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Nicholas Berdyaev

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Nicholas Berdyaev

Nikolai Berdyaev
Born March 18, 1874
Kiev, Russian Empire
Died March 24, 1948(1948-03-24) (aged 74)
Clamart, France
Era 20th century philosophy
Region Russian philosophy
School Christian existentialism
Main interests Creativity, morality, freedom

Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (Russian: Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Бердя́ев) (March 18 [O.S. March 6] 1874 – March 24, 1948) was a Russian religious and political philosopher.


Berdyaev was born in Kiev into an aristocratic military family. His father, Alexander Mikhailovich Berdyaev, came from a long line of nobility from Kiev and Kharkov. Almost all of his ancestors were high-ranking military officers, but he himself resigned from the army quite early and became active in the social life of Kiev aristocracy. Nikolai's mother, Alina Sergeevna Berdyaeva, was half French, also coming from top levels of French and Russian nobility. Berdyaev's father was an educated man, greatly influenced by Voltaire. He considered himself a free thinker and was very skeptical toward religion. Nikolai's mother, orthodox by birth, was in her views on religion more catholic than orthodox. This could be one of the reasons why Berdyaev, a very religious man and a religious philosopher, despised the official Orthodox Church. He spent a solitary childhood at home, where his father's library allowed him to read widely. He read Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Kant when only fourteen years old and excelled at languages.

Berdyaev decided on an intellectual career and entered the Kiev University in 1894. This was a time of revolutionary fervor among the students and the intelligentsia. Berdyaev became a Marxist and in 1898 was arrested in a student demonstration and expelled from the University. Later his involvement in illegal activities led to three years of internal exile in central Russia—a mild sentence compared to that faced by many other revolutionaries.

In 1904 Berdyaev married Lydia Trusheff and the couple moved to Saint Petersburg, the Russian capital and center of intellectual and revolutionary activity. Berdyaev participated fully in intellectual and spiritual debate, eventually departing from radical Marxism to focus his attention on philosophy and spirituality. Berdyaev and Trusheff remained deeply committed to each other until the latter's death in 1945.

A fiery 1913 article criticising the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church caused him to be charged with the crime of blasphemy, the punishment for which was exile to Siberia for life. The World War and the Bolshevik Revolution prevented the matter coming to trial.

However, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Berdyaev fell out with the Bolshevik regime, because of its totalitarianism and the domination of the state over the freedom of the individual. Nonetheless, he was permitted for the time being to continue to lecture and write.

His disaffection culminated in 1919 with the foundation of his own private academy, the "Free Academy of Spiritual Culture". This was primarily a forum for him to lecture on the hot topics of the day, trying to present them from a Christian point of view. Berdyaev also presented his opinions in public lectures, and every Tuesday he hosted a meeting at his home. However, Christianity was illegal at the time, since the official policy of the Communist party required atheism.[1]

In 1920 Berdiaev was made professor of philosophy at the University of Moscow, although he had no academic qualifications. In the same year, he was accused of participating in a conspiracy against the government; he was arrested and jailed. It seems that the feared head of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, came in person to interrogate him, and that he (Berdyaev) gave the man a solid dressing-down on the problems with Bolshevism. Berdyaev's prior record of revolutionary activity seems to have saved him from prolonged detention, as his friend Lev Kamenev was present at the interrogation.[1]

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his book The Gulag Archipelago, recounts the incident as follows:

[Berdyaev] was arrested twice; he was taken in 1922 for a midnight interrogation with Dzerjinsky; Kamenev was also there. [...] But Berdyaev did not humiliate himself, he did not beg, he firmly professed the moral and religious principles by virtue of which he did not adhere to the party in power; and not only did they judge that there was no point in putting him on trial, but he was freed. Now there is a man who had a "point of view"![2]

Berdyaev was eventually expelled from Russia in September 1922. He was among a carefully selected group of some 160 prominent writers, scholars, and intellectuals whose ideas the Bolshevik government found objectionable, who were sent into exile on the so-called "philosophers' ship". Overall, they were supporters neither of the Czarist regime nor of the Bolsheviks, preferring less autocratic forms of government. They included those who argued for personal liberty, spiritual development, Christian ethics, and a pathway informed by reason and guided by faith.

At first Berdyaev and other émigrés went to Berlin, where Berdyaev founded an academy of philosophy and religion. But economic and political conditions in Weimar Germany caused him and his wife to move to Paris in 1923. He transferred his academy there, and taught, lectured, and wrote, working for an exchange of ideas with the French intellectual community.

During the German occupation of France, Berdyaev continued to write books that were published after the war—some of them after his death. In the years that he spent in France, Berdyaev wrote fifteen books, including most of his most important works. He died at his writing desk in his home in Clamart, near Paris, in March 1948.


Berdyaev's philosophy has been characterized as Christian existentialist. He was preoccupied with creativity and in particular with freedom from anything that inhibited creativity, whence his opposition to a "collectivized and mechanized society".

According to Marko Markovic, "He was an ardent man, rebellious to all authority, an independent and "negative" spirit. He could assert himself only in negation and could not hear any assertion without immediately negating it, to such an extent that he would even be able to contradict himself and to attack people who shared his own prior opinions."[1]

He also published works about Russian revolution, History and national character. In particular, he wrote about Russian nationalism that:[3]

The Russian people did not achieve their ancient dream of Moscow, the Third Rome. The ecclesiastical schism of the seventeenth century revealed that the muscovite tsardom is not the third Rome. The messianic idea of the Russian people assumed either an apocalyptic form or a revolutionary; and then there occurred an amazing event in the destiny of the Russian people. Instead of the Third Rome in Russia, the Third International was achieved, and many of the features of the Third Rome pass over to the Third International. The Third International is also a Holy Empire, and it also is founded on an Orthodox faith. The Third International is not international, but a Russian national idea.

He was a practising member of the Russian Orthodox Church, but was often critical of the institutional church. He was a Christian universalist,[4][5] and he believed that Orthodox Christianity was the true vehicle for that teaching.

The greater part of Eastern teachers of the Church, from Clement of Alexandria to Maximus the Confessor, were supporters of Apokatastasis, of universal salvation and resurrection. ... Orthodox thought has never been suppressed by the idea of Divine justice and it never forgot the idea of Divine love. Chiefly — it did not define man from the point of view of Divine justice but from the idea of transfiguration and Deification of man and cosmos.[6]


The first date is of the Russian edition, the second date is of the first English edition

  • The New Religious Consciousness and Society, 1907 (Russian: Новое религиозное сознание и общественность, Novoe religioznoe coznanie i obschestvennost, includes chapter VI "The Metaphysics of Sex and Love")[7]
  • Landmarks (1909)[8]
  • The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916) 1955
  • Dostoevsky (1923) 1934
  • The Meaning of History (1923) 1936
  • The End of Our Time [aka The New Middle Ages] (1924) 1933
  • Leontiev (1926) 1940
  • Freedom and the Spirit (1927-8) 1935
  • The Russian Revolution (1931)(anthology)
  • The Destiny of Man 1931 (1937)
  • Christianity and Class War 1931 (1933)
  • The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1934) 1935
  • Solitude and Society (1934) 1938
  • The Bourgeois Mind 1934 (anthology)
  • The Origin of Russian Communism (1937) 1955
  • (1938) 1952
  • Slavery and Freedom (1939)
  • (1946) 1947
  • Spirit and Reality (1946) 1957
  • The Beginning and the End(1947) 1952
  • Towards a New Epoch" (1949) (anthology)
  • Dream and Reality: An Essay in Autobiography (1949) 1950
  • The Realm of Spirit and the Realm of Caesar (1949) 1952
  • The Divine and the Human (1949) 1952
  • Truth and Revelation (n.p.) 1953
  • '"Bibliographie des Oeuvres de Nicolas Berdiaev" établie par Tamara Klépinine' published by the Institut d'études Slaves, Paris 1978
  • on

Further reading

  • eNotes

See also


Works cited

  • N. Berdyaev. Dream and reality: An essay in autobiography. Bles, London, 1950.
  • M. A. Vallon. An apostle of freedom: Life and teachings of Nicolas Berdyaev. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960.
  • Lesley Chamberlain. Lenin's Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2007.
  • Marko Marković, La Philosophie de l'inégalité et les idées politiques de Nicolas Berdiaev (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines, 1978).

External links

  • Berdyaev Online Library and Index
  • Philosopher of Freedom
  • ISFP Gallery of Russian Thinkers: Nikolay Berdyaev

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