Vladimir Solovyov is not very well known in the Christian West. But he should be.
Born in 1853 into an Orthodox family in Moscow (his father was an important historian and his grandfather was a priest), Solovyov worked for much of his short adult life (he died in 1900 at forty-seven) for a rapprochement between the Christian East and the Christian West, between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. He knew his was an impossible task, and his last recorded words attest to this impossibility: “Hard is the work of the Lord.”
Solovyov is widely acknowledged as one of the most important Russian philosophers of the nineteenth century, and he influenced some of the most important Russian theologians and thinkers of the twentieth, not the least of which were Fr. Pavel Florensky (1882 – 1937), Fr. Sergei Bulgakov (1871 – 1944), and Nicholas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948).
Solovyov was connected to some of the most important of the day’s intelligentsia, most notably Count Leo Tolstoy and the great novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, in fact, based two of the brothers Karamazov on Solovyov: Ivan, the intellectual armed with a chilling control of reason, and Aloysha, the embodiment of piety and Christian charity. Besides his philosophical writings, Solovyov’s genius touched on literary criticism, poetry, drama, and mysticism. His last work, Three Conversations, a philosophical narrative modeled on Plato’s dialogue form, has much in the way of relevance for us today.
Near the end of the book, one of the characters, Mr. Z (based on the author) relates the contents of a manuscript allegedly found in the dusty library of a monastery. A Short Narrative of the Anti-Christ is an incredibly stirring—and startlingly accurate in many regards—imagination (some might same prophecy) about the days to come.
Among other things, the narrative describes a unified Europe, the rise of Islam as a world power, the ascendency of China and Japan, and the decline of religion. But it is his portrait of the Anti-Christ that is especially compelling.
Solovyov’s Anti-Christ is not a totalitarian military leader and politician along the lines of Napoleon or Hitler or Pol Pot. Rather, he is an idealist who writes a book full of hope, The Open Way to Universal Prosperity and Peace. The book becomes a million (probably a billion) seller. Its author rises to prominence and becomes World Emperor. Solovyov depicts the Emperor as a man of the highest ethical standards, forbidding vivisection and himself a practicing vegetarian. He only has one problem: the few remaining Christians in the world (45 million according to the book) are a bit of a thorn in his side. He calls a worldwide congress.
At the congress, the Emperor promises the three main branches of tottering Christianity everything they want—or, at least, what he thinks they want. To the Catholics he promises to hold intact the primacy of Peter. To the Orthodox he upholds holy tradition. To Protestants he lends his formidable voice to the free interpretation of Scripture. Two-thirds of all Christians take the bait and go over to his side.
Among those who refuse the bait are the leaders of the three groups: Pope Peter II, the Elder John, and Professor Ernst Pauli. Their tiny remnants informally unite. Then the Elder John sets out their terms:
“For us the dearest thing of all in Christianity is Christ Himself—He alone, all is from Him, for we know that in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead in the flesh. From thee, sire, we are ready to accept every good thing, if only in thy generous hand we recognize the holy hand of Christ…here is our answer: ‘Confess now before us, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who came in the flesh, Who rose from the dead, and Who will come again. Confess Him, and we, with love will receive you as the true forerunner of His glorious coming.”
Needless to say, the Emperor is in no mood to bargain.
I first encountered Solovyov through this work in my late twenties and I have been rolling it over in my soul ever since. What still strikes me about it is how Solovyov accurately describes the subtle way in which evil rises to power: not through shows of power and coercion, but through appearing to be good.
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” ~ 1 John 5:21
Spero columnist Michael Martin PhD is a professor of English at Marygrove College.