Nikolai Berdyaev: The Russian Idea

Kustodiev, The Storm
Kustodiev, The Storm

The West is forced to pay attention to Russia, but the West does not understand Russia. Russia was down for the count following the fall of the Berlin Wall, leaving the way clear for the West to realize her manifest destiny and bestride the globe triumphant. But now there is bewilderment and consternation on finding that Russia has regained her consciousness, is back on her feet again, and is again standing in the way of the West; not just seeking to throw jabs, but intent on delivering a knockout blow to the West. Russia impudently declares to her adversary: “Here I stand, I can do no other!”

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The West, having spent the last few centuries gazing admiringly at its own reflection, finds it difficult to understand the Other, especially given that it is for the Other to join Narcissus in the appreciation of his own beauty rather than the other way around. But Russia, the West is finding, appears to have no understanding of or appreciation for beauty, leaving the West puzzled as to why.

Religion is an inescapable concept. Everybody has a religion – a set of basic assumptions about metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. As the US Supreme Court case Torcaso v. Watkins recognized, even secular humanism is a religion. But if stating that everybody has a religion is too objectionable, then we can at least agree that everybody has a Weltanschauung, or worldview.

And it is by looking at the question of religion that one can begin to understand the Russian Weltanschauung, the Russian idea. The West, over the last few hundred years, has been slowly apostatizing from Christianity, this apostasy picking up to a sprint from the 1960s. Today the West highlights the extent of its rebellion against God by celebrating such things as homosexuality, calling good what is evil and evil what is good.

But Russia has stayed the course and has refused to kill and bury God as Nietzsche recognized the West had done. This confirms in the minds of many Russians that Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the truest and most faithful form of Christianity, vindicating their original reasons for splitting with Western Christianity in 1054. As far as they are concerned, the direction Western Christianity took following that schism paved the way for the eventual apostasy of the West, resulting in the decrepit Christianity of today that is practically on its last legs, begging the Gaystapo to be allowed to exist.

Nikolai Berdyaev is a Russian thinker who offers the enquiring foreigner a window into Russia’s soul. “The Russian people”, he explains in his book The Russian Idea, “belong to the religious type and are religious in their spiritual makeup.” Even during most of the twentieth century when their country was officially godless,

they are believers even when they profess materialist communism. Even among those Russians who not only do not hold the Orthodox faith but even carry on a persecution against the Orthodox Church, there remains a stratum in the depth of their souls which is shaped by Orthodoxy.

It seems that even if Russians makes their bed in hell, Orthodoxy is there also!

Flowing from this Russian religious and spiritual makeup is the Russian messianic idea that informs much of Russia’s historical modus operandi. “The Russian people is a God-bearing people”, explains Berdyaev, echoing Dostoevsky, who came up with this description. Early in the book, Berdyaev quotes Pyotr Chaadaev to give a sense of the Russian messianic feeling:

I have a profound conviction that we have a vocation to solve a great many of the problems of social order, to bring about the fulfillment of a great many of the ideas which have taken their rise in societies of the past, and to give an answer to questions of great importance with which mankind is concerned.

Berdyaev himself affirms: “The Russian people are a people of the future; they will decide questions which the West has not yet the strength to decide, which it does not even pose in their full depth.”

This allusion to the future is linked to another recurring theme Berdyaev sees as defining the Russian idea, namely a Russian type of eschatology. “Russian thought is essentially eschatological and this eschatology takes various forms”, he explains. It is “...unconscious, and expressed in a pitiable philosophy, a striving towards the end, a reaching out towards the ultimate state…a stripping off of fraudulent coverings, a refusal to accept the world which ‘lies in evil’.” Berdyaev’s interpretation of Russian eschatology is “active and creative, not passive. The end of this world, and the end of history, depend also upon the creative act of man.” This last point, about the creative act of man, seems to allude to the intriguing concept of katechon, which refers to that which withholds the antichrist, derived from 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7.

Part of this katechonic resistance to the evil prince of this world is reflected in the Russian commitment to the brotherhood of man, a prominent motif in The Russian Idea. The Russian mindset in this respect is contrasted against the Western one, which has tended to seek to subjugate and dominate the Other:

The Russians have thought that Russia is a country which is absolutely special and peculiar, with its own special vocation. But the principal thing was not Russia itself but that which Russia brings to the world, above all the brotherhood of man and freedom of the spirit … The Russians are not striving for a kingdom which is of this world; they are not moved by the will to power and might.

Berdyaev chastises Nietzsche as a metonym for the West:

[Nietzsche] wanted to experience the divine when there was not God, when God was killed, to experience ecstasy when the world was so base, to experience exaltation to the height when the world was flat and there were not heights. In the final analysis he expressed his religious theme in the idea of the super-man in whom man finishes his existence. Man was but a transition; all he had to do was to manure the soil for the appearance of the super-man. There a breach takes place with Christian and humanist morality, humanism passes over into anti-humanism.

While the Nazis represented the most pronounced expression of this anti-humanism, it saw general, if somewhat less strident, expression in the West. The Other was ethnically cleansed, enslaved, or declared to be the missing link connecting man to his animal forebears. The West has been repenting of these sins particularly since the 1960s, but recent events suggest the possibility of recidivism. Berdyaev explains the contrasting assumptions between the West and East that has led and leads to their differing behavior:

There are two interpretations of society; either society is to be understood as nature, or society is to be understood as spirit. If society is nature, then the violence of the strong upon the weak, the selection of the strong and the fittest, the will to power, the domination of man over man, slavery and inequality, man being a wolf to his fellow man, are justified. If society is spirit then the highest value of man and the rights of man, freedom, equality and brotherhood are asserted.

An interesting corollary of this outlook is that the Russians “adopt a different attitude towards sin and crime”, because their ethical ideas are quite different from those of the West. There is instead “pity for the fallen and debased”. Thus can the strangely forgiving attitude of the Russians towards the Germans be understood. The “German State is the historical enemy of Russia”, Berdyaev acknowledges. Nevertheless, he continues, “We are bound to desire brotherly relations with the German people who have achieved much that is great, but on condition that it repudiates the will to power. To the will to power and dominance there must be opposed the masculine power of defense.” (Yes, Russia carries a big stick, currently brandishing it at the United States.) Thus the Russian commitment to community and the brotherhood of man is expressed, even with reference to those through whom came so much suffering.

This spiritual nature is hard, if not impossible, to suppress, even with official atheism: “Both Moscow the Third Rome and Moscow the Third International were connected with the Russian messianic idea; they represented a distorted form of it.” And now with the Russian idea once again freer to spread its wings, we are seeing its impact upon the world, Russia once again pursuing her vocation.

Berdyaev’s The Russian Idea gives an illuminating insight into the Russian soul, the Russian Weltanschauung, helping the curious outsider begin to unwrap the mystery that is Russia, explain her riddle, understand this enigma. But such is the millennial chasm separating Western and Eastern thought that it might be more helpful to start with something like James R. Payton Jr.’s excellent Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition, which helps the Western Christian begin to understand what can otherwise often appear so strange and even bizarre in Orthodoxy. Since Orthodoxy is at the heart of the Russian idea, it may make more sense to learn to walk before attempting to run. Once this is done, then by all means, one may be called to delve deeper into the likes of Berdyaev and other Slavophiles.