Nikolai Berdyaev

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Nikolai Berdyaev
Born Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev
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, eschatology, freedom
Notable ideas
core motifs: freedom, the person, spirit, creativity
Nikolai Berdyaev.
Berdyaev's grave, Clamart (France).

Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (/bərˈdjɑːjɛf, -jɛv/;[1] Russian: Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Бердя́ев; March 18 [O.S. March 6] 1874 – March 24, 1948) was a Russian political and also Christian religious philosopher who emphasized the existential spiritual significance of human freedom and the human person. Alternate historical spellings of his name in English include "Berdiaev" and "Berdiaeff", and of his given name as "Nicolas" and "Nicholas".


Nikolai Berdyaev was born at Obukhiv,[2] Kiev gubernia (Russian Empire) in 1874, in an aristocratic military family.[3] His father, Alexander Mikhailovich Berdyaev, came from a long line of Kiev and Kharkov nobility. Almost all of Alexander Mikhailovich's ancestors served as high-ranking military officers, but he resigned from the army quite early and became active in the social life of the Kiev aristocracy. Nikolai's mother, Alina Sergeevna Berdyaeva, was half-French and came from the top levels of both French and Russian nobility. He also had Polish as well as Tatar origins.[4][5]

Greatly influenced by Voltaire, his father was an educated man that considered himself a freethinker and expressed great skepticism towards religion. Nikolai's mother, Eastern Orthodox by birth, was in her views on religion more Catholic than Orthodox. He spent a solitary childhood at home, where his father's library allowed him to read widely. He read Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Kant when he was only 14 and excelled at languages.

Berdyaev decided on an intellectual career and entered the Kiev University in 1894. It was a time of revolutionary fervor among the students and the intelligentsia. He became a Marxist and he was arrested in a student demonstration and expelled from the university. His involvement in illegal activities led in 1897 to three years of internal exile, Vologda,[6]:28 in northern Russia, a mild sentence compared to that faced by many other revolutionaries.

In 1904, he married Lydia Yudifovna Trusheff. The couple moved to Saint Petersburg, the Russian capital, and the centre of intellectual and revolutionary activity. He participated fully in intellectual and spiritual debate, eventually departing from radical Marxism to focus his attention on philosophy and Christian spirituality.

A fiery 1913 article, entitled "Quenchers of the Spirit", criticising the rough purging of Imiaslavie Russian monks on Mount Athos by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church using tsarist troops, 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.[7] After the October Revolution of 1917, he fell out with the Bolshevik régime 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". It was primarily a forum for him to lecture on the hot topics of the day and to present them from a Christian point of view. He also presented his opinions in public lectures, and every Tuesday, the academy hosted a meeting at his home because official Soviet anti-religious activity was intense at the time and the official policy of the Bolshevik government, with its Soviet anti-religious legislation, strongly promoted State atheism.[6]

In 1920, Berdiaev became professor of philosophy at the University of Moscow. In the same year, he was accused of participating in a conspiracy against the government; he was arrested and jailed. The feared head of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, came in person to interrogate him,[8]:130 and he gave his interrogator a solid dressingdown on the problems with Bolshevism.[6]:32 Novelist 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"![9]

The Soviet authorities eventually expelled Berdyaev from Russia, in September 1922. He became one of a group of prominent writers, scholars and intellectuals who were sent into forced exile on the so-called "philosophers' ships".

At first, Berdyaev and other émigrés went to Berlin, where he founded an academy of philosophy and religion, but economic and political conditions in the Weimar Republic 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 during World War II, 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 15 books, including most of his most important works. He died at his writing desk in his home in Clamart, near Paris, in 1948.

Primary source biographical works in English are Berdyaev's intellectual autobiography, published originally under the title Dream and Reality, and Donald A. Lowrie's 1960 book, Rebellious Prophet: A Life of Nikolai Berdyaev, written in close collaboration with Berdyaev's sister-in-law, Evgenia Rapp, and others of their close acquaintance under the auspices of the Berdiaev Société.[10]


David Bonner Richardson described Berdyaev's philosophy as Christian existentialism and personalism.[11] He emphasized the importance of creativity that requires personal freedom.[citation needed]

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".[6]

He also published works about Russian history and the Russian national character. In particular, he wrote about Russian nationalism:[12]

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.

Theology and relations with Russian Orthodox Church[edit]

Berdyaev was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church,[13][14] and believed Orthodoxy was the religious tradition closest to early Christianity.[15]

Berdyaev criticized Russian Orthodox Church and described his views as anticlerical,[7] considered himself closer to Orthodoxy than either Catholicism or Protestantism. According to him, "I can not call myself a typical Orthodox of any kind; but Orthodoxy was near to me (and I hope I am nearer to Orthodoxy) than either Catholicism or Protestantism. I never severed my link with the Orthodox Church, although confessional self-satisfaction and exclusiveness are alien to me."[13]

Berdyaev is frequently presented as one of the important Russian Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century.[16][17][18] However, neopatristic scholars such as Florovsky have questioned whether his philosophy is essentially Orthodox in character, and emphasize his western influences.[19] Paul Valliere has pointed out the sociological factors and global trends which have shaped the Neopatristic movement, and questions their claim that Berdyaev and Vladimir Solovyov are somehow less authentically Orthodox.[20]

Berdyaev affirmed universal salvation, as did many important Orthodox theologians of the 20th century.[21] Along with Sergei Bulgakov, he was instrumental in bringing renewed attention to the Orthodox doctrine of apokatastasis, which had largely been neglected since it was expounded by Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century,[22] although he rejected Origen's articulation of this doctrine.[23][24]


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


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Berdyaev". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  2. ^ Technically at the time "Obykhov" or "Obuchovo" Lowrie. Rebellious Prophet. p. 14. .Обухов_(город)] indicates "В Обухове родились: Николай Бердяев — русский религиозный и политический философ.
  3. ^ Nicolaus, Georg (2011). "Chapter 2 "Berdyaev's life"" (PDF). C.G. Jung and Nikolai Berdyaev : individuation and the person : a critical comparison. Routledge. ISBN 9780415493154. 
  4. ^ George M. Young, The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers, Oxford University Press (2012), p. 134
  5. ^ Stefan Berger & Alexei Miller, Nationalizing Empires, Central European University Press (2015), p. 312
  6. ^ a b c d Marko Marković, La Philosophie de l'inégalité et les idées politiques de Nicolas Berdiaev (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines, 1978).
  7. ^ a b Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Autobiography, by Nicolas Berdyaev (Author), Katharine Lampert (Translator), Boris Jakim (Foreword) ISBN 1597312584
  8. ^ Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr (1973). "Chapter 3 The Interrogation". The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, I–II. Harper & Row. ISBN 0060803320. 
  9. ^ Cited by Markovic, op. cit., p.33, footnote 36.
  10. ^ Vide Lowrie, "Rebellious Prophet", Preface, p. ix-x
  11. ^ Existentialism: A Personalist Philosophy of History, Berdyaev’s Philosophy of History. An Existentialist Theory of Social Creativity and Eschatology, by David Bonner Richardson, pp 90-137
  12. ^ Quoted from book by Benedikt Sarnov,Our Soviet Newspeak: A Short Encyclopedia of Real Socialism., p. 446-447. Moscow: 2002, ISBN 5-85646-059-6 (Наш советский новояз. Маленькая энциклопедия реального социализма.)
  13. ^ a b Witte & Alexander 2007, p. 111-112.
  14. ^ The Living Church 1948, p. 8.
  15. ^ Berdyaev 1952.
  16. ^ Noble 2015.
  17. ^ Valliere 2006, p. 2.
  18. ^ Clarke 1950.
  19. ^ Florovsky 1950.
  20. ^ Valliere 2006, p. 3-4.
  21. ^ Cunningham & Theokritoff 2008, p. 118.
  22. ^ Blowers 2008, p. 37.
  23. ^ Deak 1977, p. 20-60.
  24. ^ Kirwan & Hidden 2016, p. 41-42.
  25. ^ The book is not available in English. For secondary literature in English, see:

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

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