Monism in Pavel Florenskii’s Thought — Excerpt from the Working Paper ‘Tselostnost’(I)

The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming ‘Working Paper’ to be entitled approximately “Tselostnost’: Perceptions and Aspirations Regarding Integrality in Russian Thought, Culture, and Politics. The first part of this paper covers monism or ‘monist tselostnost‘ from Orthodox Christianity in Kievan Rus’ to philosophical idealism in 19th century Russia. Below is the working paper’s introduction, which provides the paper’s working definitions and an excerpt on monism in Pavel Florenskii’s thought.


Some two decades ago historian Richard Wortman published a journal article and then book chapter examining the role of the concept of unity or integrity (tselost’) in Russian political culture, concluding that Russia had a unique propensity to focus on unity. The study focused for the most part on territorial integrity and countering ethinic and religious divisions and somewhat less on the unity of power and authority in the person of the sovereign autocrat.[1] A group of Russian scholars critiqued Wortman’s journal article, and their comments were included in Wortman’s book at the end of the journal article-based chapter, raising some important issues. First, they noted, unity or integrity needs to be defined and categorized methodologically. In Wortman’s treatment was tselost’ “an instrument of contemporary scholarship,” “some original concept with historically fixed meanings that would evolve over time,” an “element of legal discourse, a cultural category, an ideological construct,” what precisely? Second, they suggested that study of the concept in pre-Petrine Russia “with its specific vision of wholeness” was in order. Comparatively, they asked: “How idiosyncratic was the concern of indivisibility and cohesion to the Russian empire?”[2] Wortman replied that tselost’ in his usage was a “cultural category” of “representation of the monarchy,” “one element of the political culture of Russian monarchy,” and “a principal symbol that infused the thinking of the monarch and his state elite.” Tselost’ was “more than a legal term” becoming a “a good in itself”[3] and took on a “sacral character…that lent it moment and significance, which may not have characterized other systems.” Wortman asks: “(I)n which (other states) did (tselost’) arise as a principal goal and symbol that address an ongoing problem, and persist from era to era?”[4] In sum, both Wortman’s article/chapter and the Russian comments point to the value of further research and elaboration on the hypothesis of an aspect in Russian culture we might tentatively label tselost’.

Some scholars, both Russian and non-Russian, have suggested and partially demonstrated a unity value, norm and/or aspiration in Russian culture and political culture. It might have been called ‘sobornost’, a religious form of communalism or wholeness posited by Russian thinkers in the pre-Soviet period or a new proletarian ‘kollektivizm’ promoted and supposedly extant in Soviet times. Sometimes these ideas refer to Russians’ prioritizing the interests of the family, group, enterprise or working collective, and nation over the individual and one’s own personal preferences and aspirations. Collectivity is said to trump (though does not necessarily eliminate entirely) individuality. Unity has been seen in and/or aspired and sometimes coercively applied to society (Orthodox sobornost’, communism’s elimination of class and ethnonational distinctions), state-society relations, Church-state relations (simfoniya), language (Pavel Florenskii), the world (Dostoevskii’s Russian universalism, Nikolai Berdyaev’s “world soul”), the universe (Russian cosmism), mankind and God (Vladimir Solovev’s “Man-God”), and God and all creation (‘all-unity or vseedinstvo).

This proposed ‘value’ or norm of unity can be interpreted as either a dominant strain in Russian thought and culture or when aspirational as a recessive strain in the same by which some Russians attempt to overcome a historical duality created by Russia’s eternally partial Westernization. The great American historian of Russian culture, James H. Billington, noted the role of the West in Russia’s persistent schism: “The Russian response to the inescapable challenge of Western Europe was split–almost schizophrenic–and this division has to some extent lasted down to the present.”[5] Martin Malia observed that “Russian Russia” (as opposed to the Soviet aberration) “since Peter the Great has generally moved toward convergence, however halting, with the West.” When institutions and culture at the divergent Western and Russian poles converge, “the West’s evaluation of Russia tends towards the positive; when these evolutionary paths diverge, Europe’s judgement veers toward the negative.”[6] Moreover, when the West’s assessment of Russia was negative and sometimes when it was not, the West interfered in Russia’s domestic politics, intervened military-politically, or outright invaded. Financing palace coups undertaken by one Russian faction against another, organizing proxy forces and false pretenders to the throne, and invasions by massive, often pan-European armies were among the West’s methods. Such Western action deepened the internal political and cultural divisions about the whether Westernization and closer relations with Western powers were in the country’s interest or constituted an existential security threat.[7]

As a result, Russian culture developed a duality or dual structure. The great Russian culturologist Yurii Lotman applied an interactivity model in theorizing about cultural development and change. For Lotman, national cultures and identities, including Russia’s own, develop not in isolation from, but largely in response to others. The “specific characteristic of Russian culture” at least until the end of the 18th century was its “principal polarity” and structural “dual nature.”[8] More recently, Vyacheslav Morozov concludes from his close reading of post-structuralist sociology and Russian cultural studies (kul’turologiya) that “the redistribution of power between the paired signifiers” – Russia and the West and their respective values – has been the engine of Russian cultural and historical evolution through the ages: “(P)recisely the complicated, ambiguous attitude of attraction and repulsion and the feelings of its own inadequacy and moral supremacy in relation to the West (although not only to it) over the course of centuries has comprised the main driving force of cultural dynamics in Russian society.”[9]

Russia’s polarity and duality evolved around paired opposites at various stages in its historical development: Orthodox Christianity – paganism; Orthodoxy – Catholicism (and to a lesser extent Protestantism); and from the late 17th century on, Orthodoxy – Western secularism and rationalism. In the early 17th century, an already predominantly Orthodox Christian Russia confronted infiltration by Catholicism and to a lesser extent Protestantism, including military intervention, then invasion by messianistic Catholic Poland-Lithuania and Protestant Sweden. This early 17th century conflict posed to Russians the question of whether the West was to function as Russia’s constitutive Other or would displace its Orthodox-based culture and identity. Peter’s refraction of the Western Enlightenment in Russia and his entry of Russia into Europe’s geopolitical great game suggested a choice in favor of the former. Whether one views Peter as the Great Transformer, the Anti-Christ Tsar, or simply the destroyer of the Russian tradition and its organic development – it is almost impossible not to view Peter’s choice as having deprived Russia of identity-formation significantly independent of at least reference, if not displacement to the West as its constitutive Other. Peter’s Westernization introduced a new duality, entrenching both Enlightenment and Orthodox values in the Russian identity and culture. For many Russians held tightly to Orthodoxy as one of the few markers setting themselves off from its constitutive Other’s rationalist religions with their logical proofs for the existence of God and the like. Moreover, the Europe of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment also proffered science and secularism in place of faith and superstition.[10]

During the last, modern period of Russian history, Russia’s turns to the new and rejections of the old coincided with alternating periods of traditionalist ‘pro-pochva’ (Russian native land or roots) and innovationist pro-Westernization sentiment. Beginning from Peter the Great’s displacement of Russian culture and identity by Europe standards, new pairings of Russian/Western antitheses emerged successively: Orthodoxy/secularism, the ‘land’/bureaucracy, peasantry/aristocracy, mysticism/rationalism, Slavophilism/Westernism, bourgeois capitalism/international communism. In several periods, the ruling regime itself promoted Westernism, provoking a Russian backlash. The Russian backlash produced a new metastable condition or ‘thesis’ – one partially old and new –  which again comes to viewed as the ‘old’ and in need of replacement by a new Westernizing thesis – with the West also having developed to something ‘new’ – and so on.[11] Despite the apparent tension and seeming potential for fundamental change, Russia’s dual cultural-identity structure has been “unified,” with limited change occurring only within this shifting but unchanging binary pochva/West structure for over three centuries. As Lotman observed: “Even in the changes (of cultural values), a lack of change (in the dual pochva/West structure) is observed.”[12] In other words, change in Russian culture and identity occur but only within, and in reference to their binary ‘Russia/West’ structure. Could the schizophrenic, dual, binary, bifurcated structure of Russian thought, culture, and identity have included a compensatory cultural strain, value, norm, and/or aspiration to reintegration?

With this hypothesis in mind, I attempt below to address the issues posed by Wortman’s work and his Russian commentators and complete subsequent partial work in this direction done by other Russian and Western scholars by anatomizing and dissecting a multifacted conceptualization of tselost’ or, preferably, tselostnost’. Although these words in Russian (and English) are significantly synonymous, tselostnost’ more than tselost’ in the Russian language denotes and connotes more aspects and concepts of unity, integrity, integrality, monism, and so on. Complete unity of any kind is, of course, impossible to achieve and illusory in any context, more an aspiration in culture and practice, rather tah achievable in the real world. Perhaps more than in most other cultures, Russian culture exhibits a strong inclination to proselytize and attain unity on various levels—the national, the global, and the spiritual. Here, I detail the value and aspiration to tselostnost’ in Russia’s general culture, religious culture, domestic political cultural, and national security culture reflected in such areas as theology, philosophy, literature, and political, economic, and social culture and ideologies.

I examine four basic kinds of tselostnost’ in Russia discourse and aspiration: monism, unity, sobornost’/collectivism, and universalism. I define ‘monism’ as aspiration or assumption in religious theology (Orthodox Christianity) and philosophy, including the truly formal philosophy that emerged in late 19th century Russia. Unity is more of a political concept most relevant to political culture and here is conceptualized as an aspiration or approximation of unity in society, politics, culture, ideology, even economics. Sobornost’/collectivism has political implications here, but it is primarily socio-cultural and centers around the subordination of the individual’s interests and preferences to those of the group, encompassing Russian ideas such as sobornost’, institutions such as the pre-Soviet village obshchina, and Soviet collectivism. Finally, universalism is an aspiration, sometimes informing practice, conduct, and even policy that seeks to increase the influence of one or more of the forms of Russian tselostnost’ to a culture or entity beyond those of Russia: to Slavdom, to the Orthodox world, to the Christian world, to Europe or the ‘West’, to all mankind, to the universe. We will encounter forms of tselostnost’ or the desire for it in Orthodox Christianity as embodied in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), in the rejection by the ‘Old Believers’ of the ROC in 1666 when the Church attempted to reform ‘absolutes’ in its praxis, in Slavophile communalism, in Autocratic Absolutism, in Marxist-Leninist collectivism, in the dream of universal social justice, unity and brotherhood, in Russian formal philosophy, cosmism, and transhumanism.

It is important to note that the evidence I present for the existence and persistence of Russian monism, unity, universalism, and sobornost’/collectivism comes from Russians across history with a far better understanding of their own culture and the ‘Russian soul’ than the present author and this book’s readers. The 19th century Russian Slavophile philosopher Ivan Kireevskii offered an archetypical articulation of the Russian preference for tselostnost’ in its many aspects in regretting Europe’s “bifurcated spirit, bifurcated thought, bifurcated science” indeed the bifurcation of everything, contrasting it with Russia’s “overwhelming aspiration to integrality of being, internal and external, social and personal, theoretical and the everyday, the artistic and moral.” Kireevskii concluded that Russian culture’s integrality, its flourishing and decay depended on Russians’ spiritual aspirations to moral greatness and believers’ striving for sublime “original integrality.”[13]


Today, political scientist and culturologist Grigorii Tul’chinskii notes the continued prevalence of an aspiration “all-unity” (vseedinstvo) in Russian culture encompassing “cosmism, universalism, and collectivism.”[14] The Russian “cultural experience” in valuing unity, monism, universalism, and collectivism expresses an “all-unity” (vseedinstvo), essentially tselostnost’ or integrality: “an integral worldview and intuition, connected with a tense moral sense.”[15] The idea of “all-unity”, an “aspiration to integrality,” has been a leitmotif of Russian thought and culture from Kievan Rus through Imperal Russia, Slavophile thought (e.g., A. S. Khomyakov amd L. P. Karsavin) to the cosmism of N.F. Fedorov and personalism of N.A. Berdyaev. What might be better called an ‘intuition of tselostnost,’ in which “existence (social existence as well) in its full sense is thought of as perfect unity, a harmonic whole formed from diverse and inter-compatible components.”[16] Below, I address the cultural and intellectual strands of Russian tselostnost’ in some detail and discuss their relationship to other strand in Russian thought and culture such as ‘Russkaya Pravda’, transecendentism, maximalism, messianism, and cosmism.

Textul reprezintă punctul de vedere al autorului.


[1] Richard S. Wortman, The Power of Language and Rhetoric in Russian Political History: Charismatic Words from the 18th to the 21st Centuries (New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

[2] Wortman, The Power of Language and Rhetoric in Russian Political History, p. 178.

[3] Wortman, The Power of Language and Rhetoric in Russian Political History, pp. 179-80. Wortman notes as well that although the concept was used in the Hapsburg monarchy, “it did prevent granting autonomy to national areas” or the emperor from conferring authority on a chancellor.” Wortman, The Power of Language and Rhetoric in Russian Political History, pp. 180-1. However, it should be noted that, as Wortman himself references in his article, Poland and Finland had autonomy within the empire. Also, as alluded to by Wortman, power was divided under the new 1906 Fundamental Laws, with some power being transferred from the sovereign to the government and Duma.

[4] Wortman, The Power of language and Rhetoric in Russian Political History, p. 181.

[5] James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (New York: Vintage, 1970), p. 78.

To be continued…

[6] Martin Malia, Russia Under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 12-13.

[7] Gordon M. Hahn, The Russian Dilemma: The West and the Making of Russia’s Security Culture, unpublished manuscript, available from the author’s archive.

[8] Yu. M. Lotman, “Rol’ dual’nykh modelei v dinamike russkoi kul’tury do kontsa XVIII veka,” in Yu. M. Lotman, ed., Istoriya i tipologiya russkoi kul’tury (St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo – Sankt Peterburga, 2002), pp. 89 and 103.

[9] Vyacheslav Morozov, Rossiya i Drugie: Identichnost’ i granitsy politicheskogo soobshchestvo (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2009), p. 247.

[10] Lotman, “Rol’ dual’nykh modelei v dinamike russkoi kul’tury do kontsa XVIII veka.”

[11] Lotman, “Rol’ dual’nykh modelei v dinamike russkoi kul’tury do kontsa XVIII veka,” pp. 111-13.

[12] Lotman, “Rol’ dual’nykh modelei v dinamike russkoi kul’tury do kontsa XVIII veka,” p. 90.

[13] I. V. Kireevskii, “O kharaktere prosveshchenie Yevropy”, in I. V. Kireevskii, Estetika i Kritika (Moscow: Isskustvo, 1979), pp. 290.

[14] Grigorii Tul’chinskii, Politicheskaya kul’tura Rossii: Istochniki, uroki, and perspektivy (St. Petersburg: Aleteiya, 2018), p. 71.

[15] Tul’chinskii, Politicheskaya kul’tura Rossii: Istochniki, uroki, and perspektivy, p. 72.

[16] Tul’chinskii, Politicheskaya kul’tura Rossii: Istochniki, uroki, and perspektivy, p. 94.

Gordon M. Hahn

Gordon M. Hahn

About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021). Previously, he has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002).
He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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