Even in the darkness of revolutionary terror and enslavement, White Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954) believed in the sacred mission of his people, one to be achieved through suffering and repentance, spiritual strength and discipline. Here is a 1928 letter he addressed to his comrades in emigration, assuring them that one day a new Russia, a nation of faith and power, would arise. Translation by Mark Hackard.
However hard it might be for you in life and heavy on your soul, to you who selflessly love Russia, believe: the just cause shall prevail! And therefore never be troubled by the onslaught of evil; it is temporary and fleeting. But first of all and most of all, seek out rightness – only it is truly vital – and only therein shall be born and arise a new force, leading, saving and directing…
The just cause shall prevail. This hardly means that it is protected from earthly failures, temporal trials and periods combining genuine suffering with visible humiliation. No, all of this is not only possible, but it is directly unavoidable. And an innumerable multitude of times, people walking the right path, clearly suffering and by all appearances humiliated, prayed and will still pray as the Son of God did – that this cup would pass them over, and asking why the Lord had forsaken them… Yet namely in these prayers, after Golgotha, there will always live the deepest surety that rightness will be granted victory, and that in visible “dying,” in “clear” failure, resurrection is prepared unseen and brought into being.
Yes, the bearers of the faithful ideal and the just cause are fated to have their hours of failure and suffering. Yet all these failures and all this suffering shall but form the purification for future exploits, the school of future victory. For no one of these men is ready for heroism from the very day of his birth, but for each is needed a long ordeal, his trial and tempering. And from among other peoples, perhaps, we, Russians, need tempering most of all – with our weak-willed passion and our dreamy carelessness. In this lack of character and with this carelessness, in the chaotic mix of good and evil, it was impossible to build Russia any further: neither her Church nor her state, neither her economy nor her spiritual culture. War and the Revolution proved this with certainty; and having proven their point, they brought us into a period of severe trials and ruthless tempering.
This period has already lasted for ten years now. In this time we were shown naked evil so that we would turn to God. We were witness to shamelessness and dishonor so that we might affirm ourselves in conscience and honor. The greatest traitors in the world stood out from our ranks so that we ourselves would strengthen our loyalty. We experienced untold lawlessness and enslavement to learn to value the just law and the right measure of freedom. All our belongings were taken from us and Communism instituted so that we understood the necessity of property, its meaning and purpose. The family and the Motherland were extinguished, the essence of the soldier and the army perverted so that we would apprehend the holiness of the hearth and the fortress and the warrior’s sacred meaning. In poverty and dark work, in tight living spaces, in exile and expulsion, surrounded by temptations and dangers, we suffer unto a new perception of God, a new national feeling, a new style of character, a new awareness of law and a new national attitude to the army and property. Herein is the great meaning of our trial and our tempering. Herein is our service to Russia, both there, under the yoke, and outside the country, in our dispersion overseas. We should accept this cup and drain it until emptied. We shall not dare to pray that it pass us over; we must be solidly sure that on this path, we are forsaken by God.
Our cause does not concern who has temporarily triumphed for now, but who is right at the very essence, before the face of God. For essential rightness is faithful not only in heaven, but on earth. It is not “righteousness,” abstracted from life and unneeded to the world, but a creative vitality necessary to the world – a source not of weakness, but strength, and not of defeat, but victory.
It does not stand that the world needs wily instinct unknowing of good and evil, and that the spirit is unnecessary. In vain we would think that “virtue impedes life,” that “honesty is the attribute of fools,” and that “strength is always on the side of shameless vice”… No. Instinct without the spirit is indulgence and perversion, discord and death. Vile and doomed is that life which sees in virtue an obstacle. Take honesty away from the mind, and the mind becomes base, decadent and cunning, the favored instrument of the fool. Holiness was always a great source of life-creation, a charge of creative energy. But shameless vice can appeal only to weak men, for only they imagine that the indulgence of instinct makes one strong, and this is precisely why they who flaccidly dream of unleashing their weakness are bridled along with the unashamed and find themselves under the yoke of depravity.
The fact of the matter stands quite to the contrary: earthly life is impossible without devotion, loyalty and nobility. Honesty is the buttress and manifestation of a genuine intellect, and correct was the ancient wisdom asserting that any city is upheld by its righteous men. The man of conscience is the center of vital health and vital strength, for he radiates mental balance and justice and attracts general respect and trust. In contrast, the scoundrel will always be the beginning of social and organizational collapse, as the honest hate and despise him. Competitors start to imitate him, and the weak take the path of groveling. Here is why the just cause always has within itself the foundation of its future growth and flourishing, and the unjust cause always remains internally doomed. Neither in the individual soul nor in social affairs and matters of state can real, vital creativity tolerate villainy…
The evil principle is not viable, for it is without grace and repudiated by God; its false “creation” in actuality is disintegration. It conceals within itself, in its soul-destroying and spirit-corrupting depravity the seed of destruction. Revealing itself, it day and night works for the approach and acceleration of its end, and the harder its pressure, the surer and more shameful will be its end. Could it be otherwise?
In our world, what do spite, hatred and calloused savagery create? Nothing. From spite the soul turns to stone; from hatred it goes blind; savagery disrupts the soul and exhausts it. And so a power preaching malice and imposing hatred exhausts and dissipates the energy of its own ruling class, bringing upon itself an embittered and savage nemesis.
What social order can be sustained on class self-interest, on greedy squabbling and universal robbery? Such a power, unleashing the depraved idler and intimidating the industrious, mortifies the life of the country and undermines itself.
Envy does not build, but ruins and destroys. Lies amass disappointment and contempt. He who inculcates surveillance and treachery will himself one day be betrayed. Violence calls forth counter-violence. And godlessness always led the mob only to shamelessness and all-permissiveness; therein is its fate.
How might the “victory” of the evil principle be expressed? Only in wholesale state, economic and mental collapse. But collapse is certainly not health, but contagion and disease – not victory, but defeat.
And therefore where we see the “triumph” of the evil principle, we speak of deceptive appearances, a temporary ascendancy concealing genuine and doomed weakness. We do not deny a historically given fact, but we deny its creativity, its fruitfulness, its viability. We deny its grace, and therefore we believe neither in its strength, nor in its future. We admit that in an hour of national sedition, there can arise the dominance of evil. Yet we assert that it will last only until that time when within the soul of the people there shall ring forth the call of the grace-filled forces of the spirit: religious patriotism, national unification and selfless service…
He who seeks genuine and true triumph – a victory proceeding from grace and not from perfidy, betrayal and violence – he should walk the White path: first affirming within himself the religiously faithful direction of the will, thereby securing an authentic and everlasting victory, and then marshaling earthly forces toward it. Yes, life abounds with situations in which one should take the temporarily weakest side and the course of greatest resistance, that course where the visible and worldly perspective does not bode either easy or quick success. Why? Because precisely this course wages God’s cause on earth, and because all others exclude victory in grace.
Let the refrain sound that the black whirlwind of history will rage over Russia a long time still… We answer confidently and calmly: it will rage until that time when in the soul of our people, there shall awaken the grace-filled forces of their spirit. But let us not be frightened with timelines: what is time when death is always lying in wait for us at the threshold? What is time when the genuine victory of a religious and national Russia is already secured by our loyalty, our idea, our service – our banner, which was raised and consecrated long before us? And what is a time period of ten years in the thousand-year life of a great people?
First and most of all, we should seek rightness– therein is strength, and under its banner strength will gather. We must serve God’s cause unbendingly, not bargaining and not calculating God’s time. And we must believe: that the healthy spiritual depth of Russia, silent from war-weariness, dimmed in revolution and scattered over with the refuse of propaganda, will awaken. She shall awaken and groan, and atone in prayer over that which our souls have groaned and prayed over for ten years now. And then our people will understand that we are not their enemies and not outcasts, and that we are neither flatterers nor corrupters. That we are their elder brothers fighting to the death for their minds and souls, unshakably believing in our people’s conscience, cultivated by Orthodoxy, and in their age-old sovereign purpose. And then shall the just cause prevail.