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Nicolas Berdyaev

Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev was a Russian religious and political philosopher, 1874-1948.

Nicolas Berdyaev was born in Kiev on 6 March 1874 into an aristocratic military family. He spent a solitary childhood at home, where his father's library allowed him to read widely. He read Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Kant when only fourteen years old and excelled at languages.

Nikolai Alexandrovich decided on an intellectual career and entered the University of Kiev in 1894. This was a time of revolutionary fervor among the students and the intelligentsia. Berdyaev became a Marxist and in 1898 was arrested in a student demonstration and expelled from the University. Later his involvement in illegal activities led to three years of internal exile in central Russia – a mild sentence compared to that faced by many other revolutionaries.

Berdyaev married Lydia Trusheff in 1904 and the pair remained deeply committed to each other until her death in 1945. They moved to St. Petersburg, the Russian capital and centre of intellectual and revolutionary activity. Berdyaev participated fully in intellectual and spiritual debate, eventually departing from radical Marxism to focus his attention on philosophy and spirituality.

Berdyaev was a believing Christian, but was often critical of the institutional church. A fiery 1913 article criticising the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church caused him to be charged with blasphemy, the punishment for which was exile to Siberia for life. The World War and the Bolshevik revolution prevented the matter coming to trial.

Berdyaev could not accept the Bolshevik regime, because of its authoritarianism and the domination of the state over the freedom of the individual. Yet, he accepted the hardships of the revolutionary period, as he was permitted for the time being to continue to lecture and write.

In 1922, the Bolshevik government expelled some 160 prominent intellectuals, Berdyaev among them. Overall, they were supporters neither of the Czarist régime nor of the Bolsheviks, preferring less autocratic forms of government. They included those who argued for personal liberty, spiritual development, Christian ethics, and a pathway informed by reason and guided by faith.

At first Berdyaev and other émigrés went to Berlin, but economic and political conditions in Germany caused him and his wife to move to Paris in 1923. There he founded an Academy, taught, lectured, and wrote, working for an exchange of ideas with the French intellectual community.

During the German occupation of France, Berdyaev continued to write books that were published after the war - some after his death. In years that he spent in France, Berdyaev wrote fifteen books, including most of his most important works. He died at his writing desk in his home in Clamart, near Paris, in March 1948.

Sources: N. Berdyaev. Dream and reality: An essay in autobiography. Bles, London, 1950. M. A. Vallon. An apostle of freedom: Life and teachings of Nicolas Berdyaev. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960.

See also: This site contains bibliographical information and many English translations of Berdyaev's articles.