Sunday, 6 March 2011

Nicolas Berdyaev: The Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution has interested the whole world in Russia and the Russian people. The peoples of the West are uneasy about the Communist experiment, accompanied as it is by a forced implanting of atheism such as the world has never yet known-an experiment carried on in a vast country which is little known to, and little understood by, the West. What must be of great interest is the psychological problem : How was it possible for Holy Russia to be turned into an arsenal of militant atheism ? How is it that a people who are religious by their very structure and live exclusively by faith have proved to be such a fruitful field for anti-religious propaganda ? To explain that, to understand Russian anti-religious psychology, one must have an insight into the religious psychology of the Russian people.

The nineteenth century saw the advent of an original type of Russian, different in spiritual structure from that of mediaeval Muscovite Russia, and it is this type which gives us the key to the militant atheism of the Russian Revolution. In Russia it was a century of thought and word, in which the structure of the Russian soul was first realised and expressed ; in which creative art and thought have left memorials through which we can study the religious and anti-religious tendencies of Russian psychology. But the roots of this soul-structure we are to study lie embedded in the tragic history of our past, and above all in the religious schism (Raskol) within the Russian Church of the seventeenth century, the effects of which are still at work in our own day. The Raskol is a characteristic and decisive phenomenon of Russian history, and we have not deflected from its orbit. Russians are, by their very psychology, inclined to become raskolniki (schismatics). The historic religious schism is not to be explained merely by the fact that a considerable portion of the Russian people and clergy in the times before Peter the Great were grossly ignorant and identified ritual with dogma. The struggle was carried on not merely to preserve the ancient rites, the letter of the law, in all their purity. Deeper motives, to be found in the psychological history of the Russian people, were in action. They had long been moved by the feeling of a messianic mission.

It found expression in the fifteenth century, in the teaching of the monk Philothey concerning Moscow, " the Third Rome." Byzantium had fallen, and the only Orthodox Empire left in the world, according to Philothey, was the Russian ; the Russian nation, alone on the earth, was the depositary of true Orthodox faith; all the outer Christian world had tarnished its purity. The idea of an Orthodox Empire became the Russians' central idea-a messianic idea.

When Greek influence showed itself in the correction of the service-books and the alteration of the rites, this was taken as a betrayal of the Orthodox Empire, the civil power and the hierarchy of the Church. Religious and national sentiment were as closely wedded as in the consciousness of the ancient Jews. When the Patriarch Nikon fell under Greek influence, he seemed a traitor. Antichrist had penetrated into the Orthodox Empire, into State and Church. The hierarchy was corrupted. The true Church went out into the desert and hid beneath the earth. The Orthodox Empire, like the town of Kitesh *, became an invisible one. The raskolniki took refuge in the forests and hid

* According to legend, the " Shining Town " of Kitesh, rather than fall a prey to the Mongols, sank to the bottom of a lake. (Translator's note.) from persecution. The more fanatical and exalted among them burned themselves to death ; the sect of" self-burners " is a typically Russian phenomenon.

Another extreme form of the Raskol is bezpo-povstvo (" priestlessness "), which rejects every sort of hierarchy, has a strong apocalyptic and eschatological tendency, and is nihilistic in its attitude to the structure of the Church, to the State, and to culture.

Russian Nihilism and the apocalyptic strain in the Russian character are connected, and their connection shows itself in the extreme forms of the schismatic spirit. Nihilistic and apocalyptic tendencies, hankering after spiritual nakedness, refusal of the processes of history and of cultural values, expectancy of some final catastrophe, are deeply rooted in the psychology of the Raskol. Its extreme left wing brought forth a multitude of sects. The monarchism of the Old-Believers developed into anarchism. The psychology of the Raskol, a divorce between the Church's people and her rulers, between the common people and the cultured class, grew more and more strong and violent. The reform of Peter the Great greatly increased it. Popular feeling saw in Peter's reform, or, rather, in his revolution, an act of violence against the people's soul, and answered it by creating the legend that he was Antichrist. Henceforth the Orthodox Christian Empire is taken as having finally disappeared from the visible world, and the realm of Antichrist takes its place. Imperial Russia, soaked in Western civilisation, is no longer the Orthodox Empire in the strict sense of the word. An attitude of aloofness and suspicion towards the authorities grows up. The Russian religious messianic idea remains, but it settles into a profound divorce from its actual surroundings. Orthodoxy, bound up with the dominant Church but opposed to Protestant or " enlightening" influences, kept much in common with the Old-Believers and raskolniki. Apocalyptic feelings, connected with the awaiting of Antichrist, are very strong among the people, and they come to light also in currents of religious thought among the cultured classes, in Russian writers and thinkers. And these tendencies remain as psychological forces, but in a secularised form, in movements which are divorced from Christian religious consciousness. Thus a schismatic and eschatological disposition is the fundamental psychological fact of the Russian nineteenth century ; it will express itself both in a religious way and in an anti-religious (an inverted religious) way.

The Russian intelligentsia of the nineteenth century was a class of intellectual schismatics, an intellectual Raskol. It lived in disagreement with the present, with Imperial Russia; it looked either to an ideal past, idealising the Russia before Peter, or to an ideal future, an idealised West. It did not feel the successes of the Russian State to be its own successes. Lack of any foundation or root in real life was a characteristic feature of the Russian soul in the nineteenth century. And with it went a great independence and boldness of thought. All intellectuals, whether Slavophil or Occidentalist, refused their own time as a period in which the vocation of the Russian people was not fulfilled ; and such a negative attitude to contemporary life is a revolutionary element. The Slavophils looked to the past, to Russia as it was before Peter the Great, while the Occidentalists looked to the West ; but both former Russia and Western Europe were dreams, not realities.

When the Occidentalist, Herzen, found himself in the West and saw its commonness, he underwent a most painful disenchantment; he inveighed against the bourgeois spirit of the West, which has always revolted Russians. As for the Slavophils, they were convinced monarchists, but the monarchy of Nicholas I disgusted them. Russian thought in the nineteenth century, fed on German romanticism, adopted its themes and developed them in its own way. It was thought without roots; and this defect was a national feature ; it could only dream of some organised form of culture.

In the spiritual fabric of the cultured intellectual class of Russia in the nineteenth century a number of features typical of later developments appeared : divorce from contemporary life ; consciousness of the gulf that separated it as a class from the people and from the rulers ; eschatological feeling as a spiritual disposition independent of religious faith, sometimes religious and sometimes social ; expectancy of a catastrophic end ; maximalism ; little understanding of hierarchical degrees and of the gradual nature of historical developments ; a tendency to deny the value of the relative, and to turn it into something absolute ; an inclination towards opposite extremes ; a curious kind of asceticism; contempt of worldly goods and bourgeois virtues ; a crying demand for the actual attainment of justice in human life, above all in social life. One can recognise these features in the most contradictory tendencies.

The Russian soul of the nineteenth century was a suffering soul brought to the point of self-torture. Compassion for human suffering was the fundamental theme of its literature-a spiritual disposition that fed upon the painful aspects of serfdom. It was essentially a non-acceptance of suffering ; not a refusal to suffer, but a refusal to admit that there was any meaning in it. Now, this Russian suffering and compassion had two sources : in some it came from consciousness of guilt, contrition, an uneasy conscience ; in others from a feeling of offence, resentment, a revolt of the oppressed. And the basic phenomenon which we have to notice is that we have here a transposition of religious motives and religious psychology into a non-religious or anti-religious sphere, into the region of social problems, so that the spiritual energy of religion flows into social channels, which thereby take on a religious character, and become a breeding-ground for a peculiar form of social idolatry. Creative social energy was not free to find its realisation in the conditions of actual Russian life, it was not directed into actual social construction ; it entered into its own self, modified the texture of the soul, elicited a passionate visionary social idealism, and accumulated an explosive force in the depths of the subconscious mind. No one had a more profound insight than Dostoievsky into the fact that Russian Socialism was not a political but a religious question, the question of God, of immortality and the radical reconstruction of all human life. Socialism, broadly speaking, was the dominant religious faith of most of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia. It determined all moral judgments. It was above all a matter of sentiment. The Russians' interpretation of Saint Simon, Proudhon and Karl Marx was a religious one ; they took to materialism also in the same religious spirit. Dostoievsky revealed the religious psychology and religious dialectics of Russian Nihilism and revolutionary Socialism. And once one has understood the basis of Russian Nihilism, and recognised it as an original product of the Russian spirit, one is able to grasp the source and basis of the militant atheistic element in Russian Communism.

Russian Nihilism was directed, at its origins, by religious motives which concealed a perverted religious psychology. Russians became Nihilists through a kind of love of truth and justice. It was Bielinsky, the Russian Orthodox literary critic and publicist of the 'forties, that came in the latter period of his life to hold the philosophy which laid the basis of Russian Nihilism and nihilistic Socialism. A typical intellectual raskolnik, Bielinsky searched for truth throughout his life and became a Nihilist and an atheist for love of justice and the welfare of the people and of humanity. In his person the idealism of the 'forties underwent a crisis, Russian derivatives from Schelling and Hegel came to an end, and the consciousness of the intelligentsia was brought into contact with social realities. ...


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