(1907 – #135(4))

  K. P. Pobedonostsev is dead. With him there is so much connected, together with him there grew up a whole epoch of Russian history, moreso even than an epoch: in his person and in his deeds was clearly embodied the connection of Orthodoxy with state absolutism. Pobedonostsev — was a remarkable type: a sincere ideologue of our historical nihilism, of the nihilistic attitude of the official Russian Church and of the state towards life. Pobedonostsev — was a thinker neither profound nor individual, his ideas were rather superficial, too typical, and he shares them with those historical forces, which he served, and which he ideologically supported. Pobedonostsev evoked towards himself a burning hatred, he was the hope of the dark powers, and the prolonged suchlike years were a nightmare of Russian life. But when one reads him, the hatred weakens: there resound within him such sincere notes, a sincere humility before that above, love for the nation, a romantic attachment to the old way of life. In Russia there were few intelligent and sincere defenders of theocratic autocracy, especially amongst those, who stood in power and directed the state mechanism. Pobedonostsev was amongst the number of those few.

Of what sort was the basic feature of Pobedonostsev, his “character trait that strikes the mind”? Unbelief in the power of good, the non-belief of the monstrously divided official Russian Church 1 and the Russian state. The power of Pobedonostsev, the unimaginable authority of this man over Russian life was rooted also in this, that he was a reflection from above of the historical Russian nihilism. A nihilistic attitude towards man and the world on the soil of the religious attitude towards God — here is the pathos of Pobedonostsev, in common with the Russian state-governance, set within an historical Orthodoxy. Pobedonostsev was a religious man, he prayed to his God, he saved his soul, but towards life, towards mankind, towards the world process he had an unreligious, an atheistic attitude, he did not see anything of the Divine in life, nor any sort of reflection of Divinity in man; only a terrible, a gaping abyss of emptiness was revealed for him in the world, the world was not for him the creation by God, he never had a sense of the Divineness of the world soul. This spectral, this ghastly old man lived under the hypnotic power of evil, he believed infinitely in the might of evil, he believed in evil, but in the Good he did not believe. The Good he considered impotent, pitiable in its lack of might. He — was among the number of those hypnotised by the fall into sin, shutting off the genesis, cut off from the mystery of God’s creation. The devil rules the world, defines the course of universal life, penetrates into human nature right down to its roots; the good, the Divine do not possess any objective power, upon the good it is impossible to build life, with the power of good it is impossible to tie together any sort of historical perspectives. Just like Marx, Pobedonostsev looks upon human society as upon a mechanism of forces. The fatal process of the fall and decay of mankind, the increasing powers of evil can be halted only by force, only however by evil, only by the despotic state authority, which the Church sends forth into the world to freeze the growth of life, to constrain the liberation of life. Pobedonostsev bore within himself a grudge against the world life and against mankind, he was suspicious and mistrustful to the point of psychosis. But this nihilism of Pobedonostsev, this atheistic attitude of his towards the world is not something by chance individual, connected with personal events in his life, this is a worldwide fact, a fact, lodged within the religious consciousness of historical Orthodoxy.

Historical Orthodoxy has not manifest within itself the religious truth about man and the world, in it religiously is only an attitude towards death, not towards life. Orthodox Christianity is a teaching about individual salvation in Heaven, about the departure from the world, which is all infected by evil. In the ascetic consciousness there is no teaching about the meaning of universal world history, about the triumph of religious truth upon the earth. Orthodoxy does not believe in the Kingdom of God upon earth, only in Heaven does it expect it, and the earth it leaves to the devil. One only good deed can and ought to be done upon the earth — to hold back the course of evil, to halt it, to curb it by force, to freeze it down. And in Orthodoxy there is the teaching about the religious significance of the state, which the Church empowers, not to build the Kingdom of God upon the earth, but rather to restrain the kingdom of the devil, by force to stop the world from the ultimate catastrophe. The uniting of Orthodoxy with state absolutism came about on the soil of a non-belief in the Divineness of the earth, in the earthly future of mankind; Orthodoxy gave away the earth into the hands of the state because of its own non-belief in man and mankind, because of its nihilistic attitude towards the world. Orthodoxy does not believe in the religious ordering of human life upon the earth, and it compensates for its own hopeless pessimism by a call for the forceful ordering of it by state authority. 2

State absolutism is the teaching of Orthodoxy about this, how to arrange the earth, how to hold back the victorious course of evil in the world. Russian absolutism they call theocratic, but this is not very precise; the blessing of absolutism by Orthodoxy is the result of the non-belief of the Orthodox Church in the possibility of theocracy upon the earth, nor the Kingdom of God, nor the Truth of God upon the earth. Since God’s Truth is not for the earth, but for Heaven, then upon the earth let it be to the state might by force to hold back mankind from evil, — this is the gist of the Orthodox teaching about absolute monarchy.

Non-belief in the objective power of good upon the earth, non-belief in the meaning of world history, in the non-mediated might of God Himself within the earthly community, — this non-belief is also the basis of state positivism, the apotheosis of state authority. Catholicism likewise did not believe in the Divineness of mankind, in the might Divine within earthly human history, and it created a teaching about the arrangement of the earth under the assist of Papism. Papocaesarism and Caesaropapism, the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, and the Byzantine emperor, the Vicar of Christ, — alike they grew out of an unreligious, atheistic attitude towards earthly mankind, which cleaves to non-belief in God-manhood and in the God-manness of historical fates, in a non-belief in this, that Christ Himself wilt reign upon the earth (Chiliasm).

These — are the two pseudotheocratic currents in world history, alike opposed to true theocracy, hostile to faith in the reign of God Himself upon the earth. In the coming true theocracy Christ will tend not to have a vicar-substitute, He Himself will rule the world, His truth will reign sovereign; Godless mankind, recognising as worthwhile only forceful restraint, will become a free God-manhood.

The nihilistic side of official Christianity was clearly bespoken in Pobedonostsev. Both in theory and in practise, he was perhaps a most typical representative of the idea of pseudo-theocratic absolutism, of an Orthodox Christian non-belief in the possibility of good upon the earth. In Pobedonostsev there is, as it were, a finishing-off of the historico-fatal process in Christianity, of the extinguishing of faith in the Providence of God, in God’s guidance of the destinies of mankind. The suspicion and mistrust of Pobedonostsev regarding the world and man is not something merely personal, he has it here in common with the whole historical Orthodox life-sense, in common the seeing only of evil in everything. For Pobedonostsev, as also for the official teaching of the Orthodox Church, everything in a fatal manner comes to ruin, to the triumph of evil; for Pobedonostsev, as in general also for Orthodoxy and official Christianity, eschatology is something foreign, there are no great historical tasks, there remains no place for historical perspectives, there is no meaning in the process of history, there is no awaited religious triumph in the end time, the victory of Christ upon the earth. Pobedonostsev has an hatred for life, he does not see the Divine in the world, he does not sense the image of God in man, and terrible to say, he learned this from Orthodoxy, it was from the official Christianity that he garnered his nihilism. This is something to ponder. I do not think, that with Pobedonostsev there was a vivid feel for Christ, he was infinitely remote from Christ, in his heart he did not know Christ; but the feel of Christianity, a closeness to the Church, a sincere attachment to its spirit was tremendous in him. Pobedonostsev — was of a tragic type, for this was one of those, in which Christianity has killed Christ, one for whom the Church has shut off God. Christ rendered God infinitely close to man, He filiated mankind into being sons of the Heavenly Father; the spirit of Pobedonostsev makes God infinitely remote for man, it recasts the son into a slave. An emissary from the state to watch out for the Church, for long years guiding the Russian state in the name of the Church, a bureaucrat in Church and a theocrat in state matters, a man of might, dreaming about Heaven and along the way having gained utmost power upon the earth, — he was a living corpse. In his veins flowed not blood, but some other deadly fluid, and he did not believe that in other people there did flow blood, human blood he did not value. The body of Pobedonostsev was terrifying in its morbidity, its being like parchment, and one could barely believe that it might resurrect, since resurrection was foreign to this man.

Pobedonostsev — was the enemy of everything taken to wing, of everything taken to flight, of everything fully alive, instead he shoves man down to the hated earth. He is a worshipper of simplicity, he fears complexity, he preaches humble satisfaction through small deeds. Pobedonostsev is for order first of all and always and in everything, he fears the irrational and the problematic, he is in his manner a positivist and utilitarian, he believes only in impersonal institutions. Servility and groveling are characteristic of the official Christianity, they are sanctioned by our local Church, while at the same time condemning boldness and bravery, the impulses afar and ascent higher.

Why does Pobedonostsev, a sceptic in everything, so believe in the state, in its goodly nature? Only the state power seemed to Pobedonostsev fine and good, the sole bright spot on the earth, and here his scepticism halts short. This is understandable. Pobedonostsev saw the whole task on earth to consist only in this, to halt, to interrupt, to freeze down everything (in the expression of the reactionary genius K. Leont’ev), and of creative tasks there are none. Everything decays and decomposes on earth, but the state at its best and by its might is not subject to this process, it halts the decline and decay. For everything else — non-belief, for the state — faith. This faith in the benefit of state might, saving the world from evil, the fanatics for the state have accepted this irrationally, in vivid contradiction to the light of reason and conscience. We know only too well, that the state also is subject to decline and decay, and that power often renders itself evil and godless.

Pobedonostsev and the Church, in its historical finiteness, and in its blessing of absolutism as though they did not want truth and joy upon the earth, and instead they see the good in this, — that the evil, contrary to Christianity, they wish as though to torment man with, so as to his soul. All this, however, is that theory and practice of the Grand Inquisitor, not believing in mankind, saving it mistrustfully and by force. The atheistic spirit of the Inquisitor moves within Pobedonostsev, and he, just like that terrible old man, he repudiates freedom of conscience, he fights temptation for the small things, he defends a religious utilitarianism. Not only is Christ clouded over by the Church, but the Church itself is imperceptibly transformed for Pobedonostsev into a means for state control; by a strange, but appropriate irony of fate, the bureaucrat and statesman within the Church is rendered in Pobedonostsev all the stronger a theocrat and heavenly dreamer in the state. I repeat, and I do not doubt, that Pobedonostsev was a religious man personally, that his spirit was nourished by the cult and the sacraments of the Orthodox Church, but for the world and for mankind there was nothing religious in him, only a desolation, filled with the spectre of state might. Pobedonostsev was far remote from the Slavophils, since unlike them he did not possess the wide historical perspectives, he shared not their earthly religious utopia, and foreign to him was any sense of a mission. Pobedonostsev is more Orthodox than the Slavophils, he understands better, that regarding questions about the earth, about mankind, about the world — in Orthodoxy there is the desert place, and that from this Orthodoxy one does not derive a just community, an holy corporeality. The ideal of Orthodox sanctity — is in the withdrawal from the world, monasticism, the hermit-anchorite, but since the delimited ideal of sanctity as given is attainable but by few, there then remains the compromise with the world, the expression of its sinfulness and depravity — the state, limited in nothing, coercive, as though demonstrating the impossibility of a religious sociality.

For Pobedonostsev there is no God-manhood, just as for him there is no historical Orthodoxy, for him there is only the inhuman God and the godless man, and for him Christ did not unite man with God. In God there is nothing of the human, in man — there is nothing of the Divine, of the Divine-human body, containing all the fulness of life, it is not and will not be upon the earth — all these negations are very characteristic for the historical Church, for the old religious consciousness. The truth of humanism is discovered in the secular culture, outside of religion and as it were contrary to Christianity, but ultimately this is the truth of Christ, the truth of the God-Man. The Kingdom of God upon earth is dreamy nonsense for people on the outside of a religious consciousness, and only a new religious revelation can bring to light both the truth of the dream, and its ruinous falsehood. To transform the revealed truth about the God-Man into the as yet unrevealed truth about a God-Mankind — here is the universal religious task, before which stands the contemporary world at the door aknocking.

That, for which Pobedonostsev lived, what he loved, what he supported in idea, now has come undone, the whole system has collapsed, and not a stone upon a stone remains. And to some it would seem, that the quite totally outdated Orthodox Church is dying and decaying, that Orthodox Christianity has ceased to be a power in this world, since it was against this world. The monstrous hysterics of priest Iliodor and others, certainly, is a symptom of decay, and in it there is nothing organic. But the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church in its holiness. The death of Pobedonostsev is significant only in that it coincides with the death of nihilism on religious soil, with the death of the spirit of death. This nihilism has not vanished completely. There remain the “Iliodors”, and periodically there will arrange pogroms of culture, but the strong, the predominative sacramental nihilism defining the course of history this will no longer be, and already is not.

The new religious consciousness rises up against the nihilistic attitude towards the world and mankind. If a religious rebirth be possible, only then on this soil will there be the revealing of the religious meaning of secular culture and earthly liberation, the revealing of the truth about mankind. For the new religious consciousness the declaration of the will of God is together with this a declaration of the rights of man, a revealing of the Divine within mankind. We believe in the objective, the cosmic might of the truth of God, in the possibility according to God to guide the earthly destiny of mankind. This will be the victory of the true theocracy, whether over a false democratism, — the apotheosis of the quantitative collectivity of human wills, or so also over the false theocraticism, — all that apotheosis of the human will within Caesaropapism or Papocaesarism. Christ cannot have human vicarage in the person of the tsar or high-priest.  He — is Himself the Tsar and High-Priest, and He will reign in the world. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven”.

Nikolai Berdyaev


©  2000  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1907 – 135(4) – en)


Included thereafter in 1910 book “Dukhovnyi krizis intelligentsii”, Spb, sect. II-1.

Reprinted by YMCA Press Paris in 1989 in Berdiaev Collection: “Tipy  religioznoi mysli  v  Rossii”, (Tom III), ctr. 197-204.

1  I speak here all the time here not about the Universal Church, not about Orthodoxy as the preserver of Divine sanctity, but about our national Church in its historical and empirical, its human side.
2 Here my in itself basically accurate thought is not altogether accurate and is too exaggeratedly expressed. The image alone of St. Seraphim of Sarov introduces the corrective to my formulation.