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Nicholas Alexandrovich Berdyaev

by Sofia Vadimovna Androsenko (Софья Андросенко)

Press Secretary, St. Philaret's Institute, Moscow, Russia

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Nicholas Alexandrovich Berdyaev (in Russian: Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Бердя́ев; alternative historical spellings of his surname in English include "Berdiaev" and "Berdiaeff", and of his given name "Nicolas" and "Nicholas") was a Russian religious philosopher who changed the philosophical and Christian landscape of the 20th century. For the Russian church, as well as for the Christian world as a whole, he was a prophet who spoke in a new way about God, humans, the Church, the meaning of history, ethics, and especially about the problems of creativity, freedom and evil. In a century when man was debased right and left, Berdyaev thought and spoke about man’s dignity and purpose.


Nicholas Berdyaev was born in 1874 in the Kiev region of the Russian empire into an aristocratic family. While yet still a boy, he read voraciously in his father’s library, studying Hegel, Schopenhauer and Kant when he was only 14. Increasingly aware of his calling in life, he reported that “Love of philosophy and the desire to know the meaning of life pushed everything else to the margins.” In the sixth form, Berdyaev left military school and was accepted to university, where Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, and the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Jakob Böhme had significant impact on his thought.


Berdyaev became a well-known figure among the thinkers of the Russian religious revival of the early 20th century. In 1919, he founded the Free Academy of Spiritual Culture in Moscow. In his book, Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Autobiography (also known as Dream and Reality), he noted that “the significance of the Free Academy of Spiritual Culture was that during these difficult years (of civil war, Bolshevik terror, hunger and destruction) the Free Academy was, it seems, the only place where thought flowed freely and questions were posed from the qualitative heights, in terms of culture.” Lecturing in the most diverse of locations, from universities to public halls to pubs, Berdyaev noted the extreme religious thirst that had taken hold of the Russian people at that time.


In 1922, along with other elite representatives of Russian culture, science and theology, Berdyaev was exiled from Russia by the Soviet authorities on the renown “Philosophers’ Ship.” Until the end of his life he was an expatriate who dreamed of returning to his homeland.


After living in Berlin, Berdyaev moved to Paris in 1924, where he remained until his death in 1948. There, he was an active participant in the work of the Russian Christian student movement, and was friends with the leading artists and intellectuals of the Russian emigration, including Mother Maria Skobtsova, who put many of his ideas into practice. While in France he wrote 15 books and published scores of articles, and from 1925 until 1940, he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Russian journal of religious thought, Put (The Way), and actively participated in the development of European philosophical life. His voluminous output was translated into dozens of languages, and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature no less than seven times.


Paul Tillich called Berdyaev “one of the most outstanding representatives of modern religious thought.” His philosophy had an impact on such prominent Western thinkers as Martin Buber, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Fr. Juan Luis Segundo, Charles Hartshorne, and Jürgen Moltmann. The influence of Berdyaev’s ideas affected entire theological schools, including liberation theology and process theology.


Berdyaev’s main philosophical themes were God and man, freedom and creativity, and triumph over evil. He saw the Church as a Divine-human unity, in which strife and discord—the integral character of the fallen world—is overcome, and real, rather than symbolic, “unification of souls” is achieved. The Church, in which God’s purpose in creation might, for the first time, be realized and fulfilled, is built on the person of the God-man, Christ, in Whom the enmity between God and man is overcome.


Berdyaev wrote that “many people believe that Christianity is primarily a religion of personal salvation when, in fact, such an interpretation is at odds with the idea of the Church, itself. Man’s creativity, knowledge, art, invention, the perfection of civil society, etc. are not necessary for personal salvation, but they are necessary for the realization of God’s purpose for the world and for human beings, for the transfiguration of the cosmos, for the Kingdom of God, into which the fullness of being is included. Man is called to be a creator, a co-creator in God’s business of creating and managing the world, and not only ‘to be saved.’”


Berdyaev died on the 23rd of March, 1948, while sitting at his desk.


Towards the end of his life, Berdyaev, whose articles and books were widely-read in Europe but not well-known in Russia, arranged for his sister-in-law, Evgenia Rapp, to transfer his archive to the USSR upon his death. Realizing the possible negative prospects for his legacy in a country where his works were banned and he, himself, had been declared a “class enemy,” Berdyaev believed that if what he wrote was destined to perish, then he wanted to share the fate of his people.


Sofia Androsenko (Софья Андросенко)

Other Berdyaev Biographies

Sources for Academic Articles about Berdyaev


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