Vladimir Soloviev: A Prophet Unheeded
Vladimir Sergeevic Soloviev passed away 100 years ago on July 31
(August 13 according to our Gregorian calendar) of the year 1900. He passed
away on the threshold of the 20th century - a century whose vicissitudes
and troubles he had foreseen with striking clarity, but also a century
which, tragically, in its historical course and dominant ideologies,
would reject his most profound and important teachings. His, therefore,
was a teaching at once prophetic and largely unheeded.
At the time of the great Russian philosopher, the general view - in
keeping with the limitless optimism of the "belle -Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¦poque" - foresaw a
bright future for humanity in the new century: under the direction and
inspiration of the new religion of progress and solidarity stripped of
transcendent elements, humanity would enjoy an era of prosperity, justice,
security. In the "Excelsior" - a form of dance which enjoyed an
extraordinary success in the last years of the 19th century (and which later
lent its name to countless theaters and hotels) - this new religion
found its own liturgy, as it were. Victor Hugo proclaimed: "This century
was great; the one coming will be happy."
But Soloviev refused to allow himself to be swept up in this
de-sacralized vision. On the contrary, he predicted with prophetic clarity all of
the disasters which in fact occurred.
As early as 1882, in his "Second Discourse on Dostoevsky," Soloviev
foresaw - and condemned - the sterility and cruelty of the collectivist
tyranny which a few years later would oppress Russia and mankind. "The
world must not be saved by recourse to force", Soloviev said. "One could
imagine men toiling together toward some great end to which they would
submit all of their own individual activity but if this end is imposed
on them, if it represents for them something fated and oppressive.
then, even if this unity were to embrace mankind, universal brotherhood
would not be the result, but only a giant anthill." This "anthill" was
later constructed through the obtuse and cruel ideology of Lenin and
In his final work, The Three Dialogues and the Story of the Antichrist
(finished on Easter Sunday 1900), one is struck by how clearly Soloviev
foresaw that the 20th century would be "the epoch of great wars, civil
strife, and revolutions." All this, he said, would prepare the way for
the disappearance of "the old structure of separate nations" and
"almost everywhere the remains of the ancient monarchical institutions would
disappear." This would pave the way for a "United States of Europe".
The accuracy of Soloviev's vision of the great crisis that would strike
Christianity at the end of the 20th century is astonishing.
He represents this crisis using the figure of Antichrist. This
fascinating personage will succeed in influencing and persuading almost
everyone. It is not difficult to see in this figure of Soloviev the
reflection, almost the incarnation, of the confused and ambiguous religiosity of
The Antichrist will be a "convinced spiritualist," Soloviev says, an
admirable philanthropist, a committed, active pacifist, a practicing
vegetarian, a determined defender of animal rights.
He will also be, among other things, an expert exegete. His knowledge
of the bible will lead the theology faculty of Tubingen to award him an
honorary doctorate. Above all, he will be a superb ecumenist, able to
engage in dialogue "with words full of sweetness, wisdom, and
He will not be hostile "in principle" to Christ. Indeed, he will
appreciate Christ's teaching. But he will reject the teaching that Christ is
unique, and will deny that Christ is risen and alive today.
One sees here described - and condemned - a Christianity of "values,"
of "openings," of "dialogue," a Christianity where it seems there is
little room left for the person of the Son of God crucified for us and
risen, little room for the actual event of salvation.
A scenario, I think, that should cause us to reflect.
A scenario in which the faith militant is reduced to humanitarian and
generically cultural action, the Gospel message is located in the irenic
encounter with all philosophies and all religions and the Church of God
is transformed into an organization for social work.
Are we sure Soloviev did not foresee what has actually come to pass?
Are we sure it is not precisely this that is the most perilous threat
today facing the "holy nation" redeemed by the blood of Christ - the
It is a disturbing question and one we must not avoid.
Soloviev understood the 20th century like no one else, but the 20th
century did not understand Soloviev.
It isn't that he has not been not recognized and honored. He is often
called the greatest Russian philosopher, and few contest this
Von Balthasar regarded his work "the most universal speculative
creation of the modern period" (Gloria III, p. 263) and even goes so far as to
set him on the level of Thomas Aquinas.
But there is no doubt that the 20th century, as a whole, gave him no
heed. Indeed, the 20th century, at every turn, has gone in the direction
opposed to the one he indicated.
The mental attitudes prevalent today, even among many ecclesially
active and knowledgeable Christians, are very far indeed from Soloviev's
vision of reality.
Among many, here are a few examples:
-+ egotistic individualism, which is ever more profoundly leaving its
mark on our behaviors and laws.
-+ moral subjectivism, which leads people to believe that it is licit
and even praiseworthy to assume positions in the legislative and
political spheres different from the behavioral norms one personally adheres
-+ pacifism and non-violence of the Tolstoyan type confused with the
Gospel ideals of peace and fraternity to the point of surrendering to
tyranny and abandoning the weak and the good to the powerful;
-+ a theological view which, out of fear of being labeled reactionary,
forgets the unity of God's plan, renounces spreading divine truth in all
spheres, and abdicates the attempt to live out a coherent Christian
In one special way, the 20th century, in its movements and in its
social, political and cultural results, strikingly rejected Soloviev's great
moral construction. Soloviev held that fundamental ethical principles
were rooted in three primordial experiences, naturally present in all
men: that is to say, modesty, piety toward others and religious
Yet the 20th century, following an egotistic and unwise sexual
revolution, reached levels of permissiveness, openly displayed vulgarity and
public shamelessness which seem to have few parallels in history.
Moreover, the 20th century was the most oppressive and bloody of all
history, a century without respect for human life and without mercy.
We cannot, certainly, forget the horror of the extermination of the
Jews, which can never be execrated sufficiently.
But it was not the only extermination.
No one remembers the genocide of Armenians during the First World War.
No one commemorates the tens of millions killed under the Soviet
No one ventures to calculate the number of victims sacrificed uselessly
in the various parts of the earth to the communist utopia.
As for the religious sentiment during the 20th century, in the East for
the first time state atheism was both proposed and imposed on a vast
portion of humanity, while in the secularized West a hedonistic and
libertarian atheism spread until it arrived at the grotesque idea of the
"death of God."
In conclusion: Soloviev was undoubtedly a prophet and a teacher, but a
teacher who was, in a way, irrelevant. And this, paradoxically, is why
he was great and why he is precious for our time.
A passionate defender of the human person and allergic to every
philanthropy; a tireless apostle of peace and adversary of pacifism; a
promoter of Christian unity and critic of every irenicism; a lover of nature
and yet very far from today's ecological infatuations - in a word, a
friend of truth and an enemy of ideology.
Of leaders like him we have today great need.
March 4, 2000
His Eminence Cardinal Giacomo Biffi,
Archbishop of Bologna
Translated and published by "Inside the Vatican", June-July 2000