The  Tasks of  Creative  Historical  Thought

The Fate of Russia, Sect. II, Ch. 14.

of  Creative  Historical  Thought
(1915 – #218)


One of the saddest things, made evident during the time of the war, is something that brings little attention upon itself. I have in view the almost complete absence among us of creative historical thought. The traditional character of our thinking is very poorly adapted to the positing of creative historical tasks, to world perspectives. Our national thought is all still stuck in its provincialism, and its direction chiefly is in reporting negative accounts. Russia has been too inwardly torn apart and absorbed with trifling political disputes, with party considerations, with social group antagonisms, obscuring moreso all the world historical perspectives. The unempowered Russian society cannot feel a sense of responsibility for deciding the world destiny of Russia. The world war, essentially, ought to have directed national thought to world tasks. It would seem, that there ought to have been made attempts to ponder about the war, to define the place of Russia in world life, to conceive of its vocation. A genuine national self-consciousness should set the existence of nation into the perspective of world history, it should surmount the provincialism of national life and national interests. An insightful national awareness is likewise a consciousness that is all the world historical. The naked and unenlightened egoism of nationalism or imperialism is no justification, and upon it cannot be conceived the spiritual existence of peoples.

Does Russia exist, as a certain unity, deeper, than all the separate interests of its human composite, is there in the world an unique visage of Russia and what does the expression of this visage mean for the world? Does Russia have its own unique calling in the world, ought it to have its say in world history? What sort of concrete tasks face Russia from the world war? All these questions, which relate to a new day in world history, demand tremendous efforts of creative thought. No sort of the ready and traditional categories of thought are suitable for the resolving of these questions. There needs to be wrought a totally independent and new reworking of thought, an extension of the creative spirit. But our national thought tends to think very little about this or it thinks in accord with the old models, with the customary categories. The tasks of the war for us have not all still been genuinely thought out. The prevailing justifications of the war are sufficiently alike banal. It is impossible to be satisfied merely thinking that Russia is repulsing the evil of German militarism. The problem, posed by the war, goes much deeper. It is impossible likewise to rest easy upon the old Slavophil self-praise, — for in this is expressed a laziness of thought, an inclination spiritually to live in any event. The Slavophil thought indeed is all still an assertion of the self-smug provincial existence of Russia, and not its worldwide existence. Slavophilism worked great services in the matter of national self-consciousness, but it was an initial and childish stage of this self-consciousness, not corresponding to the current historical stature.

Neither in our “right” nor in our “left” camps is there as yet transpiring any creative historical thought. They are too absorbed by their matters of the “right” or of the “left”, i.e. by all the still national and not world tasks. The historical mindset is almost absent among us. We are accustomed to operate exclusively by moral or sociological categories, not by the concrete, but by the abstract. Our consciousness moves predominantly along the negative, and not the creative path. The “rightists” are absorbed by completely negative badgerings about the nationalities, the intelligentsia, the rosy “leftist” dangers and the quest for the exterminating all the manifestations of a free society. The “leftists” in contrast are concentrated upon exposing the “bourgeoise”, on the utilising of negative facts for agitational purposes, and overly dividing Russia into two camps. And Russia still cannot at all conceive of itself as one, still cannot creatively define its world historical tasks. The process of applying abstract sociological categories divides, and does not unite, the ill-will with moral suspicions and moral judgement ultimately disunites and leads to a splintering, as it were, into two different races. Only a resolute turning of our consciousness to the depths of national existence and towards the wide expanse of world historical existence will set before us the pressing creative problems. Creative historical thought ought ultimately to surmount both our negative nationalism and our negative cosmopolitism.


For anyone, who looks at the world war from the point of view of the philosophy of history, it ought to be clear, that at present there is being played out one of the acts of the world historical drama of East and West. The world war leads to an exceptional coming into contact of the world of the West and the world of the East, it unites through division, and it leads out beyond the borders of European culture and European history. The problem of East and West has in essence always been a basic theme of world history, its axis point. The European equilibrium has always been a conditional arrangement. Beyond the bounds of the self-enclosed world of Europe there has been a wide world, stretching far off into the East. Unsettling for the state and cultural life of the peoples of Europe always have been the world expanses, the unknown and unexperienced East and South. The imperialistic politics of the great powers of Europe have occasioned the spreading of imperialistic might and cultural influence beyond the seas and oceans, towards the surmounting of the isolation of a purely European existence. The unknown extents of the earthly orb exerts an attractive pull. Glances were turned towards Asia and Africa, towards the ancient cradles of culture. The reverse movement from West to East, evidently, reflects an inner inevitability of the dialectics of European culture. In the shut-in and self-satisfied European culture there is a fatal tendency towards a limited satisfaction, towards desiccation, towards decline. And it inevitably has to search for stimulation beyond its borders, in the far and yon. Imperialism with its colonial politics is one of the outward expressions of this irresistible movement of history. But still deeper lies the cultural and spiritual challenge of the re-uniting of East and West. The nightfall for Europe has begun.

It was not by chance, that the conflagration of the world war began with the Balkans, and from thence always has come the threat to the European world. It is not by chance, that now also the central interest of the war again turns to the Balkans. The Balkans — are the path from the West to the East. Constantinople — is that gateway, through which the culture of Western Europe can pass through to the East, in Asia and in Africa. At Constantinople — is the point of intersection of East and West. The destruction of the Turkish empire would be a reverse coursing of the West to the East. The peoples of Europe are afraid of this prospect, sensing themselves unprepared for it, and the fact of the continued existence of Turkey with Constantinople as the entryway of the West to the East has been an expression of the spiritual immaturity of the European peoples. How dissimilar in this is the modern Europe from the medieval Europe, given over to the impulsive visionary-dreams of the Crusades! But now Europe as it were is itself fighting for the defense of Turkey. And Europe is even moreso afraid of the enormous and mysterious Russia, seeming always so foreign and unfriendly. The European politics of the XVIII and XIX Centuries was to a remarkable degree directed to the object of keeping Russia from Constantinople, keeping it from access to the seas and oceans. Europe was interested in forcibly keeping Russia going in circles, not allowing it to enter onto the world stage, impeding the world role of Russia. Such Russian national ideologies, as Slavophilism, sought to justify the provincially isolated, the non-worldly extent, of the existence of Russia. Russia set itself all in opposition to Europe, to Europe as an unified whole. Both the Slavophil, and also the Westerniser consciousness alike believed in the existence of Europe, as being of one spirit, of one single type of culture. Slavophilism set Russia in contrast to Europe, with Russia being of an higher spiritual type, and Westernism dreamed about Europe, as the ideal for Russia, as the singular type of world culture. But herewith exploded the world war and it destroyed the illusion of an united Europe, of a single European culture, of a single spiritual European type. Europe can no longer hold a monopoly on culture. Europe — is a study in instability. Within Europe itself lie concealed quite contrary principles, quite hostile elements, quite mutually exclusive spiritual types. Germany has proven to be more terrible to many of the peoples of Europe, than was Russia, more foreign, than was the East. The war ought on the one hand to move Europe towards the East, and on the other towards the extreme West. In the final results of the war it cannot but bolster America and it cannot but posit questions about the historical vocation of the Slavic race. Europe long ago already has aspired to surmount itself, to emerge beyond its bounds. Europe is not some ideal culture all in general. Europe itself is provincial. In Europe long ago already there is a secret inner tugging towards the East, which on the surface of history has received various explanations. Such phenomena, diverse in character, as imperialism in politics and theosophy in spiritual life, alike are symptomatic in the gravitation for an outlet beyond the borders of European culture, for the movement from west to East. And while the great tasks of the Crusades have gone inward, they yet have remained for Europe. What sort of position, however, ought Russia to occupy in this world historical movement?


Russia can conceive of itself and its vocation in the world only in light of the problem of East and West. It stands at the centre of the Eastern and Western worlds and can be defined, as an East-West. It was neither in vain nor by chance that Russian thought throughout the course of the XIX Century centred round the disputes of Slavophilism and Westernism. In suchlike a direction of Russian thought there was the same truth, which for the Russian consciousness was a basic theme — the theme concerning East and West, about this, whether Western culture appears to be singular and universal, and whether or not it be perhaps a different and higher type of culture? In the actual ideologies of Slavophilism and Westernism there was a limitedness and immaturity. But the theme itself of the Russian thinkers was profound, and for Russia fundamental. This theme has remained all still ideological, little connected with practical perspectives. Russian intellectual society was indeed quite irresponsible, and its thought thus could remain quite irresponsible. But the world war has dragged Russia into the vital setting concerning theme about East and West. At present the pondering on this theme can no longer be so abstract and irresponsible. But it has so happened, that for this critical moment of our history that the level of our national thinking has gone downwards, the themes of the eternal ponderings of our intelligentsia have diminished quite downwards. And before us stands the task — to raise the level of national thought and connect it with the vital tasks, posed by world events. Russia has been so deeply sucked into the very muck of world life, that no sort of Russian lethargy and inertia can still spare it from resolving the basic tasks of its history. Should the war happen to end, whatever might be its immediate political consequences, — the spiritual consequences of this war can be foreseen.

The world war ought to lead Russia out of its isolated provincial existence into the wide world of life. The potential strengths of Russia have to be discovered, and its genuine visage, which up til now has been all still twofold, — has to be shown the world. This, in any case, ought to happen, if not by way of victorious power and direct growth of might, then by way of sacrificial suffering and even humiliation. There is mystery in many a path, so likewise in the fate of peoples, which we rationally never will resolve. The most terrible sacrifices are perhaps necessary for a people, and through the great sacrifices become possible achievements, which would have been impossible for the self-contented and happy mere vegetative existence. A spiritual result of the world war will likewise be an overcoming of the one-sidedness and aloofness of the so-called European culture, its emergence onto the world stage. And this means, that the world war will bring Russia and Europe face to face with the age-old theme of East and West in a new concrete form. Before Europe and before Russia, with an unprecedented acuteness and concreteness, will be set not only the external, but also the inward spiritual questions about Turkey and PanSlavism, about Palestine, about Egypt, about India and Buddhism, about China and PanMongolism. Europe has been too shut-in within its own self-smugness. The old East and South have interested it, chiefly, on the side of colonial politics and the grabbing of markets. Russia however still has not risen up to the setting of the worldwide questions, with which is connected its position in the world. Russia has been too inwardly in disarray, too much of the elementary has yet to be resolved in it. Vl. Solov’ev attempted to turn our attention to these world-historical themes, but he was not always successful. Yet in any case, he represented a great step forward in comparison with the Slavophils and the Westernisers.


Russia ought to manifest a type of East-West culture, to overcome the one-sidedness of Western European culture with its positivism and materialism, the self-smugness of its limited horizons. Our Russian provincialism and isolatedness cannot be overcome by the European provincialism and isolatedness. We have to cross over onto the world stage. And in this expanse there ought to be seen the ancient religious cultural sources. The East ought anew to counter-balance the West. In a certain sense the Europeanising of Russia is necessary and irreversible. Russia ought to become for Europe an inner, not an external power, a power creatively transfigurative. And for this Russia has to be culturally transformed into European. The backwardness of Russia is not the uniqueness of Russia. The unique moreso ought to be discovered at the higher, and not the lower, stages of developement. Russia has to conquer in itself the dark East, held in the grip of its elemental stages. But the Westernism is a mistake of childish immaturity, and it runs counter to the world tasks of Russia. The patterns of Westernising thought are just as ill-suited for comprehending the meaning of world events, as are the patterns of Slavophil thought. The historical epoch, into which we are entering, demands an organic combining of a national consciousness with a consciousness universal, i.e. defining the world vocation of nationality. Afront our thinking stands quite concretely the task of being aware of the world role of Russia, of England and Germany and their interrelation. It is necessary to speak about this some other time, but I think, that in the world the dominant position has to belong either to Russia and England or to Germany. The prevailing of Russia and England ought to lead to a closeness of East and West and to a deciding of the problem of East and West. The prevailing of Germany would lead to an attempt to create a new world empire, making pretense to world domination and essentially incapable of bringing together and uniting anything, since it would be incapable of admitting the worth in itself of anything.

The orientation towards creative historical tasks would heal us of our inward provincial disputes, from the trite hostility. We are spiritually obligated to perceive the place of Russia within the worldwide struggle. It would be shameful to define oneself only negatively through the will of the enemy. Russia has its own independent tasks, quite apart from the ill-will of Germany. Russia should not only defend itself, but should also decide its own independent tasks. Yet over these independent tasks our thought has been too little at work. It is necessary to appeal to the independent creative national thought, to lead us out into the free air, at the surface. But creative historical thought presupposes acknowledging the history of independent initiative, of an especial metaphysical reality. Such a turning to history has amongst us up to the present been almost non-existent, and we have not seized upon responsible categories for thinking over history and its tasks. But in such a turnabout of consciousness there would be for us something liberating.

Nikolai Berdyaev


©  2005  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1915 – 218(15,14) – en)

ZADACHI  TVORCHESKOI  ISTORICHESKOI  MYSLI.  First published in literary gazette “Birzhevye vedomosti”, 22 December 1915, No. 15285.  Later incorporated by Berdyaev into his 1918 book, “The Fate of Russia” (“Sud’ba Rossii”), Section II, Chapter 14, (p. 333-339 in my 1997 Moscow Svarog reprint).