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Viktor Erofeev: "From the Black Depths" (The New Times)

posted 12 Oct 2014, 07:34 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 13 Oct 2014, 00:30 ]
6 October 2014

On the intelligentsia and revolution

Viktor Erofeev continues his contributions to The New Times about books that remain relevant today. This time he writes about the collection of articles published in 1918, From the Depths ("Из глубины"), that deals with the Russian revolution.

We’ll begin with a quotation: “If anyone had predicted a few years ago the depth of the hole into which we have now fallen, and in which we are helplessly floundering, not a single person would have believed him.”

These are not the words opening some despairing article published recently on the Internet, but the final part of the collection of essays, From the Depths, published in 1918. Its author, the well-known philosopher and cultural critic Semen Frank, gave the name to the whole anthology.

Every educated Russian person, no matter what the area of life in which they are engaged, should read this book. Of course, it would be better if they had read it back in 1918 (or at least in 1991, or at the very latest in 1999 – but they did not read it!). The book was banned by the Bolsheviks and lay in warehouses until 1921 when its authors themselves took the initiative of putting the book on sale. The collection was physically destroyed, evidently, before it reached the bookstores. Only two copies survived (one belonged to Nikolai Berdyaev). The book was first published in Paris in 1967. I am holding it in my hands.

Mass shootings of children

This collection is the third and last warning by concerned Russian thinkers of the beginning of the 20th century that the civil society movement in Russia had taken a false path and the country was threatened with disaster. This warning comes from the so-called “Landmarkers” (веховцы), the authors of the well-known collection Landmarks (Вехи, 1909). These thinkers had first come together to produce the collection Problems of idealism (Проблемы идеализма, 1902) in which they publicly admitted to their disappointment in the philosophy of Marxism. They admitted to their disappointment and turned away from Marxism – and in their place there came Marxist hangmen.

Leader of the group of idealists was Petr Struve who brought together around his ideas a number of outstanding Russian thinkers that included Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov and Sergei Askoldov.

The scandal concerning Landmarks is well known. In assessing the revolution of 1905, the collection's authors concluded that the greatest threat to Russia came not from the tsarist government, but from the radical socialist ideas that permeated the intelligentsia and were interpreted in their own way by the uneducated masses who burned down the gentry’s manors.

In the third collection of essays, From the Depths, the authors express regret that the earlier warning in Landmarks had been articulated with such restraint, almost a whisper. The third collection is no longer a discussion of the future of Russia, but a lament for a country that has passed away. This collection of essays gives much material to those lovers of the theory of the happy history of our country in describing the hell into which the country was thrown at the time of the revolution. A time when, as Frank writes, among other horrors there were mass shootings of children.

The main task of the authors was to understand why the revolutionary disaster happened to Russia. The discussion looks at Russia by means of a triangle consisting of government – intelligentsia – people. This is an eternally relevant system. In my opinion, the most perceptive article in the collection is that contributed, once again, by Semen Frank, although the essays by Berdyaev, Struve, Askoldov and Vyacheslav Ivanov are also important for us all.

Frank's text merits the closest attention. In the metaphysical sense his first task is to understand why we were punished by the revolution? "…If God's punishment visited us not to destroy us, but to improve us…", then the whole world view of the intelligentsia that had existed before should be overturned.  

Frank criticizes our intelligentsia for having merely an abstract knowledge of the people, and at the same time a senseless idealization of the same. Here (along with Berdyaev) he is very critical of Tolstoy who, almost at the same time as Lenin, he is prepared to consider to be a ‘mirror of the Russian revolution’.

Brutal instincts of the people

After the destruction of the old regime, Frank, together with other authors of the collection, remembered with nostalgia past days when the authorities had restrained the people from the "unruliness of their thoughts and feelings". The most important words in the collection concern the metaphysical understanding of evil and the notion of brutality as the "main aspect of the people's soul during the revolution."

"A black hundred despotism of the higher classes and black hundred anarchism of the lower classes is one and the same force of evil..." writes the ever-relevant Frank. He cites Pushkin to the effect that our social thought is in a very sad state: indifference to every duty, cynical disdain for thought and human worth, the absence of public opinion... Before the revolution the intelligentsia explained these thoughts of Pushkin in terms of the weaknesses of the autocracy. After the revolution the question arose: why are the people like this?

Frank (along with the other authors) does not give a direct answer to this question: "It is hard to determine why this happened, but perhaps it is possible to trace how this happened."

Frank believes that Russian religious consciousness gradually departed, having learned patience and suffering, and in parallel the energy of the national will became spiritually unenlightened, and turned into a dark tumult of evil passions. Frank sees the intelligentsia as suffering from a "sentimental and dreamy powerlessness" that, in combination with the mindset of the people, led to catastrophe.

The authors of the collection evoke the horrors of the Time of Troubles, Ivan the Terrible's Oprichnina, and the "bludgeon" of Peter the Great that led to the existence in one country of two opposing cultures. They also recall the much celebrated Novgorod veche, where truth, in the words of Kliuchevsky, was born in the course of bloody brawls. But how did it happen that from far back the people's consciousness has been divided into two halves, as described by Berdyaev, one apocalyptic, the other nihilistic, that devour each other, the country, government and reason? And why are we so convinced that God's punishment is not applied for the purpose of destroying corrupted material? Where does this optimism come from?

It will soon be 100 years since From the Depths was written. We still do not know the causes of what happened in the past, and what awaits us tomorrow. We can only guess about terrible things. The situation may be similar to what happened in South Africa. When the government of the accursed Whites (11% of the population) ended, and a new order came into being, government coalesced with the brutal instincts of the people, and apartheid remained in history, a terrible but a lesser evil…

Greetings, Africa!

As before, we continue to write from the black depths.