In doing some reconnaissance on Berdyaev’s reception and contemporary relevance, I came across two intriguing references, not from philosophers but three headline-making Russians: Vladimir Putin, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of the punk-protest band Pussy Riot.
Berdyaev is not a particularly systematic thinker, a point he readily admits throughout his opus. He regularly contradicts himself and adopts the aphoristic style of one of his heroes, Nietzsche. Adopting a Nietzschean style, however, opens one up to Nietzschean dangers, for example Nietzsche’s strange reception among German fascists prior to and during World War II. A similar phenomenon happens again in Russia, now with Berdyaev (and the tradition of which he is part).
In 2012, four members of the Russian band Pussy Riot were put on trial, a trial which quickly made national headlines. Wikipedia has a nice write-up on the event, detailing how the defendants were accused of inciting religious hatred against the Orthodox Church. Pussy Riot quickly showed, however, that they are not simple “hooligans” out to cause a ruckus but intentional and well-read activists. In August, portions of translated statements from the defendants appeared online, revealing not brainwashed leftists but articulate thinkers. Maria Alyokhina, in direct contrast to the charge of inciting hatred against the Orthodox Church, offered an intriguing reading of the Christian tradition, including Russian voices like Berdyaev. I first reacted with surprise that Berdyaev appeared to retain a voice in Russia. Here’s the portion I originally quoted:
The consequence of the process I have just described is ontological humility, existential humility, socialization. To me, this transition, or rupture, is noteworthy in that, if approached from the point of view of Christian culture, we see that meanings and symbols are being replaced by those that are diametrically opposed to them. Thus one of the most important Christian concepts, Humility, is now commonly understood not as a path towards the perception, fortification, and ultimate liberation of Man, but on the contrary as an instrument for his enslavement. To quote [Russian philosopher] Nikolai Berdyaev, one could say that “the ontology of humility is the ontology of the slaves of God, and not the sons of God.”
In November of 2013, letters from Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who was imprisoned following the trial, to Slavoj Zizek began to circulate online. Here, too, Berdyaev is mentioned with sympathy and subtlety. Here is the relevant portion (link to the original letter):
We are part of the rebellion who wish for the storm (as to seek peace), and believe that the truth is found only in an endless search. As Nicolas Berdyaev, in his “Essay in Autobiography” [Dream and Reality in English-my edit] wrote: “There is no truth as an object that is put on me as a reality that falls on me from heaven. The truth is the path of life, it is a spiritual conquest. The truth is conceived in liberty and through liberty.” […] “I see Christianity as a revolt against the world and its law”. […] “Sometimes a nightmarish thought passed through my head: what if the slave orthodoxy is right, then I’m lost, but I quickly dismissed this thought.” In this regard there is no difference between the rhetoric of Pussy Riot and the Russian religious philosopher. In 1898, Berdyaev was arrested for his involvement in the student social-democratic movement and was accused of ”intention to undermine the foundations of the monarchy and the church.” He was exiled from Kiev for three years in the province of Saratov. So if the “World Spirit” hits you, do not expect it to be painless.
Tolokonnikova interprets Berdyaev (rightly) along the lines of freedom, and sees his version of Christianity in contrast with what Berdyaev calls “slave orthodoxy.” Berdyaev’s Christianity is in no way, here, a nostalgia for past values or the preservation of particular doctrines or hierarchy, but rather an energetic path to truth and life. One would do well, too, to revisit her closing statements at the 2012 trial, which show a clear Berdyaev-inspired approach to truth, freedom, and religion. In another letter, she also mentions the broader project of the Russian Silver Age figures, which include Berdyaev, Bulgakov, and Merezhkovsky (see Pussy Riot!: A Punk Prayer for Freedom, pps. 21-22). These thinkers attempted to inaugurate a “third age” (following medieval mystic Joachim of Fiore), an Age of the Spirit following the Age of the Son, which followed the Age of the Father. The Age of the Spirit would be an age of grace and creativity, transcending without abandoning the Son’s love and the Father’s law. Pussy Riot, a punk avant-garde collective, curiously takes on the mantle of pre-Bolshevik Russian religion, becoming the heirs of the Age of the Spirit. Pussy Riot does not, at least according to their own words about themselves, wish to see the dissolution of Christianity or even Orthodoxy, for that matter. Indeed, it is only through a radical re-appropriation of Orthodox figures and lines of thought that they ended up on trial and subsequently in prison.
So: a feminist punk-protest group of musical activists ends up being one contemporary landing point for Berdyaev’s trajectory. But they are not the sole group competing for Berdyaev’s legacy. In a strange move, Vladimir Putin, who identifies as a Russian Orthodox Christian, recently required Russian regional governors to read works by, among others, Berdyaev and Solovyov (a towering predecessor to Berdyaev who is arguably the most important figure in 20th century Russian philosophy). Of the three most prominent articles I found on the topic ( at Washington Post, David Brooks at the New York Times, and a response to Brooks by Damon Linker at The Week), not one seems to actually know much about Berdyaev but simply notes that Putin is apparently a fan. Putin’s choice to have these particular thinkers on the syllabus is due to what he sees as a moralistic and nationalistic quality in their work, and this is possibly (only because I haven’t read them) true for several of the texts he assigns–but it is by no means true of Berdyaev (or Solovyov). To assign Berdyaev’s The Philosophy of Inequality and Solovyov’s The Justification of the Good are particularly strange.
Berdyaev, who was part of a group of thinkers known as Slavophiles, does write about Russia as a missional force with the potential to lead the world to redemption (a theme present as early as Gogol’s Dead Souls and Dostoevsky’s famous troika monologue in the trial scene in The Brothers Karamazov). He does not say this is Russia’s destiny but a live option (curiously, the Kyoto School of Japan had similar thoughts about the Japanese role in a globalizing society, most notably present in Nishitani Keiji–in other words, this sentiment is not totally unique among the margins of Europe). However, coming to occupy this role, according to Berdyaev, will not be the result of holding to traditional morals or preserving Russian heritage and exporting it to the unenlightened world–no, it will come precisely by losing the chains of morality (Berdyaev being one of the most Nietzschean of the Russian avant-garde religious writers) and leading the world to do the same, courageously moving into the frontiers of freedom. Putin (and Snegovava, Brooks, and Linker, for that matter) all miss this blaring siren which Berdyaev sounds over and over. If there is anything frustrating about Berdyaev, it’s the fact that he’s so eagerly repetitive–and yet even the most obvious repetition apparently doesn’t stop cursory readings and political agendas.
Putin presents his Russian vision, a conservative, nationalist, moralist, and imperialist Russia, as another option for landing the line of flight emanating from Berdyaev. An actual reading of Berdyaev, however, reveals that while Pussy Riot may not be the only landing pad (precisely because creativity demands a plurality of landing pads), Putin is most certainly not one. Pussy Riot and Putin both claim to read Berdyaev–yet they are diametrically opposed. One of them must be wrong; Berdyaev cannot belong to both.
It remains to be seen whether Berdyaev’s legacy will come out as one for the creative Age of Spirit or a conservative imperialist. Perhaps the texts will be able to maintain their radicality in spite of ideological blindness, or perhaps Putin is having some strange change of heart (though if the Ukraine is any indication, Putin has long given up reading Berdyaev). In any case, I hope Berdyaev can avoid the fate of his hero, Nietzsche, co-opted as an ideological weapon to ward against the subversive nature of an honest reading.