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Ideas of Progress at Turn of the Century Russia: S. N. Bulgakov


Alexandra Medzibrodszky


PhD student

Central European University, Budapest, Hungary

Medzibrodszky_Alexandra @phd.ceu.edu


Abstract: The article highlights the significance of the discussions in Russian intellectual history on the nature of progress. The importance of the issue of progressis due to its close interconnectedness to other concerns of the Russian intelligentsia about modernization, Russian national identity and the meaning of history. S.N. Bulgakov’s ideas on progresspresent one puzzle of a – yet underresearched – larger picture of the ideas surrounding progressin a Russian context.

Keywords: progress, S.N. Bulgakov, Marxism, idealism, positivism, intelligentsia, intellectual history



While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible?

(Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov)



The idea of progress in Russia


Progress is a foreign word in Russian that entered the language during the reign of Peter the Great. Progress is a peculiar word as it invokes overlapping semantic fields: civilization, modernization, history, backwardness etc. All of these concepts had and have a central role in Russian intellectual and political discourse throughout the centuries as part of a discussion about Russia’s past, present and future. We tend



to think about progress as a profoundly Western European term, but its echo in other parts of the world, Russia included, might have been even more profound than in the West where it was born. As Andrzej Walicki phrased it, “[i]t is no exaggeration to say that in nineteenth-century Russian thought the idea of progress was even more central and pronounced than in West European or American thought of the Victorian Age.”1

There are several, overlapping reasons for Russia’s obsession with the idea of progress, Walicki identifies three main issues: Russia’s backwardness and the “deeply felt need of modernization”; the close connection of progress and “the question of national identity”; the intelligentsia’s interest in the “search for the meaning of history”.2 We can see that in all of these factors the “West” or “Europe” (as an entity in the imagination of Russians) served as a crucial relation point and, undoubtedly, these issues, to a certain extent, remained relevant until today. Behind these issues there is the looming shadow of the recurring question: where is Russia’s place? Europe or Asia? And what models of social and economic development should be followed?

The number of works specifically dealing with the history of progress in Russian context is relatively low. Western historiography produced such comprehensive works as The Idea of Progress by John B. Bury or the History of the Idea of Progress by Robert Nisbet which works attempted to look at the context and discourses this concept appeared in and the transitions it went through, but they focused on Western, mainly German, French and British intellectual history. There are two rare examples which explicitly deal with the idea of progress in Russian history, both of them were produced by German scholarship. The first one is an article published in the Historische Zeitschrift in 1996 by Christoph Schmidt with the title Aufstieg und Fall der Fortschrittsidee in Russland (The Rise and Fall of the Idea of Progress in Russia).3 Schmidt gives an interesting


1 Walicki, Andrzej, ”Russian Philosophers of the Silver Age as Critics of Marxism” In: Russian Thought after Communism: The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe, 1994. 81.

2 Ibid., 81-82.

3 Schmidt, Christoph, “Aufstieg und Fall der Fortschrittsidee in Russland.” Historische Zeitschrift, 1996, p. 1–30.



overview of the idea of progress from the appearance of the word until, roughly, to the birth of the Soviet Union. However, his discussion only scratches the surface4 and it does not emphasise the importance of this concept in Russian history; therefore, it can serve only as a solid starting point. Another researcher who devoted time to this topic is Reinhard Lauer, who as part of conference in 2001, Russische Begriffsgeschichte der Neuzeit (Russian Conceptual History of the Modern Times), dealt with the specific question of progressin Russian history. His article5 on the subject

differentiates four phases of the idea of progress within the broader history of Russia: 1) Enlightenment period: from Peter the Great to Alexander I; 2) The “revolutionary democrats”: second half of the 19th century; 3) The Modern “progress” discourse: from 1890 – 1914; 4) The Soviet doctrine of “progress”. The categorization is not indisputable, but potentially, for the time being, applicable to my discussion as a framework. My research focus will be more or less the third period.



S. N Bulgakov and the idea of progress


By presenting S.N. Bulgakov’s ideas about progress, admittedly, I present only a very small part of the whole story. The space limits of this article does not allow me to make even a draft of the main ideas in Russia about progress, the precedents to Bulgakov, but I believe it is worth to present his ideas without the larger, chronological context and to contribute with one puzzle to the picture of progress throughout Russian history. Bulgakov is a fascinating figure, as his life, similarly to Russia, was characterized by radical turning points: “from Marxism to idealism, from idealism to religious philosophy, from religious philosophy to the church proper and then to theology.”6 This path of turning points is peculiar to Bulgakov, but there was a general tendency among Russian intellectuals


4 For instance, he completely ignores S.N. Bulgakov’s ideas about progress.

5 Lauer, Reinhard. “Progress” – der russische Fortschritt.” In: Russische Begriffsgeschichte Der Neuzeit: Beiträge Zu Einem Forschungsdesiderat. Bausteine Zur Slavischen Philologie Und Kulturgeschichte, n.F., Bd. 50. Köln: Böhlau, 2006. 269-280.

6 Evtuhov, Catherine. The Cross and the Sickle: Sergei Bulgakov and the Fate of Russian Religious Philosophy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. 45.



in the beginning of the twentieth century to turn to idealism, for instance Nikolai Berdyaev is the most well-known such figure.

Bulgakov was born in a provincial priest family in 1870, in Livny (Orel province).7 After parish school, he entered the seminary in Orel and was supposed to continue with the family tradition and become a priest. However, as many of his contemporary seminarists, he lost his faith and quit the seminary. He finished his education in a secular gymnasium and in 1890 entered the Moscow University to study political economy and law. In the end of the century “Marxism became the dominant ideology of the Russian intelligentsia”8 and Bulgakov was also among its adherents. As a political economist, he wrote several works about Marxism, but for the purposes of our article it will be the criticism of Marxism in his works after the turn of the century that will be of greater relevance.

Bulgakov turned to idealism from Marxism in the beginning of the twentieth century. He, among other representatives of the Russian intelligentsia, felt that Marxism cannot give the answers to the “vexed questions” that were constantly hovering before the eyes of the Russian intelligentsia. These questions were deeply ethical and were aimed, for instance, at the meaning of human existence, the end’s of progress: “man asks and cannot not ask not only the how (как), but also the what, the why (почему) and the what for (зачем).”9 Obviously, this was also due to the fin de siècle atmosphere in other parts of Europe, in which nineteenth century’s heyday of positivism came to an end and intellectuals searched for ways to define the new man who emerged as a consequence of modernization. They felt the narrowness of the positivistic worldview as community was slowly transforming into society and new developments such as Einstein’s relativity theory or Freud’s ideas about the unconscious radically and irreversibly altered the world as they knew it. The individual and its place in society became a question of paramount importance. However, in the dominating Marxist framework, the individual was


7 See detailed biography in Evtuhov, The Cross and the Sickle. Also see autobiographical works by Bulgakov: С. Н. Булгаков: pro et contra. Том 1. Eds. by Игорь Евлампиев. Русский путь. Издательство Русского Христианского гуманитарного института, 2003. 63-158.

8 Walicki, Critics of Marxism, 83.

9 Булгаков, Сергей Николаевич. «Основные проблемы теории прогресса» In: От марксизма к идеализму: сборник статей, 1896-1903. Общественная польза, 1903. 115.



too insignificant, individuals were degraded to “mere algebraic signs or geometric figures”,10 for those who became interested in metaphysical questions – the Marxist framework had to be overcome.



Criticism of the theory of progress


Two works in particular show Bulgakov’s turn form Marxism to idealism at the turn of the century. One of them was originally a lecture delivered on 21 November 1901 at the university in Kiev under the title «Иван Карамазов, как философский тип» (Ivan Karamazov as a philosophical type) and which had an enormous success.11 The other one was a lengthy, theoretical article, «Основные проблемы теории прогресса» (Fundamental Problems of the Theory of Progress), published in the collection of the so called “idealist credo” of that period: «Проблемы идеализма» (Problems of Idealism). Apart from Sergei Bulgakov, other prominent contributors to the collection were for instance Nikolai Berdyaev, Semen Frank, Petr Struve. Pavel Novgorodtsev summarized the motivation and the aim of the collection in the foreword:

The contemporary turn to philosophy is not the fruit of a single theoretical curiosity: not abstract interests of the mind, but primarily complicated questions about life and a deep need for moral consciousness move forward the problems of the due moral ideals. But, addressing that school which does not want to know anything else apart from experience [опытные начала], we are convinced that they are not able to solve this important and for us dear question. We are searching for absolute commandments and principles…12


By reading these works, it becomes evident that when Bulgakov criticised the theory of progress – his target of criticism was Marxism. He


10 Mendel, Arthur P. Dilemmas of Progress in Tsarist Russia: Legal Marxism and Legal Populism. Harvard University Press, 1961. 51.

11 Evtuhov, The Cross and the Sickle, 49.

12 Манифесты русского идеализма: Проблемы идеализма, Вехи, Из глубины. М: Астрель, 2009. 20.



explicitly stated that though there might be other versions of the theory of progress, historically socialism “is the most important and, at least in our day, almost the only common theory of progress.”13 In fact, Bulgakov concluded at the end of his article in «Проблемы идеализма» that Marxism is the “most clear version of the theory or religion of progress”, though, he sees its strength not in its “scientific, but in its utopian elements, not in his science (наука) but in its faith (вера).”14 Bulgakov arrived at this conclusion after a thorough analysis of the theory of progress. Firstly, he looked at three commonly emphasised goals of the theory of progress (and pointed out their defects from his point of view): the growing happiness of humanity; the strive for perfection of humanity and the creation of conditions for the free development of the individual (личность).

Bulgakov identified as one of the possible goals of progress “the highest possible increase of happiness (счастие) among the highest possible number of people”. However, if we talk about the growth of happiness we have to be able to measure it somehow and this is exactly what is highly problematic: “it is not possible to find a unit to measure joy and sorrow”15, happiness is too individual for this statistic matters. Furthermore, the issue of happiness as a goal is connected to an even deeper and more comprehensive ethical problem: the justification of suffering in the present by constantly referring to the happiness of future generations:

The suffering of one generation is presented as a bridge to the happiness of others; one generation should suffer for some reason so that the other can be happy, they have to “manure the soil of the future harmony” by their sufferings, as Ivan Karamazov uttered it. But why does Ivan has to sacrifice himself for Peter’s future happiness and does not Ivan as a human individual, from that point of view, have also the right for happiness as future Peter?16


13 Булгаков, Сергей Николаевич. «Иван Карамазов, как философский тип» In: Булгаков, Сергей Николаевич. От марксизма к идеализму: сборник статей, 1896-1903. Общественная польза, 1904. 105.

14 Булгаков, Сергей Николаевич. «Основные проблемы теории прогресса» In: Булгаков, Сергей Николаевич. От марксизма к идеализму: сборник статей, 1896-1903. Общественная польза, 1904. 115.

15 Ibid., 132-3.

16 Ibid., 136.



To put it even more bluntly, Bulgakov adds that: ”[o]ur descendants are vampires, drinking our own blood”.

Bulgakov claims also that among the goals of progress in the positivist worldview we can find the constant and endless strive for perfection (усовершенствование) of humanity. Bulgakov explains that this goal of constant perfection presupposes “an ideal”. The strive for perfection is endless, therefore, it cannot be achieved “inductively, by experience”. In other words, claiming strive for perfection by humanity as one of the goals of progress steps out of the world of experience, of positivism, and enters the area of metaphysics.

The third commonly held goal of progress received similar criticism from Bulgakov. In his interpretation, the free development of the individual is equal to “Kant’s ethic about the autonomy of moral life, about the self-legitimacy (самозаконность) of will in choosing between good and evil.” He developed his argument by asking : “Is there some kind of a connection between causality (причинность) and necessity (долженствование) and between the corresponding principles of determinism (необходимость) and freedom (свобода) and which of them is the primary?”17 Bulgakov firmly believed that these questions will always be asked by humanity, it will be always the subject of its interest, these questions will not disappear and they can be addressed only by way of “metaphysical synthesis.” All in all, Bulgakov argued that all of the so called goals of progress cannot be interpreted within the narrow positivist framework, all of them is “knocking on the door of metaphysics”.18



Transforming the theory of progress – the metaphysics of history


Bulgakov continued his discussion with the issue of the meaning of history and progress. He claimed that the “first and foremost task” of the theory of progress is to show that “history has a sense” that it is “not only evolution, but it is also progress” and, thus, history becomes the “development of a higher reason which is transcendent and immanent


17 Ibid,. 139-140.

18 Ibid., 139.



to history at the same time.”19 He believed that it is right to posit this task and it is unavoidable for the philosophising mind which does not want “to see history as only a dead causal relationship.”20 However, the “philosophy of history” should be called the “metaphysics of history” as it can be tackled only within a metaphysical framework. Bulgakov wrote that the metaphysics of history expresses two problems: the problem of theodicy, i.e. “the possibility and the meaning of evil in history and in human life”; and the problem of the “basic substance of history, or of the task that is fulfilled by historical humanity.” History was in his interpretation the eternal fight of good and bad and the categorical imperative, the moral law within people impel us to always and everywhere want good, in other words this law orders us “to want progress”.21

He gives a concise summary of what the theory of progress means for him and it is worth quoting it in its entirety:

…the basic tenets of the theory of progress are the following : moral freedom of the human individual [человеческая личность] (freedom of will) as a condition for autonomous moral life; absolute value of the individual and ideal nature of the human soul capable of endless development and strive for perfection; absolute reason [разум], guiding the world and history; moral world order, or the realm of moral ends; good seen not only as a subjective idea, but also as an objective and powerful principle.22


Bulgakov’s conclusion is that these tenets are also a constitutive part of Christian theism and “the teaching about progress is really a specifically Christian doctrine”. Thus, the theory of progress is not discarded, but reinterpreted: the goals of progress are in fact outside of its positivist sphere of competence and its source of strength is not its scientific methods, but actually nothing less than a “religious faith, but a faith that is sneaking silently, clandestine”.23 As Evlampiev highlighted,


19 Ibid., 141.

20 Ibid., 142.

21 Ibid., 145-6.

22 Ibid., 147-8

23 Ibid., 128.



Bulgakov’s conclusion “does not “humiliate” the theory of progress, but, on the contrary, it allows it to become a truly important component of our life”24 or as Valliere pointed out Bulgakov “rejected faith in progress only to embrace a progressive Christian faith.”25



Ivan Karamazov as a Russian philosophical type


Sergei Bulgakov’s engagement with the idea of progress is also a good demonstration of the connection of the topic with the question of Russian national identity. In his lecture of Ivan Karamazov, he does not only interprets Ivan as a philosophical type, but as a truly Russian philosophical type and as a representative of the Russian intelligentsia: “Ivan is a Russian intelligent, from head to toe, his addiction with universal questions, his proclivity to protracted discussions, with [his] constant self-analysis, with his sore, tormented conscience.”26 Even more explicitly, in contrary to the German philosophical type, Faust, Ivan is “completely occupied but ethical problems” and indifferent “to other problems of philosophy, for instance, to the theory of knowledge.”27





S. N. Bulgakov’s criticism and reinterpretation of the theory of progress though constitutes only a small part of the rich discussions on progress from the turn of the century, it is a highly emblematic one and we find similar transitions from Marxism to idealism accompanied by similar – though not identical – “criticisms of other representatives of the reli-


24 Евлампиев, Игорь, «Религиозный идеализм С.Н. Булгакова: «за» и «против» In: С. Н. Булгаков: pro et contra. Том 1. Edited by Игорь Евлампиев. Русский путь. Издательство Русского Христианского гуманитарного института, 2003. 17.

25 Valliere, Paul. Modern Russian Theology: Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2000. 237.

26 Булгаков, От марксизма к идеализму, 109.

27 Ibid., 110.








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