Père Serge Boulgakov, Ma vie dans l’ Orthodoxie. Notes autobiographiques, trad. I. Rovere-Sova, M. Rovere-Tsivikis, Éditions des Syrtes, Genève 2015, pp. 255
In this text, I will present the recently published French translation of the “Autobiographical Notes” of the eminent Russian religious philosopher Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944), by Éditions des Syrtes. As Nikita Struve wrote in the introductory note to the volume, it is a translation of the manuscript “published in 1946 by Léon Zander, Bulgakov’s student and friend” (p. 8).
The “Autobiographical Notes” is not just a juxtaposition of various parts of the author’s biography, specifically regarding his homeland (pp. 11-40), his ordination and priesthood (pp. 51-84), various trips he made after his exile from Russia (pp. 139-153, 173-179 and 181-206) and, finally, his excruciating illness (pp. 207-225). Rather, this direct narrative, which is in most parts quite enthralling, gives the reader a glimpse into an intellectual’s critical attitude toward the destiny of his country and himself.
For Bulgakov, the Church constitutes the people, because “in the Church there is no ‘laos,’ there is only the Church, one for all, offering unity in all” (p. 23). In the Church, the people, of which the Russian philosopher was also a member, assumes “truth by beauty and beauty in truth” (p. 24).
Despite the fact that Bulgakov always lived “in faith and through faith” (p. 39), he nevertheless passed through the atheism, nihilism, and rebelliousness of the Russian intelligentsia (p. 42, p. 46, p. 53), even to the extent that he confessed: “I cannot understand now how I was able to remain for so long in this spiritual lethargy” (p. 47). Bulgakov goes on to admit that “even within Marxism, [he] preserved the nostalgia of the religion” (p. 55).
Characteristic of the events narrated by the author is the day of his ordination in a church in Moscow, which was attended by prominent Russian intellectuals and former Marxists: “I want to mention Fr. P. Florensky, M.A Novoselov, B. Ivanov, N. Berdyaev, Fr. Struve, Prince E. Trubetskoi, L. Sestov...” (p. 63). This day is characterized by Bulgakov himself as a day of “general joy” (p. 63).
In the chapter where Bulgakov refers to the years of his priesthood, the reader will discern a highly critical and sometimes even judgmental attitude toward the historical-institutional Church and Orthodoxy. The Russian philosopher asks, for example: “To which extent and in what sense can we consider Orthodoxy as being the exclusive possessor of ecclesiasticality? The Church as the Body of Christ does not coincide with the boundaries of the confessions; this is obvious. Nor is it limited to Orthodoxy. True Christians exist in all parts of Christianity...” (p. 68). It is certain that this view would be strongly criticized by conservative Christians, which will naturally blame him for a tendency towards ecumenism. I would like to point out, however—in order to avoid the misconception that Bulgakov does not provide in his “autobiography” a systematic ecclesiological analysis—that he was also criticized, primarily by the institutional church, for declaring that “Orthodoxy, first in Byzantium, then in the Russian East, now in the Church of Moscow, suffers from a certain kind of papacy—not a deliberately dogmatic, clear, and accurate one, but a psychological papacy. Orthodoxy is a collectivity rather than an episcopacy” (p. 75).
It is noteworthy that, for Bulgakov, in addition to the “historic” Orthodoxy, there is also “the eschatological Orthodoxy, that of the coming Christ ... Orthodoxy is not only the possession of a given wealth—of faith and of life in faith—it is also prophecy, revelation, and past history of course, but also the history of the present and the future” (p. 82).
There are several points in the book that are likely to surprise readers. For example, while Bulgakov asserts that “he was not politically a monarchist” (p. 106), he was nevertheless sympathetic to what the Tsar represented (p. 131). In spite of this, however, he admits that “as a student, [he] had a dream to assassinate the tsar” (p. 109), and that he “later participated in the preparation for the revolution of 1905” (p. 109).
Concerning now the Revolution of 1917, Bulgakov describes it as a “tragedy, as a catastrophe of what was [for him] the most respectable, sweet, the bearer of joy in Russian life, i.e., of love” (p. 105). Reflecting on the Revolution of 1917 and the collapse of Tsar and Tsarism, Sergius Bulgakov attempts a comparison between the ancient tragedy of Oedipus and the tragedy of Tsar and Tsarism, a comparison which in his view leads to their common tragic destiny: “Oedipus had to kill his father, whether he wanted to or not. Tsar Nicholas II could not have been a better monarch than he was” (p. 107).
Bulgakov goes on to criticize the conservative Russians intellectuals, “who constituted the living rejection of nihilism, even though they lacked spirituality”(p. 113). Significant in this respect is his exclamation: “How unbearable all these irresponsible Slavophiles became to me!” (p. 153).
These and other interesting things one will find in Bulgakov’s “Autobiographical Notes.” It is certain that this book is not limited to events of his personal or family life. I think, however, that the reader should approach Bulgakov’s views with a mild, objective, and critical mind, taking a non-dogmatic approach and carefully considering the context of his statements. This caveat is particularly apropos for the Greek audience, for whom almost none of Bulgakov’s works have been translated, which would allow them to gain a more complete picture of the religious/philosophical thought of the Russian thinker.
It is also possible that various approaches of Bulgakov, particularly in relation to ecclesiastical matters (e.g., on the bishops, the ecumenicity of the Church), are quite relevant for our time, since they have been the subject of discussion and often fruitful debate among contemporary theologians.