Personal Reminiscences by Pierre Pascal

of N.Berdjajew

by Klaus Bambauer


Pierre Pascal (born 1890 in Issoire/France) lived from 1916 to 1933 in Russia as officer at the French embassy in St. Petersburg, later on he worked as translator and librarian. 1936 he became lecturer for Russian language at the University of Lille, 1937 professor for Russian language in Paris, 1950 professor for Slavic languages and literature at Sorbonne/Paris. He wrote many books on Russian culture, among these in German: Stroemungen des russischen Denkens 1850-1950, Vienna 1981.

Pascal gave a lecture on his reminiscences at the Colloque Berdiaev 1975 in Paris. The title of this lecture was: "The Man Berdjajew." It was published in: "Colloque Berdiaev", Paris 1975, together with the other contributions to this subject.

Here follows a translation of some passages of his paper from French to English:
"I will begin with an apparent portrait [of Berdjajew]: a man with excellent common figure, with perfect education […], the clothes always correct and elegant, the upper part of the body very straight, a nice imposing appearance, a man, perfect, seldom to met with in the splendid Russian society" (p. 11).

Berdjajew never mentioned questions of money, but he and his familiy lived in Paris only from his work as author of books, as chief editor of the "Put'", as lecturer in the Religious-Philosophical academy, and supported by the Association de Jeunesse chrétienne (YMCA) in the United States of America. This association never pressured him.

Berdjajew tended often without reason to become very excited. People at first may have been frightened, but then they became accustomed to it. L.Schestow, his old friend from Kiew, a highly esteemed thinker, always present at the weekly meetings at Berdjajew, was sometimes a victim of Berdjajew's anger concerning questions, that had been solved long ago.

Pierre Pascal describes a visit to Berdjajew: "We, my wife and I had the habit to be the first people in the Sunday afternoon (meetings) in Clamart. If one arrived before 16 o'clock, the lady of the house, Lydia Judifowna and her sister, Eugenie, who managed the household, welcomed the guests. They both were very different: the first very fine-looking, rather modest and very lovely. She hardly took part at the discussions. The later (Eugenie) more passionate in character and figure, with pleasure was taking part in the discussions by strenghthening the opinion of her brother-in-law. Lydia was Catholic, but both with a deep and hidden piety. Eugenie tended to a strong Orthodox faith, but very indulgent vis à vis the impudences and negative answers of Nikolaj Alexandrowitsch. In this house had been another fellow-lodger, a very old lady, who never leaved her room, the mother of these two sisters. My wife came often so see her and obtained her personal confidence. Here was something signifying and characteristic of the spirit of love in this house. At times the old lady remembered their estate, possessed in the province of Charkow. She said: 'The estate is now a rest-home for the workers. I hope, that they are happy there'.

At 16 o'clock one could hear the voice of the head of the family, who was in the upper stage in his study: 'The samowar – is it ready?' Then he came upstairs. Different visitors had also come, other visitors were presented, regularly visitors and new people. There were Russians, foreigners passing through, and Frenchmen. After a moment one took tea at the table. Nikolai Alexandrowitsch interrupted and directed to the serious subject, which was to occupy the afternoon discussion. It was not the academy of Moscow, not the president or the protocol, but it was Berdjajew who directed the discussions. He inspired the conversations, he made them interesting, sometimes by his ideas, by his generalizations, his categorical conclusions and his outbursts.

He regretted the absence of Charles Du Bos, whom he esteemed and who could not come because of illness. Sometimes there were visitors like Maritain, Gabriel Marcel, Maurice de Gandillac. Berdjajew acquired – rare for a foreigner – an outstanding place in the world of philosophers and theologians in the French language. A Thomist (i.e. an adherent of Thomas Aquinas) from Switzerland, then Abbé, now Cardinal Journet, quoted Berdjajew with eulogies in his large work 'Von der Kirche' and his retrospective 'Neues und Altes'.

A special enjoyment for the visitors had been the duel Berdjajew-Schestow. There seemed to be something missing, when Schestow was absent. Among the Russians one of the most interesting persons was Fedotow, nearly a pupil of Berdjajew […].

I cannot complete this portrait with a conclusion, first, it would be imperfect – resting but on my limited experience – I say only, that this portrait engaged a person, an intellectual and richly gifted, with passionate temperament and pure morality, and with rare high-minded a spirit."

Additional Remark: To the connection between Berdjajew and Schestow, cf. H.Arjakovsky, "Leon Chestow et Nicolas Berdiaev, une amitié orageuse", in: Cahiers de l'émigration russe 3, Paris 1996, p. 141-153, published by: Institut d'études slaves.