Nezavisimaya Gazeta -
Philosophical Discussions on the Eve of the Revolution
These religious and philosophical sessions might have become alternatives to the revolutionary senselessness.
This exceptional meeting took place on 12 December (29 November O.S.) 1901 in St Petersburg in the smaller hall of the Geographical Society on the Fontanka. At the head of a long table, covered by green felt, sat the chairman, rector of the Theological academy, Bishop Sergii of Yamburg (later, during Soviet times, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia), along with his deputy, the rector of the St Petersburg seminary, Archimandrite Sergii. On the right side of the table sat the clergy, both monastic and secular, with the monastics predominating. On the left were the intelligentsia. The event was called the Religious and Philosophical meeting. Nothing of the sort has ever taken place before. From the time when in Russia, at the end of the 17th and the first quarter of the 18th centuries, the secular culture isolated itself from the Church, the historical destinies of the arts and those of the Church hardly ever crossed. One can wonder as much as one wants, how was it that the greatest contemporaries of the first half of the 19th century – Pushkin and Seraphim of Sarov – not only never met but were hardly aware of each other’s existence. Throughout the 19th century the paths of the arts and of the Church drifted further apart. One can lament as much as one wants about this and attempt to re-write history after the fact (which is now being done) but this is how history happened, which some will see as an inevitability and others, as Divine Providence.
Former seminarians Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Nikolai Dobrolyubov, followed by several generations of Russian intelligentsia, became atheists following the collapse of their faith. A decade earlier, Feodor Dostoyevsky, in the company of other Petrashevsky protesters, stood at the scaffold in the middle of the Semenovsky parade ground in Petersburg. Accused of “failing to report about the circulation of the writer Belinsky’s letter which criminally libeled religion and the government,” he listened to his death sentence, commuted at the last possible moment (this is how it was staged!) by the arrival on horseback of a messenger from Nicholas I, to four years at hard labor and military service. Upon his return Dostoyevsky, in his famous novels (Crime and Punishment, The Devils, Brothers Karamazov, etc.) called upon the intelligentsia to return to God, to a life of the heart and not revolutionary theory, to the Evangelical commandments and finally, to Orthodoxy.
Not too many would heed him. Only in the beginning of the 20th century would the literati, primarily those who were called the decadents, those who expressed their decadent outlook, and the Symbolists, would remember Dostoyevsky’s sermons. Dmitri Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius would once again “go to the people,” to the Sectarians, the schismatics, all who gathered on the shore of the Svetloye lake to the bottom of which, according to legend, the city of Kitezh sank.
However, the God-bearing populace was far from what Dostoyevsky imagined. The myth about them (based on the Slavyanophilism) did not correspond with reality. In the “Life of the Moscow Starets Fr. Aleksei Mechev”, now a saint, the Nun Juliania wrote about the “collapse and the demise of Church life”, about the “religious coolness, indifference, the absence of Christian love, an overall detachment and a burrowing into the narrow circle of personal or family interests” which was taking place in Russia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. “The life of the Church, with all the wealth of its spiritual treasures, with all its beauty and faithfulness to the proper Divine services, flowed like a weak, hardly noticeable little stream, of little interest not only to the lay folk but to the pastors of the Church as well,” observed Mother Juliania, making exceptions only for the monasteries. The contemporary theologian Hegumen [now Bishop] Hilarion Alfeyev likewise bears witness to this: the majority of believers came to Church and made their confession once a year – during Great Lent.
Such was the crisis of Church life. Under these conditions an idea to inaugurate an official, open society of people of religion and philosophy at first seemed to Merezhkovsky and Gippius unachievable. The latter noted in her memoirs: the question of “Universal Christianity” (Vl. Soloviev) could be proposed only to the Orthodox Church thanks to her “internal freedom in comparison even with the Roman Church.” To which Merezhkovsky added “. . .as well as the Lutherans.”
It was the Church-oriented people, with whom Merezhkovsky became close through Vasilii Rozanov, who suggested where they could go and get permission for such meetings. To none other than the Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev. On October 8 1901 Merezhkovsky, Rozanov, Filosofov, the editor of the “Journal for Everyone” Mirolyubov, and the “fervent Orthodox”, in the words of Gippius, Ternavtsev, who was not of the clergy estate. Within a month there was a positive reply. According to Gippius this was “a semi-permission, a semi-acquiescence, an unspoken promise to tolerate the meeting “for the time being.” (By this action Pobedonostsev responded to Dostoyevsky’s ideas, whom he knew personally).
Metropolitan Anthony of Petersburg permitted all monastic and secular clergy, the professors and lecturers, as well as selected students of the Theological academy to attend. The most active participants at the meetings were the young Theological academy professors Anton Kartashev and Vasilii Uspensky. A special mention should be made of the role of Fr. Ioann of Kronstadt, whose saintliness and distinctiveness was evident to all those attending the meetings even at that time.
The first session of the Religious and Philosophical meetings was opened by Bishop Sergii who delineated the understanding of “we” and “they” with respect to the clergy’s attitude towards the intelligentsia. Then came Ternavtsev’s presentation “The Intelligentsia and the Church.” According to Gippius his talk was addressed “directly to the Church.” Its value was in that the “. . .speaker himself stood on the shores of the Church”. In his talk, according to Gippius, he remained “with us” and yet never ceased to be “with them.” No other “intellighent” could express the problems of Church life in such a way which would be acceptable and correct towards the clergy, in a language familiar to them.
Ternavtsev articulated one of the first definitions of the intelligentsia - a term from the Latin but having, according to the Oxford dictionary, a meaning exclusively within Russian life. He called it “a broad social force, powerful in its response and its intellectual and moral energy.” Dostoyevsky contrasted the thinkers with the ordinary people. Ternavtsev stressed that the intelligentsia is “a force encompassing all people” which has “its own achievements and its own martyrology.” Ternavtsev spoke about faith in Christ simultaneously with faith in “the path to unity” calling this “the golden dream of the heart.” He saw the unhealthy sides of Russian life in the beginning of the 20th century which today, a hundred years later, once again bring about a fateful meaning for the country’s future. This is the “problem about the structuring of labor and its slavish relationship to capitalism, the problem of property, its anti-social significance on the one hand and its inevitability on the other.”
Ternavtsev chided the Orthodox Church in that, while it did not desert the people in trying times, itself remained “. . .inactive in the social salvation. . .and could not give the people Christ’s hope, or joy, or help in their profound difficulties.”
Ternavtsev pointed out Russia’s desperate situation but believed, along with that segment of the intelligentsia which remained with Christ or was at least seeking Him (let us recall at least, the completely different position of the Social Democrats) in the renaissance of the nation “along religious foundations”.
Thus came about the unique phenomenon in Russian history which was called religious rebirth or religious renaissance.
For Russia, this was the first example of freedom: there was no mandatory presence of a uniformed gendarme in the hall who could have silenced any speaker and dismiss the meeting..
In the words of Fr Ioann of Kronstadt and of prominent theologians, philosophers (Sergei Bulgakov, who later became Father Sergei), writers and poets of that era, there was an invaluable accumulation of spiritual and religious inquiry.
Who could guess how Russia’s fate would have turned out if in May of 1903, the meetings would not have been ended. There was so much which was prophetic just in Ternavtsev’s presentation. He foresaw a “spiritual collapse” of Russia and a “complete economic destruction of the populace.” He predicted the future revolution and “the woes of wandering.”
These prophesies surprisingly coincided with the foresight of the elder Fr. Aleksei Mechev who, when he saw the crowds of demonstrators on the streets of Moscow in 1905, burst into endless tears, foreseeing all of Russia’s future woes.
Perhaps there is no need to repeat the mistakes of the past. Today, after nearly a century of a rupture between the people and God, it behooves to continue the broken-off dialogue between the intelligentsia and the Church on a new plane.
Translated by Alvian N. Smirensky