Nikolai Berdyaev
1874 - 1948

Nicholas Berdyaev, Orthodox nonconformist
from Third Way, October 1978

Lyn Atterbury discusses the life and writings of the Russian Christian philosopher
Lyn Atterbury is a Senior Community Service Supervisor with the Inner London probation service.

The vast expanses of the Russian steppe, whose only boundary is the heavens, seem to lead one almost instinctively to grapple with the eternal. Even in biblical thought the East is particularly the place of revelation, of striving with God. It was in the East that cherubim stood that marked the limits of man's wandering; it was in the East that the Star appeared.

And it was in the East, at Kiev on 6 March 1874, that Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev was born, a Russian, who, like Dostoievsky, wandered about in the world of the spirit, captivated by the history of the revelation of the divine and human.

He was a man who believed that Russia had a messianic destiny that would liberate man's creative personality from economic and political bondage – a destiny which he only too clearly saw had been corrupted by the rejection of the spiritual in the structure of the communist regime. Formally Professor of Philosophy at Moscow University he was exiled in 1922, along with a number of other dissidents, for propagating religious ideas. From his Academy of the Philosophy of Religion at Clamert in France, he considerably influenced thought in Germany and France during the 1920s, and following in the Kierkegaardian tradition was interpreted as a Christian existentialist. Shortly before his death on 23 March 1948 at Clamert he was awarded an Honorary DD from Cambridge University.

With the present renewed interest in Russian thought and Marxist doctrines, Berdyaev's writing remains striking and relevant and offers a critical perspective from within the traditions of Russian thinking. His commitment to, and interpretation of, Christian belief is provocative, as also is his work on the meaning of sex, a theme which he felt had been dealt with adequately by only two philosophers, Plato and Vladimir Soloviev.

Communist critique

Berdyaev's attitudes towards Marxism and the communist regime are significant, and particularly so because he was opposed to any kind of capitalist social order, which he believed would inevitably crush human personality. Delivering a lecture in January 1945 he was quite adamant that a "one must be a devoid of Christian conscience to affirm that capitalism is compatible with Christianity."

Writing shortly afterwards he gave these sentiments a context in which he defined his position more exactly, revealing a conflict of social and spiritual ideals. On the one hand he was able to describe the Russian revolution as being "inevitable and just" and on the other as:

"A consistent application to the life of Russian nihilism, atheism, and materialism – a vast experiment based on the denial of all absolute spiritual elements in personal and social life... Equality at any price ... leads to the destruction of all values ... in it is the spirit of non-being."

To Berdyaev spiritual and metaphysical emptiness is too dear a price to pay for social justice. Social justice was not to be built on an empty equality that "beat down to a dead level all the peaks of culture", but rather on the dignity and worth of every human person. So at the end of 1945 he wrote:

"Insofar as Soviet Russia wants to create a new life, it must place at its cornerstone the dignity and value of living human personality, which as yet we see nowhere. This has nothing in common with the individualism characteristic of capitalist social order, which crushes human personality .... But we must not forget that the deepest roots of humanism, personalism, and socialism are in Christianity, pure and undistorted."

As a student Berdyaev was manifestly a Marxist activist and a member of clandestine groups who yearned for the overthrow of the Tsarist regime. His early adoption of Marxist thought was to an extent part of his rebellion against his aristocratic pedigree, and also part of his resolve to devote his life to "a search for meaning and a search for eternity." In 1898 he was arrested following a student demonstration, spent two years in jail awaiting trial, and in 1900 was sent for three years' exile to the northern province of Vologda, having been found guilty of crimes against the state.

However, it was already becoming evident in his articles that his thought had not found its resting place in Marxism. In 1903 he attempted to state his position:

"I finally move from positivism to metaphysical idealism, and in conformity with this I change my attitude toward Marxism, from which I still retain the series of realistic social ideas, but which I deny as a whole world view."

By 1907 Berdyaev, together with a number of other intellectuals including Serge Bulgakov, a young Marxist professor of economics at Kiev Polytechnical Institute, had moved to religious faith and Christianity. This did not weaken his social conscience, but it did perhaps make it even more ambiguous. Berdyaev's own view was that he became a Christian not because he had ceased to believe in man, but because he was seeking a surer and deeper basis for his faith in man. It did, however, alter his interpretation of Marxism, and cause him to understand its appeal to the Russian mind from a new perspective.

In his view it was the strong messianic and eschatological thrust of the Russian Christian tradition that had subsequently provided the religious basis of communism, but because Marxism had eliminated the spiritual its philosophy was false and its results evil. As Berdyaev pointed out in one of his books (he was an indefatigable writer), The Realm of the Spirit and the Realm of Caesar, the most positive traits which the Revolution brought forth, the Russian's capacity for suffering and endurance and his communal spirit, were all Christian virtues developed in the people by Christianity. These issues are debated further in his earlier work The Origin of Russian Communism.

Nevertheless he maintained his belief that if Christians had embodied the truth of communism then its falsehood would never have won the day. The revolution of 1917 was really a judgment on Christianity – a warning to Christians to return to genuine Christianity, to recognize the emptiness of mere outward observance and apparent status, and to become involved in the conflict of the Spirit.

"People idealize the idea of revolution, and are ready to accept the coming revolution as the triumph of all that is good and beautiful. But all revolutions without exception reveal the extraordinary baseness of human nature in the majority.... Revolutions are a payment of the debts of the past, a sign that creative spiritual forces for reforming society were wanting. Hence we cannot expect revolution to produce the new man."

Cosmic drama

To those of us whose Christianity is as insular as the British Isles, Berdyaev's conception of Christian truth may appear threatening to our homely, domesticated gospel. It is in fact an unfortunate reality that Western Christianity has rarely responded warmly to those Christians whose faith has been expressed in the realms of philosophy, mysticism, or poetry. Spirituality that expresses itself outside the authority of the established church has always been regarded with suspicion, as the testimony of Simone Weil, that patron saint of all outsiders, has made indelibly clear.

Following his captivation by Christian belief, Berdyaev became a member of the Russian Orthodox Church but the same quest for truth that caused him to break out of the confines of traditional Marxism made him a kind of Orthodox non-conformist. Although he found his faith compatible with the Orthodox tradition – he never, even in exile, could have accepted either the authority of the Roman Church, or the sectarian nature of Protestantism – his free form of Christianity and his scorn of external hierarchy did not make him a great churchman. But he was totally committed to that spiritual, mystical, and socio-historical reality that was the church, and which did not make itself an abstract collective above and beyond the people who were its members.

His relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church was in fact stormy. His acknowledgment that "by intricate and tortuous ways I have come to faith in Christ and in His Church" did not stop him being critical. We could hardly expect otherwise from a man who was so sensitive to issues of freedom and spirituality. Berdyaev's restlessness with the Orthodox Church came to a climax in 1913 when he launched a blistering attack against the Holy Synod in an article called Quenchers of the Spirit. Incredible as it seems today, the Synod had directed that a torpedo boat be dispatched from Sebastopol to put down a new sects of non-conforming Russian monks on Mount Athos. He had earlier been critical in Nihilism on Religious Soil but this time, being extremely provoked, he lashed out furiously, sarcastically commenting on "heretical" monks being converted to the true faith of the Synod by the aid of bayonets:

"(This) bestial action ... reveals a hitherto unheard of decline of the church ... the very lowest, swinish, materialistic life is dearer to the Synodal church than the higher spiritual life.... The Synodal church is not the true church of Christ ... paralysis has already become rigor mortis ... it stinks like a corpse and is poisoning the spiritual life of the Russian people."

The reaction was inevitable: Berdyaev was arrested and charged with blasphemy, an offense which was then punishable by life exile to Siberia. Fortunately, perhaps providentially, his lawyer was able to drag out the proceedings until the Revolution which consequently annulled all pending cases.

It was the great messianic and eschatological themes of Christianity that appealed to Berdyaev. To him Christianity was so much more than a rather narrow and confining idea of individual salvation. It was also a cosmic drama in which the earthly was a symbol of a greater, spiritual, reality. Mere individual salvation limited the scope of Christianity to a suffocating legalism. It was more a matter of social and cosmic transfiguration. Exoteric Christianity had to be deepened and renewed by the esoteric. The esoteric involved a person in a spiritual conflict of tension, combat, and passion that got rid of system and dogma. It involved the risk of hurling oneself at God. Berdyaev's expression of Christianity was that of the spirit's freedom from all external conditions. Freedom and truth continually occupied him to the extent that he was called a "mystical anarchist". Like Kierkegaard, with whom he shared a common feeling of isolation and loneliness, he believed that truth was to be found in the subjective: rationalisation occurred when faith crumbled.

His view of scripture, like that of the Orthodox tradition, was supra-historical. For example, man's fall, as Berdyaev understood it, did not occur in the phenomenal world of time. Rather, the world and time were products of the fall, which is why he believed that the path which decides a man's destiny could not simply be the one which followed the world and its objective realities. Nevertheless he felt that man's creative potential, when combined with spiritual revelation, could realize the kingdom of God on earth.

Berdyaev continually stressed the world's downgrade into "rationalized darkness", and that man had become "an outcast, a stranger to himself". But his view of man is unusual and significant. He believed that the popular notion that before God man was nothing, was false and degrading; rather he affirmed that turned toward God man is lifted and enobled. He was a Christian not because he had ceased to believe in man, but because in Jesus Christ he found a deeper and a surer basis for his faith in man. To Berdyaev the rediscovery of man would also be the rediscovery of God. His outlook is superbly captured in these lines of Angelus Silesius:

"That God has need of me, I know,
He could not live apart from me
Should e'er I cease existence here below,
He too would cease to be."

The horror of hell is to have our fate left in our own hands, and, as Berdyaev once rather sharply commented, "the wicked create hell for themselves, the good create it for others".

Nikolai Berdyaev was a man of the Holy Spirit, but not in the flamboyant sense of today's charismatics. He believed firmly in the freedom of the individual. He saw freedom as a duty, and to have a fixed role in society troubled him. His concept of Christian fellowship and communion was expressed in the term sobornost – a totally non-authoritarian free togetherness in the Holy Spirit. The church community was like a symphony in which each retained his own unique part.

It was the Holy Spirit that prevented the truth of revelation from becoming static, from becoming stabilized in accord with the average normal thought of man. There was a distinction between the man who lives on the natural psychosomatic level, and the man who in the spirit gains a mastery over the natural. Berdyaev believed that the spirituality of Christianity was dangerous: he believed it could cause the collapse of nations and civilizations, and for this reason he considered that it had become domesticated and adapted to the mediocrity of everyday life.

The creative act

Creativity was a major theme in Berdyaev's thought. He believed in the possibility of a third epoch of revelation – an age in which the human spirit would be liberated from its prison, from the demands of necessity, when man would realize his destiny as co-creator with God. "The whole orientation of life," he wrote, "must turn from without to within ... everything external, material, everything of the object, is only a symbol of what is taking place in the depth of the spirit of man."

This idea of creativity, of man's religious vocation, formed his confession of faith, and it was stated in what was probably his most significant book, written in 1916, The Meaning of the Creative Act. The problem was concerned with how the order of necessity might be a overcome, and the genius of religious creativity preserved. Ethics and orders based on law and redemption merely regulated and preserved humanity, but they did not fulfill the eschatological hope of creating the new man. Necessity was a wrongly-directed freedom, and individualism was a disunited freedom divorced from the world. But the genuine creative impulse would emerge from a deep dissatisfaction with the given order, suggesting, and even being part of, another kind of order.

The creative person is one who does not belong to his own day – one who is not adjusted to his own time and throws out a challenge to it. Such creativity is always personal, immediate, and cosmic in influence, but the results so often become objectified and quenched, as, for example, the creativity of Christ was crucified by the history of Christianity. So being subject to both success and failure it has to be relentlessly striven for as a Christian duty:

"The failure of creativity is that it does not achieve its purpose of bringing the world to an end, of overcoming its objective. Its success, on the other hand, lies in the preparation it makes for the transformation of the world, for the Kingdom of God. Sin is burnt up in the creative fire. All the great creative works of man enter into the Kingdom of God."

It was from this perspective that Berdyaev approached the enigma of sex and love. He viewed sex as shackling man to an endless relay of birth and death – a drive for the preservation of the race – something rather mundane and uninspiring. On the other hand he recognized love as being outside the realm of racial necessity, a "foreign flower" that could not be moralised, socialised, nor even biologised. It was beyond necessity and purely creative. He defined it as the "tormenting search for the androgynous image". The quest was not to propagate the human race but to recover the androgyne – the bisexual nature of man that was marred by Adam's fall resulting in the division of male and female – to create the new man. From this point of view he regarded sex as sinful, leading to the corollary that "the family appears as a lower form of the intercourse of the sexes, and adaption of the inevitable sexual sin."

Traditionally the Christian attitude to sex had been either refusal or denial, but later sex was justified in the "bourgeois and utilitarian" institution of the family. Berdyaev was never happy with this because he felt that Christians had never provided sex with a meaning and metaphysic outside the racial element which in itself was commonplace. Indeed he felt that the Christian sanction of the family was too heavily loaded with economic utilitarianism, and that essentially the family was born not of freedom but of necessity. "In the depths of sex," he wrote, "creativeness must conquer begetting, personality must overcome race, union in the spirit must conquer natural union by flesh and blood .... This can only be the revelation of the androgynous Godlike nature of man." In the androgyne was the key to the mystery of the human condition.

Similarly, as far as Berdyaev was concerned, marriage had nothing at all to do with laws and contracts which were purely mundane and administrative. His own was described by a relative as "a spiritual marriage. They lived as brother and sister, like the first apostles." Berdyaev himself stated that "only a few achieve the true mystery of marriage" and declared that "any union of man and woman in which the sin of the sexual act is overcome and in which integrity is re-established is not a family union."

There are reminiscences of Kierkegaard in Berdyaev's lofty and mystical view of sex and love, and he may have been aware that his ideas stemmed very much from his own genius and creative calling. He wrote that "genius is incompatible with a bourgeois ordered sex life .... The new man is above all a man of transfigured sex." In viewing the family as the means of ordering man's fallen sexuality and a conservative force in the world, he similarly recognised that the greatest fear of the family was that of a revolution in sex which would threaten the racial order.


There is an extent to which Berdyaev was an enigmatic philosopher, and his critics are probably not wrong in their accusations that his teaching reveals pantheist and theosophist tendencies and that his religion belonged to the aristocratic elite. Like the contemporary French social critic Jacques Ellul, Berdyaev's thought explored a somewhat intransigent Christian radicalism that, whilst being mystically and spiritually inclined, was also socially provocative.

His work, and that of his contemporaries, Bulgakov, S.L. Frank and Soloviev, shows how the Revolution took place against the background of a torrent of religious and Christian philosophy. Because the form of Russian communism was so much influenced by the messianic themes of Christianity in Russia he was sure that communism in Europe would take on a very different form. Berdyaev's final political position was inclined toward some form of pluralistic socialism within which the differences in society should be based not on class and economy but on personality and culture. He believed that the social system of communism possessed a large share of truth that could be reconciled with Christianity, but the spirit, religion, and philosophy of communism was fundamentally evil. If society was to be renewed then it would depend on the response of Christians to fulfilling their prophetic and creative duty.

For those who have come to accept the enigma of being human, who recognize the mystery of the great questions of life, and who defy the easy answers, the Russian Christian tradition as expressed by Berdyaev and his contemporaries will be provocative and stimulating.


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Last revised: May 21, 2013