The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Philosophers' Ships

Ninety five years ago, on November 16, 1922, perhaps the most tragic episode in Russian history that lasted for almost six years came to an end. During the time when the Russian Civil War was nearing its infamous completion, the second of the "Philosophers' Ships" set sail to Germany. More than 200 forcefully exiled intellectuals - scientists, physicians, philosophers and writers - were boarded on them and sent from St. Petersburg to the present-day Polish city of Stettin.

Contrary to shootings, regularly applied on the representatives of the "counter-revolutionary" intelligentsia up to that point, this "humane" action of exile was primarily caused by the desire of the Soviet regime to receive recognition from the governments of other countries. All the "castaways" were allowed to carry two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, a jacket, trousers, a coat and two pairs of footwear in a single bag or suitcase. All the money and other possession they had at the time of the boarding were confiscated from them.  

Leo Trotsky thus commented this move by the Bolsheviks: "We exiled those people because we didn't have an excuse to shoot them, and it was impossible to tolerate them." Most of the 225 passengers were university professors and scholars: 45 medical doctors, 41 professor, 30 economists, 22 writers, 16 lawyers, 12 engineers, 9 politicians, two clerics and 34 students. After the political and military revolution already carried out in cold blood, this action was part of the so-called "cultural revolution."

The first ship, Oberbürgermeister Haken, which left on September 29, carried some thinkers already well-known for their public appearances and books, and some who will experience fame in immigration. The most prominent among them were Nikolai Berdiaev (1874-1948), religious and political philosopher, creator of the original idea of the philosophy of freedom; Ivan Ilin (1883-1954), philosopher and writer, supporter of the White Movement and a vehement critic of Communism and Bolshevism; Semion Frank (1877-1950), philosopher and religious thinker, who tried to synthesise rational thought and religious faith; Prince Sergei Trubetskoi (1890-1949), philosopher and writer.

Some of the best known figures on board of the second ship, Preussen, which left Petrograd on November 16th, 1917, were Nikolai Losskii (1870-1965), religious thinker and one of the founders of the philosophic movement known as Intuitivism; Leo Karsavin (1882-1952), religious philosopher, Medievalist and poet, and Ivan Lapshin (1870-1952), philosopher.

Some other scientists and artists, like theologian Sergei Bulgakov, zoologist and president of the Moscow University Mikhail Novikov, sociologist and cultural studies scholar Pitirim Sorokin and the most celebrated Russian opera singer, Fiodor Shaliapin, were transported out of the country by other means and from other cities, but all during the same Autumn of 1922.

The departure of those two Philosphers' Ships was marked in 2003 on St. Petersburg wharf with an unveiling of a commemorative tablet.

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