Mikhail Agursky – The ordeal of a Jewish Catholic Bolshevik. Ivan Knizhnik-Vetrov (1878-1965) [1990]

Ivan Knizhnik-Vetrov

[Originally published in Orientalia Christiana Periodica, Volume 56, 1990]

Ivan Sergeevich Knizhnik-Vetrov was born to a poor Jewish family in the Kherson province in 1878.

At least in two Soviet sources his real name is indicated as Israil’ Solomonovich Blank (1). Knizhnik protested in 1957 against the assignment to him of the name Blank, claiming that he had only used aa passport in that name in 1904-1909. He had made the same claim in 1922 (2).

Left to right: Robert Petit, Pierre Pascal, Jacques Sadoul and Marcel Body (Russia, 1922)

Pierre Pascal, who met Knizhnik in 1917, noted in his diary (3):

His name is Knizhnik. This is no doubt a pseudonym (Kniga means “book”) or rather a sobriquet, but inherited [italics added: — M.A.]. In fact, his father was a Jew who made his living as a scribe.

But according to his private Archive Knizhnik’s originał name was Khaimovich (4). It was his father who adopted the name Knizhnik.

However the survey of Soviet private archives published in 1962 (5) still lists him as originally Blank (after Knizhnik’s protest) (6).

His second pen-name, Vetrov, was adopted by him in 1897 when the so-called “Vetrov demonstrations” were organized by students to commemorate the Petersburg student Maria Vetrova who bumed herself to death in the Petropavlovsk prison (7).


From childhood Knizhnik found himself at the junction of two very different worlds. Pascal wrote in his diary about Knizhnik’s father (8):

This modest artisan from the Kherson province read the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud like a rabbi and was regarded as such by all the neighbors. Russians of different sects, of which there are many in this region, came to visit him. They stayed in his court sometimes for days and nights, waiting for him to finish his work. Then would begin endless theological, moral and casuist discussions.

This is the milieu which Knizhnik left in his youth. He succeeded in entering Kiev University. A penniless student, he gave private lessons and found a generous Jewish patron, the prominent Kiev lawyer, Alexander Goldenweizer, who recommended Knizhnik to other rich people in need of a tutor (9). Goldenweizer was a Tolstoyan, who delivered a lecture in Kiev after Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” was published, demanding the abolition of punishment by the law and claiming in the spirit of Tolstoy that crime itself was already a punishment (10). The young and impressionable Knizhnik could not help but succumb to such an influence. Another lasting personal influence on Knizhnik was the Russian philosopher Sergei Bulgakov, who had taught in Kiev since 1901 (11).

Knizhnik’s first publication was a review of the famous collection Problems of Idealism at the end of 1902 (12), which professed philosophical idealism (Bulgakov was a contributor to the collection). However, Knizhnik was influenced not only by philosophical or religious doctrines: as a young radical, he had to choose between Marxism and populism.

Since 1901 Knizhnik had chaired a Marxist student circle frequented also by Dmitrii Bogrov, the future assassin of Petr Stolypin (13). However, not Marx but Herzen and Lavrov took hołd of Knizhnik’s imagination, and it is not hard to understand why. Bulgakov had in the past been a Marxist, and had come to philosophical idealism as a result of his retreat from Marxism. Why should Knizhnik return to Marx, whom Bulgakov had left?

With regard to Herzen and Lavrov, it can be noted that the young Knizhnik as an erudite intełłigent found himself attracted naturally enough to those representatives par excellence of the intellectual trend in Russian revolutionary socialism. No less attractive to him was the fact that Lavrov differed greatly from the Marxists and Bakunists by reason of his accent on ethics in socialism. He represented a moralist trend in Russian socialism: he saw struggle and violence as necessary but repellent and temporary features of the socialist revolution. Lavrov never made his political method one of moral relativism or Machiavellianism.

Like many Jewish populists of the time, Knizhnik completely identified himself with the Russian people. His first booklet was an analysis of Gorky’s drama, “Lower Depths”. It already carried the mark of philosophical idealism: he said, for example, that the goal of religion and philosophy was the awakening of the people to consciousness and to the rejection of the “natural course of things” (14). He anticipated the time when people would realize that only one kind of religion would die out — ritualistic religion. Meanwhile, he claimed that the central conflict marking contemporary life was that between capital and labor, the basic, although not the only, evil of life being manifested in economics and social disorder. “Our life”, said Knizhnik, “depends also on transcendental and irrational elements”. He claimed that this was Gorky’s view too.


In 1902 Knizhnik was arrested and expelled from the university; in 1904 he left for Paris (15) where he immediately became involved in Russian emigrant revolutionary activity. He was present at the public debate between Lenin and Petr Struve. It was Struve who gave him a book by the leading Russian anarchist, Petr Kropotkin, which brought Knizhnik to the anarchists, although he did not identify with Kropotkin completely.

With Kropotkin, so for him, revolution meant the salvation of all humanity, not only of one class. He also absorbed from Kropotkin such ideas as federalism uniting different nationalities, the combination of physical and mental work, and so on.

But he differed from his fellow-anarchists on several crucial points. First, he always stressed the importance of religion as a fundamental aspect of human life. Paul Avrich explains this fact exclusively in terms of Tolstoy’s influence: according to Avrich, Knizhnik had “strong Tolstoyan leanings” (16). This is true, but not the entire story. Knizhnik professed the idea of revolution, albeit a revolution without terror. This was not Tolstoyanism, which professed quietism and non-resistance, but Knizhnik’s own syncretism, which only partly integrated Tolstoy’s teachings.

Actually, the idea of bringing together religion and revolution did not originate with Knizhnik. It was a part of the new radical trend among the Russian intelligentsia. For the sources of this trend one should look primarily to the mystical philosophy of Vladimir Solov’ev. In 1890 Solov’ev had said that God blesses not those conservatives who profess faith, but those who profess not to believe in God but who fight for progress and social justice. This seemingly strange claim was in fact taken by him from world mystical tradition and especially from the mysticism of Jacob Boehme, who taught that theomachy might also be a providential way of human salvation (17).

Certainly Russian liberals enthusiastically welcomed Solov’ev’s libertarian theology. On the other side it supplied powerful justification to those mystics who wanted to cooperate with the revolutionaries in spite of their atheism. From this point of view the atheists Lavrov or Kropotkin were better partners for a revolutionary-minded mystic than any priest or bishop with a conservative Outlook. The atheism of revolutionaries was regarded only as a providential way of bringing all humanity to salvation.

One of the first Russian mystics to arrive at the most radical conclusions in connection not only with the revolution but even with terror, was Dmitrii Merezhkovskii (18). Moreover, Merezhkovskii, as Bernice Rosenthal has said, “never forswore violence, and supported the terrorist Social Revolutionaries”. However, Knizhnik never approved of terror.

Another of Knizhnik’s peculiarities was his Lavrovian brand of populism. Anarchism as a movement tended toward extreme internationalism: even Kropotkin regarded himself as an internationalist par excellence. However, young Knizhnik saw himself first of all as a part of the Russian people, as did many other revolutionary Jews. The majority of his friends in Kiev and Geneva were anarchists which was very fashionable at that time among revolutionaries, and Knizhnik decided: “Anarchism is a Russian sickness. So we will all have to go through it” (19). (He did not notice, however, that the majority of his anarchist friends were Jews). Paul Avrich has demonstrated how anarchism became a most popular movement among Jewish radicals in the revolution of 1905. It was the most millenarian of the movements, since it promised the perfect society almost immediately.

From Lavrov, as already noted above, Knizhnik also adopted his emphasis on ethics as well as his staunch defense of the active intellectual minority, the intelligentsia, which had been vilified so much by Bakunin and his followers (20). These attitudes explain the very negative attitude to Bakunin which Knizhnik maintained all his life. Bakunin professed violence, he was anti-intellectual, he was a militant atheist.

But on the whole his was a variation of religious anarchism. In 1905 he began contributing to the anarchist press and in October 1906 he participated in a conference of anarchist-communists in London.

The conference appointed Knizhnik to the editorial board of Listki khleba i voli. It was then that Knizhnik met Kropotkin in person (21).

Kropotkin repeated his fundamental repudiation of religion while Knizhnik argued that religion and revolution were compatible. As examples he suggested the English revolution and medieval millenarian movements such as the Anabaptists and the Taborites, stressing the importance of Thomas Münzer [sic].

Knizhnik’s first anarchist booklet was published in St Petersburg in 1906 by a Tolstoyan publishing house. In the booklet he came out against Bakunin’s revolutionary tradition of immorality (although he did not mention Bakunin by name, he openly attacked Nechaev).

The issue of religion permeates his anarchist writing; he did his best to justify religion in revolution. He still treated religion in the framework of philosophical idealism, in a manner very close to Bulgakov’s above-mentioned article. Religion, he said, is a belief in some superior force, in a supra-mind which guarantees our final victory in spite of the visible triumph of evil in contemporary reality (22). According to him, the problem of religion “cannot be solved by a party. This is a problem of pure philosophy”. He believed that leading anarchists were actually attacking not religion as such but only established religions as well as an erroneous type of philosophical idealism. He said: “To oppose religion and philosophy on the premise that many religious reformers and outstanding philosophers advocated State oppression and the institution of private ownership of land and of the means of production, is as absurd as to oppose mathematics and economics because some mathematicians and economists were reactionaries”.

Knizhnik persistently condemned terror. According to him, the “transition to the [new order] should be made through revolution, but it should not be identified with assassinations and robbery” (23).

In another booklet published in 1907 he again made religion a central issue:

In a new society, science, art and religion will remain as they are now. . . Religion is a mystical belief which will always be present in humanity, in spite of what materialists might say (without, however, that external hierarchical apparatus which now serves in every religion to extinguish the mind and conscience). There is no harm whatsoever in pure religion: on the contrary, it includes strong personal consolation. However, all those superstitious constructions disguised as religion to be found in contemporary established religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and so on — these constructions should be uprooted from human belief.


At the same time he enjoyed close relationships with various religious radicals and revolutionary mystics (25). It was he who arranged the meeting between Kropotkin and Merezhkovskii’s circle at his apartment. He also introduced Merezhkovskii to his close friend, the Kiev anarchist Abram Grossman, who was killed soon after in Kiev. Through Savinkov, who was a close friend of Merezhkovskii, Knizhnik was introduced to the famous Populist revolutionary, German Lopatin, a friend and disciple of Lavrov.

Interestingly, it was at that time that Merezhkovskii also began to profess Christian anarchy (26), in all probability due to some influence on Knizhnik’s part. Moreover, Merezhkovskii reconsidered his attitude to Tolstoy.

Merezhkovskii never acknowledged any influence on himself and he would certainly not have acknowledged that of a man such as Knizhnik; but it is evident here. (Bernice Rosenthal has referred to various complaints that Merezhkovskii was very eager to communicate with young authors in order to plagiarize their ideas (27).

It should be stressed that at this time, in 1906, another trend of religious anarchism emerged — the so-called mystical anarchism of Viacheslav Ivanov and Georgii Chulkov, the main feature of which was its elevation of art and love. It was more a mystical than a social doctrine (28).

Eventually Knizhnik came out against those types of religious anarchism, which, like that of Ivanov and Chulkov and, indeed, of Merezhkovskii, were Christian in form. Knizhnik condemned historical Christianity, which he claimed was not suited to humanity. “It is not religion that is needed for the implementation of the revolutionary aspirations of our time, but rather these aspirations should be realized first in order to make religion accessible to the people” (29).

Knizhnik passionately contested the view held by some anarchists that the intelligentsia should be the main target of the social revolution (30).

Like Kropotkin, Knizhnik rejected the very concept of class revolution. He felt that the class interest was an idealistic and altruistic concept which had nothing to do with purely egoistic, pecuniary interests.

“The rich, the bourgeois are also human, and therefore they cannot be happy while even one man suffers”.

Knizhnik anticipated that on the day after the revolution a counter-revolution would break out among the proletarians similar to that in Vendee during the French Revolution, or to the pogroms carried out by the Russian Black Hundreds, who were proletarians or peasants. It would be the former capitalists, he prophesied, who would be sincerely devoted to the revolution. According to him, even the Black Hundreds or the police belong to the working class and join the forces which protect the capitalists only since they cannot otherwise make a living.

“The forthcoming revolution”, Knizhnik claimed, “will be the salvation of all humanity, not only of the working class” (31).


At that time Knizhnik was going through a serious personal crisis. It seems that some tragedy overtook his family life. Later he said that he had then “lost any interest in emigrant activity and decided to return to Russia illegally”. He also decided to abandon anarchism as a political movement (32). However, his articles continued to appear in the anarchist press until the autumn of 1908. Martin Miller, a biographer of Kropotkin, claims that Knizhnik abandoned anarchism for social democracy (33). But it was not social democracy that attracted Knizhnik, nor was it simply philosophical idealism or Tolstoyanism, but the established religion which he had fought before.

His religious frame of mind was strengthened as a result of his internal crisis. If before he had thought that the new religious consciousness would be an outcome of the social-economic revolution, he now decided that the “external political and economic revolution would result only from the spiritual regeneration of society”. He grew interested in radical religious ideas such as anthroposophy, Russian sectarianism, and theomachy (34), becoming a passionate revolutionary mystic who strongly believed that God constantly intervened in his life and others’ (35). A long-time admirer of Gorky, Knizhnik quickly reacted to his new God-building book, Confession, which produced much controversy. He published an article in September 1908 in a Moscow weekly edited by Evgenii Trubetskoi. The very fact of its publication by a prominent member of the Russian religious-philosophical community demonstrates Knizhnik’s high intellectual standing.

His criticism was twofold. On the one hand he welcomed the “deep God-searching of Gorky”. On the other, he did not accept the writer’s deification of the people, in spite of his populism. Gorky’s nature, Knizhnik claimed, “cannot be satisfied by cheap materialism, and if he now propounds some ordinary, superficial Solutions to spiritual problems, they are not characteristic of him”. He claimed that on one side Gorky was strongly dependent on Feuerbach who, according to Knizhnik, was the spiritual father of Russian social-democracy. On the other side, Gorky as an artist said something completely different from that which Gorky the Feuerbachian would like to think.

Knizhnik was actually wrong in seeing Gorky only as a Feuerbachian; he was unaware that Gorky was under the very strong influence of theosophy. However, Knizhnik was accurate in saying that Gorky by his very nature could not live without God.

Knizhnik the populist contested the deification of the people: the Union of the Russian People was also a part of the people. “An authentic set of contradictions in the Russian people leads not to a deified people but to a helpless nothing”. But this deification was only a transient event in Gorky’s creative life, claimed Knizhnik: “In Gorky’s heart there was, there is and there will never disappear the sensation of the real God, the ideal of Truth, Good and Beauty, whose breath brings to life all the best part of our souls” (36).

In 1909 Knizhnik illegally returned to Russia. Arrested three weeks after his arrival (37), he was exiled to Siberia, where he spent three years, during which time his intensive religious search precluded other activities.

According to his memoirs he already regarded himself as a Christian since 1909 being in prison but did not want to convert since such a conversion was for him a treason of Jews in face of anti-Semitism. After long hesitations being persuaded by Bulgakov, Berdiaev and others he was baptised in July 5, 1915 as a Catholic of the new Eastern (Russian) rite by the Father Gleb Verkhovskii at the apartment of the Father John Deubner (38). It seems that his conversion was informal; his papers still showed him as a Jew and his legal rights were not augmented. In 1917 he told Pascal that he “had grown fond very early of the Church of the Fathers, and especially of John Chrysostom because of his sermons on the rich and the poor, because of his condemnation of property, because of his prayers for communal life. He influenced him to convert. By doing so [he] contravened the Jewish law and particularly the commandment to honor one’s parents: had his father known, he would have cursed [him]”. However, Knizhnik added, sometimes it was necessary to disobey accepted morality in order to obey God. He was baptized in the name of his favorite saint, John Chrysostom (39).

In 1911, still in exile, Knizhnik suddenly emerged as a leading and well informed reviewer of new books, mostly religious and philosophical (40). He was persona grata as a contributor to the best Russian liberal and radical magazines.

By 1916 he had managed to publish several hundred review articles. He signed them not only “Knizhnik”, but also “Andrei Kratov” and several abbreviations. The scope of his erudition was extremely wide, but he preferred anonymity and did not look for prominence.

Knizhnik tended to be sympathetic towards Christian radicalism in whatever form it took. For example, he wrote very positively on anthroposophy, saying that “Steiner is probably the person destined to encourage most powerfully the emergence of Christianity as the foundation of all existing confessions and intellectual search ”(41). However, his attitude to non-Christian theosophy (Besant or Blavatskii) was very negative. He claimed that their “astral” dimension explained nothing: “Theosophy tries to interpret religion in the spirit of the new positivism, artificially. It is humiliating for religion, it is forbidden for philosophy”. One positive aspect of theosophy was that it contests primitive materialism. However, anything of value that can be found in non-Christian theosophy can be found in the treasury of pure religion and especially in Christianity. Knizhnik said that theosophy was popular among the intelligentsia, which is ignorant of the genuine teachings of Christianity (42).

In his philosophical articles, like Lavrov, Knizhnik clearly preferred Kantianism (43) but it is also clear that his favorite philosophers were now Henri Bergson and Vladimir Solov’ev. He considered Bergson the most outstanding philosopher of the day (44), stressing Bergson’s idea of God as a free creator, having created both matter and life and continuing his creative efforts through the evolution of the species and the shaping of human personalities. process. Solov’ev’s philosophy, he said, destroyed neither belief in progress nor the energy of human activity (45).

With regard to Solov’ev, Knizhnik said that the very essence of his philosophy was the concept of divino-humanity as a concept of human creativity and the beginning and end of the world historical process. Solov’ev’s philosophy, he said, destroyed neither belief in progress nor the energy of human activity (45).

Incidentally, in his wide range of review articles on Russian religious philosophy, Knizhnik very much appreciated Vasilii Rozanov (46).

One of Knizhnik’s main foci of interest was the Jewish problem. Interestingly, in spite of his Russian populism and conversion to Christianity, he tried to stress the relevance for him of the Jewish problem, although he did not stress his Jewish origin. The defense of Jews became a very important issue for him.

Knizhnik persistently defended Judaism against various allegations. For example, he wrote a very positive review of Rabbi Abraham Hein’s booklet, “Judaism and Blood”, published in refutation of the blood libel in the Beilis trial (47).,

Knizhnik attacked Russian antisemitism (48).

At the same time he was very critical of those who tried to ignore the fact that some Jews might convert to Christianity from sincere religious motivations. He referred very negatively to the chief rabbi of Moscow, Yakov Mazeh, who claimed that all conversions had a pragmatic background (49).


During the war he was enlisted in the army and served as a clerk in a reserve infantry regiment in the Novgorod province near Staraia Russa. From his own report it is clear that Knizhnik was kept in the army reserve. Later he complained that all Jewish soldiers were suspected of treason. No Jew could be promoted to officer; students of Jewish origin were kept in the rear, not sent to the front. “Jewish students were little use as soldiers to the army. They themselves felt burdened because of their ambivalent situation but could not change it” (50).

The February revolution was a brilliant hour for Knizhnik. During the first two days he composed several ebullient Christian libertarian pamphlets. The first was called, The Renovation of Russia and the New Duties of its Citizens; the second, The War Goals and Russian Objectives at the Forthcoming Peace Congress; the third, On the Necessity of the Social Transformation of Russia. They were dedicated to Herzen, Lavrov and Solov’ev.

In addition to his previous syncretism, Knizhnik now tried to combine not simply revolution and religion, but passionate Russian populism with Christian radicalism. He wrote:

Herzen and Lavrov taught belief in the greatness of spirit of the Russian people in spite of its ignorance and visible lack of culture. They also taught that socialism should be regarded as the ideał of any morally developed personality. Solov’ev taught the understanding of Christianity as the greatest ideal of freedom ans social justice and, what is the principal thing, to unite with the “unfaithful” in order to fight “pseudo-Christians”.

Knizhnik was in a prophetic mood. “Cross yourselves, Russians! Ali the people of Russia should thank God, each according to his belief: Christians, Moslems, Jews! A great event has happened!” (51).

One can note that Kropotkin’s name was conspicuously absent from the list of dedicatees. Moreover, Knizhnik did not call for the rejection of the State. Nevertheless his pamphlet was heavily dependent on many of Kropotkin’s ideas. Like Kropotkin, he was a defensist. He appealed for the defense of the Russian land “from the invasion of the proud, well organized enemy”. He rejected the idea of a separate peace with Germany (52).

Moreover, the war goals were Kropotkin’s: the liberation of small nations and the appeal to expel Turkey from Europe. The Russian empire should become a federation and a similar federative state should exist in the Balkans (53). This too was Kropotkin’s idea. As for his social program, Knizhnik called for the immediate implementation of socialism, likewise an anarchist slogan.

After completing his pamphlets Knizhnik gave them to the newly elected commander of his company, who approved them and gave Knizhnik leave to go to Petrograd to publish them.

It is not clear who financed Knizhnik, but his pamphlet was quickly published by his own publishing house “God and the People” under the name “Andrei Kratov” (a pen name which he had also used before the revolution).

Knizhnik’s leave from his company apparently became more or less permanent, since he lived in Petrograd during the year 1917. Meanwhile, he was elected a member of the Petrograd Soviet as a representative of the soldiers (54).

In April 1917 he wrote another popular pamphlet passionately defending Jewry. “Glory and honor belong to the Jewish people”, he wrote. “Without believing in the Christ they bore, they went through all Christian history persecuted outcasts like Christ Himself” (55). The booklet was dedicated to the Russian Orthodox priest Sergei Solov’ev, Vladimir Solov’ev’s nephew, well known as a close friend of both Blok and Bely (56)..

Sergei Solov’ev himself was very radical, and also preached the reunification of the churches. On the eve of the February revolution he had delivered an address on this subject at a meeting of the Petrograd Religious-Philosophical Society, extensively quoted by Knizhnik. In his pamphlet, Knizhnik suggested that Sergei Solov’ev should deliver a report on the subject to the Petrograd Soviet (57). In 1920 Solov’ev embraced Catholicism himself (58).

Knizhnik also violently attacked the official Russian Orthodox Church for its reactionary stand. Meanwhile, he stressed the importance of Russian religious philosophers like Solov’ev, Bulgakov, Berdiaev, Merezhkovskii, Viacheslav Ivanov (59). His radicalism cost him his relationship with Bulgakov, who was already preparing to become a priest. Their correspondence came to an end (60).


However, the internal dynamic of the time was bringing Knizhnik closer and closer to Bolshevism.

When Kropotkin returned to Russia in June 1917, Knizhnik met him. In their conversation Kropotkin sharply condemned the Bolsheviks: for him, the ideal of revolution was the Paris Commune. But Knizhnik already sympathized with the Bolsheviks (61).

On November 7, 1917, on the day of the October revolution, Knizhnik sent a letter to the new government which he signed “The Intellectual of the People”. (He seems to have maintained his anonymity as much as he could, and used this new pseudonym at least during that year). An abridged version of the letter was published after some delay in Pravda on November 28, 1917:

I am not a Bolshevik and I am not going to join the Bolshevik party. I am a Russian intellectual who suffers great pain for the working people, for the peasantry, for laborers and for all deprived people… I am a wellwisher of the working people as were the repentant nobility, Herzen, Lavrov, Kropotkin, Plekhanov, etc. […] though I come from a poor working family…

He appealed to the workers and peasants not to be confused at the newspaper war launched against them. He also demanded the liberation of all prisoners, including the ministers of the old regime (62). But this part of his letter was censored by Pravda, which supplied his anonymous letter with a footnote: “Pravda invites all those intellectuals who have emerged from the people, like the journalists of Nornia zhizn’ [Gorky’s newspaper:-M.A.] to pay most serious attention to this deeply interesting letter from a non-party intellectual of the people”.

Later Knizhnik wrote:

The fact that the Bolsheviks were atheists did not confuse me. Like Vladimir Solov’ev, I was deeply persuaded that Divine Providence might envisage that believers and even high ecclesiastical authorities could fulfill the cause of Satan, while pagans and non-believers might fulfill the cause of God. However, in contradiction to Solov’ev I thought that all the Christian world was set on the wrong path and that the genuine way for public life was pointed out only by socialists, though they were godless. . . I believed that the Russian people were charged with the duty to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth by reuniting the Christian faith with genuine Christian politics. 1 dreamed of the time when priests with banners would lead the workers’ revolutionary demonstrations. I dreamed of the time when all Christian churches would reunite and the representative of God on earth — the Pope — would become the leader of the Workers’ International.


Knizhnik evidently regarded his former anarchism as compatible with Bolschevism. He was not alone in this opinion. Many former anarchists joined the Bolsheviks.

None of them, however, tried to rationalize the decision as Knizhnik did.

On December 9, John Deubner introduced Knizhnik and his new wife to Pierre Pascal, who was a French liaison officer sent during the First World War to Russia to serve in the French military mission. A committed Catholic, Lieutenant Pascal also adopted a very radical millenarian standpoint deeply rooted in Christian Socialism, which has its origin in the teachings of Lamennais. It is no surprise, therefore, that Pascal fell in love not so much with the February, as with the Bolshevik, revolution. For him the Bolshevik revolution had a very deep, mystical Christian meaning, in spite of its overt anti-Christianity, atheism and violence. Pascal deeply believed that it was the religious duty of genuine Christians to participate actively in this revolution, to be both its salt and its yeast (64).

Pascal recorded his meeting with Knizhnik in his diary:

He doesn’t belong to any party; however, he praises the Bolsheviks for having toppled the idols of freedom and parliamentarianism. Freedom is usually exercised against the weak and the very freedom of the press is usually utilized by the bourgeoisie. Parliamentarianism is their deception.

Only local soviets are the expression of the masses. However, the main vice of Bolshevism and Socialism is their materialism. It is a vice which should be fought. Fortunately there are signs of alliance between Socialism and Christianity. Knizhnik passionately believes in such an alliance. Novaia zhizn’ wrote that the Pope approved of Socialism (according to Osservatore Romano). Trotsky would like to associate the Pope with the campaign for peace (according to Delo naroda). split between the Church and the bourgeois world was manifested by the secret treaty between Italy and the Entente in order not to admit the Pope into negotiations. . . He is full of belief in the revolution which should happen simultaneously both in Christianity and in Socialism. Ali capitalist countries are against them but they will not win. Bolshevism responds exactly to the necessity of the present time: Christian socialists are now only a handful; tomorrow they will be legion.

He is preparing another letter in which he demands that Sunday be observed. If the newspaper refuses it, he will publish it elsewhere. According to him he has 60,000 followers. He would also like to arrange conferences alone or under the auspices of “The Society for the Distribution of Russian Literature” in order to express his disagreement with Lunacharsky. The Russian people are religious and they will not permit atheism. . .

I admire his devotion, his convictions, his life given entirely to his idea, his attachement [sic] to people.


Pravda did not publish his new letter but instead printed a long column which he wrote under the previous pseudonym (Intellectual of the People) (66). Knizhnik criticized Korolenko’s article in a Socialist-Revolutionary newspaper in which he had condemned the Bolshevik suppression of civil rights. Knizhnik justified such acts, but also remarked that he did not approve the closure of any newspaper. (Pravda once again supplied Knizhnik’s article with a footnote which noted that the author was not a Bolshevik). Two weeks later Knizhnik published his second article in Pravda which was again signed with his pseudonym. The article was directed against Maxim Gorky, who was then very critical of the Bolsheviks (67). What is extremely interesting about this article is that it presented the Bolshevik revolution as a Russian popular, even national, revolution. Knizhnik dismissed Gorky’s charges of Bolshevik brutality and rejected his claims that the Bolsheviks exploited the most primitive part of the peasantry, which might well, according to Gorky, end up destroying culture and civilization in Russia.

(It is most intriguing that Lenin looked through this rather unorthodox article of Knizhnik’s edited and approved it (68).

Gorky immediately reacted to Knizhnik’s article (69):

Knizhnik replied to Gorky with another populist article, once again approved by Lenin before publication, though this time with some slight reservations (70). In his reply he maintained that “the difference between the peasants and the workers is not so fundamental as to make their interests in the Socialist Revolution incompatible”. However, he confessed that “the mob from the mean streets has stained the sacred cause of our Revolution with its lynching”

He stressed that there was now a “national socialist” revolution in Russia in the sense that it was a revolution of all the Russian people. This national revolution would develop in the future into an international revolution.

Knizhnik’s next two long columns were devoted to criticism of the leader of the right-wing Socialist-Revolutionaries, Victor Chernov, who condemned the dissolution by force of the Constituent Assembly, which he had chaired for several hours (71).

“When Chemov fought the autocracy”, Knizhnik asked, “was he confused by the fact that his party was a minority?”

Knizhnik expressed his totally millenarian belief in the humanist character of the new Bolshevik system. His view was anarchistic; he believed that the republic of Soviets excluded any possibility of tyranny, Capital punishment, and long-term imprisonment. Revenging crime by the law would be replaced by moral reproach. The permanent army would be abolished. Knizhnik expected a new and rapid up-swing of the economy.

On February 10, 1918, Knizhnik, who had in the meantime become one of Pravda’s main columnists, published there a very important populist crypto-religious article, “The October Revolution as a New Cultural Age” under his previous pseudonym, “Intellectual of the People” (72). “There is no reason to treat the October Revolution”, said Knizhnik, “as something that contradicts culture”. He was referring to prominent legal authorities who claimed that the law was the demarcation of interests. The struggle for the material interests of the workers (an alias for the class struggle, which as we know Knizhnik did not recognize) is a profound cultural phenomenon.

Knizhnik claimed that culture can only gain in quality. But then in the same article he resorted to a religious sermon — in Pravda! He said:

In the great words of the prophet Ezekiel: “Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and I will put an end to their feeding the sheep; nor shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be food for them. For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will both search my sheep, and seek them out… And they shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beast of the land devour them; but they shall dwell in safety, and none shall make them afraid. And I will raise up for them a plantation for renown, and they shall be no more consumed with hunger in the land, nor suffer any more the insult of the nations” (Eze. 34,9-10, 28-30).

Ali cultural workers — scientists, lawyers, moralists, professors, priests, poets, writers, artists, actors, and so on — they are all shepherds of the people and if these shepherds are now against the people, they should be put down by the people as bad shepherds, whatever merits they have.

Knizhnik referred very positively to Blok’s article, “Revolution and the Intelligentsia”, where the same view on culture was expressed.

Most extraordinarily, on February 17, 1918, Knizhnik was appointed head of that section in Pravda which was termed “The October Revolution and Culture” (73). At this time he was a practicing Catholic and not a party member.

His editorial work, however, lasted for only five weeks: Pravda moved to Moscow during the German thrust towards Petrograd, while Knizhnik remained behind.

After the cessation of his work as an editor of Pravda, Knizhnik continued contributing columns to the paper under his familiar pseudonym. During the sharp debate over the Brest-Litovsk treaty Knizhnik once again published two very long and highly nationalist columns in the paper, declaring, for example (74):

My pain is the pain of Russia whose body and soul are tormented… The Brest-Litovsk treaty is concluded but there is no peace for you, my mother Russia… Your grief is enormous, Russia, your false friends turned out to be worse that enemies.

… You, People-Martyr, are robbed by Germany. Now all the Allies are going to rob you…

However, your external enemy will not triumph for long. It will soon perish…

Tremble, Germany, who has become a gendarme of revolutionary Russia!… Imperial Germany dealt you, my People-Martyr, a most cruel blow. Rebellious and liberated Germany will deliver to you, my People-Martyr, the greatest joy.

Three weeks after this, Knizhnik printed in Pravda another column, again under the same pseudonym (75). This time he argued with various anti-Bolsheviks, once more dismissing accusations against the Russian people of brutality and cruelty:

Out less cultured people have manifested a more correct intuition towards the war than other more cultured nations. Healthy instincts are developed more strongly among those nations which have not been suppressed by culture.

All facts of brutality and cruelty presented by the enemies of the Soviet regime as a decisive argument against it are simply trifles in comparison with all the terrible crimes from which the Soviet regime saves the majority of people…

The salvation of Russia is now only in the patient awaiting of the total end of war.

At the end of his very long article Knizhnik resurrected, surprisingly, Herzen’s Slavophile dream — a stance rather conspicuous on the pages of Pravda. “Soviet Russia”, he wrote, “is now the leader in moral and legal progress. Now Soviet Russia revives Herzen’s accusation that all Europe is in chains”. He was explicitly referring to Herzen’s famous letter to Michelet (1851) and stressing the Bolshevik heritage from Herzen, Bakunin, Lavrov, and Chemyshevsky.

All this, we emphasize, was printed in Pravda with Lenin’s specific approval.

The relationship between Pascal and Knizhnik was not limited to their meeting in December. Later, Knizhnik emphasized the fact of his friendship with Pascal (76). However, we have only one piece of documentary evidence of this relationship — Knizhnik’s letter to Pascal dated May 7, 1918, which is evidence that Knizhnik was still a practicing Catholic. In his letter, written on Easter, he says (77):

Christ is risen! Yesterday after mass I stayed for some time with my wife and son at Father John’s, and he gave me your letter. I am happy to get news from you. My wife and I greatly appreciate the expression of your regard, since we are friends and companions in the expectation of celestial Jerusalem.

However, I believe that no matter how tragic the situation in Russia now, no matter what cruel calamities strike her, the revolt against imperialism and the brigand capitalist system will not be made in vain. The sources of this revolt, unwittingly for the Bolsheviks, lie in Christianity, and although they are anti-Christian they work for the triumph of Christianity.

In this sense I already see the Bolsheviks as a torch for the contemporary world, and I am trying to help them.

I would like very much to ask you to give them to S. N. Bulgakov, who is very close to me as a Christian, but who is very far from me as a social conservative or a reformist of a meager caliber. What I write is penetrated by Christian ideas. However, I do not dare to appeal openly for the necessary alliance between the Christians and the Bolsheviks, since I don’t think the time for it has come yet.

Alexander Blok has long fascinated me, and 1 wrote about it in my article, “The October Revolution as a New Cultural Age”. I cannot avoid the impression, on reading Lenin’s speech (78), that he is retreating by inviting specialists and offering them high salaries, in spite of the fact that in doing so he has contemptuously thrown them a bone for the sake of Russia. His situation is indeed tragic. I often pray that God will come to aid him. It is true that even if he were to disappear his work and his thought would bring abundant fruits for the future struggle against our pseudo-Christian pseudo-civilization.

Many people have believed, both then and now, that the Bolsheviks attacked religion as such from the very beginning of their rule. It was not so. The Church, but not religion, was attacked in the first years of the new system, so the tolerance of Knizhnik’s radical Christianity was not due to some oversight. Sergei Solov’ev, to whom Knizhnik had dedicated one of his pamphlets printed after the February revolution, wrote in May, 1918 (79): “The Bolshevik press tries to attack only the Church. Our terrorists present themselves as admirers of Christ, who, they allege, has been distorted in the consciousness of the Church”. This was not anti-Christianity, Solov’ev argued, but pseudo-Christianity.


From Knizhnik’s letter, the only one we have, we have seen that Knizhnik asked Pascal to pass on his Pravda articles to Bulgakov. Bu\gakov had stopped writing to Knizhnik in July 1917. He had probably not read Knizhnik’s articles, and even had he done so, he would have been unaware that they had been written by Knizhnik.

Reading the article attentively, one can see that Knizhnik’s articles were indeed read by Bulgakov and, what is more, Knizhnik himself appears as “Refugee”, though in disguised form. First, the word “refugee” meant almost unambiguously “Jew” at the time. The Tsarist military authorities had expelled hundreds of thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews in the years 1914-1915 from the western areas to prevent alleged “Jewish espionage” for the Germans. During World War I, “refugee” was thus almost synonymous with “Jew”.

Bulgakov’s “Refugee” says:

The time, in the early stages of the war, when we were compelled to emigrate from Poland, somehow comes back to my mind.


The “Refugee” is also the only one of the participants in the discussion who raises the Jewish question exactly in Knizhnik’s sense. The “Refugee” says, for example:

There is some mysterious and absolutely surprising gravitation of Jewry to the Russian soul. It was felt in their own way by Solov’ev, even by Dostoevsky and now by Rozanov. This Wahherwandschaft is a very intimate but also a very important phenomenon.


One should stress again that the “Refugee” is not exactly Knizhnik, but it is he who verbalizes some of Knizhnik’s ideas. First of all, the “Refugee” is a populist. When the “Diplomat” says: “Truth will out: it is after all mankind who is rebelling, under a Bolshevik’s bestial semblance, against the universal cult of militarism”, the “Refugee” supports his view (82).

The “Refugee” sees “the seal of greatness of our people and of their spiritual superiority at least in their role; it is the only people in the world which has a universal consciousness alien to nationalism” (83).

The “Refugee”, like Knizhnik, also defends the Russian intelligentsia.

The intelligentsia longs for something that the Transfiguration alone can give, although they, in their blindness, seek it in the revolution. This longing is a national one. The intelligentsia are babes in swaddling clothes; they are still in a State of childish rebellion, and they do not know themselves. But without them Russia — I even say the Russian Church — will not be able to fulfill her mission.


The “Refugee” levels sharp criticism against the historical Russian Orthodox church, exactly as Knizhnik had done in the summer of 1917.

Speaking of Rasputin, the “Refugee” says that:

Rasputin was a point of concentration, a medium of activity of some mystical force… The Tsar strove, as according to Solov’ev’s plan he had to, towards a prophet of theocratic inspiration. Was it his fault that in response to his deeply-felt demand he met only a false prophet? Are not all people to blame here, and the entire historical Church with its high priests at its head?


According to the “Refugee”, contemporary Orthodoxy has the character of the Old Belief:

In spite of what you say, I hold that present day Orthodoxy flavours of the Old Beliefs and is deaf to many questions raised by life. I do not condemn Old Believers; on the contrary, I think that in certain points the Church ought to be more like them, bound by her tradition that holds everything equally important — in principle the Old Believers are right there. But Orthodoxy is a militant, historical and lasting creed, and the Old Belief would be but a compulsory halt in it


With Knizhnik, the “Refugee” appeals for the reunification of the Churches:

That is why we have now again before us, with the charm of a new freshness, the old question of the reunion of the Churches: we are attracted and impelled to it by the ominous times that loom before the whole Christian world.


He ignores the dogmatic controversy between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. There is a new sense of an Ecumenical Church coming to life. The “Refugee” is asked point-blank (with an intimate hint at Knizhnik):

Then, what is it you are seeking? Religious indifference, or the Unia, the “Catholicism of Eastern Rite” which is now so fashionable?

The answer is given not by Knizhnik but by Bulgakov himself.

The “Refugee”:

Neither the one nor the other. I consider that at the present moment it is particularly important to hold to the Church, for nothing is now so heavily punished as religious instability. And for practical purposes I am, if you like, a churchman clinging to every syllable of Orthodox teaching, for it is only from the depths of the life of the Church that the spirit of prophecy, the fulness of completion, can come; but not from sects or drawing-room meetings. We must hold fast to the Church, both in external discipline — experiments, such as V. Solov’ev’s, of an individual reunion of the churches by secretly embracing Catholicism, while remaining Orthodox, are inadmissible — and also in the sense of personal fidelity and active intense and searching love…

Even since the fatal Xth century, something of priceless value has been lost to West and East, something that can and must be found again.


Of all the participants in the discussion, the “Refugee” is also the most tolerant towards the Bolshevisk. He claims that Lenin is a representative of revolutionary Slavophilism (89). Again, like Knizhnik, the “Refugee” describes Blok’s “Twelve” as the most remarkable revolutionary poem. He actually accepts that the Bolsheviks are led by Christ as in the poem:

The high artistic quality of the poem guarantees its insight to some extent. Probably the Bolsheviks do have a depth and mystery which we have not yet been able to grasp


It is very curious that the “Refugee”, in spite of his controversiality, has become the central positive character in the discussion, he one who knows what to do. His concluding words also betray the identity of his prototype (with whom Bulgakov also polemicized). One of the articles sent to Bulgakov by Knizhnik via Pascal was “The Salvation of Russia” (“Spasenie Rossii”), which had been published in Pravda. And the “Refugee”’s concluding words to the discussion clearly reflect Bulgakov’s familiarity with that article:

Just before the October coup d’etat an intimate friend confided an experience of his to me. With deep emotion he told me that while he was in fervent prayer before a holy ikon of the Virgin, the words “Russia is saved” [Rossiia spasena] sounded quite clearly in his heart. How, Why, wherefore, he could not say. But to forget the moment, to be disloyal to it, would have been for him the same as to reject something most sacred and real. And so, if my friend’s experience is true, we must conclude that there is nothing to fear for Russia in the last sense of all, the sense that alone will count: for Russia is saved by the power of the Mother of God. And, believe me, Orthodox Russia knows this full well.

All (with the exception of the “Diplomat”):
The “Diplomat”:
? ! ?
The “Public Man”: Christ is risen! All
(with the exception of the “Diplomat”): He is risen indeed!


It is Bulgakov’s answer to Knizhnik’s question of how Russia is to be saved.

One can see that in general Bulgakov madę Knizhnik’s ideas more traditional and less heretical, but still it was these very ideas that fascinated Bulgakov. In fact, it is very interesting how the anonymous Knizhnik became a religious focus for the Bolshevik revolution. He received encouragement from Lenin; he fascinated Bulgakov; he attracted the attention of Trotsky. Much later, in the 1930s, Trotsky quoted Knizhnik with respect (without mentioning him by name). In his history of the October Revolution, Trotsky said:

Agrarian disturbances in Russia had their great tradition, their simple but clear program, their local martyrs and heroes. The colossal experience of 1905 had not passed without leaving its trace in the villages. And to this we must add the work of the sectarian ideas which had taken hold of millions of peasants. “I knew many peasants”, writes a well-informed author, “who accepted… the October revolution as the direct realization of their religious hopes.”


This is a direct quotation from Knizhnik’s article of 1923:

I am confident that there were and still are millions of peasants who accepted the political sermon of Bolshevism and then the October Revolution as the direct realization of their religious hopes.



During 1918-19 Knizhnik worked in the soviet of one of the Petrograd regions. Then his pilgrim’s progress brought him to Proletcult. This was then an extremist Bolshevik cultural organization which claimed that the only legitimate culture was that of the proletariat. Its strong strand of anti-intellectualism madę it much disliked by Lenin himself. In 1919 Knizhnik joined the editorial board of Proletcult’s main organ, Griadushchee. However, a closer look at the role he played there will show that he tried to enact his old part of the intellectual of the people, trying to convert the proletariat into an intelligentsia. While there, he published informative articles and book reviews on Lenin, Engels, Steklov, and others. He was also the head of the bibliographic department of the Petrograd Soviet organ, Krasnala gazeta (94). In 1921 he was appointed director of the State Institute for the Study of Books (95).

We do not know how his religious process developed; but his formal break with Christianity and religion as a whole took place in 1923.

In May 1921 there was a secret session of the Central Party committee. One of the items on the agenda was the compatibility of religious faith with party membership. A sharp internal controversy is evident. On the one side, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar for Education, who never repented of his past God-building heresy, tried to arrange a meeting between Lenin and the heretical archbishop of Pensa, Vladimir (Putiata), who was then preaching Christian Communism (Lenin, for his part, chose not to meet the archbishop (96).

On the other side, on May 15, a few days before the session, Pravda published an article by a former Orthodox priest, Mikhail Galkin (Gorev), now a party member, making severe attacks on those party members who maintain their religious faith or participate in religious ceremonies. Galkin said: “In some places on the regional level one can see that even very responsible party members participate in religious ceremonies and rites” (97). He categorically demanded the expulsion of all such people from the party.

Lenin now personally intervened in favor of compatibility. He demanded of Yaroslavskii (then a party secretary) and Bukharin that they drop the clause in the party program draft which declared incompatibility. He demanded that “with some strict reservations, the believers who are absolutely honest and committed Communists should be allowed to remain in the party” (98).

The Central Committee finally adopted a resolution which permitted some proven party members with religious beliefs to remain in the party, but recommended the exertion of systematic pressure in order to “help” them get rid of their superstitions as quickly as possible (99).

It seems evident that such pressure would have been heavily exerted on Knizhnik too. The first signs of his retreat can be observed from the end of 1921. The initial step was his declaration of full acceptance of Marxist ideology and renouncement of what he now called “learned mysticism”.

A parallel process happened to Pierre Pascal. He joined the French Communist party, remained in Soviet Russia and worked in the Comintem. In the beginning he remained a Catholic and a Christian Socialist, but soon he gave up any religious activity. In 1920 he published a pamphlet in French in which he described his meetings with Russian Christian radicals, including Berdiaev (100). He no longer mentioned Knizhnik in his diary after 1918 and there is no evidence that they were in contact thereafter.

However, when Pascal’s pamphlet was published, Knizhnik commented on it. He remarked that he did not know what had been happening to Pascal and had only learned of developments from the pamphlet. He praised Pascal for joining the French Communist party and the way in which Knizhnik did so clearly reflected his own similar, traumatic experience:

An intellectual like Pascal, in order to accept Marxism… should overcome internally long ingrained habits of thought and feelings. He should literally “burn what he adored and adore what he burned”. But only a few people are able to accomplish such a spiritual transformation, especially at an age of maturity.

However, the grandiose swing of our revolution, which shattered not only the economics but also the spiritual foundations of the old world, helped Pascal to do what only a few intellectuals were able to achieve: to shake off even learned mysticism and to accept the proletarian revolution as a whole


The climax of Knizhnik’s apostasy was approaching. In 1923 he published a bibliographical directory on social science, the first after the revolution. In the introduction, dated December 31, 1922, Knizhnik was still evasive on the religious issue, though adamant in his revolutionary populism:

The self-sufficient value of culture is rejected in principle. It is regarded as a product of the creativity of the popular masses… Therefore traditional [italics [bold] added] religious doctrine and the philosophical Systems linked to it, moral and legal doctrines and all those trends in literature, politics, economics, and all the social Sciences which regarded their subject as something self-contained, unconnected with the interests of the spiritual and economic emancipation of the oppressed classes, are rejected as worthless litter


Clearly, this is not yet a final break with religion. The rejection of traditional religious doctrines does not mean the rejection of radical religious doctrines or all the religious creativity of the popular masses, for example the sectarian movements.

Knizhnik’s remaining religious ambivalence is stressed by his enthusiastic evaluation of the book by the Bishop and Communist, William Montgomery Brown, “Communism and Christianism”. Brown had been the Bishop of the American Episcopal Church in Arkansas since 1900. In 1912 he retired due to a long illness, during which he read Marx and Darwin. As a result his belief in divine selection appeared to him childish. He claimed that he had found the true Christ through reading Marx. He rejected “supranaturalism” and claimed that religion did not yet dare to face the realities of life.

The book was translated into Russian and published in 1923 in Soviet Russia. Brown had not yet been defrocked. His trial for heresy took place only in 1925. Eight times after the trial and until his death in 1937 he attempted to be reinstated as a Bishop, but in vain (103).

Knizhnik’s enthusiastic opinion of this Christian radical is very significant. It suggests that he still regarded himself as a Christian, although radical. In his bibliographical directory he also recommended a relatively old booklet, which had been translated into Russia in 1917, written by the Protestant German priest Paul Göhre, in which the author argued that Christianity and Social Democracy were compatible (104.)

Knizhnik was undergoing an attack of strong nostalgia for his previous revolutionary mysticism, and this can be seen from his excellent memoirs on Kropotkin and the October Revolution published in 1922-1923 in Krasnala letopis’, the Petrograd party history journal. Knizhnik not only did not conceal the mysticism and Catholicism which had marked his thought in the earlier period; he even stressed it. He speaks of his religious fervor as of something that has already passed but by not a word does he present himself as an atheist.

The years 1922-1923 saw the starting point of the violent attack against religion which reached its climax in the spring of 1923(105). It put an end to any permissible ambivalence regarding religion in the Soviet press, let alone among party members and officials. Knizhnik, who had not concealed his religious views in the past and had even professed them publicly, must also have been put under heavy pressure. And he eventually submitted.

In an article on Lavrov printed in 1923 he remarked that “Lavrov can be used… as an atheist who argues that religion is a pathological phenomenon” (106).

Fully-fledged apostasy, however, can be found in the introduction and comments to the second edition of his bibliography on social science, which was published in 1924. He wrote point blank:

In Soviet Russia, where the proletariat took power, the State removes all obstacles to the emancipation of humanity from the power of religious feelings and ideas. . .

The examination of relics by the Soviet authorities has exposed an age-long deception of the people by the clergy. Communist atheist propaganda has exposed all the absurdity of religious ideals and feelings, all the harm done to the people by clergy who blessed Capital punishment and wars. For its part, the clergy made quite an adroit step to strengthen religion by declaring it quite compatible with Communism [italics [bold] added] and by starting a new era of reformation in the form of the “Living Church”.

Knizhnik even used such an anti-religious cliche as “religious opium” (107).

Still, some persistent ambivalences can be noticed. In his bibliographical directory Knizhnik included not only atheistic books but also religious and religio-philosophical books which were published in Russia after the October revolution. He supplied some of them with denigrating comments like “harmful”, “good-for-nothing”, etc. However, books by Bulgakov, Berdiaev, Bergson, were not supplied with any notes at all, certainly not denigrating ones

Was Knizhnik’s apostasy bona fide, or was it the result of intolerable pressure?

One can suggest that it was a combination of both, though in his memoirs written in the fifties which he was going to publish he claimed that his apostasy was sincere (108). On the one hand, Knizhnik might have persuaded himself, like the hero of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, that his apostasy was vital for the revolution now — which did not necessarily contradict his vision of the future alliance of Christianity and Socialism. Such a deeply religious and sincere man as Knizhnik could have resorted to mystical apostasy, which is a well known pattern in various messianic movements. (A particularly well known example is that of Shabetai Tzvi, who converted to Islam under pain of death, and rationalized it as a mystical apostasy needed in the messianic process) (109).

Russian radical theology could also have supplied Knizhnik with even more radical justification of his apostasy. Berdiaev, for example, claimed that theomachy was a necessary step both for one’s personal faith and for the process of divino-humanity.

But a fully-fledged exposition of mystical apostasy can be found in various writings of Gorky, and especially in his Life of Klim Samgin, where he describes the deacon Egor Ipatievskii, whose passionate theomachy does not exclude a deep love of Christ (110). The deacon says:

“Christ! Be thou not angry at us poor folk, Ne’er are we forgetful of thy sweet self, Jesus,
Even when we hate thee, still we do but love thee;
Even in our hatred we are but thy servants”.
The deacon heaved a noisy sigh and said:
“That’s the end”.

“No one can understand this!” Liutov shouted. “No one! Ali these cold-blooded European outlanders will never understand the Russian deacon Egor Ipatievskii, who has been on trial for scoffing and blasphemy because of his love for God! They could never understand !”
“That’s true. I loved God very much”, the deacon said simply and assuredly. “Only my demands towards him are strict. He’s not man; there’s nothing to pity him for”.
“Hold on! But what if he — does not exist?”
“They that do affirm this err”.

The collapse of the traditional life, the violent assault of the Bolsheviks on religion, gave rise to various mystical interpretations, not only among Christians. Knizhnik certainly did not know the learned Cabbalist from Bobruisk, Shmuel Aleksandrov, who wrote many letters to rabbis suggesting mystical explanations of current events (111)- Aleksandrov said that generał apostasy was a necessary God-given stage before the advent of the Messiah. Relying on Vladimir Solov’ev, somewhat surprisingly, Aleksandrov claimed that God was now going to bring humanity closer to nature and when this was accomplished, Man would remember everything that he had forgotten. The world given to Man is neither the first nor the last.

Referring to Nietzsche and Solov’ev, Aleksandrov persuaded one rabbi that Man was God’s collaborator in creation. A new “superman” can create an entirely new world which will be closer to perfection than the existing one. Therefore, one should not despair at the general apostasy, which is only a part of Divine providence. What is happening now is only the destruction of the old building.

In spite of all the Christian pilgrim’s progress, Knizhnik’s mind was rooted in the Jewish mystical tradition acquired from his father, so his reaction to events was much like Aleksandrov’s.

In the history of the twentieth century one can find many cases of mystical apostasy.


Whatever the nature of the apostasy which Knizhnik underwent, from 1924 there are no anti-religious statements of his to be found, and he evidently tried to avoid them. From 1925 Knizhnik became a highly respected historian focusing on the early period of the Russian revolutionary movement and its connection with the International and also the Paris Commune. He consistently stressed the Bolshevik heritage from the Russian Populist movement and especially from Lavrov. This choice of interests clearly betrays a growing nostalgia for his former anarchism and tacit criticism of the existing Soviet system which could not but disappoint any honest revolutionary.

In 1926 he published Lavrov’s biography in which he claimed that Lavrov was not simply a Populist, but the person who linked the International with the Russian revolutionary movement and also the first in Russia to suggest a union of workers and peasants.

From the early 1930s, Knizhnik began work on an edition of Lavrov’s collected works, but this undertaking was interrupted in 1935 when Lavrov was declared a harmful bourgeois ideologist alien to true socialism. Almost all the former anarchists who stayed in the USSR perished in the Great Purge. Knizhnik was one of the few ex-anarchists to survive though he was also arrested in 1938 but in 1939 released.

He continued his historical research in spite of his advanced age. He contributed to an academic publication of the protocols of the Paris Commune and a year before his death he succeeded in publishing a book on Russian women revolutionaries who were active in the First International and in the Paris Commune. Actually, this book is a history of the Russian revolutionary movement during the 1860s and 1870s. And once again Knizhnik repeated his old thesis arguing for the necessity of a union of peasants and workers (as first suggested by Lavrov) (112).

A careful look at Knizhnik’s book suggests his ambivalence to religious belief. For example, he was very hostile to Bakunin, as was expected from a Soviet historian of Mandsm, but one of the very negative aspects of Bakunin’s thought, which was stressed by Knizhnik, who quoted Marx on this occasion, was Bakunin’s demand that all members of the International profess “atheism” as a dogma. The few atheistic statements to be found in his book were set in a negative context; placed in parentheses and stated in the third person, (clearly not intended to express Knizhnik’s own view) (113).

One should take into consideration that the book was published in 1964 at the height of a new Soviet atheist campaign, which greatly limited Knizhnik’s ability to express his real attitude to religion.

His last book was a two-volume selection of Lavrov’s works (114), which was published after Knizhnik’s death. Unfortunately it is quite difficult to judge what was his own contribution to the work, because he was supervised. The introductory article on Lavrov was jointly signed by Knizhnik and Aleksander Okulov (then a main Soviet watchdog over atheism). Lavrov’s views on religion were discussed in the introduction, not without some ambivalence. Speaking of Augustę Comte, the introductory article says (115): “Comte unsuccessfully tried to define the general historical development of the human mind as the way to negate religion by mind and science by faith”. The article quotes Lavrov’s militant positivism with critical notes (116).

More outspoken are Knizhnik’s own comments on Lavrov’s text. Despite strict censorship he managed, for example, to make a rather positive comment on Vladimir Solov’ev. Commenting on a vague and negative remark of Lavrov on mystical trends in Russian society in the 1880s and 1890s, Knizhnik supplied the following footnote(117):

He is referring to the theosophic [italics [bold] added] philosophical system of Vladimir Solov’ev, which was immersed in mysticism and ecclesiastical ideals. Numerous audiences assembled in the university and at women’s higher education courses in St Petersburg in 1880 and 1881 at his lectures which had the appearance of an “enthusiastic sermon”.

In his lectures on March 13 and 28, 1881, while advocating Christian autocracy, Solov’ev at the same time appealed against Capital punishment for the members of Narodnaia Volia who had assassinated Alexander II. For this he was forbidden to lecture and was dismissed from the Council of the Ministry of People’s Education.

Those who know the condition of ideological control in the 1960s will appreciate the significance of Knizhnik’s choice of words. The same ambivalence was characteristic of all his comments concerning religious matters (118). Since Knizhnik alone was responsible for the selection of Lavrov’s works, it is also interesting to examine his choice. From the enormous number of works available, he selected among others Lavrov’s work on ethics and a long article on Tolstoy (119).

As a matter of fact, Lavrov’s article on Tolstoy contains an unusually extended exposition of Tolstoy’s Confession with very many quotations from the book. It should be noted that Confession was almost impossible for an ordinary reader to obtain in the mid-1960s. It was typical at that time in the USSR to disseminate forbidden ideas and views by reproducing them in a critical work.

Another of Lavrov’s articles, which stressed ethics in socialism, also contained a very important dissident message for the Soviet reader. It was part of the persistent and daring tug-of-war waged at the time by Soviet dissident freethinkers which eventually brought the system to the era of glasnost’. Knizhnik had a part in this process.

He ended his pilgrimage in 1965.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Mikhail Agursky

(1) Ivan MASANOV, Slovar’ psevdonimov, Moscow, Izdatel’stvo vsesoiuznoi knizhnoi palaty, 1956, t.1, p. 238; Lichnye arkhimye fondy v gosudarstvennykh khranilishchakh, Moscow, Glavnoe arkhivnoe upravlenie, 1962, t.1, p. 333.
(2) MASANOV, 1958, t. 3, p. 357; Ivan KNIZHNIK, Vospominaniia o Bogrove, Krasnaia letopis’, 1923, N. 5. Partly reprinted in Ubiistvo Słolypina, Serebrennikov N. (ed.), New York, Telex, 1986, p. 34.
(3) Pierre PASCAL, Mon Journal de Russie. L’Age d’homme, Lausanne, 1975, Vol. 1, p. 245.
(4) Knizhnik-Vetrov’s Archive. Gosudarstvennaia Publichnaia Biblioteka Shchedrina, Leningrad F-352-159.
(5) Lichnye arkhimye fondy.
(6) MASANOV, 1958, t. 3, p. 357.
(7) See Knizhnik’s obituary, Voprosy istorii, 1965, N. 5.
(8) PASCAL, ibid.
(9) KNIZHNIK, Vospominaniia. . .
(10) Aleksander GOLDENWEIZER, Prestupleniekak nakazanie, a nakazaniekak prestuplenie, Kiev, 1908.
(11) See also Serge Boulgakov. Bibliographie, Paris, Institut d’etudes slaves, 1984, pp. 43-44.
(12) See N. ZEGZHDA, Spisok nauchnykh pechatnykh rabot I.S. Knizhnika-Vetrova, Leningrad, Gosudarstvennaia publichnaia biblioteka, 1960.
(13) KNIZHNIK, Vospominaniia.
(14) Ivan KNIZHNIK, Smysl p’esy Gorkogo “Na dne”, Odessa, 1903, pp. 3- 4; 12, 17-18.
(15) Ivan KNIZHNIK, Yospominania o Kropotkine i ob odnoi anarkhistskoi emigrantskoi gruppe, Krasnaia letopis’, 1922, N. 4.
(16) Paul AVRICH, The Russian Anarchists, Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 107.
(17) Cf. Nikolai BERDIAEV, Smysl tvorchestva, Paris, YMCA-Press, 1985, p. 183.
(18) Bernice GLATZER ROSENTHAL, Dmitri Sergeevich Merezhkovsky and the Silver Age: The Development of a Revolutionary Mentality. The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1975, pp. 163, 172.
(19) PASCAL, p. 246.
(20) Philip POMPER, Peter Lavrov and the Russian Revolutionary Movement. The University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 92-93, 101.
(21) KNIZHNIK, Vospominaniia o Kropotkine; see also Martin Miller, Kropotkin, The University of Chicago Press, 1976, p. 212.
(22) Ivan VETROV, Anarkhizm, ego teoria i praktika, St. Petersburg, Obnovlenie, 1906, pp. 4, 7.
(23) Ivan VETROV, Iz pisem k drugu, Burevestnik, St. Petersburg, Obnovlenie, 1906, pp. 5, 6.
(24) Ivan VETROV, Obshchedostupnoe uchenie o prave, St. Petersburg, Obnovlenie, 1906, p. 15.
(25) Zinaida GIPPIUS, Dimitrii Merezhkovskii, Paris, YMCA Press, 1951, p. 180; Andrei BELYI, Mezhdu dntkh revoliutsii, p. 170; KNIZHNIK, Vospominaniia o Kropotkine, pp. 42, 44; Ivan VETROV, A. Grossman. Pamiati druga, Burevestnik, Paris, 1908, N. 10-11, p. 2.
(26) ROSENTHAL, pp. 171, 172.
(27) Ibid., p. 132.
(28) Bernice GLATZER ROSENTHAL, The Transmutation of the Symbolist Ethics: Mystical Anarchism and the Revolution of 1905, Slavic Review, 1977, Vol. 36, N. 4.
(29) I. VETROV, Pis’mo iz Parizha (po povodu referata D. Merezhkovskogo), Listki khleba i voli, London, 1907, N. 11, pp. 7-8.
(30) Ivan VETROV, Intelligentsiia i sotsial’naia revoliutsiia, Listki khleba i voli, London, 1907, N. 15, p. 6.
(31) Ivan VETROV, Klassovye interesy i interesy obshchechelovecheskie, Burevestnik, Paris, 1908, N. 13, pp. 10-11.
(32) KNIZHNIK, Vospominaniia o Kropotkine, p. 44.
(33) MILLER, p. 235.
(34) KNIZHNIK, Vospominaniia o Kropotkine, p. 44.
(35) Ivan KNIZHNIK, Oktiabr’skaia revoliutsiia v dome pisatelei, Krasnaia letopis’, 1923, N. 6, p. 189.
(36) I.K., Bogostroitel’stvo Gorkogo, Moskovskii ezhenedel’nik, 1908, N. 35, pp. 4, 6, 13, 15. About Gorky’s religious outlook see Mikhail AGURSKY, Maksim Gorky and the Decline of Bolshevik Theomachy, in Nikolai PETRO (ed.), Christianity and Russian Culture in Soviet Society: Sources of Stability and Change, Boulder, Colorado, Westview, 1990.
(37) Boris STRUMILLO, Materiały o Bogrove, Krasnaia letopis’, 1924, N. 9, pp. 326-327.
(38) Knizhnik’s diary. See his archive F.352-181.
Jean Deubner, a Catholic priest in Petrograd. In 1913-1918 published a Catholic magazine in Russian, Slovo istiny. Was arrested in 1923. See James ZATKO, Descent into Darkness. The Destruction of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia, 1917-1923. The University of Notre Dame Press, 1925, pp. 180-181.
(39) PASCAL, p. 246
(40) See a very abridged list of his publications in Zegzhda.
(41) Ivan KNIZHNIK, R. Steiner. Misterii drevosti, Russkaia mysi’, 1912, N. 9, pp. 326-327.
(42) Ivan KNIZHNIK, A. Besant. Teosofiia i novaia psikhologiia, Rech’, October 19, 1915.
(43) Cf. Andrei KRATOV, K priezdu Kogena, Zavety, 1914, N. 5, pp. 41-46.
(44) Ivan KNIZHNIK, Religioznaia pozitsiia Bergsona, Rech’, October 29, 1915.
(45) Ivan KNIZHNIK, E. Trubetskoi. Morosozertsanie Solov’eva, Rech’, September 16, 1913.
(46) Ivan KNIZHNIK, V. Rozanov. Temnyi lik, Russkaia mysl’, 1912, N. 12, pp. 431-432.
(47) Ivan KNIZHNIK, A. Khein. Iudaizm i krov’, Russkaia mysl’, 1914, N. 1, p. 13.
(48) Ivan KNIZHNIK, Y. Gessen. Istoriia evreev v Rossii, Rech’, October 28, 1913.
(49) Ivan KNIZHNIK, V. Zombart. Kreshchenie evreev, Russkaia mysl’, 1912, N. 12, p 436.
(50) Andrei KRATOV, Rechi k grazhdanam obnovlennoi Rossii o tekushchem momente, Petrograd, Naród i bog, 1917, p. 30.
(51) Ibid., p. 1.
(52) Ibid., pp. 19, 28.
(53) Ibid., pp. 32-34.
(54) PASCAL, p. 247.
(55) Andrei KRATOV, Novaia Rossia i evrei, Petrograd, Narod i bog, 1917, p. 28.
(56) Nikolai ZERNOV, The Russian Religious Renaissance of the XX Century, London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1963.
(57) KRATOV, p. 29.
(58) ZERNOV.
(59) KRATOV, p. 31.
(60) KNIZHNIK, Oktiabr’skaia revoliutsiia. . . p. 198.
(61) KNIZHNIK, Vospominaniia o Kropotkine, p. 46. Also MILLER, p. 235.
(62) PASCAL, p. 246.
(63) KNIZHNIK, Oktiabr’skaia revoliutsiia.
(64) See PASCAL.
(65) Ibid., pp. 245-247.
Novaia zhizn’: the newspaper edited by Gorky in 1917-1918.
Delo naroda — a Socialist-Revolutionary newspaper edited in 1917- 1918.
(66) Sovetskoe pravitel’stvo i Korolenko, Pravda, January 4, 5, 1918.
(67) Sotsialisticheskaia revoliutsiia i Gor’ky, Pravda, January 7, 1918.
(68) Lenin V. I. Biograficheskaia khronika, Moscow, t. 5, p. 157. The same is confirmed by Knizhnik himself. See Viktor PANKOV, Gor’ky i sovetskaia deistvitel’nost’, Moscow, 1968, p. 34.
(69) Maxim GORKY, Untimely Thoughts, New York, Paul Eriksson, 1968, pp. 127-128.
(70) Otvet Gor’komu, Pravda, January 13, 1918. See also Lenin, p. 197; PARKOV, p. 34.
(71) Bor’ba za respubliku sovetov i V.M. Chernov, Pravda, January 31, February 1, 1918.
(72) Oktiabr’skaiia revoliulsiia i novaia kul’turnaia era, Pravda, February 10, 1918.
(73) ZEGZHDA, p. 23. Also his obituary, Voprosy istorii, 1965, N. 6.
(74) Rossiia budbodroi, Pravda, March 31, April 2, 1918.
(75) Spasenie Rossii, Pravda, April 21, 23, 24, 1918.
(76) KNIZHNIK, Oktiabr’skaia revoliutsiia…, p. 191.
(77) PASCAL, pp. 346-347. There is also Pascal’s letter to Knizhnik on May 30, 1918, Knizhnik’s archive F-352-1780.
(78) V. LENIN, Collected Works, Moscow, Progress, 1965, V. 27, pp. 279- 313.
(79) Sergei SOLOV’EV, Gonenie na tserkov’, Nakanune, Moscow, N. 6, May, 1918.
(80) Sergei BULGAKOV, At the Feast of the Gods, The Slavonic and East European Review, 1922-23, Vol. 1, N. 3, p. 620.
(81) Sergei BULGAKOV, Na piru bogov, Iz glubiny, Paris, YMCA Press, 1967, p. 135. This text is the original; the above-cited English translation is an abridged version, and therefore both texts are used here.
(82) BULGAKOV, At the Feast of the Gods, N. 1, p. 182.
(83) BULGAKOV, Na piru bogov, p. 136.
(84) BULGAKOV, At the Feast of the Gods, N. 3, p. 620.
(85) BULGAKOV, Na piru bogov, p. 127.
(86) BULGAKOV, At the Feast of the Gods, N. 3, p. 611.
(87) Ibid., p. 616.
(88) Ibid., pp. 617-618.
(89) Ibid., N. 2, p. 398.
(90) BULGAKOV, Na piru bogov, p. 141.
(91) BULGAKOV, At the Feast of the Gods, N. 3, p. 612-622.
(92) LEV TROTSKY, The History of the Russian Revolution, New York, 1977, p. 883.
(93) KNIZHNIK, Oktiabr’skaia revoliutsiia. . . p. 191.
ZEGZHDA, p. 23.
See his obituary, Voprosy istorii.
(96) Lenin V. I. Biograficheskaia khronika t. 10., p. 395; Vladimir (Putiata), archbishop of Pensa and Saransk (1869-1941?). See Mtr MANUIL (LEMEŚEVSKIJ), Die Russichen Orthodoxen Bischöfe, t. II, Erlangen, 1981, ss. 234-243.
(97) Mikhail GALKIN (Gorev), Kommunisły i religioznye obriady, Pravda, May 25, 1921.
(98) V. LENIN,, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, Moscow, t. 54, 1970, p. 440.
(99) O narusheniakh programmy partii v religioznoi oblasti, Vesinik agitatsii i propagandy, N. 19, September 15, 1921, p. 29.
(100) Pierre PASCAL, En Russie Rouge, Paris, 1920.
(101) Ivan KNIZHNIK, Franłsuzskii intelligent o Sovetskoi Rossii, Kniga i revoliutsiia, 1921, NN. 10-11, p. 14.
(102) Ivan KNIZHNIK, Sisłematicheskii ukazatel’ literatury po obshchestwnnym naukam, Leningrad, Priboi, 1923, p. 8.
(103) William MONTGOMERY BROWN, Kommunizm i khristianstm, Moscow, 1923. For his obituary, see New York Times, November 1, 1937
(104) Paul GÖHRE, Wie ein Pfarrer Sozialdemokrat wurde, Berlin, Vorwärts, 1902. In Russian: Paul Gere, Kak sviashchennik stal sotsial-demokratom, St Petersburg 1906.
(105) Cf. Mikhail AGURSKY, Der misslungene Yersuch zur Vernichtung der Russisch-Orthodoxen Kirche in den Jahren 1922-1923 und die Niederlage des linken Kommunismus, Ostkirchliche Studien, 1973, Hf. 2/3.
(106) Ivan KNIZHNIK, P. Lavrov v literaturę 1917-1923, Kniga i revoliutsiia, 1923, N. 3, p. 12.
(107) Ivan KNIZHNIK, Chlo chitat’ po obshchestvennym naukam. Sisematicheskii ukazatel’ kommunisticheskoi i marksistkoi literary, Leningrad, Priboi, 1924, pp. 384-385.
(108) Knizhnik’s archive, F-352-173
(109) Gershom SCHOLEM, The Messianic Ideas in Judaism, New York, Schocken, 1974, pp. 78-141.
(110) Maxim GORKY, Bystander, New York, The Literary Guild, 1930, p. 568. Also AGURSKY, Maksim Gorky.
(111) Shmuel ALEKSANDROV, Mikhtavei mekhkar u-vikoret, Jerusalem, 1932 (Hebrew), pp. 5, 6, 8. On Aleksandrov see also Mikhail AGURSKY, Universalist Trends in Jewish Religious Thought, Immanuel, Jerusalem. 1984, N. 18.
(112) Ivan KNIZHNIK-VETROV, Russkie deiatel’nitsy pervogo internatsionala i parizhskoi kommuny, Moscow-Leningrad, Nauka, 1964, pp. 92-93.
(113) Ibid., pp. 30, 164.
(114) Peter Lavrov, Filosoflia i sotsiologiia, Moscow, Mysi’, 1965, tt. 1-2
(115) Ivan KNIZHNIK-VETROV, Aleksander OKULOV, Yeteran revoliutsionnoi teorii, in Lavrov, t. 1, p. 22
(116) Ibid., pp. 23-24.
(117) LAVROV, t. 2, pp. 682-683.
(118) ) Ibid., t. 1, p. 722 (notę 4), p. 726 (notę 10); t. 2, p. 682 (notę 7), p. 683 (notę 15).
(119) See Sotsial’naia revoliutsiia i zadachi nravstvennosti, Starye voprosy, Lavrov, t. 2.