I was baptized and brought up in the Orthodox Christian faith.
I was taught it in childhood and throughout my boyhood and youth.
But when I abandoned the second course of the university at the
age of eighteen I no longer believed any of the things I had been
Judging by certain memories, I never seriously believed them,
but had merely relied on what I was taught and on what was
professed by the grown-up people around me, and that reliance was
I remember that before I was eleven a grammar school pupil,
Vladimir Milyutin (long since dead), visited us one Sunday and
announced as the latest novelty a discovery made at his school.
This discovery was that there is no God and that all we are
taught about Him is a mere invention (this was in 1838). I
remember how interested my elder brothers were in this
information. They called me to their council and we all, I
remember, became very animated, and accepted it as something very
interesting and quite possible.
I remember also that when my elder brother, Dmitriy, who was
then at the university, suddenly, in the passionate way natural
to him, devoted himself to religion and began to attend all the
Church services, to fast and to lead a pure and moral life, we
all — even our elders — unceasingly held him up to ridicule and
for some unknown reason called him "Noah". I remember
that Musin-Pushkin, the then Curator of Kazan University, when
inviting us to dance at his home, ironically persuaded my brother
(who was declining the invitation) by the argument that even
David danced before the Ark. I sympathized with these jokes made
by my elders, and drew from them the conclusion that though it is
necessary to learn the catechism and go to church, one must not
take such things too seriously. I remember also that I read
Voltaire when I was very young, and that his raillery, far from
shocking me, amused me very much.
My lapse from faith occurred as is usual among people on our
level of education. In most cases, I think, it happens thus: a
man lives like everybody else, on the basis of principles not
merely having nothing in common with religious doctrine, but
generally opposed to it; religious doctrine does not play a part
in life, in intercourse with others it is never encountered, and
in a man's own life he never has to reckon with it. Religious
doctrine is professed far away from life and independently of it.
If it is encountered, it is only as an external phenomenon
disconnected from life.
Then as now, it was and is quite impossible to judge by a
man's life and conduct whether he is a believer or not. If there
be a difference between a man who publicly professes orthodoxy
and one who denies it, the difference is not in favor of the
former. Then as now, the public profession and confession of
orthodoxy was chiefly met with among people who were dull and
cruel and who considered themselves very important. Ability,
honesty, reliability, good-nature and moral conduct, were often
met with among unbelievers.
The schools teach the catechism and send the pupils to church,
and government officials must produce certificates of having
received communion. But a man of our circle who has finished his
education and is not in the government service may even now (and
formerly it was still easier for him to do so) live for ten or
twenty years without once remembering that he is living among
Christians and is himself reckoned a member of the orthodox
So that, now as formerly, religious doctrine, accepted on
trust and supported by external pressure, thaws away gradually
under the influence of knowledge and experience of life which
conflict with it, and a man very often lives on, imagining that
he still holds intact the religious doctrine imparted to him in
childhood whereas in fact not a trace of it remains.
S., a clever and truthful man, once told me the story of how
he ceased to believe. On a hunting expedition, when he was
already twenty-six, he once, at the place where they put up for
the night, knelt down in the evening to pray — a habit retained
from childhood. His elder brother, who was at the hunt with him,
was lying on some hay and watching him. When S. had finished and
was settling down for the night, his brother said to him: "So
you still do that?"
They said nothing more to one another. But from that day S.
ceased to say his prayers or go to church. And now he has not
prayed, received communion, or gone to church, for thirty years.
And this not because he knows his brother's convictions and has
joined him in them, nor because he has decided anything in his
own soul, but simply because the word spoken by his brother was
like the push of a finger on a wall that was ready to fall by its
own weight. The word only showed that where he thought there was
faith, in reality there had long been an empty space, and that
therefore the utterance of words and the making of signs of the
cross and genuflections while praying were quite senseless
actions. Becoming conscious of their senselessness he could not
So it has been and is, I think, with the great majority of
people. I am speaking of people of our educational level who are
sincere with themselves, and not of those who make the profession
of faith a means of attaining worldly aims. (Such people are the
most fundamental infidels, for if faith is for them a means of
attaining any worldly aims, then certainly it is not faith.)
these people of our education are so placed that the light of
knowledge and life has caused an artificial erection to melt
away, and they have either already noticed this and swept its
place clear, or they have not yet noticed it.
The religious doctrine taught me from childhood disappeared in
me as in others, but with this difference, that as from the age
of fifteen I began to read philosophical works, my rejection of
the doctrine became a conscious one at a very early age. From the
time I was sixteen I ceased to say my prayers and ceased to go to
church or to fast of my own volition. I did not believe what had
been taught me in childhood but I believed in something. What it
was I believed in I could not at all have said. I believed in a
God, or rather I did not deny God — but I could not have said
what sort of God. Neither did I deny Christ and his teaching, but
what his teaching consisted in I again could not have said.
Looking back on that time, I now see clearly that my faith —
my only real faith — that which apart from my animal instincts
gave impulse to my life — was a belief in perfecting myself. But
in what this perfecting consisted and what its object was, I
could not have said. I tried to perfect myself mentally — I
studied everything I could, anything life threw in my way; I
tried to perfect my will, I drew up rules I tried to follow; I
perfected myself physically, cultivating my strength and agility
by all sorts of exercises, and accustoming myself to endurance
and patience by all kinds of privations. And all this I
considered to be the pursuit of perfection. the beginning of it
all was of course moral perfection, but that was soon replaced by
perfection in general: by the desire to be better not in my own
eyes or those of God but in the eyes of other people. And very
soon this effort again changed into a desire to be stronger than
others: to be more famous, more important and richer than others.