ALMOST THERE | ISSUE TWO
The Quest for Divine Wisdom
The remarkable life of Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900)
Part Two: Student days, travel abroad and further visions.
Soloviev’s time as a student, like so much of his life, could hardly be said to have followed a conventional course. In 1869 he enrolled at Moscow University’s Faculty of History and Philology, no doubt with strong encouragement from his father, but soon had second thoughts. The new student had, like so many of his generation, fallen under the sway of the positive and utilitarian ideas sweeping through Russia at the time* and decided to move instead to the more ‘materialist’ Faculty of Physics and Mathematics. Nothing too remarkable there perhaps, except that after nearly three years of study Soloviev withdrew from the course and sought permission to take his final examinations at his former faculty. He was accepted and in June 1873 graduated with an honours degree in a subject he had never officially studied!
writing) but his ardour cooled once he began to see through the tricks of the more obviously fraudulent mediums. In a letter to a friend he described the antics of one such fraud:
‘I was at a séance of the famous Williams and found that he was a kind of cheap magician, more insolent than clever. He produced the Egyptian darkness, but performed no other miracles. When a bell, flying through the
darkness lighted upon my head, along with it I grasped a hand, the owner of which was certainly no spirit. John
King appeared, who looked as much like a spirit as I resemble an elephant.’**
In the meantime summer was turning to autumn. Soloviev’s studies continued unabated but he was growing homesick and he wrote to his parents, informing them intended to return to Russia the following summer. He did indeed return home as promised, but not before a dramatic turn of events caused him to completely rethink his travel plans.
It all began mundanely enough. Soloviev was sitting in the British Museum reading room one afternoon as usual. His mind began to wander from his studies and drifted back to his childhood vision of Sophia. He reflected, with some bitterness, that she had never deigned to visit him again since that fateful day. At that very moment the whole room was flooded with a dazzling gold and azure light and once more the Divine Sophia appeared before him- but this time as a floating, disembodied head. In his narrative poem Three Meetings, Soloviev gives this bizarre scene a distinctly comic touch and relates how he chided the apparition for not appearing to him fully formed! Sophia seems to have ignored the rebuke; instead she commanded Soloviev to go and seek her in Egypt. A few weeks later he was on his way to Cairo.
When he got to Cairo Soloviev fell in with the Russian ex-pat community residing there and, much as he had in London, spent his days studying and his evenings attending séances. But all this was merely to pass the time whilst he waited for a sign from Sophia. The weeks went by and then, one night, the sign finally came. It was in the form of a whispered voice which said She awaited him in the desert.
Soloviev set off the very next day, ostensibly towards the Thebaid,¹ though it is doubtful he had any clear idea about where he was going. He was penniless, so could afford neither transport nor guide. He was hardly dressed for the occasion either, still rigged out in his London outfit of black overcoat, black gloves and top hat. Our intrepid wanderer had ventured about ten miles into the desert when he came across a young Bedouin. The boy ran away terrified, taking the tall, gaunt figure in black for some sort of jinni. He soon returned however, bringing other members of his tribe with him. The Bedouins promptly took Soloviev prisoner and hauled him off to their camp. He thought they were going to kill him and had to endure several agonising hours while the tribal elders discussed his fate. But in the end they led him back out of the camp and released him. Presumably they had concluded they were dealing with a madman rather than an emissary of Satan.
By now darkness was falling and Soloviev was forced to spend a freezing night out in the open with only the occasional howling jackal for company. But in the end these tribulations proved to be worthwhile for just as the new dawn was breaking a resplendent Sophia appeared for the third and final time. It was clearly an intense and moving experience, which he described in a poem written shortly afterwards:
Вся в лазури сегодня явилась
Предо мною царица моя-
Сердце сладким восторгом забилось,
И в лучах восходящего дня
Тихим светом душа засветилась,
А вдали, догорая, дымилось
Злое пламя земного огня.
Конец ноября 1875, Kаир
Soloviev left Cairo in March 1876, but he did not go straight back to Russia, opting instead to spend a couple of months in Italy and France. His purpose was to complete The Sophia, a philosophical treatise he had begun in London. This complex, fragmented, multi-genre work was to remain unfinished and unpublished,² but its significance should not be underestimated: it was Soloviev’s first serious attempt to set out the main tenets of his philosophical worldview. A worldview informed and inspired in no small part by his recent visions of Divine Sophia.
Today my Queen appeared before me
All bathed in azure.
My heart beat with sweet delight,
And in the rays of the breaking day
My soul began to glow with a quiet light.
While in the distance, smoking, smouldering,
The fierce embers of an earthly fire.
Cairo, end of November 1875.
* The radicalisation of the so-called ‘Generation of the ’60’s’ is memorably portrayed in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. Soloviev himself did not subscribe to such views for long.
** Letter quoted in Vladimir Soloviev, Russian Mystic by Paul Marshall Allen, p. 75. ‘Williams’ is almost certainly Charles Williams, one of the most celebrated mediums of the day. John King was a so-called ‘spirit control’ who appeared at many a Victorian séance. Incidentally, there are a number of good books on Victorian spiritualism for those minded to explore the subject further. Antonio Melechi’s Servants of the Supernatural is an excellent introductory survey. I have been unable to shed any light on the ‘Egyptian darkness’.
¹ a region of Egypt that was significant in the development of early Christian monasticism.
² In fact The Sophia was not published in full until the 1970’s. The first Russian translation (the original being in French) did not appear until the 1990’s.
At the end of the following year Soloviev successfully defended his Master’s thesis and took up a teaching position at the University of Moscow. But any possible thoughts of a stable academic career proved to be short-lived, because in June 1875 he applied for permission to go to Great Britain in order to study, as he put it, ‘Indian, Gnostic and medieval philosophy.’ Once in London Soloviev found digs in Bloomsbury and began to consult the collection of rare esoteric and philosophical texts housed in the reading room of the nearby British Museum. Study was not his only reason for being in England however. At that time London was considered to be the world capital of spiritualism and Soloviev threw himself whole-heartedly into the ‘table-rapping’ scene, regularly attending séances, public lectures and other events. He started off as an enthusiastic and open-minded participant (even engaging in bouts of automatic
A rough translation:
V. S. Soloviev as a young man.