The descriptions Berdyaev provides about the multitude of small, specialized intellectual circles that flourished at that time present a landscape bearing marked resemblance to the late-night political satire and comedy shows, talk radio programs, and the blogosphere postings today. Fractured, fragmented, passionate, and variable. As the intellectuals struggled with establishing a persistent vision, there was an impulse to grasp for answers in unusual places. What they were really searching for was relevance.
Nowhere was this exemplified more than in the new religious consciousness of Merezhkovsky and Gippius, which left Berdyaev feeling “impressed and attracted by their intense awareness of ideas, and by a complete absence in them of the commonplace.” Yet, he also felt their views were lacking in empathy. He characterized this dichotomy as staying sober in a group full of people becoming drunk.
Berdyaev found this new religiosity overly intellectualized and academic: It lacked the human touch: “He [Merezhkovsky] was devoid of the qualities of pity and compassion which are so characteristic of Russians; he dismissed them as ‘Buddhistic.’”[i] What really led Berdyaev to avoid further involvement, however, was the Merezhkovskys’ close relationship with the Theosophical Society, an esoteric gathering of such mysterious characters such as Madame Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, Alice Bailey, Annie Besant, and George Gurdjieff.
Berdyaev’s story of Steiner’s ambassador to Russia, the adept psychic Anna Mintslova, is most bizarre:
“She was an ugly, fat woman with protruding eyes; there was a certain likeness between her and Madame Blavatsky. Her appearance was rather repulsive; only her hands were fine and beautiful. She was intelligent and she had talent: above all, she was skilled in her approach to human souls, and knew how to speak to each person. To me Mintslova’s influence seemed absolutely negative and demonic. I remember a strange vision I had of her. It happened after her arrival in Moscow. I was lying in bed in my room half asleep; I could clearly see the room and the corner opposite me where an ikon was hanging with a little burning oil-lamp before it. I was looking into this corner, when suddenly, beneath the ikon, I beheld the outline of Mintslova’s face: its expression was quite horrifying—a face seemingly possessed by all the powers of darkness. I gazed at her intently for a few seconds, and then, by an intense spiritual effort, forced the horrible vision to disappear.”[ii]
Mintslova disappeared mysteriously a little while later; walking with a friend who briefly turned away, looked back, and then noticed that she was gone, never to be seen again.
Berdyaev was only one of many who had this type of experience with the psychic: similar tales were recounted by the artist Kuzmin, the journalist-poets Bely and Ivanov, Anton Lunacharsky and Maxim Gorky who were to become leading ideologists of the Bolshevik Party. Such incidents speak to the overall unsettled mood that existed in Russia—as though past moorings had come loose; it was a time not unlike the “Flower Power Sixties,” the Harmonic Convergence, or recent b’ak’tun celebrations of the Mayan calendar.
Berdyaev found “the isolation of its [Russia’s] cultural élite from the wider social movements of the time, troubling and he became,
…painfully conscious of an ever-widening and fatal gulf … The creative expansion of ideas was confined to a small group of highly talented men and women and never reached either the broader masses of the people or even the wider circles of the intelligentsia.[iii]
Thanks to his prior experience with the Social Democrats (and his unique personality), Berdyaev never lost touch with the people of Russia nor with the revolutionaries while he was working toward social change. He maintained at least a foothold in all camps. This let him see clearly how out of touch the cultural intelligentsia and leading thinkers of his time were with the immediate aspirations of the mass population.
When Berdyaev contributed his article to Vekhi, he was writing from disappointment and reaction against the slaughter that had occurred in the 1905 Revolution. That event had confirmed, for him, that any political revolution was doomed, futile, and dangerous to the fate and well-being of humanity.
And the attempt to attain freedom by means of denying freedom to oneself or to others is doomed to failure. The failure of the 1905 revolution only served to intensify my longing for the revolution of the spirit.[i]
Berdyaev determined that political action from without would always result in one group of humans oppressing another; that a true revolution would only be effected if people worked from the inside out. “A personalistic revolution.” As Gandhi was later to say: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
[i] Berdyaev, DR 137.
[i] Berdyaev, DR, 149.
[ii] Berdyaev, DR, 193.
[iii] Berdyaev, DR 153-154.