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| BOOK EXCERPT |

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THE DOWNFALL OF THE SACRED RUSSIAN REALM

(1917 - 260)1

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By Nikolai Berdyaev

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The Montréal Review, September 2018

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ASTRIDE THE ABYSS OF WAR AND REVOLUTIONS: ARTICLES 1914-1922
By Nikolai Berdyaev
Translated by Fr S Janos
(Frsj Publications, 2017)

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I.

            Over the span of several days, with amazing an ease and lack of harm there has occurred greatest an event in Russian history and one of the greatest events in world history. Truly, in how this Russian revolution occurred, is something legendary. It all still seems, that it was from a dream of sleep from which we suddenly awakened. From an outward point of view what happened was a political turnabout, just like many in history. But from deeper a perspective what occurred was an event of exceptional importance and significance: there fell the thousand year sacred Russian tsardom, with which had been bound up great hopes and illusions, the last holy kingdom of the world. And this downfall of the sacred Russian tsardom in its significance can be compared with the downfall of Rome and Byzantium, though it occurred in quite different an historical setting and for different reasons -- the Russian state itself did not fall, it can moreso still flourish. After the downfall of the monarchical principle in Russia it inevitably will have to fall throughout all the world, since Russia was its final bulwark and its most mighty and intense expression. Henceforth in the world there will not yet be a kingdom, making pretense to sacred a significance, -- the various peoples are entering upon different a dimension of existence. There is ensuing an historical period of republics, a period of human self-governance as democracies. The Russian tsardom, insofar as it conceived itself sacred, made pretense to being the Third Rome. And this is the extent of pretension to every monarchy, aspiring to worldwide a significance. From the time of the XVI Century the Russian tsardom sensed itself as having accepted the succession from Byzantium. And certain sacred expectations, connected with this tsardom, derive from that time down through the XIX Century, through the Slavophils, through Dostoevsky, through the religious currents of the final period. The Russian tsardom with its anointing by God -- with an autocratic tsar at the head -- was as such a Christian, an Orthodox realm. It stood opposed to every secular and worldly state, in it the state flesh -- is a sacred flesh. This -- is not some mere human kingdom, this -- is a certain sort of imperial sanctity, God's leadership in the fate of earthly states. This idea on its strength pretended to be the equal to the idea of papal theocracy.

Smashing of the Church at Easter Night (1999, Oil on canvas) by Ilya Glazunov

            Such was the idea. But in what sort of correlation did it stand with the factual existence of the Russian realm, with its actuality? The Slavophils sensed a monstrous disproportion between the idea and the fact. They attempted to make a subtle distinction between autocracy (a Russian idea) and absolutism (a Western borrowing). But the arbitrary aspect and falseness of these constructs was too evident to overlook. Russia, in spite of all the Slavophil pretty-feeling ideologies, was a classical land of absolutism, of despotism, of bureaucratic rule -- in Russia namely moreso than elsewhere, power was severed off from the people, and the whole history of our state aspect was not the history of the people, it was rather an incessant exerting of violence against the people, and their slavery to foreign principles. At present it has become finally clear, what earlier had been clear to many, -- the Russian absolute monarchy was not of the people and it lacked firm support from the people. In the West, the state power always was moreso of the people, than in Russia. The idea of the Russian sacred tsardom, which undoubtedly was alive among the people, was merely a projection of the people's passivity and the people's despondency, an insufficient manifestation of the human principle in Russia. That power appeared sacred, which had not issued forth from the human will of the people, but which rather was over the people, high and unreachable. The slavery of the people was to something foreign to it, it was experienced as transcendent a power, as a sacred tsardom. In this there was much that was specifically Russian and Eastern. Forcibly imposed, the old world-historical idea of the Caesar, of tsardom, was rendered into a nationally Russian and Eastern element. The sacred Russian tsardom was first of all at its basis a peasant kingdom. For the peasant consciousness among the people the state unity could only be conceived of symbolically, only in connection with the person of the tsar, symbolising the state and national wholeness and preeminence. The peasant consciousness, hitherto having taken hold with many of the representatives of higher culture, understands tsardom but does not understand the state. Tsardom is symbolised by the tsar. In essence, every monarchy, even one constitutional and parliamentary, is not a pure form of the state, it is always hybrid and of transitional a condition, in it are many elements of the pre-state consciousness. The state presupposes a capacity for more abstract thinking and abstract an awareness, a greater freedom of spirit from the grip of material images.

II.

            The sacred tsardom was affixed to materiality, in it the spirit was enslaved to matter, to outwardly external images and forms. It was less spiritual, than a secular state, in which have already occurred the separations whereby no sort of congestive matter is venerated as sacred. The sacred realm with the tsar, with its inevitable materialistic symbolism, signifies still the submersion of the spirit of the people within organic matter, the non-freedom of the human spirit. The sacred realm rested upon a religious materialism, upon an acknowledgement of matter as sacred, upon an apotheosis of the materially relative. A more free and more spiritual religious consciousness would lead to the undoing of a sacred kingdom, to a discernment between the spiritual and the material, the absolute and the relative, and would deliver from the need for materialised sacred tsardom. There would ensue a liberative awareness of the spectral aspect of the kingdom of God within the material plane of being. The sacred tsardom was a realm of symbols, in it the realities did not obtain. Matter was symbolically was rendered sacred and meant, stood for, symbolised the realm of Spirit. But the realm of Spirit itself was not immediately and directly revealed. Some one or another man (for example, the tsar) was not a realistic, but rather only symbolic, bearer of the spiritual principle, independent of his human nature. The sacred materiality (the kingdom upon earth in the flesh) never was manifest for real, it was only symbolised. This conditional symbolism of everything sacred within the historical embodiment is connected with materialism. The material cannot be realistically sacred, it can only be symbolically sacred. And this is determined, by that matter and materiality are never the final reality, and in essence always -- are signs, symbols of different a spiritual reality. And the material aspect of the sacred tsardom signifies only a certain stage in the developement of spirit, only a certain condition of spiritual actuality.

            But at higher a stage of developement of spirit there is inevitable a transition to a realm of realities, free from the initial symbolism. Religious materialism, as in any materialism, is an unperceived and unconscious symbolism. A perceived symbolism is already a liberating principle. The source of slavery is however rooted in a mistaking of the symbolism for realism, mistaking the symbol for the real, in that emotional confusedness, which does not distinguish the spiritual realities from the material symbols. The material symbols are needed but for a period of time. A free spirituality leads to realism in state and societal life, it delivers from demands in the symbolic sanctification of material life. The symbol of the authority of power (the symbol of the tsar) ceases to be necessary, when the human spirit is risen to the point of a real assuming of the authority of power. All the theocracies in the history of the world have been but symbolic, the divine authority of power was realised only in symbols, only in the symbolic sign-tokens of man. Every symbolic sanctifying of a man as the bearer of theocratic power diverges away from the path of the realisation of human power, and moreover it renders the power of the symbolic person despotic and unbounded. Only a free human power of authority tends to free from the enslaving theocratic illusions. Within human a power of authority itself, the human self-governance, the Divine energy can be active for real, there can be present the unmediated spiritual reality. In theocracies however, in holy kingdoms, the Divine energy does not act for real, but is only symbolised, and the spiritual realities themself do not obtain, but are merely rendered as signs within material images. And the religious consciousness has to make the transition to paradoxical a truth: the Divine for real can only be within an anthropocracy, whereas theocracy is always but symbolically Divine. The sacrificial religious spirit ought to forego the comfort and delight, connected with a sacred kingdom, and fearlessly make the transition to the ultimate realities. Thus is consummated the mystery of the human "I".

III.

            The Russian sacred tsardom rested upon a firm reinforcing of the Russian state by the Russian Church. The Russian Church provided sanctification for the Russian tsardom. The Russian tsardom was anointed and it gave its support to the Russian Church. The Russian state was an Orthodox Christian state. The Russian Church was the dominant and state church. The Russian tsar was anointed by the Russian Church for civil state matters. The immense turnabout, happening in Russian life, has struck a grievous blow to this reinforcing arrangement, and the enormous consequences of this blow will be recalled throughout all the utmost historical fate of Russia. There has ended the sacred Russian tsardom with its enslaving illusions, with its allures and its terrors, and we enter upon other a dimension of being, into a great unknown and uncertainty. And for those, who keep to our faith of the fathers, there is needed a great resoluteness of spirit and self-assurance, in order ultimately to get free of the old illusions, from the dear phantasms, and to plunge forth into the dark ocean of unknown being, in which nothing is guaranteed nor assured. The end of the sacred Russian tsardom has to evoke a great consternation of spirit for many of the religious Orthodox Russian people. The inevitable secularisation of our state and societal life has to be apperceived by them, as a principle of spiritual death, as a desolation of soul. Many dread the coming mechanisation and machinisation of life, the destruction of every sort of organic harmony. The sacred tsardom was an organic realm, in it was an organic beauty, an organic warmth and comfort, a cordiality, in which it was possible to shelter oneself from the terror of life. Replacing the sacred tsardom is a secular stateform, the coming democracy -- mechanical, soulless, cold, lacking in beauty, lacking in style. For people of higher a spiritual life, full of love for beauty, it is difficult to accept the mechanism, cold and soulless, even though perchance just, and this -- is a great sacrifice, a voluntary Golgotha. But only this resoluteness to proceed through the wilderness, past the barren rocks, leads to higher life, to the mountainous freedom. The mystical and irrational basis for the societal aspect has to be conceived of not in the tsar and not in the people, but in the "I", in the person.

            The romantic restorative mindset, clinging to the old sacred organicity, is unfree a spirit, a slave-like condition, begetting mistrust, fear and terror. The Russian Orthodox world has been accustomed to live under a guarding and protective Russian state, and now it senses itself helpless and cast off upon the vast ocean of world life. Everywhere is sensed danger and threats. It is impossible to press back into the folds of the feminine skirts of the old emotional realm. Severe times of freedom ensue, when nothing still is guaranteed or assured. To Orthodox people this freedom is disagreeable. It would be warmer in the realm of sacred necessity and sacred compulsion. Emergence from organicity into mechanism is either a loss of soul, or of a great freedom of spirit, upon which only some are capable. Yet nonetheless the Orthodox churchly people, accustomed to age old passivity and submissiveness, have stirred, they manifest signs of activity, and hastily they set about to organise the Church as free. A conservative now already has to be an adherent of the separation of church from state. It has all become very paradoxical and contradictory in the world. In the Orthodox Christian state, in the sacred tsardom, the Christian Church was enslaved and oppressed, and it could not manifest any signs of activity. Only in a non-Christian and secular state, in a democratic republic, can the Church finally feel itself fully free and can church people be active. It is possible to posit a paradoxical position: within a Christian state the Christian Church always becomes enslaved and oppressed, and only in a non-Christian state can it be free and active. This is adequately substantiated by the rebirth of Catholicism in France after its separation of church and state and after the persecution against the Church. Churchly people perchance in a way can ultimately be grateful for a revolution -- only with it obtains a cleansing of the churchly organism from all manner of filth. In revolution there is a cleansing threat for all the spheres of life, though also inevitably accompanied by the dissipation inherent with the lower instincts of the masses. True, in a secular state, in a democratic republic there can begin persecution of the Church and spiritual oppression against believing people. But the oppressions are not ultimately terrible for the Church and cannot bring Christians to naught, they renew it and prove their spirit true. It is terrible for the Church, when it itself does the persecuting, murdering for merely its sense of guarding and protecting. True Christians in a completely new historical era will once again appeal for this, so as not to sacrificially consent to be masters and lords in the earthly realm. And in this is a regenerative truth.

IV.

            The end of the Russian sacred tsardom can lead only to a renewal of the Church. It will lose out in quantity, but win out in quality. Only the free sons of the Church will remain in it, no one still will be numbered amongst it by virtue of outward necessity, no one will belong to it out of greedy considerations. The churchly folk will pull together, and organise freely. And the churchly people will come to detect their own existence. The revolution, destroying the sacred tsardom and creating a secular realm, can be a great stimulus for the living spiritual powers of the Church, testing its vitality. I am speaking somewhat formally and as regards externals. If however one inwardly and essentially approach the Church Question in Russia, then it mustneeds be said, that we stand facing a great religious spiritual turnabout, that we are entering upon an era of a religious revolution. For the time being it is still vague, and it is impossible to gauge it by the measure, by which political and social revolutions are measured. But in the depths of spiritual life already the dynamite is piled up and a religious revolution will come. Only on the surface of religious life will all seem quite tranquil and inactive. But in another dimension of existence, in the higher qualitative levels of being will occur spiritual upheavals, and everything, that transpires quantitatively, on the external plane of being, is but a projection and muddled reflection of what happens therein. History in its finalative realities is created by the few, it is aristocratic, and every mass revolution with the transition to democratisation etc is but a reflection downwards, of what occurs above, the result of a sacrificial resoluteness of the select of the spirit to go to the heights, by new and unknown paths, sacrificially having broken with the past. The lofty spiritual resoluteness to go sacrificing the old organic harmony, the old bonding of spirit with organic matter, the old warm sentimentality, such as hinders the creative growth of life, assumes the form of a transition to mechanism and the machine. The mechanisation and machinisation is but a reflection on lower planes of a dichotomy of spirit, happening upon a summit-like plane, of a religious revolution in the depths. And there remains the task of creative spiritual work, of a religious renewal of mankind in its higher qualitative aspects, not coinciding with the social and political democratisation of society. The turnabout is happening simultaneously on several planes, and in all the planes there has to occur creative work.

V.

            The sacred Russian tsardom long ago already had died, long ago already the spirit departed it, and it lived a phantasmal and pseudo sort of life. The end of this tsardom was scandalous: it ended with the reign of Grigorii Rasputin, in him it became totally altered and in him it came apart. The "mystic" darkness pervaded the final period of the old tsardom and the murky wine of the life of the Russian people intoxicated the supreme power at the hour of the end. The sacred Russian tsardom passed away amidst a dissolute Khlystyism. This realm fundamentally always was a peasant realm and it ended under the dominance of a dissolute peasant. In this fate lies concealed a profound symbolism. The Russian Church also in the final period of its existence within the Christian state was under the grip of Grigorii Rasputin. Our supreme clergy authorities have been Grigorians. The old Russian tsardom mirrored and expressed the age old peasant darkness, and it had to end its power amidst the peasant darkness, symbolised in the same form. And the last Russian autocrat was not Nicholas II, but rather Grigorii Rasputin. The imperial power was powerless to enlighten and transform the ancient darkness of the people, to free Russia from the murky wine's effect upon the lower aspects in the life of the people -- it itself became drunken with this murky wine and ended amidst a shameful orgy. And ultimately there was killed off and destroyed the sacred idea of the monarchy. Such a downfall of the monarchic idea is unknown by any other people.

            The demise of the old tsardom ought therefore not frighten the Christian Church and Christians, since this kingdom never was Christian and holy in the deep and ontological sense of this word. The image of a "sacred kingdom" was merely a symbolic play on words, of a religiously immature mankind, reflective of its non-freedom, its dearth of spirituality, its submersion in matter. The idea of an "holy kingdom" in this world, in either the old conservative form, or in a new and religious form, -- is covetously greedy an idea, in it there is a pitiful desiring of this world, an attachment to this material plane, and not the true freedom of spirit and thirst for emergence of higher spiritual planes. And there is something pitiful and shameful in this spectacle, how some tremble with fear, sensing, how the kingdom of this world is passing out from underfoot and being snatched out of their hands, whilst others greedily in their hands grasp at the transitory passing earthly kingdom and in a delirium of greed increase their demand for holding power. The "bourgeois" fear of those, from whom the realm is departing, and the "democratic" greed of those, to whom it is passing, will stand alike together before the face of an higher truth, before the face of God. Christ said, that His kingdom is not of this world and He commanded not to love the world and that, which is of the world. Truly indeed the kingdom of Christ cannot be within this three-dimensional expanse, in this material plane, for it is incommensurate with this world. The kingdom of Christ can only be in an other dimension, in a different spiritual plane, in a different lofty world: to suchlike a kingdom belong those, who in their spirit are free from the lower spheres of being, from the slavery to matter and who grow inwardly upon the higher sphere of being, in the sphere of love and freedom. The kingdom of this world however always rests upon necessity and compulsion. The army of Christ in this world, in this kingdom can only be but a mysterious chivalric union, free from all avarice and thirst for power. This -- is the true aristocratic spirit, for which externally can be desired the triumph of democracy. But the growth of democracy can only be gradual. The secularisation of the state and of society, the killing at root of every sacred kingdom, is an act of liberation of the spirit from the enslaving projections of an other world into this three-dimensional expanse, an act of liberation, a great step upon the path of inward growth of a select portion of mankind upon the higher plane of being. A peaceful democratic societal effort, from more profound a perspective, can be understood, as a democratisation of life, as a dividing apart of spirit and organic flesh, such as the old sacred kingdom tended to reinforce. This is the same dematerialisation, as is involved in the growth of the machine, with its undoing of the old organic flesh, setting the spirit at liberty. Our free grasping of the truth ought not to be hampered by an aesthetic reaction against democracy, the secret thirst for a romantic restoration upon motives aesthetic. In this would be expressed a non‑freedom and immaturity of our spirit. A great audacity and freedom of awareness would lead us to a different, and indeed paradoxical in the externals, truth: the old monarchy was democratic in its fundamentals, whereas a democratic republic -- is aristocratic. Monarchy expresses the submersion of the entire people within organic matter and the demand for a symbolic sanctifying of this material aspect in the life of the people. The old monarchy, for enormous masses of the people, was a strong excuse for comfort, warmth and the guarantee of stability. Behind it stood no tempering of the spirit nor ascent in spirit of a select portion of mankind. A democratic republic can however be spiritually conceived of as the consent of the select of mankind to pass through an ascetic wilderness, by nothing adorned, as a sacrificial consent to live amidst the bare crags, arid, without the warmth of images of outward beauty. This involves an heroic resoluteness to cast off upon the vast ocean of the spirit, to the ultimate freedom, without any illusions or consolations. This -- is the final austerity of the people of spirit, the austerity of freedom from any consoling and any embellishments, the austerity of sacrifice by the "gifting of beautiful intents". The free spirit ought forever to renounce the temptations of a kingdom, both old and new, of guarantees and security, of luxury and comforts of the flesh. This -- is a testimony of Zarathustra, this -- is a testimony also of Him with Whom the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoevsky spoke, this -- is a passing through of a voluntary Golgotha, without which is impossible the higher and lofty life. Holy Rus' has ended and ahead lies only the Rus' prophetic. And the downfall of the sacred Russian tsardom ought to be favourable not only for the builders of a new democratic realm, remote from anything of spirit, but also for people of spirit, for an unseen spiritual aristocracy, by nothing terrified, who go forth bravely to the new and unknown world, having broken with all the old comforts, as comprising enslaving illusions.  

1 PADENIE SVYASCHENNOGO RUSSKOGO TSARSTVA. Article originally published in the weekly "Russkaya svoboda", apr. 1917, № 2, p. 16-23. The English text excerpted from Astride the Abyss of War and Revolutions: Articles 1914-1922, pp. 355-365. Published with the permission of Frsj Publications.

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