Though Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky (mehr-uhsh-KAHF-skee) wrote many poems and essays, he is known in the Western world chiefly for his historical romances. One of the last Russian novelists to write from the philosophical background of “Old Russia,” his philosophical difficulties represent the intellectual and moral struggles of the aristocracy as it lost political power to the lower classes. His trilogy of novels, known by the general title Christ and Antichrist, was intended to set forth a solution to the era’s religious doubts and to present an alternative to both ascetic Christianity and hedonism by fusing the flesh and the spirit into a new religious philosophy.
Merezhkovsky’s early years prepared him especially well for his career as a writer. He was brought up as a member of the aristocracy by his noble father. He had a good classical education and upon entering the University of St. Petersburg in 1884 studied the Greek and Roman civilizations intensively. A brilliant student, he completed in two years the studies that supplied him with the backgrounds for his best novels. He also read widely in scientific philosophy, but these studies left his religious nature unsatisfied. He began to try to synthesize materialism and spirituality into a new whole.
He traveled to the Caucasus because of a lung condition, and there met and married Zinaida Hippius, the leading woman poet of Russia. They traveled for many years in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor, spending very little time in their native country. In about 1900 he formulated the religion of “The New Road.” For a time he and his wife conducted a salon devoted to the discussion of this new religion that tried to reconcile the egoism of Friedrich Nietzsche and the altruism of Leo Tolstoy, but the repressive czarist regime soon dissolved this unorthodox little society. Because he had sympathized with the 1905 revolutionists, Merezhkovsky was compelled to flee to Paris. He returned to Russia in 1910 and opposed entry into World War I. He opposed the Bolsheviks even more vigorously and was sent to Siberia in 1918. In 1920 he escaped to Paris, where he and his wife spent their remaining years writing polemical tracts against Soviet materialism and books explaining “The New Way.” Merezhkovsky died during the occupation of Paris, perhaps of malnutrition.
His novels, though clumsily constructed, show a raw power in the presentation of impressive historical scenes. The Death of the Gods (sometimes called Julian the Apostate) makes full use of his knowledge of ancient Mediterranean culture. The sweep of historical events is absorbing, and the philosophical theme, though it tends to make characters mere embodiments of ideas, provides a unifying perspective as the trilogy ranges freely over European history. Merezhkovsky sees the complete rout of the paganism represented by Julian as an unfortunate event, but his spirits rise as he tells of the resurrection of the dead gods during the Renaissance. The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci celebrates the restoration of fleshly values to the ascetic European world. Da Vinci represents the fusion of flesh and spirit that Merezhkovsky sought. The Antichrist rises again in Peter the Great, however, and Merezhkovsky is aware, in Peter and Alexis, that the struggle to achieve a balance between the demands of the flesh and the spirit is a constant one.
In his book Tolstoi as Man and Artist, with an Essay on Dostoievski, Merezhkovsky attacks Tolstoy for his lack of interest in the supernatural and praises Fyodor Dostoevski for his concern with both the natural and supernatural worlds. It was for similar reasons that Merezhkovsky attacked Soviet communism: This new Antichrist, with its materialistic foundations, was a danger to the synthesis Merezhkovsky hoped would become a final and enduring belief for all.
Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on August 14, 1865. His father, Serge Ivanovich Merezhkovsky, an inspector of buildings for the Imperial Court, was known to be stern and puritanical—he was even supposed to have thrown one of young Dmitry’s older brothers out of the house for expressing sympathy for a woman nihilist who recently had been executed. The father was proud of his youngest son, however, and when, at the age of fifteen, Dmitry began his first efforts at writing verse, Serge dragged the youth to Dostoevski to read his work aloud. After the reading, Dostoevski’s response was reportedly that “to write, one must suffer.”
On entering the University of St. Petersburg, Merezhkovsky proved to be a brilliant student. He immersed himself in the Greek and Roman classics and completed his studies in two years. He grew fascinated by the works of Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Auguste Comte, and Charles Darwin, as well as that of Friedrich Nietzsche, but soon found that such readings left the religious urge fostered in him since childhood unsatisfied. Turning to literature instead, he joined a student-formed Molière club; so reactionary and suspicious was the czarist government at this time, however, that the club was suppressed, and if it had not been for the intervention of his aristocratic father, Merezhkovsky would have been exiled. This, in addition to his frail health, led to his spending the year after graduation in the Caucasus and Crimea.
While there, Merezhkovsky met Zinaida Hippius, at that time the best-known woman poet in Russia. They were married in 1889. Soon afterward, Zinaida fell gravely ill; before she recovered, Merezhkovsky’s beloved mother died, and he found himself unwillingly following Dostoevski’s dictum. His response to these trials was mysticism, and as he grew older his mysticism correspondingly deepened. He and his wife began traveling throughout Greece, Turkey, and the Near East, and this experience, linked to his newfound beliefs, eventually resulted in the trilogy of philosophical novels focusing on Julian the Apostate, Leonardo da Vinci, and Peter the Great, collectively titled Christ and Antichrist.
After his return to St. Petersburg, Merezhkovsky began pursuing his literary career in earnest. As early as 1883, he had published verse in the “civic” style (Stikhotvoreniya, 1883-1887) but had found no real success. Nearly a decade later, he published the first book of symbolist poetry written in Russian, Simvoly, followed immediately by his first collection of critical essays, O prichinakh upadka i o novykh techeniyakh sovremennoy russkoy literatury. Soon thereafter appeared his first work of classicism, Vechnye sputniki (1897; eternal companions), and Merezhkovsky’s reputation as a modernist critic, classical scholar, and symbolist poet was fixed. It was not until the release of the Christ and Antichrist trilogy, however, that Merezhkovsky’s reputation became international and he found himself a true celebrity in his own land.
Like many other artists cast suddenly into the limelight, Merezhkovsky began to take himself too seriously. His mysticism intensified and, as a result, his criticism became more virulent and dogmatic. His fiction developed into a pulpit from which he proselytized the heathen, and he subjugated plot and characterization to turgid philosophy. After 1900, he founded a religion known as the New Road, with which he tried to reconcile Nietzsche’s egoism with Tolstoy’s altruism and synthesize the pagan, Hellenic cult of the flesh with the Christian cult of the spirit—all into one new entity. For a time, Merezhkovsky and his wife conducted salons devoted to the spreading of this new religion, and shortly devotees of this Society of Religion and Philosophy began to appear. Merezhkovsky rejected in his teachings the “heresy” of historical Christianity and preached instead a personal, apocalyptic Christianity of the “Third Testament,” in which Hellenism and Christ would be synthesized when history came to an end—which, he asserted, would be soon. Over time, his doctrine evolved into the worship of an Eternal Woman-Mother as the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity and simultaneously an embodiment of Russia’s destiny. He also exalted hermaphrodites as symbols of a Being who would eventually unite the sexes on Judgment Day. Thus, as his religion became more arcane, his fiction became more unreadable.
Merezhkovsky supported the abortive Revolution of 1905 in the hope that it would become a religious revolution overthrowing Russia’s established church and state, leading in turn to the Kingdom of God on earth. The revolution, however, did not achieve this goal, and he and his wife fled to Paris. In 1910, they returned to Russia and subsequently opposed World War I. Merezhkovsky opposed the Bolsheviks even more zealously, and, in 1918, he was sent to Siberia. In 1920, he and Zinaida escaped, settling first in Poland and then in Paris, where they spent the remainder of their lives as émigrés. There he produced bitter tracts against the Soviets and books (which were generally ignored) attempting to explain the New Road. Merezhkovsky died in Paris on December 9, 1941, of a brain hemorrhage.