What follows are the first two paragraphs of this academic article (sans footnotes), published in Russian Review 72:1 (2013), 94-115. To see the rest of the article, download the PDF below.
As a wave of patriotic fervor swept across Europe in 1914, Russian religious philosophers were among the numerous European intellectuals commenting on the outbreak of war and rallying to their nations’ banners. Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdiaev, for example, proclaimed the war to be a source of renewal, espoused Russian national messianism, and praised Russian and British imperialism as essentially Christian and freedom-spreading. Writing in the national-liberal newspaper Utro Rossii in November, Berdiaev declared that the war was revealing “superhuman providential strengths” in man, paving the way for an epoch of creativity and a transformed social order. “The mass of humanity needs historical tribulations (ispytaniia) and catastrophes,” he argued. “They awaken, test (ispytyvaiut) and punish (karaiut) it. A great mystery of human life is concealed in the fact that for the full revelation of human strength not only good, but also evil, is necessary.” These comments represent the sort of Christian Providentialist reasoning that formed an essential component of Russian religious philosophers’ intellectually sophisticated worldview and conditioned their responses to the war.
Despite this fact, neither classic nor more recent studies of Russian religious thought have made much of either Christian Providentialism or religious-philosophical war commentary. On the count of his biographer Donald Lowrie, Berdiaev penned no fewer than 133 articles during Russia’s participation in World War I. Yet Lowrie not only did not address Berdiaev’s Providentialist reasoning about the war, but, projecting some of Berdiaev’s émigré views back into Russia’s Silver Age, preferred to pretend that it did not exist. Exhibiting marked discomfort in addressing Berdiaev’s copious war commentary, Lowrie explained away these pieces as driven primarily by “economic pressure owing to the loss of income from his estate in Poland.” He curiously described Berdiaev as someone who “throughout the war … played a listener’s part,” and he blatantly mischaracterized Berdiaev’s “theoretical view of the war” as a belief that “good could not be wrought by evil means.”Berdiaev did publish a pacifist pamphlet in 1938, at which point he presumably believed that no good could come from the evil of war. But he was a consistent supporter of the Russian and Entente effort in the Great War from the moment it broke out until Brest- Litovsk, a supporter who regarded the war as serving a providential purpose.
Note: The featured image above is a relief sculpture from the original Cathedral of Christ the Savior, built over decades and consecrated in 1883, and which Stalin demolished in 1931. Now housed at the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow, the relief depicts St. Sergius blessing Dmitry Donskoy before his encounter with Khan Mamai at Kulikovo Field in 1380. St. Sergius, a 14th-century monastic leader, is a powerful symbol of Russian national identity. Photo by Christopher Stroop.