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From the Notebooks

Russia came to Christianity late, in 988, but it came to philosophy even later, not producing its own original philosopher until the eighteenth century: Gregory Skovoroda (1722-1794).

At the age of 43, Skovoroda, the self-proclaimed “Russian Socrates,” became a strannik, a wanderer, who spent the rest of his life wandering the Ukraine with a knapsack, living with friends and the poor, giving spiritual lessons.

Although Skovoroda’s lessons were infused with Christian notions, he has been accused of pantheism. His name for God was “Nature,” and he gave her praise normally reserved only for God: “Nature is good to every creature that breathes . . . In her sedulous providence she has prepared all those things without which the happiness of the least worm cannot be accomplished.” Skovoroda’s pantheism became a hallmark of Russian thought.

It is strange that this terribly-religious land, this land of the Mother Earth cult, a land that breathes pantheism even though its religious leaders knew it to be noxious, became the testing ground for Communism. Marx was an uncompromising atheist who gave no room to God, following the thought of his mentor, Ludwig Feuerbach, who taught that God is a mere construct of man who projects (“alienates”) his best qualities to transcendence and calls them God. The Socialist tradition was infused from the start with the notion that we could create a perfect world, like we had created a perfect God, if we would just reclaim these alienated qualities. It seems to stand at a polar opposite from Gregory Skovoroda and a Russian tradition. It is surprising that Russia became the testing ground for Communism, but opposite ideas, when both are wrong, stand closer together than commonly supposed because they stand equidistant from the truth. From this standpoint, perhaps Russia was a predictable victim of Communism (and perhaps it not surprising that Skovoroda was one of the few religious thinkers admired by Lenin—so much so that Lenin wanted to erect a monument to him.

Reference: James Billington, The Icon and The Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (Vintage Books, 1970), 242).