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Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon
Georges NivatGeorges Nivat

SOBORNOST’ (соборность‎) (RUSSIAN) 


conciliarity, conciliation


conciliarité, collégialité, communauté, solidarité


Sobornost’ [соборность‎], since Khomiakov, has designated the collegial nature of the Church, its capacity to surmount the individual even as it respects the freedom of each person. A Slavophile concept par excellence, it quickly exceeded the limits of theology and currently refers to a fundamental quality of Russian life, Russian thought, and even Russian culture.

I. The Church: Place of Assembly and Not of Dogma

The translation of the word might be “conciliarity” or even “synodality” to the extent that the councils of the Church are called in Russian sobor [собор‎], from the root bor-, which means “to take,” and from the prefix so-, which means “with.” The sobor is the assembling of the entire Church. It also designated in Russian the assembly of the land of Russia in the person of its representatives elected by the different estates of the Old Regime, boyars, merchants, clerics, peasants, and that assembly was called Zemskij Sobor [земский собор‎]. Ecumenical councils were called vselenskie sobory [вселенские соборы‎]. Finally, since the cathedral in which the bishop officiates is not considered primarily in Orthodoxy as a place of teaching, a cathedra, but as a place of assembly for the people of believers, it too is designated by the word sobor, which might in such circumstances be translated as a church or “college of clerics.” But in Russian sobor can be immediately supplemented with kafedral’nyi [кафедральный‎], which comes from cathedra and refers to the notion of the place where dogma is proclaimed.

II. A Lay Theologian and Soldier, Alexis Khomiakov

The term sobornost’ [соборность‎], destined to undergo a great extension, was used for the first time—in order to define the nature of orthodoxy—by a lay theologian of the nineteenth century, Alexis Khomiakov (1804–60), who was also an officer, a poet, and a dramatist. The term thus comes from the expanded lexicon of religion. It quickly became a key word in Russian Slavophile thought, before being broadened to political, philosophical, and literary thought. It can be translated as “free and unanimous collegiality.” In 1989 a current theoretician of semiology, Viatcheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov, a member of the last Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., issued an appeal to the spirit of sobornost’ so that Russia might move harmoniously from one political regime to another. Works on sobornost’ in Russian literature and thought appear daily.

Sobornost’, along with pravda [правда‎] (justice-truth) and narodnost’ [народность‎], is thus one of the major concepts through which Russia would differentiate itself from the Occident, which is regularly accused of rationalism and individualism. Narodnost’ designates the national popular spirit, while sobornost’ is the spirit of unity through the freedom of individuals.


Narodnost’ is one of the three components of the famous definition of Russia given by Count Ouvarov, minister of Nicolai I, “Autocracy, orthodoxy, narodnost’.” It is impossible to translate by a single word the reality designating the bond between official power and the people, above all its intermediaries; it defines the simultaneously popular and national character of the Russian monarchy.

The myth of narodnost’ has as a complement that of the exclusion of the Russian intelligentsia, which flees like Aleko in Pushkin’s poem, “The Prisoner of the Caucasus”—a theme developed by Slavophiles and above all by Dostoyevsky in his Pushkin speech (1881).


Dostoevsky, Fydor. A Writer’s Diary. 2 vols. Translated and annotated by Kenneth Lantz. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993–94.Find this resource:

    In German the distinction forged by Tönnies in 1887 between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft partakes of the same typology, essentially distinguishing between the abstract categories of social science and concrete, living categories, in brief, between a written contract and the living union that needs no contract. (Yuri Lotman expresses astonishment that even as mystical a saint as Francis of Assisi needed to sign a contract with his wolf [Lotman, “‘Dogovor’ i ‘vručcenie sebja’ kak arxetipičeskie modeli kult’tury,” 3: 345]). Between the Western state and the family, which the collective life of the Slavic community resembles according to Slavophiles, there lies all the difference between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft (see CIVIL SOCIETY, Box 1).

    III. Sobornost’ and Catholicity

    It is thus in a text in French by Khomiakov that the first more or less complete elaboration of the notion of sobornost’ (in the broad and abstract sense of “unanimous and free collegiality through the spirit”) is to be found. The text is Quelques mots par un chrétien orthodoxe sur les communions occidentales à l’occasion d’une brochure de M. Laurentie (Paris, 1853). The author signs with the name Ignotus. He announces that he is taking up his pen to defend the “orthodox Catholic church” from unjust accusations, catholique in this case being the French translation of the word sobornost’ [соборность‎]. In another article, a letter to the editor of Union chrétienne “on the meaning of the words catholique and sobornyj with reference to a speech by Father Gagarin, a Jesuit,” Khomiakov returns to the definition of the word. Gagarin had reproached the Orthodox for translating the word katholikos [ϰαθολιϰός‎] in the Nicene Symbol with a dull term, lacking in energy, sobornyj, which has many other uses, meaning additionally what partakes of the “kathedra,” the synod, or even the social. In the Nicene Symbol, the word is katholikos; the Russians translate sobornyj, with the term catholique being reduced to designating the Roman Church and thus restricting the concept to a kind of space or territoriality. Khomiakov thus takes up the term, tears it away from the Roman Church, and deliberately creates the category “Catholic Orthodox.” Shortly thereafter Khomiakov took up his pen anew in French to write to the editor of the Union chrétienne in a polemic against one of his compatriots who had become a Jesuit, Father Gagarin. The latter had criticized the Russian term sobornyj for its murkiness and imprecision. Gagarin had observed that the Russian term designated a reality that invoked simultaneously synod, cathedra, and society itself. Catholicism was a merely geographical universality, Khomiakov responded, whereas sobornost’ is a universality of the spirit, he continued, resorting to an argument customarily addressed to Protestants.

    It was thus in the context of a polemic with a fugitive from Orthodoxy that the broadening of the word occurred: individualistic Western thought could not achieve a complete grasp of being; only sobornost’ managed that, since it is not the mere addition of components of the synod, but “organically surmounts their exclusion and their enclosure in a gnoseological limitation” (Skobtsova, Khomiakov, 41). Even yourodstvo [юродство‎] or “folly in Christ”—a form of asceticism quite characteristic of Russian piety: the fool for Christ simulates madness, renounces his property and hygiene, denounces the hypocrisy of the powerful (the best known was the Blessed Vassily, in the sixteenth century, buried in Red Square in Moscow)—is, in the East, part of the gnoseological process. In the West the participation of madness and disorder in the creation of order is strictly impossible and forbidden. For love participates in it in the Slavic East, it possesses a force and a gift, whereas in the West it is reduced to a law. The constraining principles of law and dogma are part of Western religious and philosophical thought, whereas freedom is integrated into sobornost’. It is a matter of a unity-freedom that is not imposed, but experienced by all in the act of sobornost’.

    IV. The Divine Humanity of Solovyov

    Vladimir Solovyov, the son of a great historian of Russia and a disciple of Khomiakov but destined to become a more eminent philosopher, developed this notion in that of “panhumanity” or “humano-divinity.” Through that concept Solovyov wanted to reintegrate harmony into the whole of humanity. In his view it was a matter of establishing a “total interpenetration of the individual and collective principles, the inner coincidence between maximal development of the personality and social unity at its most complete” (Solovyov, Lectures). There would thus be born a free collectivity whose thinking would be one, but not forced.

    Solovyov spoke of the principle of obscinnost’ [οбщинность‎], which is the social principle of the life of the mir [мир‎] in economic solidarity, without the imposition of collectivism. It is well known that the mir, or village collective, which proved as solidary when confronted with taxes or conscription as it had confronting landlords, was the object of an intense polemic in Russia, with some seeing in it the promise of a future communism, linked to primitive communism and organically bound to Russian rural life, and others seeing in it the dictatorship of the strongest over the weakest within a village assembly held by the kulaks.



    Obscinnost’ marks the predestination of Russia to primitive communism—based on mutual assistance and a refusal of property—to be found in the old social institution of mir or the peasant collectivity that administers lands, distributes them, and represents the community in the face of political power. This ancient Slavic institution is considered as what differentiates Russian society, which is collectivist, from that of the individualist West. The mir in the strict sense subsisted for a few years at the beginning of the Soviet era and was then replaced by the kolkhoz and its principle of constraint.

    V. Toward an “Ecclesialization” of the World

    The theologian Sergei Bulgakov reminds us that, from the etymological point of view, peasant in Russian does not mean pagan, as in French, but (on the contrary) Christian (krest’janin [крестьянин‎]). This is not random. The new Russian thought of the Silver Age at the beginning of the twentieth century, influenced by the thinking of Marxists converted to idealism, then to Christianity, like Father Sergei Bulgakov himself, insisted on the cosmic character of man, on the necessity of promoting a Christian socialism, a reconciliation of man and nature through a flourishing of the economic energy of man by way of Christianity and even the Church, the world being called on to become increasingly church-like or ecclesiastical (a translation of the Bulgakovian neologism otserkovlenie [оцеркοвление‎]), even in the sphere of the economy. Orthodoxy, bereft of a monarchical principle and even of any strictly ecclesiastic spirit, is called on to promote economic democracy. Sobornost’ or the collegial spirit (such is C. Andronnikof’s translation of the word in Bulgakov’s Orthodoxy) is not a democracy, but it includes a democratic spirit within it, and particularly in the economic domain. Bulgakov was plainly influenced by Dostoyevsky, who said that Orthodoxy was “our Russian socialism.” Long before the Esprit movement, thinkers of the Silver Age thus indicated the path to a Christian economics integrating communism and marrying it to the freedom of the individual. The inspiration of the Church of sobornost’ gathering the faithful in the free union of the Church was destined to exercise its influence throughout the world. Nicolas Berdyayev interpreted the idea for the French Catholics of the Franco-Russian Rencontres group and later for Emmanuel Mounier’s Esprit movement.

    Another Orthodox thinker, Father Pavel Florensky, who perished in the gulag, declared in his very singular book, titled The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, that Orthodoxy had invented a sacrament of fraternization that issued in a specific rite, the ritual of “adelphopoeisis,” a half-ecclesiastical, half-popular rite consisting in the exchange of crosses and the taking of an oath of loving friendship. The rite confirmed that there was to be nothing in the Orthodox Church that was not general, nor anything that was to be private. Neither Privatsache nor impersonal law, which corresponds to the spirit of sobornost’.

    VI. Nicolas Berdyayev between Sobornost’ and Personalist Socialism

    Berdyayev, in his book on Khomiakov’s thought, insists on the gnoseology of the founder of Slavophile thought: “Being is given solely to ecclesiastic awareness of universal communion. Individual consciousness is unequipped to grasp the Truth” (Berdyayev, Aleksei Stepanovich Khomiakov, 2:127). But Berdyayev reproached the theologian for not having succeeded in connecting that “great idea of universal communion [sobornost’]” with cosmology and with the “soul of the world” (ibid.), as Solovyov did. A philosophy of integral spirit, a quest for concrete being, such are the original paths of Russian philosophy, according to Berdyayev, that derive from the theological concept of sobornost’.

    Berdyayev’s thought passed through quite contradictory phases, going from an aristocratic stance advocating inequality to a Khomiakovian conception of familial communion, in a society that was above all land-based, that is, linked to the zemščina [земщина‎], which might be translated as the “voice of the land,” a concept quite different from the voice of the people: “the Russian zemščina is organic; it is not divided into classes that struggle with antagonistic wills” (ibid., 201). The land must be the czar’s councilor and allow the consensus of the land to ascend to him; the zemskaja duma [земская дума‎] is the representative of the land, and not of the social classes in conflict. A strange and brief reappearance of this conception was seen in the last Supreme Soviet, that of perestroika, to which a certain number of Slavophile thinkers (or thinkers taken with that tendency) (Sergei Averintsev and Viatcheslav S. Ivanov) had been elected. For them political decisions became the fruit of a consensus. Berdyayev writes that the entire history of Russia is dependent on a relation of the land (zemlja [земля‎]) to power. The Saint Petersburg interlude, which inserted the bureaucracy between the czar and the land, was a catastrophe. Peter the Great ordered that writing was to be done with the door open: writing was not to be an isolated and seditious act, but an act before all and sundry—familial, transparent, and public.

    VII. Current Broadening of the Concept

    Sobornost’ is without contest one of those imprecise concepts in which the originality, attractiveness and—for others—the repulsiveness of Russian thought lie. The word is untranslatable in its polysemy—in theology and politics throughout Russian history, where it always functions as a mark of the originality of Russian or Orthodox “togetherness.”

    It is currently to be found applied to such fields as literature, as in the book of a Moscow scholar, Ivan Esaulov, on “the category of sobornost’ in Russian literature.” The author analyzes the principle of sobornost’ in the work of Pushkin, and particularly by way of the theme of the paradoxical solidarity between men, for example, between the brigand and future insurgent and the young nobleman in “The Captain’s Daughter.” The criterion has long been applied to the work of Tolstoy. The encounter between Pierre Bezukhov and the simple moujik Platon Karataev in War and Peace is a sample of sobornost’. The world perceived by Pierre at that juncture is a round, cosmic world, in which everything is linked by a paradoxical organic bond that is not beholden to reason. Petya Rostov feels in the depth of his being the sobornost’ that unites all soldiers, even the crudest of them, and which is revealed with the emperor’s arrival in Moscow, when Petya hurls himself forward shouting “Hurrah,” while a service of thanksgiving is held in the cathedral. The sacristan who saves Petya from the tumult on that occasion, and mounts him on King-Cannon, which can still be seen in the Kremlin, describes what is happening in the cathedral and uses the term soborne [сοборне‎] on several occasions, meaning “solemnly, all together, pontifically,” but whose “meaning remained obscure for Petya.” Petya does not understand the word’s meaning, but he lives it intensely since he throws himself into the colorful crowd and shares all its emotions; and his enthusiasm will be even greater when he subsequently joins the army, that great family in which his brother Nicolas already feels as good as in his father’s house. Petya’s death—one of the most forceful episodes in all of Tolstoy’s work—is also a high point of intense connection of all with all, of lived sobornost’. But the episode is treated musically, as though one were hearing a fugue, in which each instrument played its own motif. “And without finishing it, melded with another that initiated almost the same motif, then with a third, and a fourth; then they all fused into a single motif, separated out again, only to fuse anew, at times in a solemn religious chant, at others in a song of victory that was dazzling in its luminosity” (Tolstoy, War and Peace).

    VIII. Immersion in the Living

    Tolstoy’s fugue accompanying the death of the youngest hero of War and Peace is the secular transposition of an old Russian Orthodox church chorale, the sobornost’:

    It is only by immersing ourselves in ourselves, by seeking our own mystical roots in the total organism, that we experience our own sobornost’, that we know our self as non-self. In the atmosphere of ecclesiastic love, in the experience of the sacramental mysteries, our particularity is surmounted and collectivism fails to occlude sobornost’.

    (Bulgakov, Light without Decline)

    Georges Nivat


    Berdyayev, Nikolai. Aleksei Stepanovich Khomiakov. Farmborough, UK: Gregg International, 1971.Find this resource:

      Bulgakov, Sergii. The Orthodox Church. Translated by Elizabeth S. Cram. London: Centenary Press, 1935.Find this resource:

        Bulgakov, Sergii. “Protopresbyter Sergii Bulgakov: Hypostasis and Hypostaticity: Scholia to The Unfading Light.” Revised translation by Anastassy Brandon Gallaher and Irina Kukota. Edited by Anastassy Brandon Gallaher and Irina Kukota. Introduction by A. F. Dobbie Bateman. St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 49, nos. 1–2 (2005): 5–46.Find this resource:

          Esaulov, Ivan E. Kategorija sobornosti v russkoj literature. Petrozavodsk, 1995.Find this resource:

            Florensky, Pavel. The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Translated and annotated by Boris Jakim. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

              Khomiakov, Alexei S. On Spiritual Unity: A Slavophile Reader: Aleksei Khomiakov, Ivan Kireevsky, with Essays by Yury Samarin, Nikolai Berdiaev, and Pavel Florensky. Translated and edited by Boris Jakim and Robert Bird. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne, 1998.Find this resource:

                Khomiakov, Alexei S. Quelques mots par un chrétien orthodoxe sur les communions occidentals à l’occasion d’une brochure de M. Laurentie. A. Franck, 1853.Find this resource:

                  Lotman, Yuri. “‘Dogovor’ i ‘vručcenie sebja’ kak arxetipičeskie modeli kult’tury.” In Izbrannye stat’i. Vol. 3. Tallin, 1993.Find this resource:

                    Skobtsova, Ekaterina. Khomiakov. Paris: YMCA Press, 1929.Find this resource:

                      Solovyov, Vladimir. Lectures on Divine Humanity. Revised and edited by Boris Jakim. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne, 1995.Find this resource: