Slavophilism  and  the  Slavic  Idea

The Fate of Russia, Sect. II, Ch. 15.

Slavophilism  and  the  Slavic  Idea

(1915 – #202)


The war has set fully before the Russian consciousness and the Russian will all the painful Slavic questions — the Polish, the Czech, the Serbian, it has led to momentum and has forced tormentive pondering over the fate of the Slavic world within the Balkan peninsula and Austria Hungary. Everything is ailing within Slavism at the present time. And sometimes it seems almost impossible to reconcile the old disputes of the Slavs amongst themselves. The worldwide clash of the Slavic race with the Germanic race, which the whole of history has led to and which was not unforeseen, cannot, it would seem. but lead to a Slavic self-awareness. The Slavic idea had to be conceived in facing the threatening danger of Germanism. But the feuds in the Slavic family all continue. The Balkan peninsula is demoralised by disputes amongst its Slavs. Poland is in tatters, and in it brother is compelled to fight against brother. The mutual mistrust and suspicion are truly frightening. But is our Russian societal consciousness prepared to be the bearer and expresser of the Slavic idea? Has this idea come to maturity? Is it so popular, as to be strong and transformative of life? The Slavic idea among us is in a very sad position, it — is as though caught in the jaws of a vise and cannot be freely expressed. I believe, that subconsciously the Slavic idea is alive at the core of the soul of the Russian people, it exists, as an instinct, all still obscured and not having found itself authentic expression. But a genuine Slavic consciousness, a genuine Slavic idea we do not have.

The Russian national self-consciousness and the AllSlav self-consciousness was born for us within the disputes of Slavophilism and Westernism. The Slavic idea could be sought for only in Slavophilism, in Westernism there were no traces of this idea. But in our classical Slavophilism, with Kireevsky, Khomyakov, the Aksakovs, Samarin, it is difficult to find a pure expression of the Slavic idea. Slavophilism more accurately might be called Russophilism. Slavophilism affirmed first of all the unique type of Russian culture upon the soil of Eastern Orthodoxy and contrasted it to the Western cultural type and its Catholicism. In Slavophilism there was still much of the provincial isolation. The Slavophils were all still good Russian landowners, very intelligent, talented, educated, loving their native-land and captivated by its unique soul. But their consciousness did not contain world perspectives. The Slavophil ideology was moreso disuniting, than unifying. This was still a childish consciousness of the Russian people, the first national awakening from sleep, a first attempt at self-definition. But the Slavophil ideology cannot yet correspond to a mature historical existence for the Russian people. The Slavophil outlooks matured during a time of servitude, in them is felt a sense of surrender, they are ill-suited for a free and broadly historical life. The old Slavophil ideals first of all were ideals of the private, of the familial, the customary mode of life of Russian man, who was not given to emerge into the breadth of historical existence, and which failed to mature even for a talented existence.1  The lack of freedom rendered the Slavophils irresponsible. They did not appeal for the realisation of their ideas, and their ideas often were but the fine feelings of Russian man. The weak sides of the Slavophil ideology, being out of touch with life, its hothouse effect with the old-style landowners, were all insufficiently apparent namely because that Slavophilism did not possess any real power in life, and actually was made to assume an oppositional posture. Power was held only by the official state nationalism, and it had no need for the suspect services of the Slavophils, it had no need for any such ideologies. The Slavophils sensed something in the Russian national soul, in their own way they were the first to express this Russian sense of self, and in this was their enormous service. But any attempt at the realisation of the Slavophil programme of ideas revealed either its utopian aspect and artificiality of life, or else its falling into line with the official political powers. And Slavophilism subsequently and in a fatal manner deteriorated prior to its identification with the official state nationalism. There was formed an official state Slavophilism, for which the Slavic idea and Slavic politics were transformed into a rhetorical terminology and to which no one still gives credence whether in Russia, or abroad. Slavophilism thus was rendered powerless for influencing the ruling powers in any direction of creative Slavic politics. What prevailed was not a Slavic, but rather a German inspiration, and by it was poisoned the very descendants of the Slavophils themself.


Only with the Slavophils had there been a national idea, only they acknowledged the reality of the soul of the people. For the Westernisers there did not exist a soul of the people. Our Westernising thought did not deal with work over the issue of a national consciousness. But the attitude of the Slavophils towards the most painful and most important Slavic question for us as Russians — the Polish question — was at its root false and not Slavic. The Slavophils never felt in their relation to the Polish people any Slavic unity, a Slavic brotherhood. For the Slavophils the Slavic world in its spirit ought first of all to be Orthodox. They felt the non-Orthodox Slav to be a traitor to Slavic matters. And they could not forgive the Polish people its Catholicism. They could not understand and love the Polish soul, because they could not understand and love the Catholic soul. But everything unique to Polish culture is defined by this, that in it Catholicism is focused within the Slavic soul. Thus it was forged out of the Polish national visage, an altogether unique Slavic-Catholic visage, distinct also from the visage of the Romance Catholic peoples, and from the visage of the Slavic Orthodox peoples. For the Slavophils, Poland was that West within the Slavic world, to which they always set in opposition the Russian Orthodox East, the bearer of an higher spiritual type and the fullness of religious truth. The Polish seemed first of all to be Latins, and it was almost forgotten, that they were Slavs. Polonism represented the Catholic danger. In their repugnance towards Catholicism the Slavophils went so far, that they preferred Protestant Germany over Catholic lands and peoples. The Lutherans in Russia occupied a privileged position in comparison with the Catholics, and they often stood at the helm of government. The intellectual Slavophilism was also bereft of any idea of the power of rule and it concurred in this. In an even more extreme form with Dostoevsky was expressed the hostility towards Catholicism and towards Poland. He saw within Catholicism the spirit of the Anti-Christ and together with Protestant Germany he wanted to crush Catholicism. There was formed a quite strong Slavophil-conservative tradition, which was accepted by our ruling authorities and led in practise to this, that our politics came to be always dependent upon Germany. The hostility towards Poland and friendship with Germany — were two sides of one and the same matter for us. Indeed not only the Polish — are Catholics within the Slavic world. And the old-Slavophil attitude towards Catholicism has made impossible a sincere Slavic unity. The hostility towards the Polish people, before which we ought to atone for our own historical guilt, has rendered our Slavophilism hypocritical. Rightfully it has been pointed out, that the Russians ought first of all to liberate their own oppressed Slavs, before moving on to liberate the foreign Slavs. The Slavic idea and Slavic unity are impossible, if the Russian and Orthodox type of Slavism be taken as the full and exclusively true, needing no other sort of complementation nor the existence of other types of Slavic culture. There would then remain only the politics of Russification and forceful conversion to Orthodoxy. But such a politics is incompatible with the Slavic idea. The Russian soul remains forever a Slavic soul, having accepted the engrafting of Orthodoxy into it. The Orthodox engrafting is to be discerned also in the moral stance of the Russian Intelligentsia-atheists and the reviling of Orthodoxy by L. Tolstoy. But this Russian soul can in a brotherly way co-exist with other Slavic souls, such as have accepted an other spiritual engrafting and represent a different cultural type. The soul of Russia can love the soul of Poland, another great Slavic people, and from this be still moreso itself. From such an unity of different souls and Slavs, the Slavic world can only benefit. The attitude towards the Balkan Slavs amongst the Slavophils was different and it was better, than towards the Polish. But here also the Slavophils were too much exclusively the Russophile, to allow for brotherly and equal relations. Certainly, small Serbia cannot pretend to an equal significance with Russia. And it is indisputable, that Russia should play a foremost role in the Slavic world. The question is altogether not in this. The question rather is in this, that Russia should ultimately renounce the frightful and repulsive idea, that “the Slavic branches should themselves flow together into a Russia sea”, i.e. it should admit the eternal rights of every national individuality and relate to such, as something of value in itself. And such an attitude would fully accord with the soul of the Russian people, magnanimous, unselfish and patient, giving, and not taking, which the Slavs all do not realise, since it is concealed from them by our state politics which is not of the people.

Slavophilism frightens off, be it the Polish, or the Slavs, or the progressive elements of Russian society. In Slavophilism there was a true kernel of a Slavic idea, but it was enveloped by a decrepit and decaying covering, too ingrown with Russian officialdom. Vl. Solov’ev represents already an enormous step forward in comparison with the old Slavophils. He transcends the provincial nationalism of the Slavophils. The messianic consciousness of Vl. Solov’ev, just as with Dostoevsky — was worldwide. The horizons are expansive. And in Vl. Solov’ev there was already an altogether different attitude towards Catholicism. He sees in Catholicism a righteous truth, with which the Orthodox world ought to be united. And therefore he relates to the Polish question otherwise, than did the old Slavophils. With a brotherly love love he turned his gaze towards the Polish people and bestowed it a great positive significance for the fate itself of the Russian people. But the Slavic feeling, the Slavic consciousness was weakly expressed in Vl. Solov’ev, and it is impossible to call him an herald of the Slavic idea. Dostoevsky and Vl. Solov’ev because of the universal character of their messianic consciousness could be set alongside the great Polish messianists: with [Adam] Mickiewicz, [Juiliusz] Slowacki, [Zygmunt] Krasinski, [Andrzej] Towianski, [August] Cieszkowski, [Jozef Hoene-Wronski] Wronski. We know shamefully little of the Polish messianists and we ought now to recourse to the study of them. Polish messianism is more pure and more sacrificial, than the Russian messianism, which is not free of idealisation of the sense of our state power. In the messianic consciousness of Dostoevsky it is impossible to find that pure sense of sacrifice, which has inspired the messianic consciousness of the Poles. Dostoevsky got himself too tied up with the aggressiveness of the Russian ruling authorities. It is impossible indeed to call the Slavophils messianists in any strict sense of the word, they were moreso nationalists, and as regards their consciousness they stand many heads lower than the Polish messianists, who have to be acknowledged as the foremost proclaimers of the Slavic idea. Regretably, the ultimate tragic fate of Poland has led to the supplanting of the Slavic messianism by an exclusionary Polish nationalism. Among the Polish messianists there is one, most reknown, — Wronski, who has confessed a Russian, and not Polish messianism. Wronski long ago predicted the world war in almost suchlike a form, as now at present is occurring, the clash of the Slavic world with the German and the inevitability of the uniting of Poland with Russia in its struggle with Germany (vide his “Le destin de la France, de l’Allemagne et de la Russie comme Prolegomenes du Messianisme”). Wronski considers the Russian people a God-bearing people. But about Wronski we have heard almost nothing.


Westernism has not at all acknowledged the value of nationality, and the Slavic idea has been foreign to both the Russian liberals and the Russian revolutionaries. In the Westerniser leftist camp, nationality is acknowledged only as something negative, and only insofar as it is persecuted and in need of liberation. They consider it necessary to take the oppressed nationalities under their wing, but this is always inspired by the cosmopolitan idea, and they do not admit of creative national tasks. Our leftist currents are prepared to admit the right to existence of the Polish nationality or the Gruzinian-Georgian, insofar as they are oppressed, but they do not consent to acknowledge the Russian nationality, since it dominates the state. But a foreign national soul can be sensed and recognised only by one, who senses and knows his own national soul. In the Russian liberal and radical circles only during the time of war has there begun to awaken the national consciousness. Thinking has begun to mull over the national self-definition and the national acknowledgement of Russia with a push towards the Slavic idea. Some elements of Slavophilism have to be assimilated also by that part of society, which has always conceived itself as Westernisers. The tragic fate of the tearing apart of Poland and Serbia forces us to turn our will and our attention to the Slavs and the Slavic idea. But we have to recognise, that Slavic unity is impossible upon the soil of the traditional Slavophilism and traditional Westernism, and it presupposes a new consciousness, new ideas. It is impossible to assert the AllSlav idea upon the grounds of acknowledging Eastern Orthodoxy as the sole and complete source of an higher spiritual culture, since by this is cut off from spiritual interaction all the Polish and Catholic Slavs. It is clear, that the spiritual basis of the Slavic idea ought to be broad and encompass within itself some several religious types. And this presupposes a surmounting of the Russian religious nationalism.

At the basis of the Slavic idea, just as in general at the basis of the Russian messianic idea, there can be posited only the Russian spiritual universalism, the Russian all-humaness, the Russian search for the City of God, and not the Russian national limitedness and self-conceit, not the Russian provincialism. It is necessary to love the soul of Russia and intimately know it, in order that there should be visible the Russian supra-nationalism and Russian unselfishness, unknown to other peoples. I think, that even the Slavophils have not expressed this depth of the Russian soul. They did not yet lift themself to the level of all-humaness, they had not yet overcome the greedy national self-assertion. There is necessary a new Slavic and a new Russian idea, a creative idea, oriented forward, and not backward. At present we are entering into a new period of Russian and world history, and the old, the traditional ideas have already become ill-suited for the world’s new tasks, which face us in life. We have experienced too much, we have re-evaluated too much, and for us there is no return to the old ideologies. We are already neither Slavophils nor Westernisers, since we are living in an unprecedented course of events in the world, and there is being demanded of us incomparably more, than from our fathers and grandfathers. All the slumbering powers of the Russian people have to be brought into action, in order to deal with the tasks in front of us. We have to inspire confidence in ourself, in the strength of our national will, in the purity of our national consciousness, to push the vision of our “idea”, which we convey to the world, whilst consigning to oblivion and forgiving the historical sins of our ruling authorities. Our depths are not known, but all too well known is the heavy hand of our state. And every Slavic idea, which is tied in with this heavy hand, frightens off and evokes horror. Slavic unity has to proceed along a completely new path. Our national thought ought creatively to rework a new Slavic idea, since that hour of world history has struck, when the Slavic ethnos ought to have its own say in the arena of world history. It will lead to a replacing of the dominance of the German ethnos and conceive its own unity and its idea in the bloody struggle with Germanism. The idea of Slavic unity, is first of all a Russo-Polish unity, and it ought not to be externally political, a matter of mere utility for the state, — it ought first of all to be spiritual, a transforming of inner life. The fate of the Slavic idea cannot stand in a servile dependence upon the unsteady elements of the world, shifting military successes, the cunning of international diplomacy, politicised calculations. Just as with any profound idea, connected with the spiritual fundaments of life, it cannot perish under external failures, for it counts upon more distant perspectives. There has to begin among the people and in society a spiritual-cultural AllSlav movement, and in the final end this movement will exert an influence also on our politics, having inherited so grievous a legacy from the past. But from the onstart everything ought not to be out of external, politically useful alliances and combinations, rather instead from a sincere and deep seeking for unity. We are weary of the lies of the politicians and we want to breathe in the free air of truth. Such truth is in the nature of Russian man. And it is such a truth that both we and the other Slavs expect.

Nikolai Berdyaev


©  2005  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1915 – 202(15,15) – en)

SLAVYANOPHIL’STVO I SLAVYANSKAYA IDEYA.  First published in literary gazette “Birzhevye vedomosti”, 3 August 1915, No. 15003, under alternate title “Slavyanophil’stvo y vlasti”, or else possibly reworked from, per Klepinina Bibliographie.  Later incorporated by Berdyaev into his 1918 book, “The Fate of Russia” (“Sud’ba Rossii”), Section II, Chapter 15, (p. 340-347 in my 1997 Moscow Svarog reprint).