The Russian and the Polish Soul

The Fate of Russia, Sect. III, Ch. 2.

The Russian and the Polish Soul

(1914 – #178)


The old quarrel within the Slavic family, the quarrel of the Russians with the Polish, cannot be explained merely by the external forces of history and the external political reasons. The sources of the age-old historical dispute of Russia and Poland lie deeper. And at present it is especially important for us to be aware of the spiritual causes of this hostility and antagonism, which divides the Slavic world. This is a dispute first of all between two Slavic souls, kindred by blood and by language, with traits of ethnos common to all the Slavs yet so very different, almost opposites, compatible but with difficulty, incapable of understanding each the other. Peoples that are kindred and close tend less so to be capable of understanding each other and are moreso antagonistic towards each other, than those remote and foreign. The kindred tongue sounds odd and seems a corruption of one’s own language. In family life also it is possible to observe this antagonism between the close and the impossibility of understanding one another. For outsiders, much is forgiven, but for one’s own there is no desire to forgive anything… And no one seems so foreign and unpleasant, as one’s own and near.

The Russians and the Polish have fought not only over territory and their different feel towards life. Outwardly — the Russians historically have come out on top in this age old struggle, they not only warded off the danger of the polonisation of the Russian people, but they also aggressively set upon the Polish people and made attempts at its russification. The polish state was broken apart and divided, but the Polish soul was preserved, and with a still greater intensity the Polish national visage was expressed. The great spiritual upsurge, voiced in Polish messianism, came about already after the destruction of the Polish state. The Polish people, so little capable at building a state, was endowed though with features individualistic and anarchistic, and proved spiritually strong and indestructible. And there is no other people in the world, endowed with so intense a national feeling. The Polish are completely not given to assimilation. And it is with the Polish namely that the idea of a nationalism messianism has reached its highest upsurge and intensity. The Polish have conveyed into the world the idea of a sacrificial messianism. And the Russian messianism always has to seem to the Polish as something non-sacrificial, greedy, with pretensions to seizing territory. After the war, much has to change in the external, the state fortunes of Poland, and it is already impossible to return to the old repression of it. The outward relationships of Russia and Poland will tend to  fundamentally change. Russia is aware, that it has to redeem its historical guilt regarding Poland. But the Russian and the Polish souls all still remain the opposite of each other, as terribly foreign, infinitely different, incomprehensible each for the other. The Polish-Russian question is posited by both the Polish and the Russians too externally, on the political plane, and its resolution vacillates depending upon the fluctuations of political intents and military successes. The liberation of Poland would make possible a genuine communion between Poland and Russia, a genuine rapport between the Polish and the Russians, which up til now the repression of Poland has impeded. But what inwardly has to be done for such a communion and rapport? To outward promises the Polish relate suspiciously. At present these historical suspicions are baseless, but psychologically the Polish have quite much basis for them. Spiritually however very little is done for any rapport with the Polish. But I should want to draw special attention to this, that in Polish-Russian relations there is a deeper, a spiritual side. Only a genuine understanding can be liberating, it frees one from any initial negative feelings, and tends to familiarise both us, as Russians, and the Polish, as to why it is always so difficult for the Russian soul to be fond of the Polish soul, and why the Polish soul relates with such suspiciousness towards the Russian soul? Why so foreign and so incomprehensible to each other are these two Slavic souls? Inside the Slavic world has occurred the clash of East and West. The Slavic West has felt itself more civilised, a bearer of unified European culture. And the Slavic East has opposed to the West its own particular spiritual type of culture and life.


I have always thought, that the dispute of Russia and Poland is, first of all, a dispute of the Orthodox soul and the Catholic soul. And within the Slavic world this clash between the Orthodox and Catholic souls has assumed an especial acuteness. Russia historically has been wont to preserve its Orthodox soul and its unique spiritual inheritance against the Western side. In the past, polonisation and latinisation of the Russian people would have been to the ruin of its spiritual self-existence, its national visage. Poland descended upon the Russian East with a sense of its own cultural superiourity. The Russian spiritual type seemed to the Polish not some other spiritual type, but simply a lower and non-cultural condition. The historical struggle of Russia with Poland had a positive significance, and the spiritual uniqueness of the Russian people was affirmed in it forever. The memory of this struggle has left in the souls of both peoples traces so deep, that at present it is difficult to be free of it. Russia grew into a colossus, both as a state, and likewise spiritually, and long since already the fomenting of passions over the Polish danger, just like the Catholic danger, has become shameful and insulting to the dignity of the Russian people. It ill becomes a strong offender to shout about the danger posed by the weaker, the already crushed. At present Russia has facing it tasks creative, and not of oppressive preservation. Russian politics regarding Poland long since already has become historical a relic, connected with the remote past and presenting no opportunity to create for the future. In this mindless politics the guilty one ought not to be forgiving the one, before whom he is guilty. This is something within the realm of external state politics. In the sphere however of the inwardly spiritual there is still hindrance for the Russian soul in approaching the Polish soul by a feeling of foreignness and hostility, evoked by the Latin Catholic engrafting onto the Slavic soul, constituting the Polish national visage. To the self-absorbed Russian soul, having received its own powerful Orthodox engrafting, much is not only foreign and incomprehensible in the Polish, but disagreeable, repelling and arousing of hostility. And even Russian people having fallen away from Orthodoxy remain Orthodox as regards their spiritual type, and it is all the more difficult for them to understand Catholic culture and the spiritual type, nurtured upon its soil. German Protestantism has been less repellant for Russian man, and this has been a genuine misfortune for the fate of Russia.

In the typical Russian soul there is much simplicity, directness and a lack of cunning, foreign to it is every affectation, every overwrought pathos, every aristocratic ambition, all the gesturing. This soul — readily falls and sins, yet repenting even to the point of morbidity it remains conscious of its own insignificance before the face of God. Within it there is some sort of an especial, altogether non-Western democratism upon religious grounds, a thirst for the salvation of all the people. Everything remains in the depths for the Russian people, and it is not wont to express itself in a plastically facile manner. In Russian man there is so little a sense of discipline, an orderly soul, a tempering of person, he is not extended out upwards, in the stuff of his soul there is nothing of the Gothic. Russian man expects, that God Himself will set order to his soul and arrange his life. In its utmost manifestations the Russian soul — is a wanderer, seeking for the City not here present and awaiting its descent from Heaven. The Russian people in its lower aspects is immersed in the chaotic, still pagan earthly element. But at its summits it lives in apocalyptic expectations, it thirsts for the absolute and is not ready to settle for anything relative. Altogether different is the Polish soul. The Polish soul — is aristocratic and individualistic to the point of morbidity, in it so powerful is not only the sense of honour, connected with the knight-chivalrant culture unknown to Russia, but also an obdurate ambition. This is the most refined and elegant soul within Slavdom, drowning in its own suffering fate. Pathetic to the point of affectation. The mannerisms of the Polish soul always strike Russians as artificially elegant and sweet, lacking in simplicity and directness, and repelling in its sense of superiourity and suspiciousness, of which the Polish are not free. The Polish have always seemed lacking in a sense of the equality of human souls before God, of brotherhood in Christ, as connected with the acknowledging of the infinite value of each human soul. The unique spiritual aspect of the Polish nobility has poisoned Polish life and played a fateful role in its state destiny. Russian man is little capable of such scorn, he does not love to give another man the feeling, that he is lower than him. Russian man is proud in his humility. The Polish soul however draws upward. This — is the Catholic spiritual type. The Russian soul prostrates itself stretched down before God. This — is the Orthodox spiritual type. With the Polish there is a love for affectation. With the Russians however there is altogether no affectation. In the Polish soul there is an experiencing of the path of Christ, the sufferings of Christ, and the sacrifice on Golgotha. At the summits of the Polish spiritual life the fate of the Polish people is experienced, as the fate of the Lamb, offered in sacrifice for the sins of the world. Suchlike is Polish messianism, first of all sacrificial, not connected with state power, nor with success and dominance in the world… Hence there is born in the Polish soul the pathos of suffering and sacrifice. Everything is different in the Russian soul. The Russian soul is connected moreso with the intercession of the Mother of God, than with the path of Christ’s sufferings, with the experience of the Golgotha sacrifice. In the Russian soul there is a genuine humility, but little of the sacrificial victim. The Russian soul devotes itself to a churchly collectivism, always connected for it with the Russian earth. In the Polish soul there is sensed a cramped oppositeness in the person, a capacity for suffering and an incapacity for humility. In the Polish soul there is always the venom of sufferings. The Dionysianism of the Russian soul is altogether different, not so bloody. In the Polish soul there is a terrible jealousy over women, a jealousy, often assuming repulsive a form, spasmodic and convulsive. This power of women, the slavishness of sex is sensed very powerfully in the contemporary Polish writers, Przybyszewski [Stanislaw Feliks, 1868-1927], Zeromski [alt. Zheromski, Stefan, 1864-1925], et al. In the Russian soul there is no such sort a slavery over women. Love plays less a role in Russian life and Russian literature than with the Polish. And Russian sensuality, with genius expressed by Dostoevsky, is altogether different, than with the Polish. The problem of women for the Polish is posited altogether differently than it is with the French — this is a problem of suffering, and not of delight.


In the soul of each people there are its strong and its weak sides, its qualities and its insufficiencies. But it is mutually necessary to love the qualities in the souls of the peoples and to forgive the deficiencies. Only then is possible a true interaction. Within the great Slavic world there ought to be both the Russian element and the Polish element. The historical quarrel is outmoded and finished, and there is beginning an era of reconciliation and unity. Many a contrary feature can be pointed out in the soul of the Polish people. But there can also show forth features in common to the Slavs, indicators of belonging to the selfsame ethnos. This common affinity is to be sensed at the summits of the spiritual life of the Russian and the Polish people, in the messianic consciousness. Both the Russian and the Polish messianic consciousness are bound up with Christianity, and alike it is filled with apocalyptic presentiments and expectations. The thirst for the kingdom of Christ upon earth, for the revelation of the Holy Spirit, is a Slavic thirst, a Russian and Polish thirst. Mickiewicz [Adam, 1798-1855] and Dostoevsky, Towianski [Andrzej Tomasz, 1799-1878] and Vl. Solov’ev tend to intersect on this. And justice demands the acknowledging, that Polish messianism is moreso pure and sacrificial, than is Russian messianism. There was many a sin in the old polish nobility, but these sins are redeemed by the sacrificial fate of the Polish people, by the Golgotha experienced by them. Polish messianism — represents the blossoming of Polish spiritual culture — it overcomes the Polish deficiencies and defects, it consumes them within the sacrificial fire. The old frivolous Poland with the magnate feasts, with the mazurka and the oppressed common people has found its rebirth in the suffering of Poland. But if the Polish messianic consciousness can be posited as higher than the Russian messianic consciousness, I still believe, that within the Russian people itself there is a more intense and pure thirsting for the truth of Christ and the kingdom of Christ upon earth, than there is in the Polish people. The national feeling has been crippled for us, as Russians, by our inward slavery, and for the Polish — by their outward slavery. The Russian people ought to atone its guilt afront the polish people, to understand for it the strange of soul Poland and not regard as bad the dissimilar to its own spiritual sort. The polish people however ought to get a sense of and understand the soul of Russia, to free itself of the false and ugly contempt, whereby an other spiritual sort seems lower and uncultured. The Russian soul will remain Orthodox in the fundamentals of its type of soul, just as the Polish soul will remain Catholic. This is deeper and broader than Orthodoxy and Catholicism being mere faith-confessions, this — is an uniqueness of the sense of life and uniqueness of the stuff of soul. But these differing souls of peoples are capable not only of understanding and loving each other, but can also sense their belonging to the same ethnic soul conceiving of its Slavic mission to the world.

Nikolai Berdyaev






©  2009  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1914 – 178(15,18) – en)

RUSSKAYA  I  POL’SKAYA  DUSHA. First published in the newspaper “Birzhevye vedomosti”, 10 Oct. 1914, No. 14610-14424, under title “Rossiya i Pol’sha” [“Russia and Poland”].  Republished thereafter in the 1918 Berdyaev’s anthology text of articles, “Sud’ba Rossii” (“The Fate of Russia”), Sect. III,  Ch. 2,  (p. 361-366 in my 1997 Moscow Svarog reprint).