Zen'kovskii, Vasilii Vasil'evich (1881–1962)

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Vasilii Vasil'evich Zen'kovskii, a Russian philosopher and theologian, was born in Proskurov into the family of a teacher. Zen'kovskii studied natural sciences, history, and philology at Kiev University. In 19131914 he continued his education in Germany, Austria, and Italy. Following his return to Russia he was appointed a professor of psychology at Kiev University (19151919). In 1919 he immigrated to Yugoslavia, where he worked as a professor at the University of Belgrade (19201923). In 1923 he moved to Czechoslovakia, where he became the director of the Academy of Education in Prague (19231926). In 1926 he settled in France, where he was a professor of the Theological Academy in Paris until his death. In 1944 he was elected as dean of the academy. Like many Russian intellectuals of the time, Zen'kovskii went through a spiritual crisis in his youth. He became an atheist when he was fifteen years old, but later returned to the church and dedicated all of his life to developing and promoting Christian philosophy and education. In 1942 he was ordained to Orthodox Christian priesthood.


Zen'kovskii belongs to a pleiad of prominent Russian thinkers who carried on Russia's intellectual tradition after the 1917 Communist Revolution and continued it outside the homeland despite the hardships of emigration. In the history of Russian thought Zen'kovskii is best known for his two-volume classic Istoriia russkoi filosofii (History of Russian philosophy; 19481950), which still remains an unsurpassed contribution to the field. He also authored many works in philosophy, theology, psychology, pedagogy, and literary history that left a notable mark on Russian culture. Overall, his philosophical system may be described as "Orthodox universalism" (Sapov 1995) or, in Zen'kovskii's own words, as an "experiment in Christian philosophy."

Zen'kovskii began his scholarly career with the study of psychic causality. He was interested in the phenomenon of religious consciousness, more particularly in the origin of the idea of God in the human mind. According to Zen'kovskii neither the social nor the subconscious sphere could produce in human consciousness such an idea that had its true roots in the mystical experience of the interconnection between the human being and the divine realm. He points out that some people apparently lack this inner vision, and as a result they advance theories that reduce religious experience to other forms of human activity, as was the case, for example, with Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, or Sigmund Freud.

In his epistemological views Zen'kovskii rejects the autonomy and self-sufficiency of human reason. He develops a "Christocentric understanding of knowledge," which postulates that Christ as divine Logos (John 1:1) represents the ultimate generating and regulating power of human intellectual activities. More specifically, as Vadim Sapov notes, Zen'kovskii defends the "concept of 'ecclesial reason,' according to which one should search for the metaphysical basis of knowledge in the notion of the Church" (1995, p. 204) as the living body of Christ.

In his youth Zen'kovskii was to a considerable extent influenced by the nineteenth-century Russian philosophers Lev Mikhailovich Lopatin and Vladimir Sergeevich Solov'ëv (Solovyov), and his ontology also bears certain similarities to the Solov'ëvian tradition. Zen'kovskii combines here the elements of philosophy and theology by focusing on the concept of creation. He develops his own version of Sophiology that represents a variation of the Sophiological teachings of Solov'ëv and later of Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov and that centers around the notion of Sophia or God's Wisdom as the bridge between the creator and the creatures. In his Sophiological doctrine Zen'kovskii distinguishes between "ideas in God" and "ideas in the world" or between divine and created Sophia. Divine Sophia stands for God's plan of creation, while created Sophia represents the ideal foundation of the universe itself. Divine and created aspects of Sophia are connected with each other as the archetype and its image or Logos.

The concept of human personhood occupies the central place in Zen'kovskii's philosophical system. Every human being, in his view, is unique and experiences a different combination of genetic, social, and spiritual influences. Acts of freedom that are rooted in the metaphysical depth of one's self also constitute an inalienable part of the human person. Without divine grace such freedom, however, almost inevitably leads humanity to evil. The original sin that limits the creative potential of free will finds its manifestation in the "split between reason and heart." Hence, the purpose of human life consists in the restoration of lost spiritual wholeness through the church. Accordingly, the main task of any pedagogical efforts must be directed to helping the young generation in its efforts toward such a spiritual transformation.

Theological Teachings

Zen'kovskii's theological teachings are collected in his Apologetika (Apologetics; 1957), which aims at defending Christian worldview against the challenges of modern culture and science. Here as elsewhere it is hard to dissociate Zen'kovskii's religious views from his philosophical argumentation. The work addresses a variety of issues from the dogmatic question of creation to the controversial problem of freedom. When facing the paradox of freedom versus evil, Zen'kovskii joins many other Russian thinkers, including Nikolay Aleksanrovich Berdyayev, in arguing that human freedom is totally unrestricted. In Apologetics he points out that "freedom is a true freedom only if it is unlimitedin it is God's likeness" (1997, p. 406). He adds, however, that, the "Lord can commit to death, total destruction those individuals who resist a complete harmonization of being" (p. 229).

While Berdyayev in his philosophy questions divine omnipotence to proclaim the ultimate power of freedom, Zen'kovskii believes in the all-powerful God but seems to undermine God's all-goodness by forecasting a complete extermination of the wicked in the future. He refers to the authority of the Bible, according to which the "second death, i.e. annihilation awaits those who will not want to come back to God" (1997, p. 302). This interpretation reveals some of the aspects of Zen'kovskii's Orthodox Christian thought that today's readers may find rather conservative, if not fundamentalist.

See also Berdyaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich; Bulgakov, Sergei Nikolaevich; Determinism and Freedom; Durkheim, Émile; Freedom; Freud, Sigmund; Lopatin, Lev Mikhailovich; Marx, Karl; Philosophy of Religion, History of; Russian Philosophy; Solov'ëv (Solovyov), Vladimir Sergeevich.


works by zen'kovskii

Problema psikhicheskoi prichinnosti (The problem of psychic causality). Kiev, Russia: 1914.

Russkie mysliteli i Evropa (Russian thinkers and Europe). Paris: YMCA Press, 1926.

Dar svobody (The gift of freedom). Paris: 1928.

Problema vospitaniia v svete khristianskoi antropologii (The problem of education in the light of Christian anthropology). Paris: YMCA Press, 1934.

Istoriia russkoi filosofii. 2 vols. Paris: YMCA Press, 19481950.

Osnovy khristianskoi filosofii (Principles of Christian philosophy). Moscow: Kanon, 1997.

works on zen'kovskii

Lossky, N. O. History of Russian Philosophy. New York: International Universities Press, 1951.

Sapov, Vadim. "Zen'kovskii, Vasilii Vasil'evich." In Russkaia filosofiia. Malyi entsyklopedicheskii slovar' (Russian philosophy: A small encyclopedic dictionary), edited by A. I. Aleshin, 202205. Moscow: "Nauka," 1995.

Mikhail Sergeev (2005)