Thursday, January 9, 2014

Berdyaev's Russian Revolution

Nikolai Berdyaev book, The Russian Idea, provides readers with a wonderful survey of the Russian revolutionary tradition.  Its central thesis, that the Russians are an almost inherently millenarian or eschatologically-minded people, and therefore naturally produce social conflagrations that prefigure religious apocalpyse, is ultimately unconvincing. Notwithstanding, the long-standing tradition of fixating on the myriad characteristics of the "Russian Soul," Berdyaev's attempt to assign unique properties to the Russian people is anything but scientific or even rational.  Ironically, by tracing the history of Russian exceptionalism in such detail, Berdyaev highlights the fact that his theory of Russian messianism is in some respects merely the latest chapter in a flawed intellectual tradition.  If the Russians were victims of certain strands of Enlightened thinking, they certainly weren't alone in their victimhood.  Even so, Berdyaev's intellectual and theological perspectives on the Russian Revolution remain thought-provoking.  Certainly the Russian Revolution bears striking similarities to a religious awkening.  Shouldn't we be skeptical of any overtly atheistic political phenomenon in a religion-soaked land?

Berdyaev's attempt to synthesize religion and atheism is intriguing. What, ultimately, is the difference between a militant, evengelical atheist and a militant, evengelical Christian? Can anything as all-emcompassing and explosive as a revolution be devoid of religious content?  Over and over again, Berdyaev asks us to consider the relationship between religion and its antithesis, socialist  or anarchic atheism, in the annals of revolutionary activity.  Were outraged members of the materialist or even nihilist intelligentsia more or less spiritual than the members of the Orthodox clergy who practiced empty rituals while defending absolutism?  Didn't Russian communism express at least some vital elements of the Christian agenda, including brotherhood and radical, otherworldly, justice?  Berdyaev's central question is this:  why do we find it necessary to take revolutionaries at their word by accepting the false premise that revolution springs from purely materialist considerations?  Shouldn't intellectual history be taken seriously? Shouldn't religion and philosophy be incorporated into our understanding of the revolutionary dynamic?Although Berdyaev's book isn't free from muddled assertions about the essential and unchanging Russian personality, his book makes important contributions to our understanding of both Russia and the Russian Revolution.  If nothing else, Berdyaev's investigation into the broad currents of nineteenth century religious and philosophical history, remind us that one can't study the Bolshevik Revolution without studying Russia. That is to say, one cannot understand 1917 without delving deep into the history of Russian ideas. Of course, the reverse is also true: one can't study Russia without studying revolution.  For Russia has always been on the brink of apocaylpse, witness the Pugachev Rebellion and the aborted Decembrist revolt and the 1905 Revolution.  What is 1917 if not a link in a long, unbroken chain of revolutionary events or at least potential events.  But perhaps this isn't a pecularity of Russian history.  Perhaps all societies stand on the brink of apolaypse.  What is modern European Civilization if not a chain of revolutionary moments such as 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1905, 1917, 1968, and 1989?  And shouldn't even these moments be seen as the visible peaks of partially submerged volcanos of revolutionary ferment waiting to erupt?

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