Has There Been in Russia a Revolution?

Has There Been in Russia a Revolution?
                                                            We have lived and continue to live
                                                      only for this, in order to serve as some sort
                                                      of important lesson for generations distant,
                                                     who have to make sense of it; we now however,
                                                     in any case, comprise a blank gap in the moral

(1917 – #284)

The seizure of power by the so-called “Bolsheviks” for many would seem some sort of a terrible catastrophe, something completely unanticipated in the destinies of the Russian Revolution and of Russia. There are to be found even people, who out of naivete or out of deceit declare, that there has ensued the final stage of the struggle of the workers and peasants against the capitalists and land-owners, the final clash of the people against the possessor clashes. Mr. Lenin has regarded it possible to declare, that at the end of February in Russia in Russia it was a bourgeois revolution, overthrowing tsarism, and at the end of October there occurred the socialistic revolution, overthrowing the bourgeoise, i.e. a process, which amongst the advanced Western peoples takes centuries, but which in backwards Russia happened in some several months. Since our life has begun to become reminiscent of a nightmare, everything appears to us in an exaggerated form. We have completely lost the perspective on events. I venture for myself to think, that everything happening in Russia — is of the sheerest phantasms and hallucinations, in all this there is nothing substantial and genuinely real. That what has occurred most recently, is very tormenting and grievous in the perspective of the personal life of people. Blood has been spilled, there have been and will be many innocent victims, human life has become still more precarious and unbearable. But it mustneeds be realised, that nothing essentially has changed, nothing new has occurred. There has been a shifting about of atoms, yet staying in the same inert condition, and it cannot change anything on any side. Generally within the Russian Revolution nothing new is transpiring, in it is no sort of a genuine movement. And that, what we call revolution, is but the power of inertia, is a dead immobility in facing the judgement of an higher spiritual life. In the cycles of chaos and anarchy never indeed will there be a genuine stirring and creative newness. The chaotic shifting about and revolvings of dead matter moves nowhere and nowise creates new life. In the souls of people and in the soul of the people, in the wellsprings of creative energy nothing has changed, nothing new has been born. All the same old instincts are active, all the same old feelings. The new man is not being born. Nor has any new soul been born within the elements of the Revolution. Everything has remained very old in Rus’, all the psychology of individual people and whole groups has remained the old. The whole societal fabric is being pulled and torn apart, like a rotting bit of matter. The souls of people are slaves’ souls all the same. The masquerade change of attire ought not to fool anyone. Under the new masks are still too apparent the old faces. Slaves are prone to violence, in which not a single feeling has changed, in which no sort of glimmerings of a new and better consciousness is evidenced, they stroll and drive about in the costumes of the new and free people. But the beastly gruntings are all the time heard under the masks, which fool only people very naive and very ignorant.

It is laughable and absurd, what is being seriously said among us about the “Bolsheviks”, about refuting them, while they dispute about the paths of developement of the Russian “Revolution”. All this, as children tend to say, is not for real, all this is not the genuine thing. The whole Russian “Revolution” is an onerous nightmare, dreamt up for the Russian people out of its incapacity and sickness, it is a phantasm, created by a disordered imagination of a people weak and having lost its spiritual centre. It is as though the nightmares and phantasms of an insane asylum have been set free and go about howling across the Russian Land. Everything happening is but an illustration for “The Devils” of Dostoevsky, a book truly prophetic. Everything is inescapable, as in a nightmare, everything keeps repeating and returning, the demons circle about, and it is impossible to break free from this devilish circle. The demon-driven power of Messrs. Lenin and Trotsky and the non-populist character of their power is describable the same, as was describable the demon-driven and non-populist character of the power of Messrs. Stuermer and Protopopov. From the former time nothing essentially profound has changed. Everything old is repeated and acts but under new masks. The stormy processes occur but at the surface. These processes are but the rot of old clothes of a Russia unreborn. We are experiencing the consequences of our old sins, we suffer from our inherited ills. In Russia there has been no sort of a revolution. It is time already to tear off the masks and expose the genuine realities. The Russian Revolution is a sheerest phantasm. In it there are no essential signs of a revolution in the Western European sense of this word. The old power, the old monarchy was not overthrown by the Revolution, it rotted, became decayed and ingloriously fell, like a rotten apple falls from the tree. But the poison from the rotting of old Russia has remained within the organism of the people and it continues to undermine the life of the Russian people. Still, here among us, these processes of the rotting of old Russia are considered as “the developing and deepening of revolution”. The hideous nihilism, triumphing in these processes of disintegration, is an evidence of the old Russia, and not the creativity of a new Russia. In Russia the ruling power fell, and it was not replaced by any sort of a new ruling power. There has ensued a chaotic sort of interregnum, a fruitless and uncreative troubled period of anarchy. It would be the same incorrect to term as revolution the catastrophe happening with Russia, just as it would be incorrect to term Pugashevism as a revolution. The catastrophe is not a change in the forms of the state, it is not the building up of a new ruling authority with an organising of its powers, it is the breaking up of a state, powerless to organise whatever it might as a state power. In this the Russian Revolution is infinitely distinct from the French Revolution, in which there was active a strong civil national instinct of the people. With us however there is no sort of a new, an organising and constructive power having arrived to replace the old and disintegrating powers. That which we tend to call “revolution” is but a continuous disorganisation and disintegration, the death of the state, of the nation, of the culture.


The course of the Russian “revolution” is not a drama, moving along developing from one act to the next. In it there is not a true dramatism, there are not true heroes. The course of this “revolution” is more reminiscent of a very chaotic cycle. The inescapable aspect and lack of resolution are especially characteristic of it. And for us rather quickly has ensued a revolutionary wasting-away disease. We are experiencing not so much a revolutionary, as rather a distressed era. Everything has become poisoned in this era, all are joyless, all are unhappy, with everything there is a murkiness in the depths of the soul. The makers themself of the “revolution” sense neither joy nor uplift, in them is no genuine faith. The Russian “revolution” suffers from the hounding of old age, it has not experienced a period of youth, of youthful enthusiasm, of the youthful attraction with liberating ideas. All the revolutionary ideas have long since already become weathered, all the revolutionary words have grown stale. The aesthetic and morally sensitive man can no longer without a tinge of shame recourse to revolutionary terminology. It is impossible to endure this yawning abyss with all the revolutionary concepts! Everything has long since already chilled down and turned to ice under the revolutionary phrases, there is no feel of the heat of the human heart, there is not the heat of human thought. The old words, pronounced by representatives of the old approach, have become weather-beaten over the course of a century. Revolutionary words straight off have come to seem old and weather-beaten over the course of but several months. During the first days of the revolution no energy of sacrifice was spent in struggle against the old ruling powers. The old ruling powers fell without struggle and resistance, and victory came too easily. Much spite had however accumulated in the past, from the old slavery and the old abasement. And they began to search out an object for this unresolved spite. The objectivisation of the spiteful feelings created the counter-revolutionary fiction of the “bourgeoise”. They poisoned masses of the people with an inhuman malicious hatred towards the “bourgeoise”, understood in a very broad sense, as the whole of cultured society. The “bourgeoise” itself however uncovered a wont for disorganisation, passivity and yielding, unseen in history. From the very  beginning of the “revolution” the Russian was obsessed by a craven fear of counter-revolution, and in this shameful fear is sensed a terrible powerlessness, the absence of youthful faith, of youthful enthusiasm. In the inquest over counter-revolution there is something to the utmost degree ignoble. The makers of the “revolution” discovered their spying instincts, traits characteristic of a decrepit and decaying power. All this is conceivable, if there be finally admitted the truth, which for the time being is evident but to few, — that in Russia there has been no sort of revolution, and what there was is but a continuing disintegration and rotting of the old, only a prolonged chaos and lack of statecraft, only the developing and deepening of an arbitrary power.

For a long time already we are living under the dictatorship of a “revolutionary democracy”. And in this regard the “Bolshevik revolution” has brought with it nothing new. But what does this “revolutionary democracy” represent, which they want to pass off as an organising and creative power? This is first of all the lording it up of ignorant and destructive soldier-recruits, the lording it up of bayonettes in the hands of ignorant people, the primitive instincts of which have raged unchecked over the course of eight months. The Russian Social Democrats, students of K. Marx, have recognised the bayonettes of soldiers as the chief defining factour of historical developement. Certain of them, calling themselves “Bolsheviks”, are even convinced, that the bayonettes of soldiers can radically alter the correlation of economic factours. Such a militaristic rebirth of Marxism is truly amazing, it was possible only in the murky East, in a completely non-cultural land. In this there is something Turk-like. There are grounds to think, that Western people will look upon the Russian “revolution”, as though it were Chinese or Turkish. It is a monstrous falsehood to declare, that the lording about of soldiery, grounded in physical violence, has any whatever relationship to socialism, to “the idea of a fourth estate”, as it was understood by Marx, by Lassal and other Western socialists. The illiterate dark mass of soldiers, unaccustomed to all actual work, are those selfsame soldiers, upon whose bayonettes not long ago still rested the old arbitrary rule, and they are not given to any whatever perspective of socialistic thinking or socialistic feelings for the working class. “Bolshevism” rests upon the same sort of soldiers bayonettes, upon the selfsame dark and crude physical force, upon which rested also the old decaying ruling powers. Nothing has changed. The masses have remained in the same state of darkness. Where is that new psychological insight of the proletariat, to be worked out by collective industrial labour, which the Marxists always have considered as a necessary premise of socialism? Is it the signs of this new psychology in the disorderly mobs of soldiers, pocketing the grain, lighting cigarettes and committing violence against peaceful citizens? It is no accident that in the dark masses that it is so difficult to differentiate the “Bolsheviks” from the Black Hundredists. And the “socialistic revolution” of recent days is very easy to confuse with counter-revolution. This is the same spirit, those same approaches of violence and terror, the same outrage against freedom and right, the same jeering at the worthiness of man. And the hatred towards the “bourgeoise” is an age-old hatred of the dark East towards culture.


The Russian people continues to decay out of a lack of strength, from a tyrannic anarchy, from churlish ignorance and darkness, from a lack of organisation and discipline, from the absence of guiding constructive powers. The “Bolshevik revolution” is one of the moments of the falling apart of old Russia, one of the transformations of the old Russian darkness. In all this there is no similitude to revolution, to democracy, to socialism, to any sort of deep change in society and the people. All this — is a subtle and vicious masquerade. The principles of arbitrary rule and despotism continue their triumphant march and they incite to orgy. In the old Russian arbitrary rule there was too much of the anarchistic and too few objective legal principles. And at present the anarchy and arbitrary rule are killing every right, every objective and legitimate truth. In old Russia there was not a sufficient respect for man, for the human person. But at present this respect is even less so. In entire classes of society man is denied, the person is not respected, and in regard to the classes of society admitting the revolutionary assertions, there is committed a spiritual homicide, which all too easily passes over into a physical homicide. The oneness of the human race is denied to a larger degree, than during the time of slavery. Even during the time of the slavery of serfdom, even during the time of the serf-owning right privileged Christians all the same still saw in both serfs and serf-owners a man, the image and likeness of God, i.e. at a particular depth they surmounted all the conditional and class oppositions and impediments. The present vicious and malicious division however into a world “bourgeois” and a world “socialistic” is an ultimate betrayal of Christianity and an ultimate denial of man, as one race in God. In this likewise can be seen a requital for old sins, for old discord and falsehood, but it would be madness to se in this something new, creative, transformative of life. The convulsive and monstrous end of the old man is impossible to conceive of as a principle of an new and better life.

“Bolshevism” has prevailed with its principle of  “revolution” and in its present triumph there is nothing new. All the “developing and deepening of the revolution” has happened by decree of the “Bolsheviks”, has been inspired by their spirit, if this can be called spirit, and gradually it has taken on the principles proclaimed by them. The other revolutionary socialistic parties, the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries, went in tow with the “Bolsheviks”, though they were less consistent and the same poison in them was less condensed and concentrated. The Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries will never decisively and radically rise up against the “Bolsheviks”, since the “Bolsheviks” for them were people of the same faith, sinners perhaps, but not heretics. True-believers do not burn sinners in the bon-fires, they burn only the heretics. But for every Social Democrat and Socialist revolutionary, not having concurred with the Bolshevik tactics, the heretics however — are all those not socialists by faith, all those not believing in the socialistic revolution and the socialistic happiness. And in the victory of the “Bolsheviks” over the other socialistic groups there is an immanently inner justice, this — was a national punishment for their own particular sins. The sickness had to run its course to the end, had to be lived out to its extreme consequences. Why has there occurred such a deluge of “Bolshevism” throughout all the Russian Land, and why did it attain such an easy victory? This is first of all connected with the war. “Bolshevism” is the line of least resistance from the national and elementary instincts of every dark and unenlightened human nature. “Bolsheviks” eventually became all those, who did not want to make war, who did not want to sacrifice anything, but who want as much as possible to receive more. What is termed as the Russian “Revolution” and what at present it has come to, reveals one shameful and sad fact for us: the Russian people did not hold up under the great challenge of the war, in the terrible hour of the world conflict it weakened and began to fall apart. It spiritually was not prepared for the world struggle, it lost every idea of a purpose for this war. And without a great idea or purpose it is impossible to go forth to sacrifice and suffering. The bloody fratricidal struggle on the streets of Moscow is but an episode of the world war. The German poison has done its job.

The moral however, which the Russian “Revolution” teaches, is quite simple and elementary, though also bitter for us. It has become necessary to part company with many of the Russian illusions, with the Slavophils, the Populists, the Tolstoyans, the lofty-minded anarchists, the revolutionary-messianists, etc, etc. It is necessary to repent and be humbled, to sacrificially admit the elementary truth of Westernism, the truth of culture, the harsh truth of law and norms. The Russian people has lost faith, has betrayed the eternally sacred, and civilisation it does not possess, to culture it is foreign. And we have need of the lengthy workings of civilisation, in which there is its own secularised religious truth. It is necessary for Russia to again pull itself together. The great tribulations confirm the truth as of Chaadayev, and not the Slavophils. At present we are experiencing a period of profound moral and spiritual collapse. Even in our cultural segment many have fallen so low, that they have given in to the mass hypnosis and have come to believe the vilely ignorant view, that at present is occurring a final clash of class interests, a final struggle of the people against the bourgeoise. When the Russian people awakens from its hypnosis and spiritually sobers up, they will comprehend, that every great struggle in the world is a spiritual struggle, a clash of varying ideas. It has to be admitted, regretably, that terming it “bourgeoisness” signifies at present but an elementary level of culture. In the lower levels of Russian life — is a primordial darkness, everything there is elementary, everything still is in the primitive past. At the summits of spiritual life, however, there occurs the clash of differing spirits and ideas, there the devil fights it out with God. In the midst of the struggle it is perceived as the clash of the “bourgeois” world and the “socialistic” world. But both these worlds stand upon the same basis and are inspired by the same earthly spirit. The bitter spiritual struggle is complexly interwoven into this middle range material struggle, and from this middle range admixture it is necessary to distinguish the higher and pure spiritual principles and to set them in opposition to the triumphing darkness and triumphing churlishness: it is but the utmost spiritual struggle that ought also to manifest itself in the middle realm, as a struggle for creativity of culture within the darkness round about us.

Nikolai  Berdyaev.

19 November 1917

©  2005  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1917 – 284 – en)

BYLA LI V ROSSII REVOLIUTSIYA?. Article originally published in the weekly Journal “Narodopravstvo”, No. 15, p. 4-7.

Republished in Tom 4 of  Berdiaev Collected Works by YMCA Press, in the collection of 1917-1918 Berdyaev articles under the title, “Dukhovnye osnovy russkoi revoliutsii (Stat’i 1917-18)” (“Spiritual Grounds of the Russian Revolution (Articles 1917-18)”,  Paris, 1990,  p. 102-112.