Nicholas Berdyaev (1874–1948)
Nicholas (Nicholai Aleksandrovich) Berdyaev was born in 1874 in the province of Kiev to a wealthy and highly privileged family. Like so many young men of aristocratic upbringing in nineteenth-century Russia, he was sent to military academy, which he intensely disliked. He found his way to the University of Kiev, where he took up philosophy, despite the fact that he was supposed to study the natural sciences. In his posthumously published autobiographical essay Dream and Reality (1949),1 Berdyaev writes, “My revolutionary and socialist sympathies and convictions had crystallized before I entered the University.”2 It was at the university, however, that Berdyaev began to associate with socialists and Marxists. He embraced radicalism from profound “ethical considerations”3 regarding the plight of the poor and the working class under a political and economic order that he thought to be oppressive and corrupted. Because of these views and activities, Berdyaev was expelled from the university, arrested, and in 1898 sent into exile to the Volgoda region of northern Russia. Through the influence and interventions of his family, however, he spent just two and a half years there. Nevertheless, this experience left a strong and lasting impression on his thinking, as Berdyaev drew ever more resolutely toward radical socialism.
Kant and other German idealists, together with Berdyaev's Christian upbringing, tempered his attraction to Marxism from the start. In his introduction to Slavery and Freedom (1939), he explains, “I have never been an orthodox Marxist. I have never been a materialist and even in my Marxist period I was an idealist in philosophy. I tried to combine my idealism in philosophy with Marxism in social questions. I based my socialism upon an idealist foundation.”4 Berdyaev also detected very early the totalitarian proclivities and potentialities of Marxism. In radical circles he doggedly defended the reality and priority of freedom, goodness, and truth against