativism of Marxism and conjoin with it faith in absolute truth and meaning. I remember the sharp disputes, which I had on these themes with Lunocharsky in the Marxist circles. When as a young student I had a meeting in Switzerland with Plekhanov and argued with him about materialism, he said to me: "You will not remain a Marxist, with such a philosophy it is impossible to be a Marxist, remember my prediction". For him Marxism was inseparably connected with materialism. When I saw Plekhanov in 1904, he reminded me about his prediction. I was in the social movement a Marxist leftist, I was connected with revolutionary circles, but my social-democrat comrades always reckoned me an heretic and often were in hostility against me. When I was in exile in the north and had meetings with a vast number of exiled social-democrats, among my comrades in exile were A. Lunocharsky and A. Bogdanov, and I always sensed, that they reckoned me in spirit a man foreign, a man of another faith, of another world-outlook. I then very soon after published an article, "The Struggle for Idealism", in which was marked for me the transition from Marxism to idealism. The book of Fr. S. Bulgakov was entitled: "From Marxism to Idealism". In 1902 came out the anthology "The Problem of Idealism", in which took part with the former Marxists also representatives of a more academic and spiritual philosophy, such as P. Novgorodtsev and the princes S. and E. Trubetskoy. Crossover of the several tendencies occurred.

Another well-spring of the cultural renaissance of the beginning of the century was literary-aesthetic. Already at the end of the XIX Century had occurred fro us a change of aesthetic consciousness and a transvaluation of aesthetic values. There was then a surmounting of Russian nihilism relative to art, a deliverance from the relics of Pisarevitism. There was then a deliverance of artistic creativity and artistic values from the oppression of social utilitarianism, a liberation of the creative live of person. A. Volynsky and D. Merzhkovsky were among the first in this change of aesthetic consciousness and the relationship to art. The transvaluation of values was first of all expressed in a new appreciation for the Russian literature of the XIX Century, which the old social-polemic criticism could never properly appreciate. There appeared a type of philosophic and even religio-philosophic criticism in line with the aesthetic and impressionistic criticism. They saw the vast extents of the creativity of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and it began their more definitive influence upon Russian consciousness and Russian ideological tendencies. Already at the end of the 80's and the beginning of the 90's new souls were formed, developed by the influence of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, independently of the new appearing criticism. It is necessary to note L. Shestov, -- very involved with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nietzsche, an unique and original thinker with his own themes, but standing aside from all the tendencies and from the Christian renaissance in a proper context. For myself I can say, that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy held fundamental significance in my inner life. The graft- shoot received from them precedes the influence of German idealism and Marxism. It is necessary to note the appearance of a book of D. Merezhkovsky about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the best one of all those written by him, in which he tried in his own way to reveal the religious meaning of the creativity of the greatest of the Russian geniuses. He adapted the religious meaning too much to his own schema about spirit and flesh, but it is impossible to deny his service in this regard. Merezhkovsky denoted the awakening of a religious concern in culture, in religion. The artistic-aesthetic renaissance very soon acquired for us a mystical and religious tint. They wanted to go beyond the boundary of art and literature. And this was characteristically a Russian phenomenon. During the years 1902-1903 there were organised at Peterburg "Religio-philosophic gatherings"1, in which occurred the meeting of groups of the representatives of Russian culture and literature together with the clergy, with hierarchs of the Church. There presided at these gatherings the then archbishop of Finland, now Metropolitan Sergei, heading the Patriarchal Church. Among the participants of these gatherings it is necessary to mention V. Rozanov, D. Merezhkovsky, N. Minsky, V. Tarnavtsev, A. Kartashev. At these gatherings was presented a whole series of acute problems of "the new religious consciousness", directed to the hierarchs of the Church. Basically it was the effect of the problematics of V. Rozanov. He was a very conspicuous figure of the gatherings. In essence it was a collision of Rozanov, a talented critic of Christianity and herald of a religion of birth and life, a collision with traditional Orthodox, monastic-ascetic consciousness. There were presented problems of the relationship of Christianity towards sex and love, towards culture and art, towards the state and social life. Often this was formulated as a problem of Christianity towards "the flesh", which in my opinion was philosophically incorrect terminology. In line with the themes of Rozanov, a central role was played by the themes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. The secular participants of the gatherings were too much oriented towards literature while social problems in comparison were weakly expressed. Among the wide circles of the left intelligentsia "the religio-philosophic gatherings" encountered an hostile attitude.

Then however there began the influence of the upper strata of Russian culture and literature -- of the western literary modernism, of the French symbolists, of Ibsen, R. Wagner and particularly of Nietzsche. Nietzsche, in my perception, was one of the inspirers of the Russian renaissance of the beginning of the century and this perhaps gave the movement an amoralistic tint. The creativity of Ibsen held vast significance for me, and with him in part was bound up for me the fracture during the transition to the new century. Keen awareness of the problem of the person and its fate were for me most of all connected with Dostoevsky and Ibsen. This problem for me immediately assumed a religious character, it became the centre of all my world-outlook and was posed contrary to my exclusively social-oriented world-outlook. With this personalism is connected a primordial anarchistic element in my world- outlook, which separated me off from other Russian thinkers of the XX Century, and separated me off also from the Marxists. Most characteristic of the mood and tendency of the beginning XX Century were the so-called "Wednesdays of Vyacheslav Ivanov". Thus were called the literary gatherings on Wednesdays over the course of several years in the quarters of V. Ivanov, a very sophisticated and universal in spirit representative not only of the Russian culture of the beginning of the XX Century, but perhaps of Russian culture in general. The quarters of V. Ivanov were on the very top floor of an immense house opposite the Tavrida Palace. Down below revolution raged and political passions clashed. But up above at "the tower" transpired very refined conversations on themes of the loftiest spiritual culture, on themes aesthetic and mystical. I was perpetually a chairman of these gatherings over the course of several years and therefore I well know their atmosphere. Gatheredthere were the upper, "aristocratic" crust of Russian literature and thought. Occasionally there appeared people of the other world, e.g. Lunocharsky. Revolution percolated to the gatherings of "the tower", it was impossible to be completely insulated from it. At one of the "Wednesdays" there was a search-raid, lasting all the night. But there was a breaking asunder amidst this, that on the heights was occurring the Russian cultural renaissance and down below, in the broad levels of the Russian intelligentsia and in the masses of the people was sickness and terror. They lived in different centuries, on different planets. An element of utopian decadence entered into the Russian cultural renaissance and enfeebled it. There was great refinement of thought and sensitiveness about the absence of power and concentrated will, directed towards a changing of life. But astonishingly, all the tendencies rested upon a religious problematic. The journal "Questions of Life" attempted to conjoin and mirror all the new tendencies, in existence all of but the one year 1905. It co-incided with the first revolution. The journal was edited by S. Bulgakov and myself. G. Chulkov managed the literary-artistic section, D. Zhukovsky was the publisher. He emerged from the ruins of "The New Way", an organ of the Merzhkovskys, reflecting the viewpoints of "the religio-philosophic gatherings". The journal was an unification of the current, issuing from Marxism and idealism, together with the current, issuing from literature. "Idealists" inclining towards Christianity had encounters with Merezhkovsky, with Rozanov and others. The journal gave a place to the new currents in art and in literature, which opponents defined as "decadence". At the same time the journal stood upon the soil of social radicalism, it was connected with the left wing of "the Union of Liberation" and even printed articles not completely sundered from Marxism. All this was new in the histories of Russian intelligentsia ideologies. The journal expressed the crisis of consciousness and of the new searching. But in it was no unity nor definiteness, it combined tendencies, which then diverged into opposite directions. Into the journal entered still another element, which likewise was one of the well-springs of the Russian cultural renaissance.

One of the well-springs of the intellectual renaissance for us was the German philosophy and the Russian religious philosophy of the XIX Century, to the traditions of which there occurred a return. Schelling was always to a remarkable degree a Russian philosopher. In the decades of the 30's and 40's of the last century he had a vast influence on Russian thought, on Schellingists in the peculiar sense of the word and on the Slavophils, and he had also a great influence also on the philosophy of Vl. Solov'ev, the philosophy of which was in the lineage of Schelling. A re-worked Schellingism entered into Russian theological and religio-philosophical thought. The Schelling of the final period had particular significance, the period of "the philosophy of mythology and revelation". The yearning of Russian religio-philosophical thought for an organic wholeness, for the surmounting of rationalist dissection is very much akin to Schelling. I do not in the least deny the originality of the Slavophil thought, it was perhaps the first original thought in Russia. But it is impossible to deny, that the Slavophils received a powerful grafting-shoot from German romanticism and idealism, from Schelling and from Hegel. The idea of "organicity" was pre-eminently an idea from German romanticism. The Slavophils attempted to surmount abstract idealism and pass over into a concrete idealism, which perhaps could be termed realism. Yet the closer of Schelling was Fr. Baader, a free Catholic with strong sympathies for Orthodoxy. Fr. Baader was least guilty of the rationalism, with which the Slavophils unjustly were inclined to accuse all Western thought. Vl. Solov'ev was very nigh unto him, although it is impossible to ascertain a direct influence. At the beginning of the XX Century, after Kant and Schopenhauer they again began to read and to esteem Schelling and Fr. Baader and this contributed to the elaboration of the self-sustaining Russian religious philosophy, which was one of the most interesting phenomena of the spiritual renaissance. For myself I can say, that I read Fr. Baader with a greater rapport than I did Schelling, and this was for me a path towards Ja. Boehme, the encounter with whom was an enormous event in my intellectual and spiritual life. It was the finish of an epoch of the dominance of the positivism, hostile to metaphysics in the consciousness of the most cultured stratum of the Russian intelligentsia. This epoch continued through all the second half of the XIX Century, although it is necessary to remember, that at this same time there was also an opposite pole, they were contra-polar. Alone and little accepted in their own time were Vl. Solov'ev, Dostevsky and Tolstoy both, and the altogether unknown and unacknowledged N. Fedorov. In the more recent, those creative returned at the beginning of the century to the themes of Dostoevsky and L. Tolstoy and to the philosophy and theology of Vl. Solov'ev. For an entire generation Vl. Solov'ev became an almost legendary figure. He as a person perhaps accomplished more than did his philosophy, although it indeed was directed against rationalism, but itself rational too much in form and style. Vl. Solov'ev had an influence not only upon philosophy and theology, but also upon the poet-symbolists, A. Blok, V. Ivanov, A. Bely. I very highly regarded Vl. Solov'ev and I at present esteem him, very close for me was his teaching about God-manhood. But the manner in which Vl. Solov'ev philosophises was always foreign to me, I was always inclined towards the type of philosophy, which at present is called "existentialist". For my intellectual and spiritual life more significant were the teachings of Khomyakov about Christian freedom, and the second tome of "The Science of Man" of Nesmelov, and the "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor" of Dostoevsky, than were the books of Vl. Solov'ev. But all nonetheless, our generation esteemed Vl. Solov'ev and returned to the problems posited by him. It returned not only to Vl. Solov'ev, but also to Khomyakov, i.e. still further towards the sources of Russian religious philosophy. The people of my generation, the generation of the beginning of the XX Century, returning to Christianity and to Orthodoxy, returned first of all to the Orthodoxy of Khomyakov, to a Khomyakovic understanding of the Church. But this signified Russian modernism on Orthodox soil. Khomyakov was, certainly, a modernist, an innovator and reformer. His teaching about Sobornost' was not traditional, in it there entered into the Russian and into the Orthodoxy a transformative European humanism, in his teaching about freedom, in his radical denial of authority in the religious life there entered in the teaching about autonomy from German philosophy. Khomyakov was uniquely original as an anarchist in contrast with Vl. Solov'ev and this also made him characteristically a Russian thinker. K. Leont'ev sensed the modernist and reformist character of the ideas of Khomyakov, he saw in them elements, detestable to him, of liberalism, democratism, humanism. In rather later a period of the renaissance of the XX Century, already during the time of the war, Fr. P. Florensky, one of the most talented and original Russian thinkers of this era, by his aesthetic taste for conservatism and reaction in a shrill article rose up against Khomyakov, as not being Orthodox, as being a modernist, as being imbued with German idealism, an immanentist, a democrat, etc., etc. And undoubtedly, the ideas of Khomyakov might for us have been one of the sources of reform, but this reform regretably did not happen. Quantitatively the reactionary Church tendencies prevailed. But in any case in the religious problematics of our thoughts at the beginning of the century Khomyakov had no little significance, just as also did Dostoevsky and Vl. Solov'ev, and from thinkers of a later time V. Rozanov and N. Fedorov. Official theology had no sort of significance, the upper church hierarchy played no sort of role. Those, who entered more deeply into Church life, turned themselves toward the traditions of the startsi (elders), to the cult of St. Seraphim, but not towards academic theology nor towards hierarchical authority. Such conservative a Church activist, as M. Novoselov, acknowledged only the authority of the startsi (elders), and quite entirely did not recognise the authority of the episcopacy nor of the Synod. In the Russia of the XIX Century there was an abyss betwixt the underground spiritual life, being expressed in the startsi and sanctity, in the searchings for a New Jerusalem and the Kingdom of God, in free religious thought, and between official Church life, subordinate to the regime, deprived of the breath of Spirit.


The weakness of the Russian spiritual renaissance was in its absence of a broad social base. It emerged among the cultural elite. The struggle for spirit, for spiritual life and spiritual creativity led to a rift with the broad social movement and mass of the people and at the same time it was not in union with the traditional-conservative popular religiosity. The isolation of the creators of spiritual culture at the beginning of the century increased all the more. The need for surmounting the isolation pushed some to the right, they hoped to merge themselves with those of the Old Russia, from which the intelligentsia were cut off. But no one was properly successful at this. Often this was more a stylisation. It was clear, that for example Fr. P. Florensky, a man of the new form and having gone through the new experience, that in him are features of refined decadence, completely foreign to the traditional Orthodox type. The whole spiritual movement of the beginning of the XX Century, all the religio-philosophic thought of this time is a movement and thought of human souls, having gone through the accretive experience of humanism and sensing the need of a religious thinking-out of this experience. This fact is fundamental. And the reaction against humanism is a product of the experience of humanism in recent history, foreign and unperceivable to the traditional Orthodox type. This experience of humanism with all its contradictions was felt already by Khomyakov, by Dostoevsky, by Vl. Solov'ev. There is an abyss betwixt us and Bishop Theophan and even Starets Amvrosii. K. Leont'ev was himself an humanist of the type of the Italian Renaissance of the XVI Century, but he always affirmed the traditions of the Orthodoxy of Byzantium, of Philaret and Amvrosii, against the Orthodoxy of Khomyakov and Dostoevsky. He had an aesthetic taste for dualism, for the two-sidedness of being a man of the renaissance and a man of the Orthodox, monastic-ascetic type. He did not desire a religious thinking-out of the humanistic experience, but he possessed this experience. The Russian cultural renaissance uncovered the absence of unity in Russian culture. We did not have a single cultural type, nor was there a broad cultural middle nor cultural tradition. Each decade they shifted directions. What in common was there between about the cultural renaissance, about which I now recollect, and the Russian "enlightenment", the culture of P. Miliukov or G. Plekhanov? At the first half of the XIX Century there was all a greater unity in this sense, what prevailed was a type of idealist and romantic, having emerged in German culture. But with the separation into Slavophils and Westernisers, the schism intensified everything and in the XX Century reached the maximum. The representatives of Russian religio-philosophic thought of the XX Century sense themselves living on some completely different planet, than that, on which lived Plekhanov or Lenin. This was also in that instance, if they partially sympathised with them in the social attitude. Only afterwards did the chasm between the upper and lower levels of Russian culture, only afterwards did the breach in cultural growth and the alienation of the elite from the broader strata of the intelligentsia and the people in Russia become possible so apparent, as refined decadence. As regards the growth of Russian culture, by its past there seemed possible no place for decadence. And as regards this it was no less so for us at the beginning of the XX Century. Vyacheslav Ivanov by the refinement and universality of his culture, truly indeed, surpassed cultured people of the West and he is the manifestation of advancingly declining culture. This was paradoxical for a country full of youthful powers and turned towards the future. The first revolution of 1905 was tragically survived by the activists of the cultural renaissance. It repelled many by its coarse and ugly sides, by its hostility to spirit and this affected the tone of its subsequent course. This mood was expressed in the sensation-making for its time anthology, "Vekhi" ("Signposts"), in which the traditional world-outlook of the left intelligentsia was subjected to penetrative criticism. The processes of dissolution, having gained ground after the failed revolution, intensified the gulf between the upper cultural stratum and the manifestations of social activism. There was something fatal in this.

One of the manifestations of our renaissance was the creation of Russian religious philosophy. At the beginning of the XX Century there appeared for us a whole series of invaluable philosophic works, in which was traced out an original lineage of Russian philosophy. At this time when in Western Europe there still ruled positivism and Neo-Kantianism, in Russia there appeared a turn towards metaphysics, towards an ontological direction. Certain subsequent tendencies of European thought were conceived of previously in Russia. Much of what afterwards was affirmed by M. Scheler, N. Hartmann and existential philosophy, earlier was expressed by Russian philosophers of the beginning XX Century. For example, the shift of N. Hartmann towards ontological realism in the theory of perception was anticipated by S. Frank. Neo-Kantianism in general was overcome earlier in Russia than it was in Germany. Such for example was the philosophy of N. Lossky. Russian philosophical thought perceived itself essentially as ontological. It speculated not so much about perception as about being. It desired to appropriate perception, as a co-participation, it however conceived of being as concrete existence. In Russian philosophy, as also in the currents of the literature and art of this era, there was disclosed a religious tendency, an egress beyond the boundaries of the academic limits of philosophy. A religious philosophy was created, as an original outgrowth of the Russian spirit. As I already said, the ideas of Khomyakov, Dostoevsky and Vl. Solov'ev had the most influence on its creation. But at the basis of this religious philosophy lay an unique and new spiritual experience, distinct from the people of the XIX Century. Even though had we not esteemed Khomyakov, but between us and him there lies an abyss, a survived catastrophe. For the construction of the religious philosophy of the XX Century it was the survivors Marx and Nietzsche, the critical philosophy and the new currents in art, socialism and anarchism, aestheticism and apocalyptic mysticism, and the 1905 revolution. There was no solid ground beneathe us, the ground burned, there was already no stable organic being as with the Slavophils, we were alive in every respect, both in the spiritual and the social sense, during the pre-revolutionary epoch. And this was expressed in the apocalyptic and eschatological tone of many of the currents of thought of that time. There was a turning towards the end. But that turning towards the end not seldom also was accompanied by a turning towards the sources. Russian Christian philosophy was very distinct from the Western, from the Catholic and the Protestant. The greatest kinship was nevertheless with German thought, not with the official Protestant, the Lutheran, but with volitional thought, with German Christian theosophy. It is possible to find points of contact with German mysticism, with Fr. Baader, even with Hamann, and particularly with the Schelling of the final period. For Germanic thought enrooted in mysticism characteristically there is a connection of the drama of salvation with the drama of cosmic life. This tendency was also in Russian thought, although here there was no borrowing. In the Russian religious philosophy of the beginning of the century there were several tendencies and currents. The more prevalent tendency wanted to return to the tradition of Platonism, -- ruptured off in the Russian official theology, it wanted to return to Eastern patristics. Vl. Solov'ev had already returned to Platonism, but now they wanted to give this a more patristic and Orthodox character. In line with this stood Fr. P. Florensky, in whom was a strong aestheticising and stylistic element, and Fr. S. Bulgakov, who emerged from the free religious philosophy of the beginning of the century, but then put his thought in the form of a theological system. For this trend characteristically it perhaps might be termed the cosmic orientation of religious thought. Sophiology is connected with this cosmic orientation. This is an ascent towards the idea of the transfiguration and divinisation of the created world. Perhaps so to speak, it posited a problem of primacy of Sophia or Logos, cosmos or person. Consciously the problem was not posited thus, but such was its substrate. This was likewise a problem about the Divine element in the creature, of overcoming the extreme transcendentalism, attributive to Catholic and Protestant thought, and likewise also Orthodoxy officially. Russian religious philosophy definitely clashed with the official theology, in which there was no sign of creative thought. I myself stood not in this Platon-Sophiological line of Russian religious philosophy. I am not a Platonist and not a sophiologist, unlike V. Solov'ev, unlike P. Florensky, unlike Fr. Bulgakov. My religious philosophy was always oriented anthropologically, not cosmologically, and I was always closer to that type of thought, which they now call existential philosophy. As regards my spiritual sources, I was closer to German mysticism, than to Plato. The fundamental problems for me were the problems of man, freedom, creativity. The problem of the cosmos however represented for me a problem produced by the problem of man. There are two orientations religiously of the philosophic thought -- an orientation towards the praeternal Sophia, and the orientation towards praeternal freedom. I belong to the second direction, although I do not at all deny the problem connected with Sophia and with the cosmic illumination. I say this, so as to stress the complexity of direction in Russian religious philosophy, which cannot be considered a single school. Generally for us there was an identical opposition of religious thought to rationalism, which purports signification of the knowledge of God to rational concepts. This meant acknowledgement of an antinomy for reason, an acknowledgement of the mysteries of the Christian revelation. Here I was in agreement with Fr. P. Florensky, who represented for me an opposed and hostile type of religious thought. And in general here it was that the religious problem of the created world, the cosmos and man, was acridly put forth. We were all pan-entheists (not pantheists). We all acknowledged the existence of the incommensurability between man and God. The speculation of Western Christianity, in particular Thomism, seemed to us in this regard as naturalistic. Likewise foreign was the Protestant concept of justification and salvation. Without doubt the idea of transfiguration took precedence over the idea of salvation. The chief powers of religio-philosophic thought were concentrated around the publication "Put'" ("The Way"). The journal "Put'" continues indeed with this tradition.

Russian religious thought of the beginning of the XX Century was doubtless modernism on Orthodox soil, insofar as yet might be called modernism whether the thought of Khomyakov, Vl. Solov'ev, Dostoevsky, Bukharev. This was the exit-way beyond the frameworks of the traditional official Orthodoxy. But this Russian modernism is very distinct from Western modernism, Catholic or Protestant. Its fundamental motifs were not those of a concurrence of Christianity with contemporary science or contemporary political life and least of all would this modernism signify doubting the Divinity of Jesus Christ. Its motifs were purely religious, spiritual, mystical. The Russian religious tendencies of various nuances were uniquely a pneumo-centrism [i.e. spirit-centrism]. The Russian Christian thought was essentially pneumo-centric and in this is its distinction from the Western. Many awaited a new influence of the Holy Spirit on the world. Sometimes this assumed the form of expectation of a new revelation of the Holy Spirit and with this was connected the revealing of the Christian attitude towards culture and social life, the revealing of truth "about the earth", the revealing of religious meaning about human creativity. This at the same time signified a thinking-out of the experience of the humanism of recent history, as rather a religious experience. At the centre stood the idea of God-manhood, of the Divine-human life of the grace-abundant Holy Spirit. And in the various religious tendencies there were encounters, interactions, and sometimes mutual opposition of the two eternal principles of religious life -- the sacramental principle and the prophetic principle. For the one the transfiguration of the created world, the transfiguration of the fulness of human life is signified first of all by the sacramental, the sanctification of the flesh of the world and history by charismatically-graced energies. For the other this transfiguration ought to signify first of all a real change, not merely symbolic sanctification, a spiritual and social transformation, towards which there ought to be a prophetic attitude. Sacramentalism is the symbolised, propheticism is the realised. I always sensed myself in the second tendency. The first, the sacramental tendency, was particularly expressed by Fr. P. Florensky, for whom this assumed an almost magic form. Just as then already in the time of Khomyakov, in the religious movement at the beginning of the XX Century there were stirrings and possibility of a Russian reformation, using this word not in specifically a Protestant sense. But the Russian reformation for various reasons did not succeed, and the spiritual renaissance remained within a narrow circle. And this had fatal results for the Russian revolution. The schism within Russian life intensified and resulted in catastrophe. The duality and indeed the dual-mindedness of the Russian spiritual renaissance was connected with this, this into were entered pagan elements (they were introduced by Rozanov, Merezhkovsky, V. Ivanov and partly even by P. Florensky with his magicism, "the Kushite", as Khomyakov would say). The problem of the synthesis of Christianity and humanism sometimes was replaced by the problem of the synthesis of Christianity and paganism. The problem of "spirit", i.e. freedom, was mixed up with the problem of "flesh", i.e. magic necessity.


The Russian revolution disclosed straight off a terrible schism between the upper cultural stratum and the masses of the people. The culture of this upper level was foreign to the people. The people crossed over from a naive Orthodox faith, in which pagan superstitions were yet not entirely overcome, to a naive materialistic and communistic faith. In the revolution there occurred a breakdown of Russian culture, a sundering of cultural tradition, which did not occur, for example, in the French revolution. A casting-down of the cultural stratum occurred. N. Chernyshevsky was victorious over Vl. Solov'ev. All the complex religious problematics of the beginning XX Century vanished behind the elemental reactions against the persecution of Church and Christians. In the Orthodox midst there began a reactionary and passively tinged apocalyptic disposition or a more callously existing reactionary mood. There was a forgetting of the critical thought of the beginning XX Century, directed against a theocratic utopia and against the connection of Church with sacred monarchy. They poorly perceived the religious meaning of the revolution, its inevitability for Russian destiny. Although the revolution was a sundering of the higher culture and was perceived as a catastrophic rift in the cultural tradition, it however was more traditional, than they think2. The very hostility towards an higher quality culture was traditionally a Russian hostility. This was already evidenced by the prevailing dispositions of the second half of the XIX Century, by Russian nihilism. It is remarkable, that our conservative and Orthodox currents were likewise nihilistic in regard to higher culture. It mustneeds likewise be said, that the simplification of thought, the degradation of the capacity of culture is not a peculiarity of the Russian revolution, -- it is a worldwide phenomenon. After the World War there began a worldwide epoch of the masses, hostile to spiritual culture, interested exclusively in technical civilisation. This, indeed, is an inevitable dialectic moment in the process of social re-structuring of human societies. From the point of view of intellectual culture this was a reactionary manifestation. From another side it mustneeds be said, that the spiritual currents of the beginning of the XX Century insufficiently understood the religious significance of the social question. The problem of "bread" is not only a material, but also a spiritual problem, a problem of the relationship of man towards man.

The danger, to which spiritual culture was subjected during the abating of the revolution, led to the creation on my initiate at Moscow in 1919 of the "Free Academy of Spiritual Culture" ("Vol'naya Akademiya Dukhovnoi Kul'tury", or "V.A.D.K."). I was president of this academy until autumn 1922, i.e. until my expulsion over the border and until its cessation. The "Free Academy of Spiritual Culture" bore a different character than the religio-philosophic societies, which discontinued after the revolution. It unified at Moscow the then present cultural forces, which desired to struggle for spirit and spiritual culture in an atmosphere of growing antagonism to spirit. In it participated also people, who did not consider themselves Christian, but advocated spiritual culture. On the whole it was not a struggle with communism, as a social system, but rather a struggle with materialism and atheism, a struggle with the denial of spirit. There was nothing of the political in the "Free Academy of Spiritual Culture". The sole lecture about communism was even given by a communist, though also sufficiently free in a philosophic regard. When they summoned me to the Moscow section of the Cheka for an explanation concerning the activities of the "Free Academy of Spiritual Culture", it was only with the greatest difficulty that I succeeded to explain to the interrogator, what suchlike "spiritual culture" was. The "V.A.D.K." was one of the reasons for my banishment from Soviet Russia, demanded not for political but for ideological reasons. At the "V.A.D.K." were read courses on questions of spiritual culture, seminars were conducted, public lectures with debates were organised. In the final winter certain of the lectures attracted such a crowd of people, that I in the capacity of president received a note, cautioning me about the possibility that the floor could collapse at the hall of the Women's High School, where the gatherings occurred. Suchlike were the lectures of Stepun about the book of Spengler "The Decline of Europe", the lecture of Fr. P. Florensky about the magic of word, and my lecture about Christianity and theosophy. After the expulsion over the border of a whole group scholars and writers in the autumn of 1922, I together with S. Frank, B. Vysheslavtsev and others founded at Berlin a "Religio-philosophic Academy", which was intended to be a continuation of the spiritual traditions of the "religio-philosophic societies" and the "Free Academy of Spiritual Culture" in a new setting. There assisted us in the organisation of this institute, which exists more than 12 years being transferred to Paris in 1924, -- the secretaries of the American Christian Union of Young People, G. G. Kuhlmann and P. F. Anderson, were under the customary sympathy for Russian matters of Dr. Mott. It was providential, that Protestant Christians were found in the West, so very sympathetic and actively giving help to the Russian movement. There began an altogether new epoch of the emergence of Russian religio-philosophic thought onto the European and world arena. There was an organic connection with past Russian thought and the spiritual culture of the XIX Century and the beginning XX Century, but it was also new, connected with a survived lived-through experience. The experience of the revolution was also a religious experience and after it, it was impossible to return to the pre-revolutionary or the nigh-before revolutionary moods of the beginning of the century. The difficulty was in this, that the Russian foreign presence, in which it happened to act, was considerably on its part religiously and socially reactionary. Among the foreign Russian Christian youth the traditions of Russian religious thought were forgotten, they simply did not know of them. There had occurred a cultural reversion to the wild, seizing hold even the older generation, beset by political passions. It had to contend with the surroundings, to go against the prevailing current. However, there was no growing accustomed to this. At the beginning of the XX Century otherwise it had to go against the current prevailing amidst the Russian intelligentsia. A new positive developement in comparison with the beginning of the century was the emergence of the Russian Christian movement for the youth abroad. Thanks to the Christian Union of Young People the varied forms of Russian religious activism were brought into synthesis. In 1925 was founded the journal "Put'", as an organ of Russian religious thought. Ten years of existence -- is a lengthy period in the conditions of the emigration. A large role in the initiating and creating of "Put'" was played by G. G. Kuhlmann, then secretary of the YMCA for Russian affairs, and now involved with the League of Nations. There was a congress in Savoy on the Swiss frontier, with the participation of Dr. Mott, at which was decided the publication of the journal "Put'". When in the capacity of chief editor -- I pondered the character of the emerging journal, it certainly for me did not enter my mind, that "Put'" could have a very definitive, an unique direction, let us say, "my" direction. For me it was apparent, that such a journal could exist only as a broad unification of available forces of Russian religious thought and spiritual culture. "Put'" also united all the available intellectual forces. Excluded were only the representatives of the clearly obscurantist directions, hostile to thought and creativity, who had for their sympathising part of the masses of the emigration. "Put'" provided a place for theological works, but was not specifically a theological journal. It was a journal of spiritual culture. It also printed articles, which do not appear in a narrow sense confessionally-Orthodox. "Put'" happened to struggle for the freedom of the religious, of the philosophic, of social thought, for freedom of creativity. And it must needs be considered, that "Put'" was successful somehow in this regard to do so. It stood outside of and above the typical political and ecclesial passions of the emigration. Despite the "left" social orientation of the editor, the journal became removed from the usual "right" and "left". The positive meaning and justification of the emigration is altogether not in the area of politics. The positive meaning might however be first of all in defense of freedom, in the creation of a forum for free thought, in the creation of an atmosphere of free creativity. This atmosphere, alas, is not in the emigration. It is afflicted with political passions and reactionary emotions, in it was memorised a "social opinion", bearing animosity for free thought and creativity. And such manifests itself not only by the "right wing" social opinion of the emigration, but also by its so-called "left wing" social opinion. "Put'" was outside of this. For me it was however immediately clear, that "Put'" ought to creatively continue the traditions of the Russian free religio-philosophic thought of the XIX and XX Centuries, to maintain the connection with these best traditions. In Soviet Russia one cannot express -- not only free religious and philosophic thought, but also in general no sort of free thought. In this already is justification of the existence of "Put'", for those abroad. "Put'" is likewise a journal unique in the world, standing on the spiritual soil of Orthodoxy. In "Put'" appear also articles not Orthodox in the narrow sense of the word, but in basic orientation are Orthodox. It mustneeds be said, that the word "Orthodox" possesses less definitive a meaning, than many of the naive and insufficiently knowledgeable people presuppose. There exist many interpretations of "Orthodoxy" as also of Christianity in general, and there are perhaps many directions in "Orthodoxy" [trans. note: (sic) Even Saints Cyril and Methodius initially rendered it in Slavonic not as "pravo-verie" or "pravo-uchenie" -- "right-belief" or "right- teachings" in the generic sense of "orthodox", e.g. "orthodox Marxists", but rather they translated the word literally from the Greek meaning of their time as "right-glory", -- where the Parmenidean "doxa" meaning "opinion" has been supplanted by the NT "koina" Greek meaning of "doxa" as "glory"]. Church conservatives and obscurantists accuse "Put'" of modernism. For this, so that this would have somehow a distinct meaning not distorted by the emotions, it is necessary to decide what is suchlike a "modernism", whether "Put'" corresponds to this, and most important, whether it be bad or good to be a "modernist". Conservative useage of the word "modernism" signifies in general the appearance of creative thought, independent thought of its own time, of its own epoch in distinction from repetitive thoughts of former epochs. In this sense invariably it is necessary to be a "modernist", and "anti-modernism" is simply an ossification of thought, bordering on complete mindlessness. Russian "anti-modernism" is also pre-eminently an absurdity. In their own time the teachers of the Church adapting Platonism to Christianity, and the scholastics, adapting Aristotelianism to it, were "modernists". Thomas Aquinas was reckoned an extreme "modernist" in his time. And in the old teachers of the Church and the scholastics it is the "modernists" namely that would bear the resemblance, and not those, who lifelessly repeat their thoughts. The word "modernism" is both vague and perhaps there is a perfectly negative modernism, signifying the weathering of the Christian faith. But in principle the defense of "modernism" is a defense of life, of growth, creativity, freedom, thought. I would wish, that "Put'" were in this sense "modernistic" an organ and I would contend, that it is insufficiently "modernised". A fidelity in particular to the traditions of Russian religious thought, just as also patristic thought, obligates it to be a "modernist" organ. Fidelity to these traditions does not signify repetition of old themes and thoughts. On the contrary, this fidelity obligates the raising of new themes also for creative thought. The problematics of the Russian spiritual renaissance of the beginning XX Century remain. But these are problems, which are put forth with a greater acuity, than at the beginning of the century. Suchlike is the ecumenical problem, the problem of rapprochement and the re-unification of the divided parts of the Christian world. Suchlike is the religio-social problem, a problem of the re-structuring of the world in a religious, a Christian illumination. Personally I give the social problem a greater significance for the fate of Christianity. Such likewise is the problem of the worldwide crisis of culture. The ponderings of our era are more realistic, more free from romantic illusions, than the ponderings at the beginning of the century. In the world the power of "Put'" ("The Way") attempts to reflect this, i.e. to correspond to the problematics of our era, i.e. to be a "modernist" organ in the positive sense of the term. Within the present Russian generations, just like everywhere in the world, there occurs a lowering of cultural standards, a barbarisation, a decline of cultural intellectual interests, and there obtains with the rule of the masses both an affected and elemental, simplified thought. There is occurring a transition from the rule of an intellectual cultural type, which however never did take hold with the masses, to the rule of a militarist and technical type, which does take hold with the masses. We live in an era of obscurantist and clerical reaction. "Put'" in any case cannot go in for this lowering of quality, it mustneeds struggle for the quality of spiritual culture, even though but few remain faithful to it. In our era it is most of all imperative to struggle for man and humanity, to struggle religiously and socially. The tasks of the Russian religio-philosophic and religio-social thought remain creative, turned towards the future and not towards the past. This is a task of sustaining the light, lest there become great darkness. And if the present and the impending future are not for us, then we mustneeds be turned towards a more distant future.

Nikolai Berdyaev

(Journal "Put'", oct./dec. 1935, No. 49, p. 3-22).


  1. The religio-philosophic gatherings preceded the formation of the religio-philosophic societies.
  2. [trans. note: Footnote "*" shown in original text, but footnote missing from bottom of page.]

Copyright 19 March 1998 by translator Fr. S. Janos.


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