NIKOLAI BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV)
The Ruin of Russian Illusions
(1917 – #280)
The catastrophe, termed the Russian Revolution, through all the degradations, tribulations and disappointments, has to lead to a new and better awareness. Such an experience in the life of a people cannot but enrich and sharpen our perceptiveness. But a crisis of soul will have to precede this perceptiveness with a readiness for repentance and humility. The light will be begotten after an inward cleansing and ascesis. This — is a law of spiritual life. And it is needful to be aware, that all the whole thinking portion of Russian society, that which has esteemed itself as the bearer knowingly of ideas, has within it something to repent and be cleansed of. Beliefs and ideas — are answerable matters, from them come emanations of liberating truth or enslaving ideas. The greatest responsibility for the evil triumphing in life is borne by those, who conceived of it initially in idea, those first few who in their distorted spiritual experience gave in to deceitful and false illusions. The Russian intellectual Intelligentsia, belonging to various camps, having lived by illusions, was inspired by a false faith and phantasmic ideas. And here has begun the hour of pay-back. It has become time, when this must be recognised under the compelling weight of vital experience. Only but few have realised this under the free pull of creative thought. We remember the irritated and indignant attitude towards “Vekhi” (“Signposts”), even in those circles, which now through bitter experience perceive the truth of “Vekhi”. But justice in regard to the authors of “Vekhi” is difficult to expect.
The Russian Revolution in its fateful and fatal course of developement signifies the ruin of Russian illusions, — be it of the Slavophils, the Populists, the Tolstoyans, the anarchists, the revolutionary-utopianists or the revolutionary-messianists. This — is the end of Russian socialism. The quite most opposite Russian ideologies have tended to assert, that the Russian people stands higher than European civilisation, that the law of civilisation for it has no force of decree, that the European civilisation is too “bourgeois” for the Russians, that the Russians are called to realise the Kingdom of God on earth, the kingdom of an higher truth and justice. This has been asserted on the right by the Slavophils, adherents of the Russian religious and national uniqueness, just as it was asserted on the left by the revolutionaries, socialists and anarchists, who were nowise less than the Slavophils adherents of an Eastern uniqueness, and to the bourgeois West they opposed the revolutionary light from the East. Bakunin confessed a Russian revolutionary messianism. And he continues to be confessed also by those, who all these terrible months keep shouting, that the Russian revolutionary democracy will instruct all the peoples of the West in socialism and the brotherhood of peoples. This Russian light, which is intended to enlighten all the peoples of the world, has also led Russia to an ultimate abasement and shame.
All the ideologies of this type, gripping the Russian Intelligentsia both by mind and by heart, were based on a faith in the people, in the wisdom of the people and the truth of the people. Among the Populists on the right, standing upon a religious basis, the faith in the people was better grounded and justified, than with the populists of the left, standing upon a materialistic basis. Slavophilism was the sole serious Russian ideology, for which one can have deep esteem. The religious populism is an illusion and self-deceit, from which we are being cured at dear a price, but this idea is not bereft of depth. This idea was so deeply embedded in the consciousness of the people, that it religiously sanctified the Russian autocracy and rendered impossible any sort of evolution of the monarchy. And thus the religious populism gave Russia a shove, seeing in the autocracy an utmost truth, and pushing it onto the path of catastrophe. The revolutionary populism is lacking in depth, it is based upon darkness and muddled consciousness, and to a remarkable degree it is the product of backwardness and churlish ignorance, the fruit of the extensive Russian economic system. Revolutionary chauvinism is a very ugly and vile form of chauvinism. Russia at present is torn apart by orgies of this revolutionary chauvinism, shouting “we shall toss up our hats in victory” over all the world, subjugating all the world by revolutionary chatter. It is time already to recognise, that all the forms of Russian Populism — are illusions, begotten of the Russian cultural backwardness; they signify a servile dependence of the Russian cultural segment upon the darkness of the people, the loss of all the qualitative aspect of Russian life into rather the quantitative. Faith in the “people” always was a pitfall and weakness of Russian thinking people, afraid to take responsibility upon oneself and decide for oneself, where is truth and right. The mean-spirited and craven tend to think, that the source of truth and right lies outside them, within the element of the people, in the mass of the people, in the people’s faith or the people’s toil. From the very summits of thought and spiritual life very remarkable Russian people in their aspirations have fallen downwards and in their contact with the lower aspects of the people’s life they have sought for an higher wisdom. For some this was a religious wisdom. I. Kireevsky suggested reverencing the sanctity of the icon, because the people prayed before the icon and had sanctified it with their poklon-bowings and kisses. For others this was a social wisdom, a truth of the workman’s life, a truth of life, close nigh to nature. But all were afraid of their own higher cultural life as something not right, as a falling-away from the natural and blissful world-order. L. Tolstoy was the most extreme expression of this Russian Populism. And in him was combined the religious populism with the social populism.
The Russian faith in the “people” was a form of idolatry, of worshipping man and mankind, of fashioning for oneself an idol from the external masses. The faith in the people, as the common-people, as peasants and workers, was a faith in an empirical quantity. The object of this faith is not conditioned by its qualities, its inner value, as something close and understandable for the believer. A member of the Intelligentsia, while believing in the people, will have tended not to know the soul of the people, not grasp it within himself, kindred to him in his depths, but instead will have worshipped the people, as something unknown and foreign to him, beckoning by its remoteness. The true soul of the people, the soul of the nation, as a mystical organism, is undefinable by any sort of sociological signs, it was rather a soul, graspable first of all in the proper depth of each son of the people, but it was obscured by the populist ideology and by the populist illusions. The Russian consciousness itself was muddled and contaminated by the social-class point of view regarding the people, by its dependence upon the empirically given, the hypnotic effect of the quantitative category. For the populist consciousness the people was a substitute in place of God, and service to the people, its well-being and happiness substituted for service to truth and right. In the name of the people, as an idol, they were ready to sacrifice all the greatest values and sanctities, to destroy all culture as being the basis for inequality, every lifestyle, as being a legacy of their fathers and grandfathers. The religion of the “people” is truly a religion of non-being, of darkness, of the all-swallowing and all-consuming abyss. The idea of the people, as defined under social-class aspects, is a falsification of the idea of the nation, indefinable by any sort of social-class aspects, and it encompasses all the classes, all the groups and all the generations, past and future.1 The populist ideology — is purely an Intelligentsia ideology, the expression of having been torn asunder from the “people” and in opposition to the “people”. For the “people” itself populism is an impossibility. The best people from amongst the “people”, from the lower working class, have striven towards the light, towards knowledge, towards culture, towards an escape from the people’s darkness, and they have never idealised the “people” nor worshipped it.
The “people” for a long time has been silent. Various ones self-appointed have attempted to speak for it. But the impotent and people-worshipping Intelligentsia expected, that people will finally speak and have its own say, which will be a light for all the world, and that this light will enlighten the peoples of the West. The Revolution has gotten mired down, the old ruling powers have fallen and demolished all hindrances to the expression of the will of the people. The “people” has received its possibility to speak. The Russian revolutionary Intelligentsia, all gnawed at within from the chronic ills, and having poisoned the people with vicious nihilistic feelings and thoughts, have begun shouting, that in “the revolutionary democracy” will be revealed a sort of truth never before heard nor seen in the West, the light will dawn from the East. But this truth and this light has been expressed in nothing, besides mere meaningless abstract formulas on the order of “without annexations and indemnities”, “all the land to the working people”, etc. The Intelligentsia shout about all this, having borrowed its formulas from half-baked and maladapted Western teachings. But what did it reveal of itself and what was discovered by this “people”, in which the Russian Slavophils and the Russian Revolutionary-Populists believed, and in which believed Kireevsky and Hertsen, Dostoevsky and the “going to the people” generation of the 70’s, in which believed the Russian religious seekers and the Russian Social Democrats, reborn into being Eastern populists? This “people” has discovered a primitive savagery, darkness, hooliganism, greed, the instincts for making pogroms, with the psychology of slaves in revolt, it has shown forth with the beastly snout. With its own say the “people” remains inarticulate, its own true say has yet to be born in the people. Behind all this terror, behind all this darkness of the people, the responsibility rests first of all upon the classes in command and upon the Intelligentsia. Some had no desire to enlighten the people, and instead held it down in compelling darkness and slavery; others bowed before the people as an idol and brought it a new darkness in place of light, a darkness semi-enlightened with an Intelligentsia nihilism. And in this most terrible and responsible hour of Russian history there stands among us for the elementary good of state and culture, for national worthiness, only a thin and nowise numerous cultural segment. this segment is easily to be torn through, and beneathe it is discerned a yawning abyss of darkness. The immense and dark realm of peasants swallows up and consumes all the good and values, within it drowns every human face. Many an excellent lover of the people has felt revulsion, at what they have seen and have heard. Not so altogether long ago the “people” was of the Black Hundreds and with soldier bayonettes they upheld the arbitrary rule and dark reaction. Now Bolshevism has won out with the people, and with the same soldier bayonettes it upholds Messrs. Lenin and Trotsky. Nothing has changed. The light has not enlightened the soul of the people. There reigns that same darkness, that same frightful element under but new trappings, under new masks. The realm of Lenin is nowise different from the realm of Rasputin.
All those obsessed with populist illusions both from the right and from the left have to perceive, finally, that it is impossible to worship the “people” and it is impossible to expect from it some truth, unknowable for a more cultural stratum, — the “people” is in need of enlightening, an uplifting, the communing with civilisation. The acclaimed Russian humility has been in essence a terrible pride and self-conceit. And it has become time, when there is necessary for us, finally, a more genuine, a more simple and elementary humility, humility not in the face of the wisdom of the Russian people, but rather in the face of the law of civilisation, afront culture, afront the light of knowledge. The enormous dark peasant realm has to proceed down the long path to civilisation , of enlightening and illumination. This — is a worldwide path of developement and only through it can there be evidenced the national essence and the national calling. The Dionysian orgies of the dark peasant realm threaten to transform Russia, with all its values and good, into mere nothingness. The raging dark element has to be brought into a norm, made subject to law. Without this it is impossible to dream about any sort of higher vocation for Russia, since even Russia itself will have ceased to exist. The Russian people is not above the law, , this — is an illusion; it is not some sort of a state of grace, it — is beneathe the law, and in its notable masses it is in a state of beastliness. Such an admission represents also genuine religious humility, more humble, than the totally arrogant and self-conceited words about Holy Rus’ or about an International-Socialist Rus’. Russians have muddled up freedom with chaos, they have made an hodge-podge of the very low with the very high, of uppermost infinity — with uttermost low infinity. And our generation is paying dearly for this confusion. The Russian people still is in need of elementary truth, it has not yet passed through the elementary sciences, but it regards itself as having overleaped all the sciences by some higher wisdom. The tragic experience of the Russian Revolution confirms the elementary truth of Westernism. This — is not the ultimate truth, this — is a pre-ultimate truth. But even a pre-ultimate truth has become needful to the extreme. It is time already to repudiate the Russian illusion, that for Russians exclusively needful is only the most final and ultimate. It is time already to be healed from the utopianism, from the pernicious social visionary dreaming, it is time already to religiously humble oneself in facing realism, with laws dealing with the relative and the intermediate.
Among Russian thinkers, the most correct was Chaadayev. Vl. Solov’ev in much also was correct, he was free of the populist illusions. Gogol saw in Russia the beastly snouts and then he repented of this. Now the Gogolian snouts are triumphant. Slavophilism however is dead in all its views and forms. The faith in Holy Rus’ now sounds unendurably false and a lie. There is need to get concerned over this, that Rus’ should preserve something of an human semblance, so that in Russian man there should not perish ultimately the image and likeness of God. Many ideas of the Russian great writers have suffered a terrible collapse. Dostoevsky prophetically foresaw the demonic aspect of the Russian Revolution in “The Devils” (“Besy”), he hinted at the demonic metaphysics of revolution in “The Brothers Karamazov”. With genius he caught sight of much in the nature of Russian man, in the peculiarity of the nature of the Russian revolutionary Intelligentsia. But all the positive ideas of Dostoevsky have proven to be illusions, and now they sound like a lie. L. Tolstoy has to be acknowledged the greatest Russian nihilist, a destroyer of all values and sanctities, a destroyer of culture. Tolstoy has triumphed, there has triumphed his anarchism, his non-resistance, his denial of the state and culture, his moralistic demand for equality in poverty and non-being and submission to the peasant kingdom and physical toil. But this triumph of Tolstoyism has proven less gentle and delightful, than it appeared to Tolstoy. He himself would hardly be happy in suchlike a triumph. There has been exposed the godless nihilism of Tolstoyism, its terrible poison, devastating the Russian soul. For the salvation of Russia and Russian culture, and with red-hot iron, there needs to be burnt out from the Russian soul the Tolstoyan morals, so debasing and destructive. Tolstoy himself was infinitely higher than this morality, but he carried still the terrible poison of a false morality, in which was concentrated the broad average flow of Russian feelings, of Russian moral illusions and Russian defects of moral service. One of the greatest Russian geniuses has proven himself a progromchik out of moral zeal. He intensified among Russian people the all-leveling egalitarian passion.
The end has come for all the basic lines of Intelligentsia thought and currents, be it the lines leading from Kireevsky, and so likewise the lines, leading from Hertsen. Slavophilism, Populism, Tolstoyanism, Russian religious self-conceits and Russian revolutionary self-conceits — are at an end, tragically lived out. There is no movement further along those paths, further along opens up the abyss of non-being. Russian illusions have ended in an ugly orgy. But its hypnotic effect soon will pass. After a cleansing from sins, from the old lies, it is necessary to begin a new life upon new paths. Worn down with sufferings, the Russian people has to reorient itself onto the long path of civilisation. In their souls will be born other thoughts, with a different and better consciousness. The soul of the Russian people will be tempered within a more austhere morality. Russia has its own mission, distinct from the mission of Germany, France and England. But the fulfilling of this mission lies through culture, through a duty of obedience to the burdens of civilisation. We have mistaken our backwardness for a point of excellence, as a sign of our higher calling and our greatness. But the terrible fact is that the human person for us is drowning in a primitive collectivism, and this is nowise a point of excellence, nor a sign of our greatness. It makes totally no difference, whether this all-engulfing collectivism be that of the “Black Hundreds” or of the “Bolsheviks”. The Russian land lives under the power of a pagan khlysty-like element. In this element gets submerged every face, it is incompatible with personal worthiness and personal responsibility. This demonic element can pull forth from its bosom no true face, save only the likes of Rasputin and Lenin. The Russian “Bolshevik Revolution” is a dreadful worldwide reactionary phenomenon, just as reactionary in its spirit, as the “Rasputinism”, as the Black Hundred khlystyism. The Russian people, just like every people, has to pass through a religious and cultural discipline of the person. And for this, it is needful to repudiate Russian illusions. The perishing of these illusions is not at all a perishing of the world. For us it is not given to know the times and seasons of the end of the world. And is not the eschatological and apocalyptic investigation of the religious populists of all the Russian woes and the Russian sins — is this not one of the Russian illusions and temptations, begotten of the Russian self-conceit?
© 2003 by translator Fr. S. Janos
(1917 – 280 -en)
GIBEL’ RUSSKIKH ILLIUZII. Article originally published in Journal “Russkaya Mysl'”, sept.-oct. 1917, p. 101-107.
Republished in Tom 4 of Berdiaev Collected Works by YMCA Press, in the collection of 1917-1918 Berdyaev articles under the title, “Dukhovnye osnovy russkoi revoliutsii (Stat’i 1917-18)” (“Spiritual Grounds of the Russian Revolution (Articles 1917-18)”, Paris, 1990, p. 113-122.
N.B. possible erratum: YMCA Press Berdiaev Tom 4 text provides regarding this “Gibel'” article at conclusion the bibliographic citation of: “Russkaya Mysl'” jan.-feb. 1918, with no page number indication, which differs from the sept.-oct. 1917 citation (#280) in the Klepinina “Berdiaev Bibliographie”. To preserve proper continuity with the Klepinina enumeration of Berdyaev’s works as indicated in the “Bibliographie”, 1917 rather than 1918 is the year tentatively thus indicated in our translation.
1 Vide my article, “The Populist and the National Consciousness”, in Russkaya Mysl’ for July-August 1917.