H.Petzold's Fragments of the Unpublished Correspondence of N.Berdjajew

by Klaus Bambauer


Thirty years ago, Hilarion Petzold, then a student in Paris, (later on becoming the well-known psychotherapist Prof. (Dr.Med./Dr.Theol./Dr.Phil.) H.Petzold at Duesseldorf/Germany and Amsterdam/NL), wrote together with W.Zenkowskij on Orthodox anthropology, "Das Bild des Menschen im Lichte der Orthodoxen Anthropologie, Marburg 1969). He was interested in Orthodox subjects and became familiar with letters, written by N.Berdjajew to an unknown Mrs. X. In his autobiographical essay ("Samopoznanie") Berdjajew had written on his curious exchanges of letters to persons he had never met. It is remarkable, that the specialists of Berdjajew have failed occupy themselves with these letter-fragments, published in the German journal "Kyrios" back in 1971 (pp.21-50). Now – 30 years later, the existence of these letters deserves be made public by this article.

This correspondence, written in Russian language, belonged to Berdjajew’s niece Sophie, and the letters were located in Berdjajew's house at Clamart/Paris. There are 142 excerpts from letters written between 1930 and 1939 to a "Madame X". The manuscript consists of 25 pages in type-script. There are hand-written corrections, and here and there fragments of a French translation (mostly on the back). The handwriting points either to Eugenie Rapp (Berdjajew’s sister-in-law, 1875-1969) or to a Princess Gagarin, the wife of a lawyer at Paris, who (Princess Gagarin) Berdjajew called "his best friend" ("Samopoznanie"). She (E.Rapp) combined the various excerpts (according to Sophie Berdjajew). The originals, here not only of the letters of Berdjajew, but also of the letters of "Madame X" are – according to H.Petzold – undiscoverable. These fragments can be dated only sporadically. The letters are arbitrary and are sorted according to thematic views. Some orders describe a chronological succession.

Who was the unknown "Madame X"? As far as we can see there are three persons who could have received these letters:

  1. Madame Eugenie Rapp,
  2. Mademoiselle Elisabeth Belençon or
  3. the "fabulous wife", mentioned in "Samopoznanie".

Hilarion Petzold excludes both the Princess Gagarin and Eugenie Rapp. Elisabeth Belençon had been a close friend of Eugenie Rapp and played a role in Berdjajew's life. A Russian Jewess, who converted to Catholicism, – E.Belençon had been a lady of exceptional prudence and education, yet nevertheless in her character very eccentric. But H.Petzold is not convinced that she is the addressee, since the fragments give the impression that the person who received the letters is not very familiar with the circumstances of Berdjajew's life, i.e. as one who was not very close with the Russian thinker.

The result of the investigations of H.Petzold are thus: the unknown person, as remarked by Berdjajew in his "Samopoznanie", remains a "Madame X". We can suppose that she was unknown both to Eugenie Rapp and to Sophie Berdjajew. The exchange of letters covers a period of about 10 years (1930-1939). We can assume also that Berdjajew was only very rarely in contact with her.

Sophie Berdjajew wrote in a notice of 11.7.1965: "In the Berdjajew’s neighhbourhood, people wrote letters even if to somebody residing in the same apartment".

The fragments had been sorted thematically for publication and assembled under collective headings. The overlappings cannot have been avoided. These excerpts of the letters of N.Berdjajew to Madame X demand our particular intellectual attention. They afford not only a series of essential thoughts of the Russian philosopher in the short accuracy of his epistolary style, but they also shed light on his person and work. We frequently meet with statements that recur in his biographical essay.

Because we cannot quote these many (142) fragments, here one will first of all find the titles descriptive of the combined collections of the excerpts. H.Petzold has thus assembled the letters in the conceptual context of the whole work of the Russian thinker:

These are the headings:

  1. Remarks of N.Berdjajew on his life and work (pp.30-35, 47 excerpts)
  2. Notes on art, literature and philosophy (pp. 35-39, excerpts no. 48-69)
  3. Aspects of philosophical thought (pp. 39-41, excerpts no. 70-78)
  4. On man (pp. 41-42, excerpts no. 79-89)
  5. Politics and society (pp. 42-46, excerpts 90-112)
  6. On communism and marxism (pp. 46-49, excerpts 113-123)
  7. Christianity (p. 49, excerpts 124-133)
  8. Eschatology and apocalypse (pp. 49-50, excerpts 134-142).


Note also: The literary bequest of N.Berdjajew was given by Eugenie Rapp in 1960 to the "Rossijskij Gosudarstwennyj Archiv Literatury i Iskusstva" (RGALI). The catalogue of this bequest presents 1005 references, among them about 600 correspondences. Fond 1496, opis [catalogue] 1, delo [document] 377. Cf. the description of the literary bequest of N.Berdjajew in: Archives d'État de Russie de Littérature et d'Art. Inventaire des anciens fonds réservés. Paris: Institut d'études slaves, 1994, pp. 9-12.

Cf. to the above mentioned details: S.G.Reichelt, Nikolaj A.Berdjaev in Deutschland 1920-1950, Leipzig/Germany 1999, ISBN 3-933240-88-3.