The Return of Pavel Florensky
In the words of A Prayer for Russia:
Valery Balabanov says that he always paints his pictures with a profound sense of penitence and a conviction that the Russian people are showing penitence in word and in deed. In this connection, he recalled an exhibition held in Moscow at the end of the 1980s dedicated to the victims of Stalin’s reprisals. ”The first three halls accommodated the works of so-called ‘enemies of the people’”, Balabanov said. “These were wonderful artists, wonderful people, who were destroyed in Stalin’s camps. Under each of the paintings one saw a terrifying caption, ‘Sentence: executed’. At the time, my painting launched an exposition of works by contemporary authors, also dedicated to victims of Stalinism. It was entitled The Return of Pavel Florensky, an Orthodox priest who died in the camps in 1937. I felt that the Lord had granted me the right to put in a word on behalf of those who were put to death in those days of dark obscurity”.
We should say a word or two concerning Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), one of the most controversial figures in 20th century Orthodoxy. He’s considered an equivocal figure at best. After graduating from university, he attended the theological academy and was ordained a priest. He taught at the academy and wrote his magnum opus, The Pillar and Ground of Truth (most sources consider it heretical). The main idea is “Sophiology“, something which later feminist heterodox thinkers have elaborated upon. The details aren’t important, as the Church rejected this thesis, for it’s incompatible with the accepted theology of the Church. He served time in various labour camps, interspersed with activities as a scientist working for the communist regime. Solzhenitsyn is reputed to have said that Florensky was the most brilliant person to be consumed by the GULag. That may be so, but, as a clerical friend of mine is fond of saying, “gore ot uma” (“sorrow comes from the mind”, an old Russian folk-saying). Florensky wasn’t the first intellectual to be led astray by his unguided studies (Tolstoy comes to mind), nor was he the last (Schmemann comes to mind).
For us, as Orthodox in America, this figure has a curious part in our history. Florensky’s thought influenced one Gleb Podmoshensky (Fr Herman in monasticism) and led his monastery at Platina CA into a vagantist hegira. As long as Seraphim Rose was alive, there was a sheet anchor against heresy. When Seraphim died, Podmoshensky went on a curious (to say the least) spiritual journey, and he often quoted Florensky in his writings. Many unformed converts were influenced by this singular (to use the nicest term) man, and some thought that Florensky was a thoroughly Orthodox figure, which he wasn’t. I believe that his monastery has returned to mainstream Orthodoxy (under the Serbs? I stand under correction in this…). Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter whether Florensky was a heretic or not when one decides to honour those killed by the communists. On the other hand, he wasn’t a martyr, and we’ll never glorify him as a saint. May God give his troubled soul rest.