ALMOST THERE | ISSUE FOUR
The quest for Divine Wisdom
The remarkable life of Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900)
Part Four: A look at some of the more personal aspects of Soloviev’s life.
Much of the scholarship on Vladimir Soloviev is devoted to his work as a philosopher, and rightly so, but it is Soloviev the man that has always fascinated me most. He was an indvidual of quite staggering contrasts: a profound and serious thinker who also had a mischievous, child-like, sometimes bawdy sense of humour; a man who was so obsessively devoted to his work that he led an ascetic, almost monastic existence, yet at the same time was capable of falling head over heels in love; a meek and humble man who was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in no matter the consequences. He was also a deeply generous and compassionate human being capable of giving literally his last penny to a stranger.
Sense of humour
For many of Soloviev’s friends his most endearing quality was his sense of humour. He was wont to see the funny side of most things, and particularly enjoyed making jokes at his own expense. He even wrote his own comic epitaph, a century before Spike Milligan:
Лежит на месте этом.
Сперва был философ.
А нынче стал шкелетом.
15 июня 1892
Here lies Vladimir Solovyoff,
A ‘thinker’, it is said.
He may have been a philosophe,
But now he’s just plain dead! ¹
15 June 1892
But for Soloviev a sense of humour was more than just one of life’s great pleasures. He believed it actually brought you closer to God.
He considered the ability to laugh to be a unique attribute of the human species and thus a reflection of our metaphysical nature. As such he assigned laughter a key role in his concept of bogochelovechestvo (‘Divine Humanity’). In his Lectures on Divine Humanity he asserted that the human race was the ‘uniting link between the divine and natural worlds’ and that human beings were constantly striving to interact with God. Laughter therefore, as a uniquely human gift, was an integral part of this process. He believed that from this it followed that the Divine Sophia, as prime mediator between the physcal and the divine worlds, must also be blessed with the ‘divinely human’ propensity for laughter.
Bearing this in mind it is hardly surprising to find that many of Soloviev’s Sophianic writings are suffused with humour. His narrative poem Three Meetings for example, which relates his own visionary encounters with Sophia, combines descriptions of deeply mystical experience with ironic observations and comic asides.
Some commentators have argued that the self-deprecating humour found in much of Soloviev’s philosophical works was a sort of defence mechanism used to anticipate and deflect hostile criticism. Whilst there may be an element of truth in this, I am inclined to believe that not taking himself too seriously was simply an integral part of his character.
Figure of controversy
Soloviev was a frank, honest and sometimes outspoken person. Such individuals were unlikely to prosper in the repressive atmosphere of late nineteenth century Russia, and this was certainly the case with Soloviev. In fact the forthright views he expressed publicly on a range of social and religious issues drew opprobrium from all sides of the political spectrum, not just the reactionary right. In an article written in the late 1880s he noted with some bitterness that over the years the press had accused him of being a number of absurdly contradictory things, attaching labels that could not possibly apply to the same individual: ‘rationalist’, ‘mystic’, ‘nihilist’, ‘Catholic’, ‘Protestant’, ‘Old Believer’,² ‘Jew’.
Soloviev in his forties
Given the nature of the Russian Empire at the time, it was inevitable that someone as outspoken as Soloviev, even though he was not a political animal, was one day going to fall foul of the authorities. That day came shortly after Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by members of the revolutionary group Narodnaya volya, ‘The People’s Will’ on 13 March 1881.
The key conspirators were soon rounded up by the police and immediately put on trial. Two days after their trial opened on 28 March, Soloviev was giving a public lecture entitled A Critique of Contemporary Education and the Crisis in the World Process. There was nothing particularly controversial about this
subject (public lectures had to be approved in advance by the
authorities in any case) but as he was bringing his talk to a close Soloviev made an appeal for the new tsar, Alexander III to show forgiveness towards his father’s killers and commute the widely expected death penalty to life imprisonment.
Pandemonium broke loose in the auditorium. People jeered, someone shouted ‘Traitor! Murderer!’ whilst the more radical elements in the audience roared their approval. In the end Soloviev was carried out of the building on the shoulders of a number of the students present, who then formed an escort to make sure he reached his lodgings safely. There was a furore in the press the following day and Soloviev was ordered by the authorities to write a statement explaining himself and submit it to the Governor of St Petersburg’s office. He also felt it best to resign his post at the Committee of Education, though he was not, contrary to many accounts of the incident, obliged to do so.
Despite this chastening experience Soloviev continued to stand up for what he believed in. In the early 1890s this led to the publication of his writings being banned for a period and he was even forbidden to speak in public. He found such constraints irksome, not least because they stifled his ability to earn a living, but he carried on regardless and published his work abroad whenever he could.
Affairs of the heart
From the of accounts of Soloviev’s life I have seen it appears that the Divine Sophia was not the only ‘beautiful lady’ to have captured the philosopher’s heart. He himself admitted to having fallen deeply and passionately in love on a number of occasions, though sadly none of the objects of his affections seemed to have reciprocated his feelings. That is not to say Soloviev’s love life was a series of unalloyed tragedies: he always seems to have inspired genuine affection and respect in the women he fell for, as the following accounts demonstrate.
In 1877 he met and fell in love with Sophia Petrovna Khitrovo. Sophia Petrovna was married and did not return his love, but there was no animosity involved and the two were to remain lifelong friends. He would often spend summers at her country estate at Pustyn’ka and she was one of those present at Soloviev’s deathbed. Soloviev’s relationship with another Sophia, Sophia Mikhailovna Martynova, whom he met in 1891 is also interesting. Again it appears that she did not share her admirer's feelings, but the pair still enjoyed a close relationship. Soloviev even wrote her a number of love poems. These are touching, if a little strange, and have a strong underlying mysticism that was to greatly impress the second generation Symbolists. The following is an illustrative example:³
Милый друг, не верю я нисколько
Ни словам твоим, ни чувствам, ни глазам,
И себе не верю, верю только
В высоте сияющим звездам.
Эти звезды мне стезею млечной
Насылают верные мечты
И растят в пустыне бесконечной
Для меня нездешние цветы.
И меж тех цветов, в том вечном лете,
Серебром лазурным облита,
Как прекрасна ты, и в звездном свете
Как любовь свободна и чиста!
My Darling, I don’t believe anything you say,
Not the look in your eyes, not even your feelings.
I don’t even believe myself,
I only believe the stars that shine up above.
These stars send me faithful dreams
Across the Milky Way,
And in the boundless wilderness,
Flowers from other worlds bloom just for me.
And amongst those flowers, in that eternal summer,
Bathed in a silvery azure glow,
How beautiful you are!
And in the starlight our love is innocent and carefree!
¹ This mock epitaph continues in much the same vein for another 10 lines. Spike Milligan's epitaph, which unlike Soloviev's appears on his headstone, reads: I told you I was ill.
² Old Believers (more accurately Old Ritualists) were Orthodox christians who refused to accept reforms brought in by the Church hierarchy in the 17th century.
³ The poem found in Part One of The Quest for Divine Wisdom is also taken from this cycle of poems.
* There is a short but lively biographical sketch of Anna Shmidt in Catherine Evtuhov's Portrait of a Russian Province: Economy, Society, and Civilization in Nineteenth Century Nizhni Novgorod, pages 128-131.
** See the introduction to Part One of The Quest for Divine Wisdom.
But perhaps the woman whose personality was best suited to Soloviev’s own was the colourful and somewhat eccentric journalist Anna Nikolaevna Shmidt, who got in touch with Soloviev in what was to be the final year of his life and offered herself to him as the incarnation of the Divine Sophia!* There is no evidence their relationship went beyond a meeting of sympathetic minds, though the pair did engage in a lively correspondence.
When I first came across the name Vladimir Soloviev all those years ago** I was intrigued to read that he had ‘died of general exhaustion’ aged just forty-seven. More recent reading has allowed me to add a little more detail.
On 14 July 1900 whilst in Moscow, Soloviev was overtaken by a sudden illness. He asked to be taken to the nearby estate of his close friend Prince Sergei Trubetskoi. Doctors were summoned and found their patient to be in a serious condition, diagnosing malnutrition, exhaustion, advanced sclerosis of the arteries and cirrhosis of the liver. The years of poor diet, skipped meals, over work and nervous exhaustion had finally taken their toll. Despite the doctors’ best efforts, Soloviev grew steadily weaker and died on 31 July 1900. He was laid to rest in Moscow’s Novodevich'e cemetery, beside the graves of his beloved father and grandfather.