Every high school student in Russia has learned—and perhaps memorized—some of the poems of Merezhkovsky. What these students may not have learned about him are his spiritual and religious perspectives. World Christian Broadcasting’s Senior Producer for Russian, Konstantin Chernuskenko, created this program segment to introduce KNLS listeners in Russia to a side of a familiar author that is not widely known.
Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky
1865 – 1941
(Written by Konstantin Chernushenko; translated into English by Igor Ponomarev)
Merezhkovsky is a complex and unique phenomenon of the Russian culture. He entered the world of literature by publishing a short poem in a magazine. In the early 20th century he became a famous writer both in Russia and Europe. His works were provoking and controversial. He wrote poems, novels and critical articles which were filled with historical material, his philosophical and religious thoughts. But he was neither a poet nor a novelist, a literary critic, a historian, theologian or a philosopher. Merezhkovsky did not fit any of those traditional definitions. Knowledge and faith in Merezhkovsky were connected with his human qualities and created a special atmosphere of cultural space around him. They formed his personality. Every person is a mystery. Merezhkovsky is a special mystery, one of its kind. “He had something in him that nobody else had,” wrote George Adamovich about Merezhkovsky, “Some kind of rattling, a distant echo of the unknown, a special talent that was difficult to determine.”
In his young years, when Merezhkovsky was already writing poems, his father, a fundamental man, decided to find out if his son really had a gift or if his writing was just a waste of ink and paper. He took young Dmitry to Dostoyevsky himself. This was shortly before Fyodor Mikhailovich’s death. Merezhkovsky was not even fifteen years old then. They went to Dostoyevsky’s apartment. Many copies of “Bothers Karamazov” were lying around in the hallways. Fyodor Mikhailovich appeared pale and with sore eyes. The trembling boy read him his poems. “Poor! Poor,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich, “To be able to write one must suffer. Suffer!”
“Well, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” said the father, “then it’s better he does not write at all as long as he does not have to suffer. Why would he need to?” But Dmitry Sergeyevich was destined to write a lot, and suffer a lot.
The formation of Merezhkovsky’s personality was influenced by Narodism. For him it was obvious that everyone should strive to get closer to the people, the carrier of the authentic faith in God, to serve it, using their talent, and to suffer for it. “It seems to me,” admitted Merezhkovsky in one of his letters to a close friend, “I can be elevated by suffering for the others. I need to get closer to the others. I need to reserve a place for the others in my soul.” Faith in the need of public service was so strong in the poet that after his graduation he wanted to “go to the people” and become a rural teacher. But soon his confidence gave way to skepticism. Disappointed by his own abilities, Merezhkovsky wrote:
And what will I give the people now?
It is full of holy faith;
And my sad soul
Does not believe in either happiness or freedom.
But the ideology of the Narodniki movement was full of utilitarianism – desire to find use in everything and hence determine the value of events. According to Merezhkovsky, this was the result of Kant’s ideas. Having divided the sphere of human knowledge and the sphere of mystery that lies beyond our knowledge, Kant contributed, on the one hand, to the progress of science and technology, and on the other hand, to the fact that science constantly invaded the area of the ideal and spiritual by bringing “special sober mood of laboratories, academic offices and medical clinics” into it, and by doing so vulgarized and damaged it. People began to measure religion, art, literature and philosophy by utilitarian values. In them as in science they only saw “the means to achieve the most happiness for the most people.”
In Russia the destruction of the concept of the ideal led to a spiritual crisis. Writers and poets, who pleased tastes of the crowd by describing the terrible plight of the people and tried to solve the burning problems of the day, corrupted the society with their works. Speaking of virtue, they turned it into banality. The younger generation of writers, according to Dmitry Sergeyevich, became tired of traditional society values, which only proclaimed “earthly truth, only social and economic truth, the truth that was separated from the truth of God.” This awakened the need for idealism and beauty in it.
God has always been an important part in the world picture of a Russian poet:
Facing down, disgruntled,
Hopeless, without wings,
In repentance, in tears –
We lie in ashes,
We don’t dare, we don’t wish,
We don’t believe and we don’t know,
And we don’t love anything.
God, bring us redemption,
Give us freedom and joy.
Oh, save us from weakness,
Give us wings, give us wings,
Wings of Your Spirit! (“Prayer about wings”)
Merezhkovsky looked at art as a “desperate cry of the human soul to God.” Human nature is dual: it combines good and evil, spirit and flesh. People try to get closer either to good or to evil, but because of their inner weakness they are unable to choose which path to take. Fate controls them. The end of every human life is determined by God and this end is the same for all, regardless of the chosen path.
Evil and good are the secret of the coffin.
Secret of life is two ways –
They both lead to the same destination,
It does not matter where to go.
Fear of death and the unknown, fear of what lies beyond our world, defines human life. We look for salvation and comfort in religion or science. Fear of death grows even bigger when people feel lonely. Loneliness follows them through love and communication with other people. This is the fate of all of us. For Merezhkovsky loneliness was equally the result of people’s desire for freedom and the crisis of modern (for him) society. He thought there was something broken in the communication process between people. Words lost their meaning and thus the deepest feelings of people remained unspoken.
Heart of a stranger is a different world
There is no path leading to it!
Even with a loving soul
We can not enter it.
On the eve of 19th and 20th centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church was in a crisis. Since the time of Peter the Great it was under a vigilant supervision of the temporal power. Regular government intervention in the affairs of the church led to the replacement of the spirit of freedom and creativity with a corrosive spirit of bureaucracy. The Church stopped developing and was drowning in formalism. Along with the state it fought against sectarianism and atheism. With the help of censorship it spoke out against the cultural life of society, slowing the development of literature, science and art. All this kept the intellectuals away from the church. Under the influence of materialistic ideas that were widespread in Russia in the second half of the 19th century, part of the educated society has lost faith in God, while the other part had nothing left to do but express their religious feelings outside the official church.
In 1901 D. Merezhkovsky and Z. Gippius founded the famous Religious- Philosophical Society that became a meeting place of secular intellectuals and clergy. Topics of the meetings, such as the role of Christianity in society, tasks of Christianity, religion and culture, possibility of further evolution of Christianity and others determined the direction of the religious seeking and striving in the beginning of the century. According to the aphoristic definition of Merezhkovsky himself, it was “the unity of two abysses” – the abyss of spirit and the abyss of flesh.” And this synthesis was looked at not only within a single individual human being. Proceeding from the philosophy of all-unity by V. Solovyov, the organizers of the gatherings interpreted the opposition of spirit and flesh very widely. Spirit is Church, flesh is society, spirit is culture, flesh is people, spirit is religion, flesh is earthly life. One can easily build other such “pairs.” Ultimately, Merezhkovsky, V. Rozanov, V. Ternavtsev, D. Filosofov and other active participants of the meetings tried to modernize Christianity. That’s one of the reasons their current was named the current of the “new religious conscience”. By the exercise of the will the members of the society sought to “transform weakness into power, to join faith with knowledge, thought with revelation, mind - with love.”
By founding the Religious-Philosophical society, Merezhkovsky and his colleagues wanted to help representatives of the church and intellectuals understand each other better. For the intellectuals the important question was: “Is the world, including space and the human world, part of Church Christianity, Christianity that is preached by the real historic church?” Modernists led by Merezhkovsky believed that by focusing on the questions of spirit, the church had turned away from people, stopped to be interested in their problems. It became bureaucratic and its development ceased. The only way to exit the crisis, they thought, was to bring the human and the church world together, to combine the social and the spiritual. They believed the church needed to develop a social- religious doctrine. Intellectuals and the church are two great forces with a big influence on the society. Intellectuals are staying away from the church when some of them are thirsty for faith, they move toward Christianity. Together with intellectuals, the church would be able to restore its lost power and have people come back. In its development the church should rely on its teachings and religious values and the creativity of each individual.
Merezhkovsky and Gippius sought to build a new religion on the basis of Orthodoxy. The reformers believed that religious creativity should be the foundation of a new Universal Church, which would bring all mankind together.
Dmitry Merezhkovsky developed a theory of “the Third Testament.” He identified three main stages in the history of mankind. Each of these three stages had a certain religious kingdom. The first stage was dominated by the religion that reflected the primary unconscious unity of God and Man. It was God the Father who first spoke about the meaning of truth, and people recorded his revelations in the Old Testament. At the second stage the mankind made a transition from the kingdom of God the Father to the kingdom of God the Son. Jesus Christ gave people the New Testament, in which He revealed the meaning of truth in more details than God the Father. The new stage of history led to identity approval of each person, whereas at the first stage only God was looked at as the Unified Absolute person. By the end of the 19th century, historic Christianity was exhausted. It did not meet the religious needs of the people anymore and therefore, according to Merezhkovsky, had to be overcome. Humanity, he said, is about to enter the New kingdom – kingdom of the Holy Spirit. The meaning of truth will be revealed to the mankind in the Third Testament. The revelations of God the Father and God the Son will come together. Thus, Merezhkovsky reduced the history of mankind to the history of religious life.
In his historical religious system, Merezhkovsky included paganism. He looked at it as a separate stage before Christianity was born. He said that the “transformed paganism was part of Christianity.” Paganism had revealed the truth about the Earth, that the truth was linked to flesh, while Christianity revealed the truth about heaven, the spiritual side of the truth. Spirit and flesh are opposite each other but they both are equally holy. The Church violated this balance. “The historic Christianity, according to Merezhkovsky, reinforced one of the two mystical poles of holiness: the negative pole at the expense of the positive one – holiness of spirit at the expense of holiness of flesh.” By trying to concentrate on the questions of spirit, the church became ascetic. It stepped away from the world and its problems. For Merezhkovsky, the historic evolution means a confrontation between pagan and Christian elements in an attempt to bring them together. In the end, he said, spirit and flesh will unite in the kingdom of the Holy Spirit when Catholicism and Orthodoxy merge and become the United Universal church. Synthesis of spirit and flesh will then result in “spiritual flesh.”
Here is what Father Alexander Men thinks about Merezhkovsky’s ideas: The truth about the Earth – that’s what was really good in Merezhkovsky’ work. Yes. And we (Christians and theologians) must honestly admit that he was right saying that for the last twenty centuries there have been frequent cases when Christians and the Church leaders did not pay enough attention to the problems of life, to the problems of this world. It is understandable and can be forgiven when one realizes that then people wanted to keep and develop their inner strength. They wanted to have spiritual power so that they could go into this world, but in the process of development they forgot what they were doing it for.
Christianity does not become secular. It does not become dead. There is always a way to accept, to transform, to spiritualize. Merezhkovsky thought that the synthesis, which is taking place in the history of the Church, which will continue to take place and which already took place through Christ, was not finished and would be completed in the so-called coming Third Testament. And today we say to him: No, the New Testament is the Eternal Testament. Neither the Church, nor the world, need the Third Testament. But Christianity still has the potential for sanctification, understanding and penetration into all areas of the world.
My friends, there is nothing beyond God. Beyond God there is only non-existence. Everything is connected with Him and everything is before His Face. Many hundreds of years B.C., the first commandment that the Lord gave to Abraham, our father, the father of all believers, was: “Walk before Me!” This is the foundation for Christian deeds, for Christian love in the family, for Christian education and for Christian art. “Walk before Me” – no matter what you do: chop wood, take care of sick or tell a funny story to your friends to lift up their spirit. Everything that is not a sin is done before God’s face. But… we should be thankful to those sincere people who wondered and suffered when they raised all these questions”.
Merezhkovsky’s literary heritage has many poetic gems of truly spiritual poetry. Among them is a unique and complete versification of the Book of Job. But there is one special poem that is like nothing else in the whole Russian literature. Simple, without any decadent after-taste, this is a poem about the most important, about the most beautiful, about the very essence of our life and about the One, before Whom we all should walk.
O my God, I thank You
That You let my eyes
See Your eternal temple,
The night, the waves and the dawn.
It does not matter that I’ll suffer –
I thank You for this moment,
For everything my heart felt,
For everything the stars are telling me…
I feel You everywhere,
In the quietness of the night
And in the farthest star.
In the depth of my soul I wanted God
But I did not believe yet.
My mind denied,
But my heart already felt You.
And You revealed Yourself to me.
You are the world, You are everything,
You are the sky and the water,
You are the voice of the storm,
You are the star…
While I live, I pray to You,
And I love you and,
When I die – I will be with You,
Like the stars with the morning dawn.
I want my life to be a loud praise to You.
For night and dawn, for life and death
I thank You (“God”)
NB: The translation of the script includes a basic translation of the poem fragments (no rhyming).