Though I often explore Berdyaev's ideas and themes on this blog, I don't profess to be a Berdyaev expert. In fact, I'm certain that I don't really "get" many of Berdyaev's ideas. All the same, most of his work resonates with me -- some of it quite deeply.
Having said that, my respect for Berdyaev extends past his philosophy and goes all the way to the man himself. He spent most of his life concentrating on Christianity, but unlike so many others who do the same, Berdyaev was one of those rare souls who actually practiced what he preached when it mattered most.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn refers to Nikolai Berdyaev a few times in The Gulag Archipelago. The philosopher's name first appears in the second chapter of Gulag in which Solzhenitsyn painstakingly outlines how the secret police went about rounding up suspected enemies and counterrevolutionaries in the early 1920s. Appropriately enough, Solzhenitsyn called this harrowing chapter The History of Our Sewage System, and in the opening pages of this chapter he devotes some time to the arrests and persecutions of religious figures (bold added):
Men of religion were an inevitable part of every annual "catch", and their silver locks gleamed in every cell and in every prisoner transport en route to the Solovetsky Islands.
From the early twenties on, arrests were also made among groups of theosophists, mystics, spiritualists. (Count Palen's group used to keep official transcripts of its communications with the spirit world.) Also, religious societies and philosophers of the Berdyaev circle. The so-called "Eastern Catholics" -- followers of Vladimir Solovyev-- were arrested and destroyed in passing, as was the group of A.J. Abrikosova. And, of course, ordinary Roman Catholics -- Polish Catholic priests, etc. -- were arrested, too, as part of the normal course of events.
Later, in Chapter Three -- The Interrogation -- Solzhenitsyn intensely explores the psychological and spiritual implications of being interrogated after arrest and succinctly illustrates the manner in which Nikolai Berdyaev dealt with interrogation after he was rounded up by the secret police:
So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?
What do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?
From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: "My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there's nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die -- now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.
Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble.
Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.
But how can one turn one's body to stone?
Well, they managed to turn some individuals from the Berdyaev circle into puppets for a trial, but they didn't succeed with Berdyaev. They wanted to drag him into an open trial; they arrested him twice; and (in 1922) he was subjected to a night interrogation by Dzerzhinsky himself. Kamanev was there too (which means that he too was not averse to using the Checka in an ideological conflict). But Berdyaev did not humiliate himself. He did not beg or plead. He set forth firmly those religious and moral principles which had led him to refuse to accept the political authority established in Russia. And not only did they come to the conclusion that he would useless for a trial, but they liberated him.
A human being has a point of view!