Nikolai Berdiaev

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Berdiaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich


Born Mar. 6, 1874, in Kiev; died Mar. 24, 1948, in Clamart, France. Russian religious philosopher and mystic; associated with existentialism.

Berdiaev came from a noble family. He studied at the University of Kiev. During his student years he participated in the social democratic movement; he was persecuted by dismissal from the university and exile. His writing was published in programmatic collections of the Russian idealists, such as Problems of Idealism (1902), the antirevolutionary collection Signposts (1909), and From the Depths (1918). Berdiaev was the organizer and chairman of the Free Academy of Spiritual Culture (1918–22). In 1922 he was expelled from the country. Berdiaev founded the religious and philosophical journal Put’ (The Way; Paris, 1925–40) and headed the YMCA Press in Paris.

In his youth Berdiaev belonged to the so-called legal Marxists and attempted to combine Marxism with neo-Kantianism. He developed the theory of ethical socialism. Around 1905 he joined the god-seeking movement.

Berdiaev’s philosophical position and sympathies were determined by the conflict and interaction of two principles: an unlimited existential affirmation of the boundless creative drive as the spiritual foundation of the personality and the Christian principle of compassion. (Berdiaev himself recognized his closeness to Boehme, Nietzsche, Fichte, Kierkegaard, and Ibsen, as well as to the Russian religious tradition of the Slavophiles and Dostoevsky. His starting point was always Kant’s principle of dualism.) The duality of Berdiaev’s position, which was engendered by absolutizing each of these themes, resulted in a series of contradictions, especially in the contradiction between creativity and pity (the morality of creativity, or the cult of genius, and the Christian morality of atonement). In the spirit of the mysticism of Boehme and Schelling, Berdiaev affirmed the groundlessness of freedom and its superiority to being (and to god); therefore, man is not subject to god’s will. Berdiaev spoke of the absence of god in the world. However, Berdiaev also accepted the Christian eschatological doctrine of history ruled by god’s providence.

Complete alienation from the world (the kingdom of the “everyday” and of evil) and a yearning to transform the world were characteristic of Berdiaev. In his work the call to creativity as a means of changing the world was combined with the conviction that every creative act is doomed. Essentially, every act of objectification (embodiment in objects) by human creativity was identified by Berdiaev with alienation.

Berdiaev’s interest in the philosophy of history (The Meaning of History, 1923; The New Middle Ages, 1924; Fate of Man in the Modern World, 1934; The Russian Idea, 1946; and others) was linked to his main theme, the problem of the personality. Berdiaev did not recognize a progressive movement in history; he believed that the path of history is the uncovering of opposites—good and evil—and the tragic struggle between them, which ends with a departure into “metahistory” (the “kingdom of god”). In modern times Berdiaev found signs of the “barbarization” of European culture and the beginning of its twilight, which were related to the advance of “mass culture” (The End of Europe, Moscow, 1915). Berdiaev was one of the first critics of modern civilization as a technological civilization which, according to Berdiaev, was the result of the “triumph of the bourgeois spirit” (The Meaning of Creativity, Moscow, 1916). Berdiaev called for “salvation” through the individual creative moral act (sacrifice, love, and so forth) and for “personalistic revolution” instead of social revolution.

From the point of view of Christian socialism, Berdiaev recognized that the class struggle is a just reaction to social injustice and admitted the truth of the communist principle of socializing production. However, Berdiaev thought it was necessary to carry on a continuous ideological struggle against communism, which he viewed as an expression of bourgeois, antispiritual consciousness oriented to materialism and material wealth. Throughout his life Berdiaev criticized Marxism, which he considered a dualistic doctrine combining economic determinism with voluntarism and a secularized religious world view that expressed hopes for the proletariat’s messianic role.

Berdiaev was a fierce ideological opponent of the October Revolution (and of all sociopolitical revolutions). In the polemical book The Philosophy of Inequality (1918; published, 1923) Berdiaev stooped to a justification of the cruelties of the “organic” historical process (a disruption of which he considered revolution) and to a Nietzschean defense of social selection and the right of the “strong personality.” Later he considered it criminal to justify historical reality as reasonable and necessary. Remaining an ideologist of the “aristocracy of the spirit,” Berdiaev tried to make his understanding of aristocracy free of any class and hierarchical characteristics (On Human Slavery and Freedom, 1939; Self-Knowledge, 1949).

Berdiaev influenced the development of French existentialism and personalism. In the West, Berdiaev became known as the main exponent of the traditions of Russian religious idealistic philosophy and as an ideologist of anti-communism.


Lenin, V. I. “O Vekhakh.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 19.
Lenin, V. I. G. V. Plekhanovu, 30 iiulia 1901 g. (Letter.) Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 46, p. 135.
Luppol, I. “Novoe srednevekov’e.” Pod znamenem marksizma, 1926, no. 12.
Balakina, I. F. “Religiozno-ekzistentsialistskie iskaniia v Rossiinachala 20 v.” In the collection Sovremennyi ekzistentsializm. Moscow, 1966.
Lowrie, D. Rebellious Prophet: A Life of N. Berdyaev. New York, 1960.
Wernham, J. Two Russian Thinkers: An Essay On Berdyaev and Shestov. Toronto, 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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