Sobornost’ and Humanism: Cultural-Philosophical Analysis of V. Ivanov Essay “Legion and Sobornost’ ”

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This paper addresses the philosophical and cultural significance of the concept of «sobornost’» both in the cultural context of Silver Age and in the historical context of World War I. The analysis of Ivanov’s thought is based on a philological approach of his essay «Legion and Sobornost’» (1916), in which the author explains his understanding of such terms as organisation, cooperation, collectivism in order to clarify his own idea of collegiality and the ontological opposition of the title. The opposition between legion and collegiality duplicates the confrontation between Germany and Russia. Vyach. Ivanov first conducts a cultural analysis of such a confrontation, and criticizes Nietzscheanism in German culture at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. He proves the false understanding of the organization in modern German culture. In his opinion, the main values of freedom and personhood are the measure of lies or truth. In the last chapter of his essay, Vyach. Ivanov gives his own definition of collegiality, not referring to Russian thinkers, but quoting the two cities of St. Augustine’s thought. The author of the article shows that the culturological perspective is overcome by the Christian anthropological and mystical perspective, which proclaims humanism and Christocentrism. Therefore, accordind to Vyach. Ivanov, the word “sobornost” is a “universal word”, which mentions that the true social union has Christ as its center. In this sense, the concept of collegiality signifies the same mystical reality that the City of God of St. Augustine.

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Vyach. Ivanov's essay “Legion and Sobornost'” was firstly published in the newspaper “Utro Rossii” in 1916, and then in 1918 in a collection “Native and Ecumenical” including essays and articles written from 1914 to 1917. The date of collection explains the main pathos of this text. Natalya Poltavtseva writes: “In the vocabulary of the historiosophy of Russian symbolism, the First World War is recognized as a catalyst for the “universal meaning of national affair”, as a reason for the emergence and manifestation of “sobornost’” [1]. Certainly, the historical context gives the first interpretative key to the essay “Legion and Sobornost'”, which in this prospect goes back to Neo-Slavophilism. The opposition between legion and sobornost’ duplicates the confrontation between Germany and Russia. But this is primarily a cultural analysis of such a confrontation, and German culture is not exposed as such one, but in the forms which it has been enclothed since the end of the 19th century. In this sense, Vyach. Ivanov speaks more about the antithesis between Nietzscheanism and Christianity. But the cultural prospect, in its turn, is overcome by the Christian anthropological and mystical prospect, which proclaims humanism and Christocentrism. Vyach. Ivanov's essay “Legion and Sobornost’” is rather short; it consists of 9 small chapters, or rather paragraphs, where the author methodically, step by step, describes each stage of his reflections about various possible interpretations of social organisation. Vyach. Ivanov, as a philologist, leads the reader in different terms - organisation, cooperation, collectivism, leading to the main, ontological antithesis of the title, between legion and sobornost’. Only in the last chapter the author provides his own definition of sobornost’, without referring either to A.Khomyakov or to other Russian thinkers who developed the concept of sobornost’, except briefly to N. Berdyaev. But he quotes Blessed Augustine with his image of two cities, thereby alluding to his own universal, ecumenical horizon. In the first chapter Vyach. Ivanov claims "the salving character of the organisation" in the context of the war, which he presents as "the struggle against Germanism." It should be emphasized that Ivanov chooses the word Germanism, alluding to the "image of the enemy-barbarian" [2], interpreting the German attack as an attack against culture. But he immediately raises the question of the interpretation of the concept of organisation, and reads out the main essay’s thesis on the danger of a German interpretation. The essay “Legion and Sobornost’” is an attempt to expose this danger, revealing what lie is under the German understanding of organisation. The concept of a lie implies the opposite - the truth: we will see later that the whole essay is built on a binary antithesis, dramatizing the choice of a culturological path. In the second chapter, Ivanov proves the false understanding of the organisation in modern German culture: in his opinion, the main values of freedom and personality are the measure of lies or truth. Ivanov writes: “For the unfortunate people of Schiller bought their organisation at a fatal price, perhaps, however, in his stupefaction with the successes of the seventieth year, which didn’t even seem expensive to them: an internal, semi-conscious renunciation of freedom and depersonalisation of the personality. Modern Germany is an anthropologically new fact in the evolution of Homo Sapiens, the biological recurrence of the animal collectivity in humanity, the resurrected consciousness of an anthill” [3]. G. Obatnin writes that “criticism of biological determinism was an important part of Ivanovo’s perception of Nietzsche” [4]. In the quoted passage, Ivanov does not quote Nietzsche, but mentions Ostwald and his “scheme of the world-historical process”, placing the German organisation at the forefront as the last stage of progress. Ivanov names the German organisation “an animal collectivity”, where the concept of a collectivity gets a clear negative character, as it associates with an animal, with an anthill, and with dehumanisation (“depersonalisation of personality”). At the end of the chapter, Ivanov frankly makes a generalisation about the anti-humanism of modern German culture: “Is it amazing that the Germans so cynically deny the principles of humanity? Their organization is a return to the prehuman period, the highest form of the prehuman natural organism”. In the next chapter Vyach. Ivanov goes further in exposing the “collectivity”. He brings another term that has a negative character in connection with the general context and with the adjectives that are linked with it: we are talking about “utilitarian cooperation”, “national cooperation”. Ivanov gives the following definition: “I call cooperation - an agreement of individuals by species character to strengthen the species”. According to Ivanov, cooperation is a social organisation where the prevailing biological logic leads to a strengthening of the species to the detriment of the individuality. The individual is only a “representative of the species,” obeying the law of the fittest. Such expressions as “mercenary community”, “utilitarian cooperation” hint at how the idea of a human is destroyed as a goal in itself, and the expression “ethnic cooperation” refers to the type of species that unites most strongly - ethnicity. Thus, the representation of V. Ivanov about the true organisation is drawn in negative. The organisation must fit into the main installation of humanism outside the framework of nationalities, proclaiming the freedom of the individual, and protecting the individual against the species. In the next chapter, Ivanov focuses on the concept of individuality, moving to the anthropological and metaphysical level of analysis. In the story of the sinful fall of personality, he shows that the cause of anonymisation of a person lies in the personality itself. Turning away from God in search of self-affirmation, a person loses himself. Referring to Nietzsche, he writes: “If it is true, as Nietzsche says, that up to now he gave all his best to God, now he wanted to take away all his gifts: but they were in his hands only a handful of ashes from the victims he had burned. A man saw himself as a beggar, like a prodigal son, because God no longer enriched him, and impersonal, because the radiant Face has faded in the sky, and with it the internal image of God in man”. The abundance of biblical motifs in this quote indicates an ideological turn in the author's reasoning. Since this moment, the essay is dominated not by a historical or cultural, but by a metaphysical, mystical approach. Individuality is known and knows itself in love - to God, to his neighbor and to itself. The absence of love in one of these aspects destroys it. The image of the radiant Face, ontologically justifying the human person, where He is captured, indicates the deep Christ-centrism of Vyach. Ivanov. Individualism leads to egoism, which repels the individual from his living source, as well as from sincere communication with his own kind, and thereby makes possible what Ivanov calls in the fifth chapter “universal collectivism”, which threatens the future of mankind. He writes: “There are true signs indicating that the individualistic separation of people is only a transitional state of humanity, that the future is under the sign of universal collectivism,” and continues: “If it is so, then humanity is approaching a crossroads, where the road splits into two the paths leading to two different cities, about which we read with Blessed Augustine: “Two cities created two loves: love for oneself up to contempt for God - the Earthly City; love of God up to self-contempt is the City of Heaven” [5]. It seems that the entire length of the essay before this was only a preparatory introduction to the famous quotation of Blessed Augustine, where the triple relationship between God, the individuality and society sounds capaciously, and where it is figuratively shown which social structure follows from the false or true relationship of man to God. A. Dudek in his article “Ideas of Bl. Augustine in the poetic perception of Vyach. Ivanov” cites a quotation from Ivanov’s letter where he writes “And Augustine seems to be closest to the soul” [6] (This is a letter to Olga Shor from 27.VII. 1925, but the letter is also mentioned F. Stepun from 22.III.1925). We have already emphasized the dualism of Vyach. Ivanova’s analysis, where each milestone concept is accompanied by an antithetic concept (legion and sobornost’, lies and truth, species and personality), and two cities, the Earthly City and the City of Heaven in this context sound like a generalisation of such dualism, as well as a mystical image that reinforces the tragedy of historical situation. In fact, in the genre of essays “Legion and Sobornost’” goes back to the same principle as the City of Heaven of St. Augustine. It combines both a historiographic approach and a theological approach; like St. Augustine, Vyach. Ivanov gives us a Christian reflection on the course of human history, but with Vyach. Ivanov it is clearly dominated by an apocalyptic spirit. The antithesis between the two cities goes over to the apocalyptic antithesis - the “Antichrist camp”, all under the sign of false appearance, confronts the “camp of Christ”. But Ivanov’s interpretation of the two Augustinian cities does not fully correspond to the thought of St. Augustine itself. It is not easy to speak about the way St. Augustine imagines the relationship between the Earthly City and the City of Heaven, due to the fact that there are quite opposite statements in his work. Nevertheless, Archbishop Teissier writes that because both cities are mystical images, “you can not use them to contrast the historical City with the influence of God in the world. It is in the life of the inhabitants of the Earthly City that God chooses those who will become the child of City of Heaven” [7]. St. Augustine writes: “For these two cities are intertwined and mutually mixed in the present century, until they are separated at the last judgment” [8]. This means that the City of Heaven grows out of the Earthly City, that the Earth City contains the possibility of the City of Heaven, but that such a mystical aspiration remains invisible, like all realities of Faith. Vyach. Ivanov, however, continues the apocalyptic interpretation of the Earthly City and the City of Heaven, as a crossroads, an antithetic alternative, leading either to Antichrist or to Christ. At the beginning of the seventh chapter he writes: “The accumulation of people into unity through their depersonalisation should develop collective centers of consciousness, as if a general collective mind, which would quickly surround itself with the most complex and subtlest nervous system and become embodied in the likeness of a public beast”. The principles of personality or depersonalisation determine two antithetical types of social union that go back to the Beast, or demon or to God. Finally in this paragraph Vyach. Ivanov cites the terms legion and sobornost’, based on the definition of Nikolai Berdyaev and the quotation from the New Testament: “A multiple that is not connected with sobornost’ (which N. Berdyaev well defines in his new book as “spiritual fellowship and gathered spirit”) is - according to the testament narrative - name: “Legion, for there are many of us.” So, the legion is defined as a false, imaginary connection and the author associates it, at this historical stage, with Germanism, “until the day of the internal repentance of the demoniac nation,” but sobornost’ as “spiritual communication,” that is, as the public fruit of the Holy Spirit. In the next and penultimate chapter, Ivanov approaches the problem of the legion from the point of view of metaphysical evil, which man is not given to understand due to the divine origin of his mind. “The problem of the Legion belongs to the impenetrable secrets of Evil. The spiritual privilege of man, testifying to his divine nature, is that he can truly comprehend only truly existing things and not his perverted reflections in the elements of Evil. A son of Logos, he only makes sense in what is linked with Logos. How the separation can become the principle of unity, how hatred can fuse mutually hating elements, is, fortunately, substantially incomprehensible to us. But the presence of the Legion, simultaneously calling itself “I” and “we,” is still given as a phenomenon”. The definition of a person as a “son of the Logos” has something in common with the above-found image of a “radiant Face”, embodied in a person, and which has become the key to a free personality and true social union. On the contrary, “cooperation”, referred to as the “legion”, as a “mechanically organised cluster” is under the sign of a lie, “perverted reflection”, a ghostly, “imaginary whole” of impersonal, hence lifeless units. The main paradox that characterizes the social model of the legion is that it erases the concepts of “I” and “we”, being interrogated by each other. Sobornost’ does not identify the concepts of “I” and “we,” but allows individuality to realize itself creatively in a free, spiritual union with its own kind. But if “presence of the Legion (...) is given as a phenomenon”, sobornost’ is an ideal, a “task”, a hope. “It has never been fully implemented on Earth completely and firmly, and it cannot be found here or there just like God. But, as the Spirit, it breathes wherever it wants, and all in good human unions and creates life hourly”. We can speak about the presence of sobornost’, only as a mystical reality. In the ninth and last chapter Vyach. Ivanov finally gives his own definition of sobornost’: “Sobornost’ is, on the contrary, such a union, where the connecting individualities achieve the perfect revelation and definition of their singular, unique and original essence, their total creative freedom, which makes each one spoken, by a new and necessary for everyone Word. In each, the Word took flesh and is with everyone, and it sounds different in everyone, but the Word of each finds an echo in everyone, and all is one free consent, because everything is one Word”. This quotation reveals the meaning of the definition of a man as a "son of Logos." To the above mentioned image of the Face, to which the spiritual personality is related, the image of the Logos-Word is added, which is presented in every human being called to open up freely in the Word. The Christocentrism of Ivanov’s thinking, as well as its symbolic worldview in general, is clearly proclaimed [9]. The sacrament of incarnation is based on symphony, the “free consent” of men’s unions rallied by Christ. The concept of sobornost’ is consonant with the completeness of which apostle Paul writes about: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28). The concept of sobornost’ conceptually repeats the mystic image of the Christ body: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. (...) Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it”. (1 Cor. 12: 12-27). Around the same time in France, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was also trying to convey the same mystical intuition in theoretical discourse. The point of embarkation is the quotation from Revelation: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, says the Lord God, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty." (Rev. 1: 8). Teilhard writes about Christ as the “organic center of the universe” [10] and advocates the primacy of the organic over the legal, for the “metaphysics of the single and multiple” [11]. This excursus into Catholic thought, as it seems to me, does not contradict the settings of Vyach. Ivanov, who quotes St. Augustine and finishes the essay “Legion and Sobornost’” with an ecumenical word about Slavism, where “Polish brothers” are mentioned. From the philological statement that “the name “sobornost’ ”is almost not interpreted inещ foreign dialects”, that is, into non-Slavic languages, the author concludes about the special calling of the Slavs: “And especially about the forthcoming Slavs, free and graciously reunited, my thought stops, drawing the guarantee of hope in the word itself, that we, "Slavs," will not "age" apart, do not forever and tremble for the fate of our individual folk souls, that we will gather in true sobornost’ and with it we will restore our universal word in the world”. So, the word “ sobornost’ ” is a “universal word”, which mentions that the true, aspirated social union has Christ as its center, who makes every person alive, making it in tune with its own kind. In this sense, the concept of sobornost’ will mark the same mystical reality that the Heavenly City of St. Augustine secretly growing out of the historical plan of being. In his essay "Legion and Sobornost’” Vyach. Ivanov starting from the dramatic historical events of the First World War, Ivanov ultimately defends the humanism of the Christian worldview and proclaims the dignity of a free personality and spiritual communication, the guarantor of which is loyalty to God.

About the authors

Florance Corrado-Kazanski

Bordeaux-Montaigne University

Author for correspondence.
EA 4395 CLARE, France

Doctor of Philology, associate Professor


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