Russian Philosopher Saw the
Difference Between True and False Christianity
V. V. Zenkovsky
Mikhail Speranski (1772 – 1839), partial view of a painting by Alexander Varnek
A 2017 Editorial Note:
The following article is reproduced from
“A History of Russian Philosophy”, by V. V.
Zenkovsky, a two-volume edition, Routledge &
Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1953, vol. I, pp. 111-115.
In the 19th century, theosophist Helena Blavatsky
wrote that Russia was the only country where the
pure ideal of Christ was still preserved. HPB also said 
that the Western Church is the deadliest enemy of the
Ethics of Christ (see Collected Writings, vol. XII, p. 268).
A living, unbureaucratic view of Christian Mysticism
has been influential from the beginning in the History
of Russia. It is present in the ideas of I.V. Lopukhin
(author of the book “The Inner Church”), and the writings
of Alexei Khomiakov, M.M. Speranski, Fyodor Dostoevsky,
Leo Tolstoy, N. Berdyaev and N.O. Lossky, among others.
(Carlos Cardoso Aveline)
The mysticism of Mikhail M. Speranski (1772 – 1839), an outstanding political figure under Alexander I, exhibits different characteristics [from those of Aleksander F. Labzin].
His career was marked by strikingly abrupt changes. He came from the people, but began very early to manifest exceptional talents at school. Upon graduation from the Theological Seminary in St. Petersburg (later renamed “Academy”), Speranski, who had worked very hard in school, went into government service rather than scholarly work, and as a young man became closely associated with Alexander I, as a kind of “prime minister”. In 1812, because of slander, he was relieved of his positions and exiled to a remote province. He gradually rehabilitated himself, eventually returning to government work; under Nicholas I he carried out the immense and extremely important work of codifying the laws.
The philosophic education which Speranski received at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy did not provide him with a finished world-view. His mind, which inclined to mathematics and abstract theory, was at its best in juridical thought, to which he owed his extraordinary career, a career which took him from a lowly rank to the highest rung on the ladder of government service. However, his spontaneous religiosity was not suppressed. As in many other outstanding Russians of his time, religious needs were very strong in Speranski; but he was not much attracted by the concrete life of the Church, and ecclesiastical doctrine seemed dry to him. He felt that it did not express the full profundity of Christian moralism.
“The inward path is very different”, he wrote in a letter, “from the outward path taken by many Christian What I call the outward path is a moral religion from which secular theologians have crowded out the Divine teaching; what I call the outward path is a mutilated Christianity, overlaid with all the colours of the sensuous world [i.e. secularized!], and consenting in a policy of indulgence toward the flesh and the passions…, a weak, deviating, compromising Christianity which differs only verbally from pagan moral doctrine”.
These harsh words, which we will meet later in Herzen, for example, and to which many Russian radicals would willingly have subscribed, were written by Speranski even before he turned wholeheartedly to mysticism, and are thus the more interesting. Speranski’s renunciation of the Church’s conception of Christianity was motived – as was the case with many of his contemporaries – by his search for a “pure” Christianity (not “deviating” or “compromising”), i.e. an “inner” Christianity. In 1804, the year in which the above-quoted letter was written, Speranski became friendly with a mystic whom we have already met, I V. Lopukhin, author of The Inner Church and other books (see the preceding chapter), who undertook to direct Speranski’s mystical self-education.
From Boehme, Saint-Martin, and other occult mystics, Speranski turned to Madame Guyon, Fénelon, and the Church Fathers. He gradually developed a new mystical word-view, critical of the “common sense” which blocks one’s feeling for the “mystery of life”. In a letter to his daughter, he even praised “daydreaming” for tearing us away from the “calculations of life”. [1] “We all live in a kind of madness”, he wrote in another letter to his daughter, “for we are wholly immersed in the passing moment, heedless of eternity”. [2] This longing for eternity does not entail a break with earthly life, but only with the superficial perception of life. To his friend Tseier he wrote: “The Kingdom of God is within us, but we ourselves are not; thus it is necessary for us to return within”. Speranski went very far in distinguishing the “true” and “false” conceptions of Christianity. Here is a characteristic passage, full of sharp and bitter accusations against the Church.
“The Anti-Christ has transformed his host; he has given them the outward aspects of Christian warriors, and assured his warriors that they are really warriors of Christ… He has invited an ideal of Christ for them…; to inward fasting he has opposed outward fasting, to spiritual prayer of many words, to resignation of spirit humiliation of the flesh. In a word, he has created a complete system of false Christianity.[3]
This accusation of contemporary Church Christianity exhibits an interesting characteristic of the secular religious thought of the time, which considered itself the bearer of “genuine” Christianity: it was ready to repeat with Speranski the ancient charges of the Old Believers, to view the Church as a product of the Anti-Christ! We shall find this theme more than once in Russian religio-philosophic searching – for example, in Leo Tolstoy.
In criticizing the church as a “system of false Christianity”, Speranski did not reject the mysteries of the Church; here his consciousness was divided, and because of this, certain scholars tend to conclude that his critique of the Church applied only to its perversions, not to its essence. [4] But this whole period, especially in Russia, moved under the sign of a kind of universal and supra-ecclesiastical Christianity. In this respect, Speranski was in complete harmony with his time. But it should not be thought that Speranski was concerned only with “inner” Christianity. He put forward, for the first time in Russian (secular) religious thought, the idea of a Christianization of social life, later called “social Christianity”. The tendencies of French religious thought which inclined toward social Christianity appeared later, so that Speranski was entirely original on this point.
This aspect of his theories is interesting because it proved so very stable in Russian thought. Speranski’s most important statements on this subject are to be found in his letters to Tseier. Those men”, Speranski wrote, “who assert that the spirit of the Kingdom of God is incompatible with the principles of political societies are mistaken”. And further: “I do not know a single question of state which cannot be referred to the New Testament.” [5]
Speranski forgets here the sharp distinction in the New Testament itself between that which is God’s and that which is Caesar’s. This is not naiveté, of course, nor an accidental mistake. In defending the idea of the transfiguration of political life “in the spirit of the Kingdom of God”, Speranski essentially brought Russian (secular) thought back to a utopia with which we are already familiar, the utopia of the “sacred Kingdom”.
The dream of “Moscow – the third Rome” included the expectation of an “eternal” and hence righteous kingdom. From this conviction an autocratic ideology arose, permeated with the faith that the antinomy of God and Caesar is resolved in the Anointed Tsar. But the ecclesiastical inspiration of this dream had already slackened in the eighteenth century. At the end of the century – in Karamzin and others – there was a renaissance in secular historiosophy of the idea of “sanctity” of state power. Karamzin developed this into a complete conservative programme, set forth in his Notes on the Old and New Russia. [6]
The contradictions and disagreements of this first historiosophical attempt to defend the idea of the “sanctity” of power are shown in great detail in Pypin’s book. More “harmonious” theories appeared later in Russian historiosophy. But in Speranski we find another variant of this renascent historiosophical utopia. He too tends to regard sovereign power as something sacred, [7] but this is not a programme of “social quietism”, nor a recognition of the state as sacred quand même (as in Karamzin); rather it is a search for methods of transfiguring the state. We should not forget the mystical expectations which were associated with the “Holy Alliance” – and not by Alexander I alone. It has been justly pointed out that “under Alexander the state once more felt itself holy and sacred”. [8]
Speranski’s mysticism was more subtle and profound than that of Labzin; but both of them, in different ways, cleared the way for secular religious thought. In this spiritual movement there was much that was connected with the age itself – an age full of mystical excitement – but there was also something symptomatic of the inner spiritual dialectic of Russia.
There was a profound ferment in the Church itself and around it; many high members of the hierarchy (for example, the well-known Filaret, Metropolitan of Moscow) and various circles of secular society were stirred by religious searchings, either in the spirit of “universal”, i.e. supra-ecclesiastical, Christianity or the idea of “inner Church”. It is not surprising that a hostile attitude soon developed in the ecclesiastical consciousness toward this whole “modern” movement. There was sharp reaction, which later became very strong and aggressive. This was the beginning of the division between “progressive” and “reactionary” tendencies – so fateful for the whole life of Russia – which continued throughout the nineteenth century.
[1] Pisma k docheri [Letters to My Daughter] (1869 ed.), p.130.
[2] Ibid, pp. 236f.
[3] Note entitled “The Anti-Christ” in the collection V pamyat gr. M. M. Speranskovo [In Memory of Count M. M. Speranski], St. Petersburg, 1872.
[4] See Bishop Theophanes’ very favourable opinion of Speranski, for example, p. 7, of the book Pisma o dukhovnoi zhizni [Letters on the Spiritual Life].
[5] Rus. Arkhiv, 1870.
[6] Zapiski o drevnei i novoi Rossi Pypin aptly characterizes Karamzin’s views as a “system of social quietism”, Obshchestvennoye dvizheniye pri Aleksandre I  [The Movement of Society under Alexander I], 2nd ed, 1885, p. 205.
[7] Letter to Tseier, Rus. Arkhiv, 1870, p. 188.
[8] Florovsky, op. cit, p. 133. The mystical expectations connected with Mme. Krudener’s influence on Alexander I are very interesting for the characterization of this period. Cf. also Kotelnikov’s sect.
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