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Saint Elijah of Paris (Fondaminsky)
Elijah Isidorovitch Fondaminsky was born in 1880. It is difficult to evoke the figure of Elijah Isidorovich Fondaminsky without falling into the hagiographic tone. He was indeed a righteous in the Christian as well as the secular sense of the term, moreover he died a martyr. Admittedly, his chances of acceding to canonization, he a Jew and a revolutionary socialist, are minimal. But there is another canonization, secular this one, which, with the help of the People's Freedom movement, has watered down and depersonalized the biographies of the greatest number of the righteous of the Russian intelligentsia. This is why it is so important to keep the human features alive before they fade away, erased under heroic legend. A certain dose of a Bollandist-style critical approach is required here.
A rare kindness
I have never met Bunakov-Fondaminsky in Russia. Only the echo of his legend, that of a Lassale, of an Invincible, had reached me in those distant times of the first revolution. It was in Paris that I met him, shortly after my arrival in that city, at the very end of 1925 or at the beginning of 1926. I cannot say under what circumstances our meeting took place. but as far as I go back in my memories of emigration, I see myself in the comfortable Fondaminsky salon, having tea with a few visitors, or even in Elie Isidorovich's office in the middle of a business conversation or a debate of ideas with the master of the house, almost always in relation to one or other of his innumerable literary or public activities. For fifteen years I was his collaborator in all his undertakings, and in particular in the review La Cité nouvelle (Новый град), where Th.A. Stepun had joined us. I was able to observe the family life of E.I, when I was his guest in the villa he owned in Grasse. Do I have the right to call myself his friend in the Russian sense of the word? To tell the truth, I don't know. E.I. did not associate me with the intimate aspects of his life, spoke little of himself, of his past. He never complained. Others must have known him better and more deeply, but, I'm afraid, "some are no longer there, others are far away". So I see myself forced to reconstruct his interior portrait from reflections and fragments of exterior impressions.
Ilia Fondaminsky with mother Marie, Georges Skobtsov (child), Tamara Eltchaninoff (top right) and her daughter Marie Struve
Photo famille Lopoukhine
The first thing that struck and impressed about Fondaminsky was his rare kindness. It seemed endless. There are various kinds of kindness. That of E.I. manifested itself most vividly under the aspect of humility.
The gentleness and delicacy he showed in his dealings with people was indeed astonishing. I have never seen him irritated, impatient or even outraged. He seemed disposed to accept everyone in his fraternal circle, to forgive everything, to give credit in advance. The tolerance which he knew to show towards the convictions of others, even those most distant from his own or the most opposed, was quite simply unheard of in the midst of the Russian intelligentsia. He always struggled to understand what was his opponent's ultimate truth and to win his conviction rather than demolish his arguments. He often grieved the fanaticism of the Russians in his milieu and the Russian intelligentsia as a whole, always ready to turn differences of opinion into personal enmity. Such was not the case with Fondaminsky, as if he had never belonged to this "order", so esteemed by him, of the Russian intelligentsia. It is true that this tolerance is partly explained by the discovery he had made of the other side of reality. He was one of the few to have been able, at this historical turning point, to discern the authentic face, not caricatured, of both old and new Russia. But intellectual elements alone are not enough to explain his tolerance. The “enlarged Church” also has its fanatics among us. For E.I., tolerance was the expression of kindness, which in him knew how to take an active form, without being a mask of indifference. E.I. helped a large number of people both materially and morally. He came to the aid of those who deserved it and those who did not, without sparing his money. As we know, money is a more reliable index of kindness than smiles.
But there are gifts that are even more precious than money and smiles. E.I. attracted people who were gnawed by personal grief or who had strayed on the paths of life. He was to be seen not only as a friend, but as a sort of spiritual guide, a lay starets. In our time of confusion, bewilderment and despair, the need for an outside guide is stronger than ever. E.I. did not shy away from this function which had fallen to him. He even seemed to love it, abandoning his usual humility on this point. Perhaps it was because moral truths seemed clearer to him, more irrefutable than rational truths, about which he readily listened to the opinions of others. And yet, absolute as moral imperatives were to him, E.I. was not a rigorous spiritual guide. He never stigmatized, never imposed too heavy a burden. He sympathized, shared the misfortune of others and gave hope. His optimism then proved to be a miraculous remedy. One could believe that there were no tragic or hopeless situations for him in life. Or even that require death or some other painful sacrifice, sometimes worse than death. This optimism was maintained with him under the most adverse circumstances. It was not the manifestation of a natural vitality, but a confession of faith, the expression of a moral duty. No word escaped his lips more often than this « Perfect! Perfect » !, which was his favorite expression. He sometimes pronounced it when it did not seem to meke sense, in circumstances far removed from perfection. E.I. remained true to himself and his eternal optimism even during the last illness of his dearly beloved wife, when her condition was declared hopeless. Still at the cemetery, above Amalia Osipovna's grave, he tried to put a smile on his face. But there was something weird about that smile.
Of course, optimism was a valuable quality for a lay conscience director. By this optimism, E. I. made one think more of the Lucas of Gorky than of the starets of Optino. Not that he was, like Lucas or Gorky, a supporter of the "golden dream" or "the illusion that lifts us up". But he was by nature incapable of inflicting the slightest suffering on a human being. The human person was more important to him than truth, even moral truth. The love of man required above all for E.I. consolation, relief from misfortune.
If we consider that perfect love must be above pity, we have to admit that the love of E.I. was not perfect, although infinitely superior to what asceticism means by that same word. But another dimension was lacking in his love, and on this point asceticism was undoubtedly on his side: that of a truly personal relationship, what we can call choice or election: di-lectio. For many representatives of monastic ethics, but this also applies to Tolstoy, love should be equal for all, without any preference. However, in the limited heart of man, such equality makes it lukewarm, if not cold. Without a doubt, there were many of the friends of E.I. or among his spiritual children to whom he helped, to complain about his vast heart, realizing that they could not claim an exclusive place in his existence. E.I., at least in the years I knew him, had no friends, as romantics understood the word. He was aware of this trait or defect in his character and accepted with humble humor the reproach made to him of "false kindness."
The absence of hatred in E.I., his infinite tolerance if not towards evil, at least towards the wicked, his optimism finally, made the despair of his party comrades, and of many others. When you spoke to him, you could hardly convince yourself that he was the same Bounakov the Invincible that he had been before. He didn't deny anything, didn't curse anything in his past. But he had become a Christian and it had changed his nature. We do not know, and I doubt that a living person can still tell, how this conversion took place. It was apparently a long process which started in the first years of this century, that is, in the first years of his revolutionary career. Without a doubt, crises must have punctuated this spiritual journey which was generally happy. Once E.I. has alluded to one of these crises, and it is only by guesswork that we can find the solution to the riddle that constituted his personality. He said he had experienced a deep psychic shock, which had led him to nervous illness, perhaps on the verge of madness. He had emerged from this crisis renewed, but it had not been easy. It is said of those who have lived a religious conversion accompanied by a complete restructuring of their personality that they are "reborn". This term does not apply well to E.I. We think more of a beautiful vase, which would have been broken, to be then carefully glued. The traces of restoration do not appear at first glance, but can be clearly distinguished if one observes it closely. The most serious wounds heal, the bones heal, but the scars remain. Sometimes there is a muscular incapacity, such as a limp. The almost unreal humility, tolerance, optimism displayed by E.I. were if not a mask hiding his face, at least a shell in which he locked himself, the aegis allowing him to fend off the monsters he had once glimpsed, deep in chaos.
The Christianity of Elijah Fondaminski
His past as a « Narodnik » facilitated his self-education in Christianity . He had to learn humility and patience anew. But philanthropy could be transplanted as it was, painlessly. In the science of charity the righteous atheists of the Russian intelligentsia had little to learn from the Christians of their time. There also remained the “kenosis” of the Narodniks, that form of social asceticism by which the Russian intelligentsia joined the traditions of Russian holiness. The "coarse clothes" of Saint Sergius of Radonge found their correspondent in the threadbare jackets and crumpled collars that E.I wore in meetings or even at concerts, with his unshaven beard on weekdays.
He did not submit to ascetic tests, did not sleep on nails like Rakhmetov, did not deprive himself of the goods of culture and of the comforts that his material resources or rather the habits of life of his wife placed within his reach, but he felt no need for it, and it was clear that he would have given it up on the spot if circumstances had demanded.
Up to what point the Christianity of E.I. was profound and complete? It is difficult to answer this question. As we know, he only received Baptism on the eve of his death, and therefore did not participate in the sacraments of the Church or in what is called ecclesial life. But he prayed and we saw him at church every Sunday. In the last years before the war, he belonged to the small French parish of Father Gillet. One might suppose that there was in him some reticence of a dogmatic or other nature, which would have led him to postpone his entry into the Church. But E.I. always dismissed assumptions of this nature. Out of modesty, he never gave any speech or published any article touching on theology, and he successfully resisted the temptation to become an Orthodox publicist. However, the modern interpretations of the Orthodoxy of Soloviev, Bulgakov and especially Berdiaev seemed to satisfy him fully.
E.I. equally challenged this other supposition that he did not seek the sacraments because he did not feel the need for them. His philosophical idealism might make him think so, but E.I. asserted that he understood perfectly why the human being, made of flesh and spirit, needed material symbols to receive spiritual gifts. And this affirmation was sincere, although undoubtedly he went to Christ by the way of ethics more than by that of mysticism and the sacraments. When asked why he refused Baptism despite his full agreement with the Church, he replied that he was unworthy of it. And in the humility of this self-awareness there was an element of truth. Like the Christians of the fourth century, he believed that Baptism was a new turning point in life, a new impetus towards holiness. In the middle of the 20th century, he revived the catechumenate.
But there had to be yet another cause for his procrastination: his Jewish identity. The Russian element prevailed in Fondaminsky over the Jewish element, both from the point of view of culture and of moral character. But there was room in him for Jewishness. Without being particularly concerned with his own problems, he did not want to sever his ties with the Jewish people, and in the first place with the circle of friends, relatives and relatives for whom religion and national identity were inextricably linked. Even "agnostics" would not have forgiven him his Baptism, where they would have seen a betrayal. The religious tragedy of Judaism was made particularly sensitive to him by the situation of his wife, Amalia Osipovna, a Christian by conviction like him, but whose blood ties with Judaism were stronger than his. The passionate love she felt for her mother, an Orthodox Jew, made Baptism impossible for her, even after her death: A.O. did not want to be separated from her mother even in the hereafter. Such was also to be the religious drama of E.I. This drama is very reminiscent of that of Péguy, this fervent Orthodox Catholic, who until the approach of death could not go to Mass so as not to abandon his unbelieving friends, this "order" of the radical intelligentsia to which he belonged. . Moreover, Fondaminsky never broached this secret reason for his catechumenate. And always he pleaded his unworthiness.
The work of Elijah Fondaminsky
E.I. Fondaminsky was not a leading thinker. His personality remains much more striking than his writings. However, his thought worked constantly, tirelessly and selflessly and it will undoubtedly take its place in the history of Russian social thought. He shared what was his life's task, namely to build a bridge between the revolutionary movement of the « Narodniks » and Christianity. The task was not easy, as he wanted to remain a social activist and not take refuge, as many others had done after being shipwrecked, in a religion of personal salvation. Nor did he blindly follow in the footsteps of one of the new socialist leaders of Orthodoxy such as Bulgakov or Berdiaev. He wanted to find his own way.
Fondaminsky hardly had any writing skills. He was a born speaker, and most of what he wrote was the notation of uninterrupted inner discourse. Moreover, he did not write much, preferring to promote the thought of others or of common thought. One can study his ideas by referring to his great unfinished work entitled « The Ways of Russia », which was published in the « Contemporary Notes », as well as his articles in the journal The New City (Новый град) (1931-1939).
The « Ways of Russia » deal with the past. It is an attempt to analyze the political ideology which was at the basis of the building of the Russian state. E.I. carried out his investigation until the 19th century, always remaining within the sphere of a single idea: the Russian autocratic idea.
Like the Eurasians, along with Danilevski and Spengler, Fondaminsky asserted the fundamental opposition of Russia and Europe. He placed Russia in the cultural sphere of the East with Egypt and China. The Muscovite Kingdom was for him the highest manifestation of the Russian idea in the past, and in the autocracy he saw the political faith of the Russian people. This conception of autocracy had been inspired in him by the Russian Slavophiles, whom he deeply venerated, like the fathers of the Russian Narodnik movement. In historical sources, mainly from the seventeenth century, he had drawn a very large number of materials with a view to characterizing the ideal of the Moscow ruler, father of the people, defender of orphans and the oppressed. The scientific value of this work was undermined by its bias. Fondaminski could see and study only one aspect of reality, and he had in his palette only colors without nuances. But after Tikhomirov, of « People's Freedom », it is Fondaminsky, the revolutionary socialist, who brings together the richest material for understanding the spirit of the Russian autocracy.
In the broad field of culture, and not politics, Fondaminsky gave his ideal the name of humanism. This was of course only a semantic misunderstanding, very frequent in our community. We confuse humanism with humanity, and consider man not as a creative being, but as a suffering being. Humanism merges with the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, but at the same time we must exclude the Renaissance humanists who gave it its name, as well as the great humanists of our time: Goethe, Nietzsche, Vyacheslav Ivanov . On the other hand, it includes Belinsky and Dobrolioubov, Dickens and Nekrasov. Fondaminsky's humanism was purely ethical, in the extension of the panmoralist tradition of Russian Narodniks. However, Fondaminski was not a stranger to all aesthetic culture. You could meet him at a concert or in an art exhibition. He appreciated art sincerely, and his judgments, always modest, did not show too much incompetence. However, the aesthetic principle had not found a place in his vision of the world. It is probable that neither Nietzsche nor the decadents had ever touched his soul, and had in no way damaged his moral integrity. That was his strength and his happiness. Reconciling Nietzsche with Christ, a task Berdiaev had set out to do, was incomparably more difficult to accomplish than it was with Nekrasov. But Fondaminsky's universe was constricted, one breathed a confined atmosphere. Despite the attraction exerted on him by the contemporary world and the future, his whole figure was that of another age: the shadow cast from the 19th century.
Humanism as understood by Fondaminsky was certainly of Christian origin, and yet, according to him, it had been realized or at least manifested to the world by the French Revolution. A strange error, shared by many. In this sense, Fondaminsky, who had not studied the history of Europe as closely as that of Russia, remained faithful to the illusions of his youth. But he was well aware that as the monarchical faith was lost there, Russia became the arena of the fight between autocracy and the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Personally, in the last half of his life, Fondaminsky was not so much a fighter as a herald of this revolutionary humanism. He watched in his homeland the sinking of his ideals in the flames of a totalitarian revolution, but did not despair. He had an even more bitter experience: he saw his humanism betrayed by the youth of the emigration, to whose education he had devoted so much strength. They loved him; they liked to hear him talk about Christianity, socialism, autocracy; but they covered their ears when he spoke to them of freedom. Deprived of liberty, the ideal was no more than a Russian variant of fascism, which infested all the new revolutionary currents. Fondaminsky saw this, but did not despair. He had his own philosophy of history, in which it is easy to see traces of Lavrov's historical letters. Fighting against Marxism and all forms of historical materialism, Fondaminskiy returned to faith in the invincible force of ideas and their bearers: heroic personalities. Any idea can take over the world, under whatever historical circumstances. All that is needed is the vigorous faith of a group of men united around this idea and ready to implement it. Lenin's victory in Russia in spite of all economic laws, in spite of common sense, confirmed his doctrine, according to Fondaminsky. He liked to say that in the 90s the entire Bolshevik party could have been seated on one couch. He believed that the few young people who gathered around him could eventually change the fate of Russia, and perhaps of the world. But intellectual adhesion was not enough. The effectiveness of an idea depends on the enthusiasm of those who carry it, and much of Fondaminsky's work was devoted to the "culture of enthusiasm".
Unlike Lenin in the 1990s, as in all other years for that matter, Fondaminsky valued the purity of principles and the quality of choice less than the scope of his propaganda work. He came into contact with all the political and cultural groups that tolerated him, while organizing his own. Without even mentioning the journal « Contemporary Notes » (Современные записки), of which he was one of the editors, he worked in the circles of the Christian Action of Russian Students, then of the Orthodox Action; frequented the RDO, the Little Russians, the Post-Revolutionary Club of Chirinsky-Shikhmatov even gave lectures at the Union of the Nobility (Союз дворян). This list does not in any way exhaust all the organizations and circles in which Fondaminsky invested his tireless efforts. After having founded La Cité Nouvelle, he sought to make it the center of his organizational activity. According to his conceptions, around La Cité Nouvelle and from his ideas were to be created professional branches, among teachers, engineers, doctors, writers, groups of intellectuals who would prepare for work in Russia. Of these projects, only one was born: the Circle of young writers (or rather poets). Of all professional categories, poets are the least suited to the role of reformers and public figures. But they were attracted to Fondaminsky, because they found in him a faith and a human warmth capable of warming them in the freezing cold of Montparnasse. In some people the desire was born to find a way out from their state of inner anarchy into a positive ideal, whether social or religious. Fondaminsky helped several among them to refind himself, to overcome the chaos. But his public action was not successful. He attempted to choose from among the Circle members a small group of like-minded and willing to work for the New City, but from the start the nucleus of the future order lacked unity.
When war broke out, the group broke up; many fell under the spell of Muscovite fascism. When one considers the work of Fondaminsky objectively and in its public aspect, one must note that it sank into failure. Regarding Fondaminsky, one could use these words of a former Russian author: he sowed as on water. But the external results cannot measure the effect of a word supported by a conviction of fire and by love. One would like to believe that those of the “Soviet patriots” who were for a time the disciples and listeners of E.I., are no longer capable of becoming good Czechists. Fondaminsky's historical misfortune is that he did not live long enough to meet the new Soviet youth who “chose freedom”. In him, these young people would have found the guide they seek with so much passion, while he would have found in them the army of the New City who could fight - who knows? - for a new Russia.
This patient and valiant defensive fight against chaos was put to the test. The death of his wife was a terrible blow to E.I. A few years later, he admitted one day that he had lost all taste for the joys of life; that even the nature which previously gave him so much consolation, now weighed on him. However, he let nothing show of the deep wound that this loss had inflicted on him. He didn't shut himself up in his room and didn't even make himself less sociable. He took refuge entirely in work. Public activity was therefore his whole life: he no longer had a personal life. It was on this that fate struck him a second blow, which ended him. Chaos, in appearance, was triumphing.
As Russian as he was, Fondaminsky loved France: he loved the wonderful land, the people. It was, for him, on this land that the humanist religion was born. There was no other Europe in his eyes. When Hitler's armies knocked down the French defense lines like cardboard, Fondaminsky was almost physically ill. He did not sleep at night, could no longer conceal his state of depression. The defeat of France meant for him the end of the war. He did not believe in England, nor did he know her. The military rout marked the final triumph of evil on earth, at least within the limits of our historical epoch. What suffering E.I. had to endure when the last thread which linked him to the world of culture was severed, probably even to the earth itself! How many times has he had to say, “My God, why did you abandon me? "
Returning to German Paris after taking refuge for the summer in Arcachon (1940), Fondaminsky reflected long and painfully on the question of whether he should stay or leave for America, where had fled most of his friends from the socialist camp. But fleeing only made sense when it implied to continue the fight. He didn't have the strength and he no longer believed in it. The difficulties of flight - and for what purpose? to ensure its own survival? - seemed insurmountable. In this irresolution and in this absence of will, E.I. produced the pitiful impression of a devastated man. “Despised and humiliated more than all the sons of man. » And yet it was not all the same out of weakness that E.I. remained in Paris, where he was in danger of death. What won was, I think, a free decision. Not all of his friends were in America. The activists had left, but others remained, with whom he could pray and talk about the last events: Mother Mary (Skobtsov), his friends from the House of Orthodoxy: Motchulsky, Berdiaev and how many others. In the last days, facing death, E.I. felt that this world was closer to him than that of public action, even Christian, to which he had devoted his life.
Fondaminsky was arrested with the Russians in July 1941, when the war with the USSR began, but he was kept in detention (in Compiègne) with the Jews, while most of the Russians had already been released. It is said that he had to undergo a final ordeal in the camp: the anti-semitism of his compatriots, which did not soften even in the face of the fate of innocent and defenseless people. But his captivity was shared by Christian friends, thanks to whom we know how much he grew stronger and how much he grew in these terrible times. Obviously he had accepted death and prepared for it. He even wrote to his sister then that he was having the best time of his life: "I feel very good, and it has been a long, long time since I felt so peaceful, cheerful and even happy." This was also the impression of his sister who succeeded in obtaining an interview with him (in February 1942): "In the camp, Elie Isidorovich worked a lot; he even gave lectures for his fellow prisoners ”. It was then that he also decided to receive Baptism. No pressure was exerted on him. On the contrary, it was up to the priest who baptized him to feel his spiritual and even theological superiority. This priest related that when after Baptism he celebrated the Liturgy during which I.S. was to receive Communion for the first time, the German soldiers burst into the middle of the Service and interrupted the celebration, because the camp church had to close. . The sacrament was completed outside the church, in a barrack. This is how the old clandestine clandestinely met his Christ.
To determine with precision the significance of Fondaminsky's death, it should be remembered that it was partly voluntary. The opportunity to ensure his salvation had presented itself to him. Falling seriously ill, he was transferred to the hospital. Escaping was a possibility and friends (socialists, this time) offered to organize it. But Fondaminsky refused. He motivated his refusal by his desire to share the fate of the condemned Jews. In his last days he wanted to live with the Christians and die with the Jews, thus redeeming, perhaps, the suffering he unwittingly had inflicted on them through his Baptism.
The death of Fondaminsky will undoubtedly remain shrouded in mystery forever. He was taken to Germany, where his traces are lost. We do not even know the camp where he met his end. His relatives and friends have for years hoped for his salvation. Rumor had it that he had been transferred to Russia; some have even heard his voice on the radio. However his death is unmistakable. The French government informed the family of the exact date: November 19, 1942. Can external details add anything to the meaning of his terrible and glorious sacrifice? Not thousands, but millions of human beings took the same path to Golgotha, but few died voluntarily in order to share the suffering of their people (even if they were only half their own).
The freely accepted, apparently unjustified and aimless death, the refusal to defend one's life in the face of assassins - "like the immaculate lamb, speechless before the shearer" - is the Russian expression of the kenotic imitation of Christ. By his non-resistance, the former revolutionary, lion turned lamb, made himself the disciple - was he himself aware of this? - of the first Russian saint, Prince Boris.
Russian religious kenotism, from the earliest days of Christianity in Russia, found a double outlet for its thirst for an ascetic feat: social degradation, based on charity, as well as voluntary and sacrificial death. Centuries later, in the atheist culture of the 19th century, the movement of Russian « Narodniks » (the same kenosis, essentially), unconsciously following the voice of conscience of a still Christian people, found its fulfillment in these two approaches. In the person of E.I. Fondaminsky, the Narodnik movement paid off abundantly its historic debt to the Church.
A holy life, a holy death. Saint Elijah prays for us, poor sinners who piously venerate your memory.