The Moscow „Religious-Philosophical Vladimir Solovyov Society"


by Kristiane Burchardi, now published in:

Forschungen zur osteuropäischen Geschichte vol. 53, Berlin 1999

"... kak my uzhe znaem, sam Solovyov ne sdelal vsech vyvodov,

proistekajushchich iz priznanija znachenija i neobchodimosti juridicheskich garantij,

ibo posledovatel’nyj otsjuda vyvod mozhet byt’ tol’ko odin –

politicheskoe credo russkogo zapadnichestva.

Etot poslednyj shag i ostaetsja teper’ sdelat’ v dele ochishchenija slavjanofil’skogo

uchenija i vospolnenija ego polozhitel’nymi elementami zapadnichestva.”

(Sergej Bulgakov, 1903)


Since the 19th century the discourse on Russia’s future has been characterized by the split into „Slavophiles" and „Westernizers". At the beginning of the 20th century a circle of Moscow intellectuals attempted to integrate the opposing factions by offering a new conception of the Russian self-identity. The members of this Society referred to the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, as to them his theme of „Godmanhood" seemed to be suitable to overcome the differences between East and West, between Russia and Europe. Their ideas for Russia’s future were intended as an alternative to socialist conceptions of society. Through this intention the Society has distinguished itself as a medium of pre-revolutionary non-socialist tradition which could be capable of stirring even the current debate on Russian self-identity.

The subject of this interdisciplinary thesis is the Vladimir Solovyov Society (Russian abbr. RFO), an important circle of Moscow intellectuals of the early 20th century. The first part shows a retrospective on intellectual history of the 19th century and, thus, illustrates the aim of the RFO which is to integrate the ideas of the „Slavophile" and „Westernizing" factions into a new Russian self-identity. Against such background, the RFO rightly considered itself an alternative to socialism.

The next part outlines the intellectual profile of the Society as far as organization, development, and self-identity are concerned, taking into account the intellectual and cultural variety of the „Silver Age". Members of the RFO were literary figures (A. Belyi, V. Ivanov), philosophers (S. Bulgakov, N. Berdyaev, V. Ern, V. Svenitsky, E. Trubetskoy) and clergymen (Arkhimandrit Mikhail, Father Florensky). Against this religious-philosophical background an analysis of Orthodox theology as well as of epistemological and socialist opposite standpoints was carried out. It is to the credit of the RFO for Russian thought that the debates were marked by broadness and that the individual lectures were of high quality. The Society has been capable of concentrating the development of intellectual and social history of the 19th century from the Slavophiles to the Westernizers, from the Socialist Revolutionaries to the early Marxists up to Vladimir Solovyov’s philosophical theme, and of productively reflecting it.

The thesis’ last part is dedicated to the acceptance in today’s society. Since the RFO has been characterized by taking up discussions from the whole intellectual spectre in pre-revolutionary Russia, always in anticipation of a new self-identity, the debates on the Russian identity of the 90s have to take into account the RFO as well. In this work the RFO is understood as a medium of pre-revolutionary non-socialist tradition which is capable of stimulating the current discussion about Russia’s self-identity.



The work on hand is the first extensive portrayal of the Vladimir Solovyov Society; for the first time the sources of the Society, as far as they are known, have been depicted. The thesis is based on unpublished archive material that has not been accessible so far. The most important sources are the invitations to the meetings of the RFO showing lecturer, topic, date, place and character of the meeting. The statutes of the Society are a further source, only now made available. The statutes which had been thought to be lost are kept in a private Moscow archive. Eventually, letters, memoirs, articles, and the works of other RFO members complete the picture of the Society.


Historical background

The RFO’s objective was to integrate the antagonistic traditions of the 19th century and, thus, to renew Russia’s self-identity. Chaadaev had drawn the attention to Russian identity at the beginning of the 19th century; since then it has been split up into two factions, the „Slavophile" and the „Westernizing". These traditions developed into two competing schemes of identity for Russian society. However, both trends in Russian thought underwent a transformation in the course of the 19th century. The Slavophile tradition was soon extended by Dostoyevsky and his „All-Humanity", then partly criticized by Solovyov’s work and finally completely rejected in all its exclusiveness and disregard for the universal Christian tradition. The ideals of the early Westernizers were even more thoroughly re-evaluated. Their call for joining Europe on its way to fundamental rights and political participation became more and more radical; the further the development of the revolutionary movement went, the more visible became the tendency to adopt materialistic-positivistic systems from Europe and to use them to overthrow the regime. At the beginning of the 20th century the traditions were continuing in the movements of „religious search" and socialism.

The further the transformation of the initial Slavophile and Westernizing thought went on, the closer both traditions came, in a way. The originally particularistic tradition of nationalism tended to acknowledge the intellectual systems of Europe; the exclusively Westernizing faction eventually even fell back upon Western theories in order to acknowledge Russian traditions, such as the Russian peasant community. The objective of the RFO was to continue and to combine both traditions, the Slavophile and the Westernizing; the evaluated and revised kernels of both models of Russian self-identity have made up the intellectual base of the RFO.


Vladimir Solovyov’s heritage

The RFO finishes the divided development of Russian identity of the 19th century; at the same time it strives to be a new beginning. Elements of different traditions have been taken up and brought to a synthesis that refers equally to Russia’s intellectual heritage and to Western ideas. In this way, the RFO has endeavoured to outline theoretical foundations for the practical reorganization of society. Historico-philosophical, theological, and socio-theoretic considerations make up the theoretical foundations.

By its attempt to mediate, the RFO followed Vladimir Solovyov who had tried to reconcile Russia and Europe in Russian historical thought. Thus, it seems to be natural enough, that just against the background of Solovyov’s term of „Godmanhood" it has been possible to access the different models of the RFO with their theoretical base and their practical-normative claim by one term. This term comprises both components that are to be syntheticized; at the same time it provides the possibility for such a synthesis. „Godmanhood" has been a theoretical keyword for the RFO; the term neutralizes the contrast between God and man (cosmologically), between history as salvation plan by God and history as man-made product, between East and West, Russia and Europe (historico-philosophically), between faith and knowledge (epistemologically), between the Church and society (theologically) etc. The first step for making this possible was accepting both sides as equals. The different thinking of both sides has been made a unity by the linking idea of „Godmanhood": if „Slavophiles" respectively „Westernizers" accept their half of the contrasting pairs, the idea of „Godmanhood" can be used as mediating principle between the opposing sides.

In doing so, the practical-normative side of „Godmanhood" that the RFO felt committed to was touched. Not only does „Godmanhood" explain the connection of two elements, it demands to design reality by means of synthesis. The RFO has adopted this demand by attempting to redefine the Russian self-identity by integrating „Slavophile" and „Westernizing" traditions of the 19th century.


The development of the RFO

During the first years of its existence (from 1905 to around 1910) and the debate on socialism the RFO indeed managed to design a Christian-liberal model of society which combined both traditions of the 19th century. Ideals of the Enlightenment and Christian concepts of universal unity have been united in one modern model of society. The RFO planned to apply in social practice the knowledge which derived from the discussion about socialism. Therefore, the members of the Society engaged in Christian-political groups (some of them founded by the members themselves) whose aim was to link the social ideals of socialism with those of Christianity in social practice. In order to integrate socialist standpoints into the new model of Russian self-identity, it seems to be logically consistent to refer as well to traditional intelligentsia, as the aim was to stimulate a common discussion about Russia’s future between all intellectuals.

In 1910, the 10th anniversary of Solovyov’s (after whom the Society was named) death gave reason enough to thoroughly analyse Solovyov’s work again; this opens the second chapter in the RFO’s history (from 1910 to 1912). Though the acceptance of Solovyov’s work had started much earlier (e.g. the possibility of a movement from „Marxism to Idealism" is inconceivable without Solovyov, as well as the RFO’s critique of socialism from its religious-philosophical point of view) the examination of this work became even more deep and concentrated from 1910 to 1912 which allows us to consider these years an autonomous phase in the history of the RFO.

As far as contents are concerned, this second phase was closely connected to the first years of the RFO’s existence; the members still derived the religious-philosophical basis for their theoretical and practical approach from Solovyov’s concept of „Godmanhood". Solovyov’s „Godmanhood" offered a theoretical explanatory model for the RFO’s main concern: the connection between God and man, the Church and society, East and West, Slavophiles and Westernizers. In short: for the integration of the mutually dependent Slavophile and Westernizing sides of the Russian self-identity. In fact, the RFO in its first and second phase managed to combine both identity models of the 19th century by means of constructive criticism of socialism, practical political participation and religious-philosophical analysis. Their theory of the Russian identity has united ideals of the Enlightenment (such as individualism, pluralism, the state under the rule of law and the parliamentary democracy) with Orthodox values; moreover, it tried to apply these ideas to social practice.

The re-investigation of Solovyov’s work leads to the third phase of RFO’s history (from about 1912 to 1918). First of all, this third phase focuses on the theoretical foundations and explication of RFO’s concept. The members of the Society inquired into Russian and European traditions, into theology and philosophy, and into arts. It were not only intellectual issues that the RFO dedicated special meetings to, but also the current affairs of World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. During the third and last phase of RFO’s history, the synthesis approach has not been given up, though with some of the members conservative-nationalist views were becoming stronger. This conservative attitude within the RFO has been accompanied by the retreat from political and social participation, but remained in itself subject to reflection, and thus, still proved the willingness to negotiate the Russian identity in an open discussion.


The acceptance of the RFO in post-socialist Russia

Since the 80s, and since the end of the Soviet Union at the latest, the very ideas (non-socialist, pre-revolutionary) which the RFO had reflected and discussed have become extremely popular. On the one hand, the interest has undoubtedly been raised by the long-lasting prohibition of the texts. On the other hand, the reason for considering one’s own past is the longing for orientation and definite values during the times of social and political changes. A lot of people expect the non-socialist, pre-revolutionary intellectual history to offer values and guidelines for a new national self-identity. There are different ways of acceptance, and there is the problem of a productive attitude towards one’s own traditions. This has proved to refer to the scientific acceptance, as well as to the newly founded religious-philosophical societies.

When considering the variety of contributions to Russia’s religious „Renaissance", it becomes obvious that the scientific acceptance of the „Silver Age" has not yet reached the level the RFO had established. While the RFO had (often successfully) tried to integrate Slavophile and Westernizing traditions into one Russian self-identity which was characterized by wholeness, today’s acceptance of the „Silver Age" is again split up into limited Slavophile and Westernizing side views.

The commitment of two re-founded Vladimir Solovyov Societies (the Dostoyevsky Society and the Transnational Vladimir Solovyov Society) has brought up definite ways of how to treat the intellectual heritage. In different ways, both societies resume the work of the historical RFO. The Dostoyevsky Society attempts to stimulate social self-identification in the nationalist tradition, while the Transnational Vladimir Solovyov Society feels committed to scholarly research  in the tradition of universalism.

Of course, today's reception of the „Silver Age" and the re-foundations of the RFO cannot aim at finding ready-made programmmes in the past for today’s political and social restructuring of Russia. On the one hand, such an approach would ignore the time gap to the historical RFO, on the other hand, the RFO itself had not claimed to offer political programmes in the narrow sense. The RFO’s concern was to take up the past in such a manner that by combining different traditions a new identity could be extracted. It is quite possible that today Russia takes up the „Christian-liberal dialogue", i.e. transfers Christian and liberal traditions of Russian intellectual history to the present time. In accordance with the concept of the RFO that would mean not only to include the Church into the transformation processes but also to acknowledge Russia’s liberal heritage. The point is „to come to a change in the state of mind which helps liberal thought to be understood not as something imported, but as something own." (A. Ignatov). This is exactly the kind of mediation of different traditional links the RFO Moscow felt committed to.



Information on the text

The paper on hand is a résumé of the monograph „The Moscow ‘Religious-Philosophical Vladimir Solovyov Society’ (1905-1918)" by Kristiane Burchardi. The work represents the revision of the doctoral thesis at the Faculty of East European history of the Freie Universität Berlin (disputation October 14, 1997). The supervisors are Prof Dr. Hans-Joachim Torke (Freie Universität Berlin) and Prof Dr. Jutta Scherrer (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris). The complete work has now been published in: Forschungen zur osteuropäischen Geschichte vol. 53, Berlin 1999.