The Orthodox tradition and its role in forming the personality and scientific interests of the most important 20th-c. Russian scientists and engineers

by Dr Dmitry Saprykin

SOW Researcher

The Orthodox tradition and its role in forming the personality and scientific interests of the most important 20th-c. Russian scientists and engineers
Bishop Ignatius Bryanchianinov – a great Russian saint of the XIXth century says in his theological and philosophical treatise “The word on death”:
«It is preferable to any of the Orthodox Christians having studied positive sciences, to study then thoroughly asceticism of the Orthodox Church and to give to the mankind the true philosophy based on exact knowledge and not on accidental hypotheses ... It is impossible in our time to develop a correct philosophical system without a preliminary study of mathematics and other sciences based on it, and without active and beneficial knowledge of Christianity"(1)

This program began to be implemented in 20th century and may be realized in the 21st century.

So we may speak about “Science and Orthodoxy” in 3 meanings:
1. How can the Orthodox tradition (especially through family, parental guidance) form the personality of a great scientist and foster the integrity of his person?
2. How does a scientist's perception of theological questions supplement his scientific interests?
3. How can scientific education (in St. Ignatius’ words) serve Philosophy and Theology?


Soviet Scientists and the Church
But the first question is: Is there a positive influence of Orthodoxy to Science at all? The Soviet and post-Soviet historical literature and publications claim the works of the most remarkable Russian scientists and engineers of the XXth century to be a result of the Soviet power achievements, a triumph over the political and religious “obscurantism” of the Tsar regime. With no arguments it was supposed that the largest part of the scientists was either antagonistic to religion either had no relation to the Orthodox tradition. Analogical presumption of the “negative” Church attitude to science and the scientists’ attitude to Orthodoxy has migrated from the Soviet sources to the Western (primarily American) “Sovietology” (for instance, in works of Lauren Graham, the American historian of Russian science)(2).

And the Soviet practice was a great experiment on religion exclusion from all spheres of social and personal life. What was the result of this experiment?

However, a more detailed analysis displays that the USSR Academy of Science Departments of Technical Sciences, Math and Physics were a real bastion of the “old world”: the most part of the academicians traced their origin from the privileged estates and intelligentsia of the Russian Empire. What is more, the sons of the Russian Orthodox Church clergymen and theologians’ families constituted a non-proportionally large percentage among the leading Soviet scientists and engineers. Comparative data on social origin of the Soviet academicians in 1950-60 and the Russian Empire technological institutes’ professors and students in 1914 are shown in the Table below:

Table 1. Comparison of the Stalin period Science and Technology academicians’ social origin and the 5 Russian Imperial Technological Institutes’ professors and students in 1913-1914 social origin (in percentage, %)(3)

Many of them remained Orthodox even during the severest years of the Soviet persecutions of the Church. The whole range of the largest XXth century Russian scientists and engineers were engaged in theology, and their religious and philosophical interests lay in direct connection with their scientific activities. The Orthodox educational tradition of their families had played as a rule the key role in their personal building and scientific development.


The Orthodox family as “an educational space”

The «spiritual» families’ descendants — the sons of priests and theology professors — were often among the Soviet scientific schools’ leaders. In mathematics, Nikolay Bogolubov and Ivan Vinogradov were headmen in Moscow, and Vladimir Smirnov — in Leningrad. All of them were sons of clergymen, and Bogolubov and Smirnov were sons of theology professors. The famous Science Academy Department of Technical Science in Stalin epoch was headed by 3 sons of priests and theology professors. In other cases, mathematicians Nikolay Lusin and Nikolay Krylov, physiologist Alexey Ukhtomsky, physicist Alexander Freedman had deep interest in theological questions. And the last (not the least) example is the Watt Golden Medal winner Igor Sikorsky, the world heavy aircraft and helicopter construction industry creator – was the son of Orthodox psychiatrist professor Ivan Sykorsky and the author of several theological works.(4)

Taking into consideration extremely negative attitude of the Soviet authorities to Orthodoxy in general and theology in particular, it makes us think about the Orthodox Christian (mostly family) tradition role in the Russian science 20th century history. Analysis of biographies and works of these scientists has shown that spiritual experience and education based on spiritual tradition (mostly family) had helped them to cultivate the necessary integrity of personality - the unity of knowledge, will and action - allowing them to become not only outstanding scientific experts, but also the scientific schools’ leaders, the science organizers.

Thus, the great Soviet experiment has shown a deep inner need in the Church rather than the "science freedom from the Church."

As Anna Saprykina has shown (5), in most of these cases the scientists’ parents (for example, Father Nikolay Bogolubov, martyr-priest Ioann Artobolevsky, professor Ivan Sykorsky) consciously educated their sons in the spirit of Orthodox culture, and this education played a crucial role in formation of their personalities. This particular importance of family education in formation of spiritual and intellectual leaders, in our point of view, is a special feature of Orthodox tradition. In medieval Catholic West, clergymen celibacy had fully excluded family from educational process, and it was one of the main reasons for opening Universities and Theology Faculties in them. In Orthodox East theology remains personal, transmitted partly from person to person (through the Church, family, spiritual tradition of 'staretz'), and in the West it was depersonalized in “Theology as a Science” (in Thomas Aquinas terms). So, in Russian Universities there were no faculties of Theology, but there were Professors of Theology and “Fathers” for students and for their own children. The best examples of them were rev. Nikolay Bogolubov and rev. Ioann Artobolevsky. They are not only priests but also fathers for their sons – the greatest Russian scientists.

Church experience and Orthodox spirit of the scientists

The result of this parental Orthodox education is not only perfect knowledge of some sciences, but first of all the integrity of child personality. An example of such direct influence of Orthodox spiritual experience on scientific achievements is the life of the great Russian chemist, one of the creators of Russian chemical industry – Vladimir Nikolaevich Ipatiev. This is what he wrote about the beginning of his chemical study:

“the beginning of this change (in chemistry study) in my mind is connected to one point - the Great Lent. Being sincerely religious, I was always serious about fasting and confession - that is why I always had my mind concentrated and toned up during the Lent.”(6)

Another example is the greatest Russian mathematician and physicist, the director of the two most famous scientific institutes – the Mathematical Steklov's Institute and the Unified Institute of Nuclear Physics, N.N. Bogolyubov. As the famous Russian historian of science Alexey Nikolaevich Bogolubov said about his brother:
“He (N.N. Bogolyubov) was religious from his childhood and has carried his faith through all his life; his thoughts of God, his endeavor to percept Him contributed to his idea of the unity of all the matters”. N.N. Bogolyubov was one of the last greatest scientists who have integrated the diverse science fields in one whole. He was from the very beginning of his scientific activity not only mathematician, but physician, theoretic physician as well, and the development of these sciences proceeded under the intense influence of his personality, making it all integral. Moreover, he had a deep knowledge of history and philosophy of science, and mathematical science in its physical essence constituted his peculiar natural philosophy”.(7)
Science and Theology. 

In the other cases, interest in theology had a crucial influence on the works of such thinkers as great neurophysiologist Alexey Ukhtomsky and great mathematician Nikolay Lusin. At last we should mention the lately departed great Russian mathematician, social thinker and right defender Igor Shafarevich. As he said about his field of research:
'Being unable itself to formulate the ultimate goal which can navigate its development, math should therefore borrow it from the outside. First, one may try to extract the math goal from its practical application. But we can hardly believe the higher – spiritual activity – to find its justification in the lower – material activity. Since we reject this option there is only one alternative: religion, as a higher realm of human activity rather than the lower, can provide a goal for math'.(8)

All these examples of the Russian XXth century scientists’ and engineering leaders’ lives have demonstrated the positive impact of Orthodoxy on Science. Orthodox intellectual tradition rooted in family fostered personal integrity of the scientists. And their own interest in theology had a positive influence on their scientific creativity and helped them to find the correct knowledge boundaries. So the living experiment of Russian and especially Soviet science history demonstrates collaboration rather than conflict between Orthodoxy and scientific Knowledge.




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