Berdyaev’s path

The path © Patrick Pascal  

          “Russia will convert»” this would have been one of the predictions during the apparitions of Fatima. Whether one is a believer or not, it is clear that conversion did not take place and that belief and spirituality were not the foundations on which post-communist Russia was rebuilt.

In this context, and in the light of tragic events, the perennial question of Russian history about Russia’s membership of either Europe or Asia arises again. This immense question was tackled in particular by Nicolas Berdyaev in his famous work on The Sources and Meaning of Russian Communism, which dealt with an eternal pendulum movement, or even extreme tensions, between “Slavophiles” and “Westernizers”. 


Nicolas Berdyaev focused, in his reflection published in 1938, on the search for the deep roots of communism, and especially of Leninism, in Russian thought. He himself, coming from an aristocratic background, took part in the great socialist movement and for this he was imprisoned and relegated to distant provinces. It was ultimately because of his adherence to Christianity that he had to leave Russia.

According to him, Russian thought was forged in a territory too vast with imprecise contours. Moscow long imagined itself as the «third Rome», in a kind of dream of lost Byzantium, including in its secular version of the center of the Soviet empire renamed “Оплот Мира” (the bulwark of peace).

Between the modernization according to Peter the Great and the mysticism of the superiority of the Russian people and the mujik – which later became the proletariat – the debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles took place.


The mujik has turned into a roughneck in the service of a regime that no longer even defines itself as a modernist communism (cf. “soviets plus electricity”) but results at the same time from a “vertical power” of the State and the horizontal of predatory oligarchic interests, in all cases of figures lacking real education and true historical depth.

Vladimir Putin has clearly presented himself in recent years as a Eurasianist – a modern translation of Slavophile –  gripped by an inextinguishable hatred of the West. This is the pure reason why he relied, whatever his beliefs, on an Orthodox Church which is only an additional instrument of his power. This is also what led him, paradoxically, to try to self-identify with the monument represented by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, eternal imprisoned in the archipelago of an inner gulag.

Putin cannot claim to be Lenin, whom Solzhenitsyn once described as « an evil character». Indeed, according to Berdyaev, Vladimir Ilyich brought together in him both the tradition of the revolutionary intelligentsia and that of the Russian power in its most despotic expression. Siloviki and Razviedka, that is to say the structures of force and the services, have henceforth replaced the intellectuals. The latter are sometimes physically eliminated as Anna Politkovskaya or put aside as Alexis Venediktov of Echo Moskvyi radio.    


Today we must tell Russia, which is clearly out of control, that it is also the case out of its natural area. There always ends up being a boundary and it has to be marked, not just physically but in the name of fundamentally different values.

“One arises by opposing”, according to the Hegelian dialectic. This is what Russia has always wanted to do in the desperate search for its identity and its limits. This cannot be at the expense of Europe, which sees itself compelled to react because it cannot be an ecumenical whole which is also the product of impressive national histories and the expression of a great project of civilization which must be safeguarded for the benefit of the whole humanity. As for Russia, if it does not convert, on the path taken by Nicolas Berdyaev, it will have to re-educate itself, which will require a very long process, at best.

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