The “Russian Idea” of Nikolai Berdyaev

Monday, October 30, 2006
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On December 3, 1944, a strange event took place in newly liberated Paris. Nikolai Berdyaev, a religious philosopher and the best-known Russian émigré intellectual of his time, made a speech before an audience of elderly Russian émigrés in support of the Soviet Union. A contemporary account of the speech in the Manchester Guardian is among the materials on Berdyaev in the Hoover Archives.

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Berdyaev said the messianism of two European nations—Russia and Germany—had an impact on their neighbors. The two, however, were not similar. German messianism was pagan in character, marked by a glorification of race, nature, and the fighting spirit, completely contradicting the spiritual message of Judaism and Christianity. Russian messianism, by contrast, was deeply rooted in Jewish and Christian thought. “The Russian messianic conception,” Berdyaev said, “always exalted Russia as a country that would help to solve the problems of humanity and would accept a place in the service of humanity.”

Berdyaev concluded that “recent changes in Russia, the changed attitude to religion and to the country’s traditions, make it not only possible but right for Christian Russians to rally to the Soviet government.”

Russia’s “Special Mission”

Because I am writing a book about Russian attitudes toward the communist past and the psychological roots of the communist regime, I became interested in Berdyaev’s political views.

The paradox of those views is striking. Unlike many in both Russia and the West, Berdyaev regarded communism as the total negation of morality, not as an economic system. In a letter to “Miss X” (apparently a convinced Communist with whom Berdyaev corresponded between 1930 and 1939), Berdyaev wrote: “The people of the West are obliged to study a great deal in this experience. The reality has shown that the question of socialism is not an economic or political question but a question about God and immortality.” Despite his belief in the evil of socialism, however, even though it had triumphed in Russia, Berdyaev continued to believe that Russia had a special “mission” in the world. This belief eventually led him to approve and support the Soviet Union.

Berdyaev wrote that bolshevism “was not violence against the Russian people on the part of a small group of people obsessed with a false idea but was a creation of the Russian people, its own fate.”

Berdyaev’s writings illustrate the problem of Russian messianism, which is central to Russian political culture. The contradictions that ensnared Berdyaev confound many Russians today who, despite all that has happened, still find it hard it renounce communism completely owing to their belief in Russia’s “special role.”

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