Nicolai Berdyaev and anarchist Russia

“Anarchism is a phenomenon of the Russian spirit” – such was the opinion of Nicolai Berdyaev, in an article called The Psychology of the Russian People penned a hundred years ago, in 1915.

He wrote: “Russia is the least statelike, the most anarchistic land in the world. And the Russian people is the most apolitical of peoples, never having managed to set its land right. All the genuinely Russian, our national writers, thinkers, publicists – all were non-statists, all were uniquely anarchists…

“The Slavophils and Dostoevsky were anarchists essentially the same, as were Mikhail Bakunin or Kropotkin. And this anarchistic Russian nature also found itself typical expression in the religious anarchism of Lev Tolstoy.”

Berdyaev himself certainly seems to have possessed the proud anarchist inability to submit to any form of tyranny – he was charged with blasphemy for a 1913 article criticising the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church and then after the revolution fell out – inevitably – with the dictatorial Bolshevik regime.

I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of Berdyaev until attending a talk at the Anarchist Studies Network conference in September and the paper has now happily been posted online.

The article, Kairos and socialism, states that even though he “called himself the first truly mystical anarchist in dialogue with decadents and mystical anarchists, he did not preach at any time an empty anarchism or social amorphism.

“He always took into account the surrounding world and the social and political given, from which human action can aim at its absolute goals. He calls the state a murder machine, made into an almighty totalitarian demon by technology.”

Exactly a century later, this last statement looks less like a comment on Berdyaev’s own times than a prophecy of what was to come – and not just in Russia.