The Church Question in Russia


The Church Question in Russia

(1916- #240)


  The question concerning church reform has caught us in sort of an impasse. It seems impossible to find a mechanism, rendering it possible to move forward out from the point of inertia in matters of external churchly issues. They seem clueless, regarding as from what sides to approach church reforms. Too entangled have become the churchly and the civil, the heavenly and the earthly, the spiritual and the material. How is the breath of the Spirit to become embodied within the external, the material churchly transformations? And indeed, do we even have suchlike a breathing of the Spirit, which can be brought into church renewal? Has not everything gotten too ossified within churchly life, living by the laws of inertia, the lifeless mere imitator of the old life of the Spirit, rather than a living tradition, eternally creating life anew? There has been worked out an entire system Orthodoxy as exclusively a system of safe-guarding. But has not this safe-guarding gone too far, and reached the point of ossification?

That which seemed comparatively clear and simple a matter in 1904-1905 as regards the church renewal movement, has now been rendered verymost complex and elusive. It might seem quite strange at first glance, but the Europeanisation of the Russian civil and social order, initiated in 1905, has led within the sphere of churchly life to the formation and rise of clericalism as a class movement. Clericalism — is Western European a phenomenon, and in Russia it never had genuine a growth. The Europeanisation of Russia (“Europeanisation” is but a conditional signification of an irreversible process of developement) gives rise to a whole series of differentiations and considerations. Various social groupings crystalise and isolate off, operating under the group and class consciousness. The “People” in the old Slavonic and populist sense of this word is gradually vanishing, — in its primordial, materio-organic wholeness is beginning a social and psychological differentiation. In the deeper, the metaphysical and spiritual signification concerning the “People”, certainly, will remain and prevail forever, but its manner of life gradually is becoming free of its seemingly inseparable connections with an aspect social, with outmoded forms of economic and civil life. To the populists it has seemed, that the “People” is completely perishing, if finally there is to crumble away the age-old Russian foundations, such as flourished in pre-Petrine Rus’, and that Russia is ultimately entering upon the path of “Europeanisation”. But that which the populists and Slavophils were afraid, — has become fact, a fact inevitable. The “People” in their old sense of the word has vanished. Already it has become impossible to speak about either the Orthodox Rus’ of the Slavophils, or about the peasant Rus’ of the populists, already upon these paths it is impossible to seek out the unique image of Russia. The course of Russian life has inflicted blow upon blow to all the Slavophil and populist conceptions in the sphere of churchly life. If populism and Slavophilism mustneeds be regarded as done with and passe in artistic life, and that too with state and lifestyle, then no less have they tended to crumble away, and no less reactionary-utopian are they in churchly life. The life of the Spirit, of the Spirit of Christ, cannot be but only attached to material forms, the connections with merely a certain stage of historical developement.

And we now have facing us the very complex problem of the relationship between the Kingdom of God (the Church) and the kingdom of Caesar (the state). New times demand also new decisions. And thus the resolution of this problem, which is based upon the idea of purely a Christian, or more precisely, of purely Orthodox a state, has been found to be sufficiently inconsistent and a great falsehood at its basis, a great hypocrisy in its fruits.


All the external, the material historical whole of churchly life is by thousands of threads attached and tied in with the kingdom of Caesar, with all the civil, economic, legal and lifestyle structures of society. The Church is drawn into the cycle of social evolution, and in its external organisation it always has to be adaptable to changes in the kingdom of this world. When under Peter there occurred a revolutionary Europeanisation of the Russian secular state, the Church then came to adapt to this process, and there began the Synodal period in the history of the Russian Church, in which very much was recast into German Lutheran settings, and the Church was put into quite servile a dependence upon the state. In the era of Pobedonostsev’s control the Russian hierarchy groaned under the burden of the bureaucratic grip of the state over the Church. Many hierarchs dreamt about a restoration of the Patriarchate and a return to the pre-Petrine order. But here in the Russian kingdom of Caesar in 1905 there occurred a turnabout, which was, though neither decisive nor radical, still nonetheless a step towards the Europeanisation of our civil structure, — there appeared the Constituent Assemblies, having to deal with all the issues of Russian life. Earlier on had begun the Europeanisation of Russian socio-economic life — there started the growth of capitalist production, the village obschina-commune faded off, and the remnants of a patriarchal mode of life disintegrated. The life of the Church in its trappings does not possess that complete freedom and independence from the realm of Caesar, which would have given it the possibility to further survive, without having to take into account whatever should transpire in the life of the state. Everything became unstable in churchly life, there was an acute sense of churchly irregularities and a bitter dependency on the government, in which had been destroyed the old sense of harmony and the ensuing of inauspiciously transitory a period. The church organism lacked the wherewithal for self-administration. The Sobornost’/Communality of the Russian Church existed only as an idea, and not in life. A churchly people were nowhere to be found. There began a struggle of parties within churchly life: reform aspirations clashed with reactionary aspirations. A process of differentiation took hold also upon public churchly life. Outside this process remained only individual startsi/elders, devoting their life to mystical contemplations. The clergy came to sense itself as a social group within the Russian state, and in it awakened a class consciousness. In one part of the clergy this class consciousness assumed a form progressive, while yet in the other part — a form reactionary. There became apparent a rather sharp difference between the strivings of the higher episcopate from that of the strivings of the average masses of the white clergy. The clergy began to take part in the political struggle, and the reactionary aspect itself of the clergy was rendered into a sort of Western European phenomenon, quite the opposite to the Slavophil and populist image of the clergy.

Clericalism is a matter of class party, actively acting within the realm of Caesar, pushing for earthly, too earthly aims. And in the midst of our upper hierarchs grows a spirit of reactionary clericalism. This — involves their active reaction against changes in our state structure. The reactionary portion of the clergy is of a mindset very hostile to the Constituent Assemblies, and does not want to allow any sort of input from the State Duma into churchly affairs, nor any sort of Duma control over them. This seems to it a secularisation of the Church, a dependency of the Church upon secular measures, amidst so many non-believers also have fallen away from the Church, and then too no little a number of people of different faith-confessions. On the outside one might tend to think, that in such manner is upheld the freedom and independence of the Church from the kingdom of this world. And every religious man ought to have a feel for such freedom and independence of the Church. Yet from purely a religious point of view it would be unpleasant to think, that the reforms of the Church could produce totally worldly people, not only foreign to the inner life of the Church, but consistently and entirely non-believers, atheists in toto. Clearly, it would seem, that the renewal of the Church can only be a matter of the spiritual powers of the Church itself. And as regards the spiritual powers of the Church it is necessary, certainly, not the churchly hierarchs alone, but rather all the people of the Church. A Sobornost’ of the members of the State Duma, however, is not the Sobornost’ of the people of the Church, in a religious regard it is something completely fortuitous. But in actuality, this problem is quite more complex. The government offices make pretense to have involvement with churchly matters only insofar as — that they are civil matters and immersed in the worldly realm, which entirely have to be reformed and renewed. The inner life of the Church, the spiritual life is nowise affected by this.


The apprehensions regarding government involvement on the part of the churchly hierarchy are hypocritical and but tend to mask a thirst for political restoration. Our churchly hierarchy long ago already surrendered not only its body, but also its soul to the realm of Caesar, it long ago already admitted of the defining role of the secular realm in the outward life of the churchly order of things.

Our whole Synodal arrangement is a total subordination to the state, is a denial of Sobornost’ in the strict churchly sense of this word. Dependence upon the Uber-Prokurator and on the state power, that concealed behind the Uber-Prokurator, is in no less a degree, a dependency upon the secular realm, no less a degree than in the dependency upon the State Duma. There is nowise a guarantee of genuinely Orthodox Uber-Prokurators, and among them have been people with clearly a sectarian, Khlysty-type tendency (Pr. Golitsyn) or Catholic a tendency (Graf Protasov), and others that in the depths of their soul were simply non-believers or merely indifferent. The Orthodox conception of the secular authority is either an accommodation to certain interests or a phantasy of ideologues. At present this conception is almost impossible to be sincerely held. Every state authority belongs to completely different an order, than does the Church of Christ, and these two realms are incompatible. But the abject servility of our episcopate in regard to the old state authority has reached to the extent of a negation of every churchly sense of dignity. I say moreover: the external churchly arrangement with its hierarchy has been and is to a remarkable degree a kingdom of this world. This — is a phenomenon historical, and not a phenomenon of spirit. And it has to share in the fate of history, of historical evolution. Moreover, the external churchly setup in essence has always shared this fate. The churchly order of things tends also to have to adapt itself to a new arrangement, has to participate in the process of developement. Reactionary politics are no more spiritual, than is a progressive politics. The Church has to be inwardly prepared for its total detachment from the state, which is an indisputable tendency and aim of the developement of the relationship between the two realms — the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar. This preparedness of the Church to be totally detached from every secular realm will also be a portent of its inner, invisible might. The secularisation of all civil, social and cultural life is not only inevitable, but also is good a process, behind which lies hidden a liberation of the spirit and of the life of the spirit from all manner of fetters, — at congealed religious a depth. This — is a demand of truth, a great cleansing of churchly life from hypocrisy, falsehood and violence. The old dependence upon the state was more enslaving for the free life of the Church, than this new, howsoever repulsive, yet in essence merely seeming dependence upon government authorities.

A progressive and liberating reform of the churchly arrangement will never be initiated by the upper churchly hierarchy. The local Sobor/Council, dominated by bishops, will but restore the Patriarchate and consolidate the clericalism, giving a certain predominance to churchly bureaucracy over the civil bureaucracy. A true and liberative process of churchly reform can only be initiated by the Church people, at the spiritual depths of which is amassed a creative religious energy. Only the voice of this gathered Church people, free from burden not only of the civil, but also churchly bureaucracy, would be authentic a voice of the Church. But the free expression of the will of the people of the Church presupposes a profound transformation in that realm of Caesar, in those strictly interwoven ties of state and Church, which led to the enslavement of the Church people, to its forced silence, which shackled down its free will. The local Sobor at present would be constituted and constructed on the basis of the old relationship of Church and state and of the old powers of a churchly bureaucracy, overlaying the civil bureaucracy. This — is a vicious circle. The local Church Sobor would produce reform in the format of a class spirit, and not in the spirit of Christ, it would be spiritual only in the externals, but even moreso secular, than a Sobor/Council with laity. And finally and from Orthodox a point of view it mustneeds be admitted, that insofar as the churchly order is part of the civil order, being connected with it by thousands of threads, it has to be reformed together with the civil order and sever off much from it. The class dominance of the princes of the Church within the churchly order of things is a dominance civil, and not spiritual, and it ought to be replaced by the authority of the people of the Church, just as the class dominance of the bureaucracy, of the agrarian and large-scale manufacturers, in the final end, ought to be replaced by a self-governing people. All this has religious a meaning, but it is still not a religious rebirth. It is said, that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church of Christ. And this remains forever inalterable. But that Church of Christ is not in the externals of the churchliness of the princes of the Church, devoted to this world, it is not in this or some other churchly order of things. The sanctities of the Church — are in the sacramental Body of Christ, of the Mystery of Christ, the saints, the Spirit of Christ, which “doth breathe, whence it will”. A religious rebirth is possible only inwardly, from the depths, it cannot be created by any sort of external reforms, by way of whatever the Local Sobor/Council, the State Duma or other secular paths. The churchly disorders are the result of a decay in religious energy, of a creative religious energy. The decay of religious energy is however a symptom of the profound religious crisis within modern mankind. It is impossible to live vampire-like off the old, by those things that former generations accomplished, it is necessary to create a new religious life, as it was created in all the times of churchly upsurge, beginning with the Apostles. Only such a creative upsurge of religious energy within the Church people can resolve all the pressing questions of the relationship of Russian Orthodoxy to the Schism, to sectarianism, to Catholicism, to the developement of culture.

N. A. Berdyaev.




©  2012  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1916 – 240 – en)

TSERKOVNYI VOPROS V ROSSII.  Article originally published in the weekly “Birzhevye vedomosti”,  28 sept. 1916, No. 15829. Republished in the anthology of N. Berdyaev articles entitled, “Padenie svyaschennogo russkogo tsarstva, Publitsistika 1914-1922”, Izdatel’stvo Astrel’, Moskva, 2007, p. 451-456.