Sergii Bulgakov: Easter Thoughts

with commentary by Regula Zwahlen

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Image: M.V. Nesterov, from “Narod” Issue 1

This article was published in the first issue of the newspaper “Narod” (“People”), published in Kiev in April 1906, with Sergii Bulgakov and A. S. Glinka (Volzhsky) as editors. The newspaper “Narod” was conceived as a printed edition of the failed political project the “Union of Christian Politics.” In the period from April 2 to April 10, seven issues came out; then, the newspaper was closed by a court decision. All issues featured articles of Bulgakov.

The translated text is offered here with commentary by Regula Zwahlen.

SB: To the sounds of bells, with the rejoicing of nature and people, on the greatest of Christian feasts, we start our modest work.

Again the Christian world celebrates the final victory of good over evil, of life over death, of creative, constructive love over corrupting enmity; and it celebrates this victory, accomplished by the God-man and saving the world and people forever, as a pledge and an anticipation of the eternal resurrection of the world and transfiguration of creation. And, anticipating the final triumph by faith, the Christian world experiences it even now as a fact already being realized, as the shining of light in the darkness around us, as a flaming love and its joy in the midst of the kingdom of hostility and discord.

The Risen Christ still arises in the soul of every person, and in the soul of the nations and the bright radiance of the Risen One, breaking into the darkness of the night, not only blinds the joyful eye, but also pierces the darkness in which we live with the dazzling light of conscience, illuminating the Golgotha which we create from the world. And the singing of angels in heaven merges with wheezing and groans coming from the place of the execution. On the day of the Resurrection, we cannot forget about Golgotha, as long as we live, and we cannot and should not conquer Golgotha.

And a joyfully excited, but at the same time mournful thought involuntarily turns to the earthly Golgotha and to everything that surrounds and creates this Golgotha: the fanatical Sanhedrin, the lazy and indifferent careerist Pilate, the brutish soldiers dividing the Robe at the foot of the Cross, and the dark people, blinded in their crying: “Crucify, crucify Him!” How close to us they are now, in Russia in 1906, these Golgotha images, how they cut and burn the heart, so that it cannot forget about them even on the day of the Resurrection; it cannot, dead from the experience, rise again in fullness together with the Risen Christ, together with the mournful and humble Magdalene, striving to meet the Risen One, full of thoughts and feelings of the week of the Passion of Christ.

In what clothes do we celebrate the feast of love? In dirty, bloody, thrice bloody rags, carrying a burden full of hungry people, of beggars, of widows and orphans on our shoulders—these are the spiritual clothes that we have, in which we go out to meet the Risen One! What torments did we not invent for Him, what crimes did we not commit against Him in the difficult times? For after all, whatever someone does, good or evil, to His brothers, to humankind, he does to Christ himself…

Have we fed the hungry? No. The Russian land, the wives, the children, the old people, the workers full of strength, are all starving by our sins, by our social untruth.

Have we satiated the prisoners in the dungeons? No, but, on the contrary, we have overflowed these dungeons, seizing the right and the guilty, we have turned the whole of Russia into some kind of jailhouse, a house of people driven mad from malice. We made Russia a country of jailers and prisoners like some kind of monsters. Remembering Herod and those who slapped and spat on Christ, we submitted the prisoners to even more torture and humiliation.

Have we done works of love? No, but we flooded Russia with blood, illuminated it with the glow of fire, filled it with the horrors of civil strife. We have turned the whole of Russia into an execution ground, where we crucify Christ again and again, we shoot, and finally, we crush “foreigners” for the glory of God[1], and even church authorities impose a seal of silence on the lips of pastors who condemn the ongoing murders[2], following the example of their infamous spiritual predecessor Caiaphas, who, as everyone knows, uttered an argument in defense of the death penalty, which remains indisputable to his spiritual children to this day: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50). Such Christians we are; that is how we realize the truth of Christ in our national life.

We have poisoned the very soul of the people, which now does not know whom and what to believe, whom to follow, where to seek the truth. We have slandered religion itself, turning it into a servant of power. We have slandered the truth of law, equating it with the right of the strong.

When will we wake up from this bloody nightmare? When will we raise our heavy gaze to see love incarnated, and will our heart “burn up” at the same time, as it burned in the Apostles on their way to Emmaus [Luke 24:13], although they did not recognize their Companion?

When will we enter the path of repentance, personal and social, so that in grief and humiliation for our crimes, we will feel that “the truth is still the same”[4] and only in this truth tis there salvation, at once personal, national, and historical? After all, it is impossible to admit that these sufferings were sent to us in vain. That the Holy Week and Golgotha were pointless. The day of Resurrection is already dawning. Something unheard of, something great, is being prepared and accomplished in history.

We live in an atmosphere of great anticipation, in an atmosphere of an impending miracle… We are also experiencing the eve of our national resurrection. Sooner or later, this resurrection will take place, transforming the external and internal form of the people. Finally, the Russian people will defeat their real “internal” enemy, smash their prison, awaken their enchanted, sleepy kingdom; their long-standing, freedom-loving and philanthropic dreams will come true.”

RZ: Why does this text sound as if it were written today? Bulgakov published it after Russia’s lost war against Japan and the first Russian revolution of 1905, when the Tsar’s October Manifesto allowed freedom of the press and the country to move toward its first elections (Catherine Evuthov, The Cross & the Sickle: Sergei Bulgakov and the Fate of Russian Religious Philosophy, 1890–1920, 109ff). The text sounds as if it were written today, because in the meantime Russia’s “burden on her shoulders” has grown to an unimaginable size. The text sounds as if it were written today, because today, authors like Maxim Trudolyubov are still writing articles with titles like “We live in a closet stuffed with skeletons” (in Russian, in German) about the need of a trial over the crimes of the Russian state, because “in the war against Ukraine, all of the Russian state’s worst facets in its Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet guises have coalesced.”

By accusing the Imperial Church of having become a “servant of power” by pretending to “protect Orthodoxy,” Bulgakov’s text reminds us, that we are not “only” talking about cruel Soviet atheist crimes, that Memorial had exposed, but also about the earlier Imperial crimes, about which church authorities imposed “a seal of silence on the lips of pastors who condemn the ongoing murders.” Despite the Church’s own immense sufferings, church authorities added their own share to Russia’s burden in Soviet times—still hidden in the KGB archives, because the findings were considered too dangerous for the Church revival. And today the Russian Church—rather a mere reconstruction of the Imperial Church than a phoenix from the ashes of the Church Council of 1917/18—is once again immensely adding to the burden by justifying this horrific war against Ukraine in the name of “divine law.”

The now following last passage of “Easter Thoughts” reflects a problematic side of Russian thought, since it reveals Bulgakov’s own strong Russian messianism. I would like to preface this passage with the fact that only the engagement with European Christian thought in exile after 1922 led him and other Russian thinkers to overcome their own stereotyped views on nations and confessions. Their constant struggle against Eurasianist and Russian nationalist and fascist views, but especially their insights with regard to the “German Christians” and the French “Action catholique” in the 1930s, enhanced their awareness of the problem of nationalism within the Church and enforced their emphasis on Christian universalism (see Antoine Arjakovsky, The Way: Religious Thinkers of the Russian Emigration in Paris and their Journal, 1925–1940). In an article titled “Nation and Humanity” from 1934, Bulgakov wrote that it is “a blasphemous pretension by whatever people to think of itself as a chosen people, that is the people of Christ. All people are peoples of Christ (Natsiia i chelovechestvo, in: id. Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh, t. 2, p. 650, 652). So, here’s the final passage of Bulgakov’s “Easter thoughts” from 1906:

SB: “The Russian people will win and receive their freedom, arranging their life on Christian, not on Muslim or on Turkish [Bulgakov means: despotic] principles, on which it is now based. However, this is not enough, it is so little that if we were talking only about this, we would not be inspired, although we would have been pleased in such a prospect. But this is not the only thing what we expect from the Russian people. Beyond the dawn of freedom, we see a new, heavenly dawn. We expect that, freed from external bondage and spiritual control, our people will fulfill their highest, religious calling, they will say a still unheard word, the word of salvation to the world.

We still share the belief of Dostoevsky and Solovyov that our people, this destructive hooligan with the bestial face, mired in stinking sin, is still a God-bearing people, and has its own important and defined task in world history, regarding world salvation. Let the heavy stone be rolled away from the tomb, the stone which does not let out either the dead or the living, and from that tomb, the four-day-dead, stinking, but resurrected Lazarus will come out to meet his Lord. This faith inspires our patriotism and gives meaning to the contemporary historical events, to the liberation movement, to the starting emancipation of the Russian Church, to everything and anything. And these religious aspirations warm up life and sanctify for us our daily work and struggle.”

RZ: If one thinks the old and wise Bulgakov lost some of his youthful holy wrath about social injustice, I recommend the reading of his last book on the Apocalypse of John, written during World War II. It is a book about the fact that divine “judgement is not only on individual persons, but also on the social and political system, all kinds of despotism, both state and economic.” And it is a book about “vengeance for all kinds of violence done by man to man” (The Apocalypse of John: An Essay in Dogmatic Interpretation [Münster: Aschendorff, 2019], 146).

Bulgakov certainly did not suffer from Russophobia, but from horror about Russia’s “bestial face,” and at the same time from a fervent loving heartache for his home country when he closed his text with the following prayer:

SB: “Resurrect, Christ, in Your people, shine with Your truth the darkness of the evil enmity of man to man and of tribe to tribe, squander the enemies of Your work, incinerate our sluggishness and cold indifference, ignite and burn our hearts with Your fire.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” [Rev. 22:20]


[1] This refers to the Jewish pogroms, which swept Russia like a wave in 1905. The instigators and organizers justified their actions with pseudo-Orthodox rhetoric. In November 1905, a number of official church publications published articles by well-known church hierarchs condemning the pogroms.

[2] On December 20, 1905, the Holy Synod issued the instruction “According to the information on reprehensible behavior of some priests during popular unrest,” which ordered the bishops to strengthen control over the clergy.

[3] This line comes from the poem by A. K. Tolstoy “Against the current.”


Regula Zwahlen is Head of the Sergii Bulgakov Research Center at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland).

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.