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Populism and Christianity

February 5, 2013

One passage from Sarah J. Young’s 6th lecture on Russian thought caught my eye:

Populism, moreover, rejected the Orthodox dimension that was central to Slavophile thinking; this was a secular doctrine of radicals who rejected traditions of church because (like Herzen) they saw it as an institution of authority that supported the state and therefore denied freedom to individuals.

516px-Merezhkovskiy_in_NNovgorodCompare this to Merezhkovskii, writing around 1915 (part of this essay was published in 1913 – I’m not sure about this exact passage):

Мы теперь уже знаем по точным исследованиям историческим (см. книгу Богучарского «Активное народничество 70-х годов»), что тогдашнее революционное народничество в своих высших точках было явлением религиозной совести — религиозной в самом подлинном, христианском смысле этого слова. «Крещен в православии, но православие отрицаю, хотя сущность учения Иисуса Христа признаю», — отвечал глава народовольцев Желябов на предложенный ему председателем суда в 1881 году вопрос о вероисповедании.

«Бог, это — правда, любовь, и я в этом смысле с чистою совестью говорю о Боге, в которого верю…» — слова другого вождя народовольцев, А. Д. Михайлова.

Это в них во всех было, хотя сами они об этом не знали, как не знает камень, что в нем таится огонь, пока не ударит железо.

We now know from precise historical research (see Bogucharskii’s book Active Populism of the 1870s) that the revolutionary populism of the time was at its peaks a phenomenon of religious conscience — religious in the most genuine, Christian sense of the word. “I was baptized in the Orthodox Church, but I reject Orthodoxy, though I acknowledge the essence of Jesus Christ’s teaching,” thus Zheliabov, the head of The People’s Will, answered a question about his religion posed to him by the presiding judge in 1881.

“God is truth, love, and in this sense I can speak with a clear conscience of a God in Whom I believe…” are the words of another People’s Will leader, A. D. Mikhailov.

They all did have this in them, though they didn’t know it themselves, as a stone doesn’t know fire is concealed in it until it strikes iron.

There’s not as much to reconcile here as I first thought: SJY emphasizes the Populists’ rejection of the church as institution, and Merezhkovskii insists that the Populists embrace a deinstitutionalized Christianity that’s compatible with their other beliefs. Still, it struck me as an interesting difference in frames: after 1917 the Populists seem like a link in a radical chain leading up to the October Revolution, while Merezhkovskii could see them instead as leading towards his contemporaries’ efforts to find a world view more satisfying than dry secular positivism or dry traditional Orthodoxy.

As always, the whole lecture, with much on Petr Lavrov, Nikolai K. Mikhailovskii, Bakunin, Nechaev, and others, is recommended!

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