Solovyov's Russia and the Catholic Church

Vladimir Solovyov’s thought and writings dominated the literary, philosophical, and theological currents of late 19th century Russia. His death in 1900 did not put an end to this influence.  In 2003, the Ukrainian Catholic University held a conference on the theme of his book Russia and the Universal Church. This commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Solovyov’s birth prompted Pope John Paul II to herald the participants of this conference with a Vatican address wherein he noted the significance of this man and his work. John Paul II considered Solovyov to be a giant in terms of moral and political philosophy, theology and spirituality—a view he had also expressed five years earlier in the encyclical Fides et Ratio. Since Solovyov’s life was indelibly marked by the thirst for divine wisdom, it is no surprise that he also desired to see that wisdom most perfectly embodied in the world. This was the deepest motivation for his lifelong attempt to bring the Eastern and Western churches back into full union. As John Paul II stated in his address:

Solovyov harbored the ardent desire that the Churches would likewise enter into a perspective of encounter and communion, each one contributing the treasures of her own tradition and feeling mutually responsible for the unity of the faith and for ecclesial discipline. With a view to attaining this goal, so dear to the great Russian thinker, the Catholic Church has irrevocably committed herself at all levels.[1]

Pope John Paul II did not mention, no doubt out of tact, the indispensable role Solovyov gave to papal primacy in any future encounter and communion between the East and West. Throughout his life, Vladimir Solovyov was often accused of being a crypto-Catholic and a papist. The question of whether or not Solovyov was Catholic or “converted” to Catholicism is a complicated one. His unwavering support for the primacy of Rome, however, was an accusation that we can say was true without qualification. As early as 1886, he was developing generously ecumenical and pro-Catholic sympathies. It was in this year that he met with the Croat Catholic Bishop Joseph Strossmayer to discuss plans for Church unity. Strossmayer was so impressed with this Russian sage that he recommended him to the papal nuncio in Vienna and even arranged for a meeting to take place between Solovyov and Pope Leo XIII. We have no evidence to support that this meeting ever took place. We do know, however, that Pope Leo considered his ideas (whether in written form or in discussion) and gave bewildered though skeptical approval to these beautiful, sprawling, and utopian writings.[2]

Though he never made any official abjuration of the Russian Orthodox Church, Solovyov did subscribe wholeheartedly to those teachings considered most controversial by the Eastern Churches: the Immaculate Conception, the Filioque, and the juridical supremacy of the Roman See.[3] His book—and the theme of the 2003 Ukrainian Catholic conference—Russia and the Universal Church, was a robust historical and theological defense of this last doctrine which he published in France in 1889 to avoid Russian censorship. Placed at the end of the introduction to this book was a declaration of faith which made it clear that his hope for Church unity rested in the formal and practical acknowledgement of the Petrine Office:

As a member of the true and venerable Eastern or Greco-Russian Orthodox Church, which does not speak through an uncanonical Synod or officials of the secular Government, but through the voice of its great Fathers and Teachers, I acknowledge as the supreme judge in matters of religion him who has been recognized as such by St. Irenaeus, St. Dionysius the Great, St. Athanasius the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril, St. Flavian, the blessed Theodoret, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Ignatius and others—namely, the Apostle Peter living in his successors to whom not in vain Our Lord said; “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church. Strengthen thy brethren. Feed my sheep, feed my lambs.”

His actions on February 3, 1896 confirm that he maintained and acted on these beliefs for the sake of his conscience and the good of Christ’s Church. On this day, in front of witnesses, he handed over this same confession in writing to Fr. Nikolay Tolstoy, a Byzantine Catholic priest, while in Moscow. He also recited the Creed according to the form in which the Catholic Church receives those who are already Christian.  Fr. Tolstoy then gave him Communion. Solovyov’s sympathies with Roman dogmas was public knowledge but he had been able to still receive communion among the Russian Orthodox. But by partaking of Catholic Communion, he had now put himself explicitly at odds with Russian canon law. There is evidence that while he never changed his beliefs concerning the dogmas in question, at the end of his life he may have repented of defying these canons.[4] Further complicating the question of his “conversion” is the fact that Solovyov clearly did not believe that there was any official legal status to the East-West schism. The excommunications on the part of Pope Leo IX were specific to Michael Cerularius and “the partners of his folly” not the Eastern Orthodox churches writ large. On the other side, Solovyov did not think any single Eastern patriarch was able to speak authoritatively for Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole let alone condemn the Latin Church. Apart from the promulgation of a decree from an Orthodox Ecumenical Council there could be no formal schism. As a consequence, it was impossible for him to consider any ultimately real division in the “Catholic-Orthodox Church.”[5]

What then did Solovyov think was necessary to turn this real but imperfect unity of the Church into a perfect one? Since he never gave any intimation of repudiating Russia and the Universal Church, it remains the most authentic and most systematic treatment of his thought on the matter. His argument throughout not only draws on history for examples and proofs (Solovyov’s father was a notably gifted historian of Russia who published twenty-nine volumes on the subject and tutored Alexander III) but treats history as an arena of fundamental importance. In a lengthy preface, he draws on numerous positive examples of Greek Saints, Doctors, and Fathers championing the authority of Rome in dogmatic and conciliar matters during the first nine centuries. Solovyov also sees the dominance of the Byzantine emperor over the Eastern Church (which he does not hesitate to call Caesaropapism) a major disqualifying factor. He saw no counterpart in the Byzantine Empire to the voice of Hildebrand or Innocent III who zealously defended the liberty of the Church against the state in the medieval period.

Solovyov perceived an inner link between dogma and models of political and social order. For him, it was no surprise that the rash of Byzantine emperors who championed in turn Arian, Nestorian, Monophysite, Monothelite, and Iconoclast heresies, also raised themselves to quasi-divine status and considered the Church and matters of theology to be under their political jurisdiction. Each Christological or Trinitarian heresy contains the seeds of a Church-State relationship inimical to Christian thought and practice:

Heresy attacked the perfect unity of the divine and the human in Jesus Christ precisely in order to undermine the living bond between Church and State, and to confer upon the latter an absolute independence. Hence it is clear why the emperors of the Second Rome, intent on maintaining within Christendom the absolutism of the pagan Sate, were so partial to all the heresies, which were but manifold variations on a single theme.[6]

Solovyov emphasizes the role of the papacy in the overthrow of all these imperial heresies culminating in Pope Leo the Great’s role in the Council of Chalcedon. Instead of capitulating to the robber-council of Ephesus, like the majority of Greek bishops who were even complicit in the martyrdom of St. Flavian,

The Papacy appeared in all its moral power and majesty in the person of St. Leo the Great. At Chalcedon the great number of Greek bishops who had taken part in Dioscorus’ robber-council were obliged to beg forgiveness of the legates of Pope Leo, who was hailed as the divinely inspired head of the Universal Church.[7]

Solovyov noted that the Eastern Orthodox celebrate the triumph of orthodoxy in the elimination of the final imperial heresy of Iconoclasm in 842—though he reminds us that Pope Adrian I had accomplished this task half a century earlier in the seventh ecumenical council (787). Whatever the case, the Byzantine emperors would no longer advocate heretical dogmas and things settled into a relative peace. Solovyov viewed this peace and the concomitant rise in anti-Roman and anti-papal sentiment with distrust:

The two powers had come to terms and had made their peace, bound to one another by a common idea: the denial of Christianity as a social force and as the motive principle of historical progress. The Emperors permanently embraced “Orthodoxy” as an abstract dogma, while the orthodox prelates bestowed their benediction in saecula saeculorum on the paganism of Byzantine public life.[8]

Solovyov’s unremitting criticism of Byzantine anti-Catholicism, both before and after the ninth century, is rooted in his understanding of the Chalcedonian dogma. If Christ is truly God and man, both natures unconfused but united, then the mystery of Christ is also the mystery of humanity in its historical, social, and political destiny. For Solovyov, the lack of ecumenical councils in the East was not a sign of pristine uncorrupted Orthodoxy, but of an “inbred heresy” of the practical order. This was not a superficial desire to see the East be more lively in a trivial sense. His concern was that the lack of councils and development was a symptom of the Eastern churches relinquishing their role in the social development of humanity. He relates the story of St. Nicholas and St. Cassian as being exemplary of the two churches. Both saints pass a wagoner stuck in the mud. Nicholas jumps into the mud and lends his back to help the peasant. Cassian, fearing to stain his garments, declines. When they arrive in heaven, St. Peter rewards Nicholas with two feast days but Cassian’s feast is placed on a leap day and he must be content to be celebrated only once every four years. In this folk tale, Solovyov sees a parable concerning the two churches. “The Western Church aimed at employing all its powers, divine and human, for the attainment of a universal goal; the Eastern Church was only concerned with the preservation of its purity. There is the chief point of difference and the fundamental cause of the schism between the two churches.”[9] This is by no means a Protestant (or Nietzschean) condemnation of monasticism, asceticism, or contemplation. Solovyov does not see anything intrinsically world-denying about any of these practices which constitute the highest forms of religious life. Instead, Solovyov’s criticism is that the East should have kept these things as well as attempted to make labor, politics, and economics an arena of sanctification and unity with God. You ought to have done these and not left the other undone. The monks of Mt. Tabor are perfectly right in their efforts to gaze upon the uncreated light, however:

Where in the East is the Church . . . which establishes and develops the formulation of eternal truth with which to counteract the continually changing forms of error? Where is the Church which labors to re-mold the whole social life of the nations in accordance with the Christian ideal, and to guide them towards the supreme goal of Creation—free and perfect union with the Creator?[10]

It is also important to realize that Solovyov does not gloss over the sins of the Latin Church. While Rome maintained the freedom of the Church against the encroachment of the State and actively attempted to develop humanity, she failed to remove the injustices of civil and economic slavery or to reform Europe’s barbaric penal code which included torture and capital punishment (Solovyov was a notable early opponent of this last practice). Even worse, the papacy succumbed to the temptation to mix her spiritual authority with temporal weapons in suppressing and even executing heretics by means of the civil power. All of these failures obscured the true significance of both spiritual authority and spiritual freedom given in the Church. Humanity must submit to God but this mutual union can only take place in the same freedom which Mary had in the moment of the Annunciation, not by coercive violence.


Solovyov interpreted the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution as justifiable revolts against the despotic means used by the papacy and the failures of social justice in Christendom generally. “A hundred years ago in France, the vanguard of humanity, set out to inaugurate a new era with the proclamation of the Rights of Man. Christianity had indeed many centuries earlier conferred upon men not only the right but the power to become the sons of God—ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς ἐξουσίαν τέκνα θεοῦ γενέσθαι (John 1:12). But the new proclamation made by France was far from superfluous, for this supreme power of mankind was almost entirely ignored in the social life of Christendom.”[11] Solovyov was no reactionary or reflexive anti-modern and saw the positive and justified elements not only of the French Revolution but of any revolution against tyrannical regimes. Though he considered Protestantism and the declaration of 1789 to be an insufficient positive model for social, political, and religious order, he recognized the truth within them. In regard to the split or Raskol between the official Russian Orthodox Church and the Old Believers in the mid-seventeenth century, Solovyov said the following:

We do not underrate the great part played in the rise of the Raskol by the profoundest ignorance, ultra-democratic tendencies, and the spirit of revolt. We shall not therefore look to it for any higher truth or any positive religious ideal. Nevertheless we are bound to note that there has always been a spark of the divine fire in this crude and even senseless incitement of the passions of the mob. There is in it a burning thirst for religious truth, a compelling need for a true and living Church.[12]

The West and the East were both guilty of failing to live up to the social and political truths inherent in the Gospel. However, Solovyov was convinced that it was only through the Petrine Office that the Church could become what it was meant to be—a universal, spiritual authority through which God comes to us and we come to God. Now that Rome had been stripped of its political power, he thought the temptation to short-circuit human freedom through coercive means had been removed. Now all that remained was the recognition of this external point of unity among the Eastern Churches. It was his Russian countrymen in particular that Solovyov most fervently hoped to convince.

For the most part, Solovyov’s consideration of the Russian Church in Part I of Russia and the Universal Church mirrored his criticism of the Byzantine Church in the preface. Without the papacy as a fixed external point of unity, Russia was doomed to become a merely national church under the thumb of the state under Peter the Great. The modern period only added a Kafkaesque element to this tragedy by literally making the Russian Church a bureau of the government. “Deprived of any specific principle or practical independence, this 'Ministry of the Spiritual Affairs of the Orthodox Communion' can only reproduce the imperial clericalism of Byzantium modified by the easy going good nature of our own people and the Teutonic bureaucracy of our administration.”[13] With this in mind, Solovyov turned to the Slavophile-Westernizer controversy that dominated the intellectual life of Russia at the time. In brief, this controversy had been sparked by the public letters of Petr Chaadayev between 1826 and 1831, which fiercely criticized Russia’s absence on the world stage and accused it of cultural and intellectual backwardness. This in turn led to a defense of Russia’s particularity and cultural genius by self-described Slavophiles Aleksey Khomiakov and Ivan Kireyevsky who excoriated Western individualism and rationalism as the true intellectual and moral bankruptcy. Solovyov himself did not fall neatly into either category. It is true that he did consider Western philosophical thought to have reached its limits in The Crisis of Western Philosophy: Against the Positivists, written at the tender age of 21.[14]

But like the Westernizers, he owed a great deal to the work of the late period of German Idealism, Hegel and Schelling in particular. Like the Slavophiles, he believed that there was a particular Russian genius and agreed with the ideal of sobornost as an ecclesial and social ideal of free and organic unity. He found their elaboration of this model, however, to be lacking and instead turned to Western Catholic theologians like Adam Möhler for a more convincing theological and ecclesiological account.[15] At every turn he sought to transcend the Slavophile-Westernizer debate, rejecting the anti-Catholicism of the former and the rationalism of the latter. He even managed to enlist the writings of the last of the Slavophiles, I.S. Aksakov and George Samarin, as support for his arguments. After hearing of the First Vatican Council, Samarin wrote:

Papal absolutism has not killed the vitality of the Catholic clergy; this should give us food for thought, for some day or other we shall hear promulgated the infallibility of the Tsar . . . When that day comes shall we find a single bishop, a single monk or a single priest who will protest?[16]

Solovyov believed that day came in 1885, after Samarin’s death, when the Russian government declared that the authority of the Eastern Church now lay in the hands of the Tsar. Aksakov, last of the Slavophiles, ran an article of prophetic condemnation in his periodical Russ. It was an anonymous submission by Vladimir Solovyov. It was the lack of outrage and response to this final enslavement of the Church that no doubt provoked his writing of Russia and the Universal Church in 1889.

Editorial Statement: This post is part of an ongoing “Ressourcement Futures” series that will look at the mid-century (mostly) French movement of recovering the sources of Christian culture, the movements antecedents, its continued influence, and satellite figures. Posts will be collected here as they are published.


[1]Message of John Paul II to the participants in the conference on the theme: “Vladimir Solovyov, Russia and the Universal Church”

[2] S.L. Frank reports that Leo XIII said "Bella idea, ma fuor d’un miracolo, e cosa impossibile" (a beautiful idea but, short of a miracle, impossible to carry out).

[3] He called the rejection of these dogmas “arbitrary negations” adding “theologians blinded by hatred have the temerity to deny the manifest belief of the Eastern Church, both Greek and Russian, which has never ceased to declare the Blessed Virgin to be all-immaculate, immaculate par excellence.”

[4] For a fascinating exploration of these events see Appendix 1: Was Solovyov a Convert to Roman Catholicism? in S.L. Frank’s A Solovyov Anthology.

[5] This particular point of “The Myth of Schism” has also been persuasively argued by prominent Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart

[6] Vladimir Solovyov, Russia and the Universal Church, 14.

[7] Ibid., 20-21.

[8] Ibid., 23-24.

[9] Ibid., 40.

[10] Ibid., 41.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Ibid., 52.

[13] Ibid., 51.

[14] Incidentally, the breadth and quality of this work prompted the Russian historian, Bestuzhev-Ryumin to say “Russia may be congratulated upon a new genius.”

[15] The correspondence between Solovyov and certain Catholic theologians concerning ecclesiology and the concept of development of doctrine has led some to call him "a Russian Newman."

[16] Ibid., 73.

Featured Image: View to the St. Basil Cathedral from Vasilyevski spusk, Moscow, Russian Federation, Photo: Anton Zelenov; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Andrew Kuiper

Andrew Kuiper usually writes about Christian theological appropriation of esoteric discourses and lives in Michigan with his wife and three children. His essays and poetry have been published in various magazines.

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