Nikolai Berdyaev
1874 - 1948

Shipping Away a Generation of Intellectuals

by Andrei Zolotov Jr.
from The St. Petersburg Times, Tuesday, August 27, 2002.

MOSCOW - On a quiet August day 80 years ago, Nikolai Berdyayev, perhaps Russia's best known philosopher, left his dacha in Barvikha where he had enjoyed his first comfortable summer since the Revolution five years earlier.

He was answering a summons from the GPU in Moscow, as the Bolshevik secret police had just been renamed. Berdyayev thought he was being called in to talk about a planned trip to Czechoslovakia, which had become possible with the new liberties of Lenin's new economic policy, or NEP.

Instead, together with dozens of other prominent philosophers, economists, sociologists, scientists, journalists and other intellectuals, Berdyayev was arrested on Aug. 16, 1922, charged with "anti-Soviet activity" and expelled from Russia.

He left Petrograd on Sept. 28 aboard the Oberburgermeister Hacken - one of two German ships that became known as a "philosophers' ship" - a real and metaphorical boat that carried away the nation's intellectual elite and, with it, the very notion of free intellectual pursuit.

After the turmoil of the Revolution, life for Berdyayev had seemed to be settling down. He had been appointed a professor at Moscow University and, for the first time, he had managed to get a dacha for the summer.

"When I was told that I was being expelled, I was crestfallen," Berdyayev wrote in Dream and Reality: An Essay in Autobiography, first published in 1949, a year after he died in Clamart, France. "I did not want to emigrate and I rejected emigre circles with which I did not want to blend. But at the same time, I had a feeling that I would get to a freer world and be able to breath a freer air."

The paradox of the expulsions is that what was a tragedy for these people, and for philosophy in Russia, in the end saved them from almost certain death in the purges of the 1930s.

One possible explanation for the Bolsheviks' unusual humanism was their desire to win diplomatic recognition from the Western powers. "Perhaps, the Bolsheviks were trying to show that their regime was not a barbaric despoty," wrote one of passengers, philosopher Nicholas O. Lossky, in his memoirs.

In the runup to the anniversary, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, declassified the files of two lesser known passengers of the philosopers' ship - the People's Socialist Party leader Alexei Peshekhonov, who served briefly as the Provisional Government's food-supplies minister in 1917, and journalist Viktor Iretsky - Izvestia reported Aug. 16.

Deputy FSB head Vladimir Shults stopped just short of saying that those expelled should have thanked the Soviet leaders.

"Today, we say this action was undoubtedly inhumane and violated human and civil rights," Izvestia quoted Shults as saying. "But, keeping in mind what followed, the 1922 mass deportation of intellectuals appears to have become a blessing for many of those expelled, even taking into account that their lives in emigration were not easy. Thanks to the action of Bolshevik leaders, outstanding academics remained alive and made a substantial contribution to the development of the world's science, technology and art."

Such a concept does not sit well with historians and descendants of the exiles.

"Please tell the FSB that they are deeply mistaken," Lossky's grandson said by telephone from a suburb of Paris.

"I am grateful that they were deported and not shot - otherwise I would not have come into this world," said Nicholas V. Lossky, a professor emeritus at the University of Paris who continues to teach at St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute there. But he said neither his grandfather nor Berdyayev nor Sergei Bulgakov, another of the deportees and one of the founders of the Paris theological institute, ever saw the expulsions as a blessing.

"They did not plan to leave Russia," he said. "Not because they were of Soviet convictions, but because they considered it their duty to share the destiny of their people."

A connection with Russia was important for the philosophers, most of whom had moved from Marxism to Christianity and who, despite many differences among themselves, were attempting to formulate a distinctly Russian metaphysics rooted in the country's history and culture.

All those arrested in August faced the same charge: "Since the October coup [name] not only failed to reconcile with the power of workers and peasants that exists in Russia, but did not stop his anti-Soviet activities for one moment."

None of those expelled were active in political opposition. With several exceptions, all wanted to be loyal citizens of the new Russia. Yet they continued to profess their ideals, which were different from those of communism.

"I recognize the Soviet power, but do not consider it ideal in terms of approaching the goal of the power of the people," Peshekhonov wrote in his protocol of interrogation.

Berdyayev said he advocated "a Christian society, based on Christian freedom, Christian brotherhood and Christian equality, which cannot be carried out by any party, i.e. I equally disagree with bourgeois society and communism." Excerpts from his GPU file are used extensively in Alexander Vadimov's biography of Berdyayev.

The expulsions were ordered when intellectual activity began to bloom with the NEP. It was also a period when the Communists began to enforce ideological uniformity and suppress any sign of a civil society. The year before, Lenin had disbanded the Committee for Help to the Hungry, or Pomgol, which included both government and public figures such as writer Maxim Gorky and theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky. Most members of the committee were imprisoned or exiled.

The year 1922 also saw a bloody campaign to confiscate church valuables. "The more representatives of the reactionary bourgeoisie and reactionary clergy we manage to shoot in this case, the better," Lenin wrote in a now-famous note. "It is now that we should teach the public such a lesson that it doesn't dare to think of any resistance for several decades." It didn't.

On May 19, 1922, Lenin wrote a letter to GPU head Felix Dzerzhinsky ordering him to track down non-Communist intellectuals. "To collect data systematically on the political background, work and literary activity of professors and writers," he wrote. "To assign all this to a diligent, educated and careful man at the GPU."

On June 8, the Politburo appointed two commisions: one to compile lists of professors, the other of students. On Aug. 16 and 17, most arrests were carried out in Moscow, Petrograd, Kiev and other major cities.

However, when the government applied to the German Embassy for a collective visa, Germany balked. "Chancellor Wirt replied that Germany was not Siberia and one should not send Russian citizens into exile there," Lossky wrote in his memoirs. "But if Russian scientists and writers apply themselves for a visa, Germany will gladly offer them hospitality."

Some of the intellectuals were then released, and delegates were elected to take care of the visa process, book the cabins on the ship and negotiate with the authorities about how many books and manuscripts they would be allowed to take with them. Lossky was one of the delegates.

The Politburo's lists have not been published, and the FSB refused to say when other files would be declassified, Izvestia reported. Memoirs differ on how many people were deported.

Modern-day philosopher Sergei Khoruzhy, who wrote a book on Russian philosophy, concluded that at least 77 intellectuals, accompanied by their families, were expelled. Of them, 23 were economists, agronomists and cooperative movement leaders; 13 were philosophers, sociologists and legal scholars; 13 were scientists and technical experts; 11 were journalists and writers; six were historians; six were religious activists; and five were doctors.

The Oberburgermeister Hacken left on Sept. 28. The second ship, the Preussen, on Nov. 16. Later that month, the deportees opened the Russian Academy of Philosophy and Religion in Berlin and in February 1923 the Russian Science Institute. But few won recognition outside Russian emigre groups.

One exception was Pitirim Sorokin, who founded the sociology department at Harvard University in 1930. Others also taught in Western universities.

"With the expulsions, philosophy in Russia ended," Khoruzhy wrote in After the Break. The Paths of Russian Philosophy. "What has since been called by that name in our country was in reality just a service of the totalitarian machine."

The expulsions were also a milestone on Russia's way to totalitarianism, because politically loyal but intellectually free people who consituted the basis of what came to be known as civil society were no longer to be tolerated.


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Last revised: February 18, 2003.