On April 30, 1900, a doctor of philosophy with no permanent employment was sitting in a train heading east from Moscow to the provincial town of Vladimir, some 200 kilometers away. He had an appointment to discuss his two most cherished ideas: the total spiritual transformation of society and the feminine aspect of the divine, the Soul of the World.
The 47-year-old Vladimir Solovyov was no ordinary scholar. He is now remembered as one of the most important Russian philosophers, who inspired a whole pleiad of poets and artists during the so-called Silver Age of Russia culture, which lasted roughly from 1890 to 1925. He was also a great eccentric. After a brief stint teaching at Moscow University, he became an itinerant scholar. He lodged in hotels or stayed with friends. In London he read Jacob Boehme and the Cabalists at the British Museum and visited spiritualist séances. In Italy, Finland, Russia, and France he wrote poetry and philosophical treatises. He also had visions.
The Eternal Feminine — Divine Sophia — first appeared to him during the Russian Orthodox liturgy, when he was nine years old. Holding a flower, she smiled at him, nodded, and disappeared into the mystical fog. There would be other apparitions: in the British Museum, where She ordered him to go to Egypt; near Cairo, where he, in his top hat and coat, was almost mistaken for a devil by the Bedouins; in the waters of a Finnish lake. She sent him missives that he set down through “automatic writing,” such as, “I would like to be alive for you. Sophia,” or, “I came back to you, my life. I will visit you tomorrow.” He recounted these meetings in his verse narrative, Three Rendezvous (1898).
Devils menaced him, too, especially at night, getting into bed with him, touching him with furry hands, and hiding in his boots. Even the sign of the Cross was sometimes powerless to stop their attacks, which would leave him unconscious on the floor. Their visitations intensified when he was in his 40s, after the failure of his grandiose project of the reunification of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, a time of disillusionment and dark foreboding. Evil, which he had always seen as merely the absence of Good, now appeared to him as a force in itself. In 1900 he predicted the end of the world. It would be augured, in Solovyov’s imagination, by a Sino-Japanese attack, followed by the universal rule of the Antichrist.
But then an extraordinary thing happened. After the publication of Three Rendezvous, Solovyov received what we would now call “fan mail.” A lady journalist from Nizhny Novgorod wrote to express her support of his idea of the transformation of society and the importance of the feminine aspect of the divine. An enthusiastic correspondence ensued, in the course of which Solovyov learned, to his dismay, that not only did the woman from Nizhny Novgorod consider herself to be the embodiment of the Divine Sophia, the Soul of the World, but also believed him, Vladimir Solovyov, to be the contemporary incarnation of Logos and Christ, her heavenly Beloved.
Maxim Gorky left a curious memoir of Anna Nikolayevna Schmidt, whom he met while working for a Nizhny Novgorod newspaper. “Scurrying like a mouse,” “a dark ball rolling,” “with layers and layers of clothes,” she was completely oblivious to her looks. The Symbolist poet Andrei Bely, who was profoundly influenced by Solovyov, almost echoes Gorky in his description of Schmidt: “Was it a girl, was it a dwarf, an old face like a baked apple, with a roguish glint in her eyes of a naughty schoolgirl; small dry lips, grey eyes, grey hair, dressed in rags — something out of childhood nightmares.” An astute reporter, ready to hide in a wardrobe to record a secret conversation among local politicians, Schmidt was also a zealous humanitarian, always hurrying around town in order to help somebody in need. A secretive religious teacher, she had a circle of semiliterate followers: a seamstress, a coachman, and a fireman. The local clergyman considered her a heresiarch, yet grudgingly respected her tenacity. Intrigued, Gorky spent an evening in her company. While drinking tea and eating tart cherry jam, they discussed the Gnostics, her previous incarnations as Catherine of Siena and Elizabeth of Thuringia, and Vladimir Solovyov, to whom she referred as the Logos and the Holy Grail, while she herself was his heavenly Mother and his spiritual Bride. She spoke of devils as one might speak of cockroaches or mosquitoes. And suddenly the woman in front of Gorky was no longer a ridiculous provincial spinster; he saw “with joyful and proud astonishment” how “a fire of thought about the evil of life and the contradiction between flesh and spirit emerged from under a grey husk,” and heard the confident “ancient words belonging to the seekers of perfect wisdom and inexorable truth.”
It seems that there have always been two views of Anna Schmidt: she is either ridiculous or prophetic. The lower classes took her seriously enough for the local priest to see her as a spiritual threat. In the context of late Imperial Russia, which was home to many religious sects — from the skoptsy, who voluntarily castrated themselves, to the nomadic beguny, who destroyed their passports and believed themselves to be living in the era of the Antichrist, to the dualistic khlysty, who flogged themselves into an ecstatic trance and whose living leaders were venerated as incarnations of Christ and the Mother of God — Anna Nikolayevna Schmidt emerges as less of an anomaly. What makes her exceptional, however, is her professional status as a journalist, rather than a barely literate peasant or worker (the usual social background of the sectarians), as well as the unique document she left behind: a mystical compendium of her revelations, The Third Testament.
Although God is one Being in three persons — namely, the Father, the Son, and the Daughter (sic) — the Church is one person made up of many beings, proclaims Schmidt in The Third Testament. A human being consists of a spirit, a soul, and a body. There are odd and even spirits. While an odd spirit remains single, an even spirit looks for his “other half” in order to beget spiritual children. Spiritual children are constantly being conceived and generated on the pages of The Third Testament, which may have been an expression of the author’s passionate desire to give birth. There are spirits old and young, and the possessor of a young spirit is bound to die in childhood; the spirit, however, lives forever. Having separated from the body after death, a spirit becomes even more vigorous than before, whereas the soul slumbers (that’s why we say “he/she rests in peace”). Everything is made of light; flesh is condensed light. Light that is dense but imperceptible to our senses makes up the invisible water that fills the universe: the earth, the sun, and the stars are but islands in that endless sea.
The Third Testament contains a curious novella about the wife of Jesus (who was at the same time his daughter-in-spirit), Sophia-Margarita. They were childhood friends but became separated, and Margarita plunged into a life of debauchery. But once His fame reached her, she foreswore sin and joined Him in Jerusalem. She was the woman in the house of Simon who washed Jesus’s feet and dried them with her hair. Unknown to the world, she became his best disciple and smiled at Him while He was on the Cross to remind Him of their conversation about Resurrection and Eternity. Her heart broke and she expired in front of Him before He died. This was the moment when He cried out, “My father, my father, why have you forsaken me?” In our time, according to The Third Testament, Sophia-Margarita was incarnated in Anna Nikolayevna Schmidt. In her youth she noticed that God forgave her for any misdeed should she show even the slightest sign of repentance. Since, in her view, he forgave her more than others, she promised to love him more than anybody else had ever loved him. This, as it turned out, was “the first word of ages” that Jesus had spoken to her in her previous life.
Her task in this life was to found the New Israel Church. All of its followers would have to adopt second names to symbolize their second lives in the spiritual realm. Certain changes should be made to the Creed. Thus, the proclamation of belief “in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father” should be amended to “in the Holy Spirit, the Daughter of God, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and who was incarnated as the Virgin Mary at the Archangel’s Annunciation.” “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” should be revised as “One Holy Catholic Unified and Apostolic Church, the wife of the Son of God, Mother of his eternal six children the baby Angels, the mother of all Christians whom He begat through her, foremother of all spirits, who was twice incarnated on this earth.”
But even more astonishing was Schmidt’s amendment to the portions of the Creed that refer to Jesus. Instead of “ascended into the heavens and sits at the right hand of the Father; and shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end,” the New Israel church members would recite the following: “ascended into the heavens and sits at the right hand of the Father; but while in His imperishable body, He remains in the heavens, He was incarnated a second time on earth in 1853 as a human being; He assumed a divine essence in 1876, having had a vision of the Church in Egypt; He shall soon come again to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom shall have no end.” The birthdate (1853) is Vladimir Solovyov’s, as is the vision in the Egyptian desert in 1876. Solovyov was the second, and last, incarnation of Christ, and Schmidt, His Wife, had to beget a heavenly son with Him, who, in his turn, would become the destroyer of this world.
The sense of impending disaster, of a catastrophe that would end the previous order of life, was widespread among the Russian intelligentsia at the turn of the century. And the Third Testament itself is not exactly out of the ordinary: the 19th and 20th centuries witnessed the advent of the Tibetan Gospel, fabricated by the adventurer Nicholas Notovich (wherein a curiously Victorian Jesus makes a point of admonishing men to treat every woman gallantly, for “her love ennobles man, softens his hardened heart”), a truly interesting “Third Testament” by the Danish mystic Martinus in 40 volumes, and the “Last Testament” of the Last Testament Church in Siberia, according to which Judas’s betrayal of Jesus was the result of a love triangle gone awry (the name of the girl in question was Iskandal), whereupon Judas succumbed to alcoholism instead of reaching for a rope. It almost goes without saying that the church’s founder Vissarion (alive and well at the moment) is believed to be a living incarnation of Christ. But only Anna Schmidt dared to reach out to a man she had never met proclaiming him God and herself his heavenly Beloved.
Was it schizophrenia, or what would later be called erotomania? Was the devil tempting her? Or were her visions truly inspired by God? The recipient of her confessions, Vladimir Solovyov, must have grappled with such questions. If Anna Schmidt was mad, then what were his own visions? If Satan — and not Christ — spoke to her in her daily raptures, then who had appeared to Solovyov in the desert? Who had dictated the strange missives? Curiosity conquered his doubts. He proposed a meeting in the town of Vladimir, where Schmidt and he spent two hours talking.
After the encounter, he wrote her a measured letter: “There is no need to worry, I was not left with an unpleasant impression of our meeting.” She worried. She sensed that he was turned off. She kept writing to him.
He vaguely suggested a possibility of meeting again in the future. No more conversations took place. He died a few months later, from uremia, which likely was caused by his disinfection mania: he had a habit of sprinkling his clothes, his furniture, and his hands with turpentine. Anna Schmidt was allowed to see him before his death, sleeping. She came again for his funeral. The expression on her face when he was lying in state made people assume they were close and that she loved him very much. It is possible that she expected his immediate resurrection. This, again, was not to be.
What happened between them on that railroad station?
In her letters to his friends, Anna Schmidt claimed that Solovyov had talked about the importance of personal transfiguration for everyone, herself included. He also assured her that everything she had written had been inspired from above, just expressed in a way that was peculiar to her; likewise, the Gospels bore the mark of its writers’ styles. He certainly thought that she had correctly understood the relationship between the Holy Ghost, Mary, and the Angel (the Church), which, for him, offered incontrovertible proof of the divine origins of her revelations. Given Anna Schmidt’s selective memory and her inclination to see “symbols” and “signs” in the most innocuous phenomena, this is probably not the whole story.
Was he unpleasantly surprised by her unprepossessing exterior? It is a fair bet that hers were not the looks of the Soul of the World as he had imagined her. Did he try to conceal his embarrassment by talking the whole time? Did he sense insanity in her and unconsciously assume a distanced, self-protective stance? Did she suggest they go to a hotel and make the Child?
Some of Solovyov’s contemporaries regarded him as a veritable saint, others as a frighteningly arrogant man. All agree on his genius and on his dark good looks. There was something disturbing about him: his peculiar laughter, his propensity for obscene jokes despite his life of celibacy, his unprovoked self-mockery in the midst of serious discussion. Another philosopher, Vasily Rozanov (1856-1919), concedes that Solovyov might have harbored traces of the divine, but he had even more of the demonic; he was a man who, according to Rozanov, could only hold conversations with God, but with his fellow humans he had nothing to talk about. This judgment seems excessively harsh, since Solovyov loved company and had a wide social circle, yet it isn’t hard to imagine a man who is essentially kindhearted but so preoccupied with the world of ideas that he is oblivious to the needs and feelings of others.
It is more difficult to imagine his correspondent: a lonely provincial spinster in ungainly clothes waiting on the platform. When seen with earthly eyes, she is a religious maniac, possibly suffering from de Clérambault’s syndrome. (Solovyov, it should be noted, was not her first obsession; earlier, she had identified her heavenly Beloved in a young Jewish man in Nizhny Novgorod.) But one can take a more generous perspective: she was a woman who had singlehandedly resurrected Gnosticism almost 2,000 years after Valentinus and Basilides — and in Nizhny Novgorod, of all places. And if someone should look at her even more empathetically, this frumpy lady, scurrying about town on behalf of those in dire straits and fancying herself the Mother of all Christians, would radiate with that peculiar tenderness that set her apart from other would-be prophets. In Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the selfish and shallow grandmother, facing what can only be called an execution, touches the man who is about to kill her and says, in a sudden epiphany, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” Anna Schmidt’s attitude toward Vladimir Solovyov had a similar motherly tenderness about it, an understanding of a little boy’s loneliness, a regret over not knowing and loving him earlier (she read a longing for her into his poems). The theme of universal motherhood and compassion runs through her Third Testament. Whether her teaching was truly prophetic or ridiculous, what matters most was her desire to love the world with a love that would encompass each of its beings, loving them with the tenderness of the true soul of the world.
Daniel Shubin has translated Schmidt’s Third Testament into English and published it with biographical testimonies and an introduction that relies heavily on Galina Ackerman’s article, “The Enigma of Anna Schmidt.” “The Enigma” appeared in Russian in the journal Kontinent in 2005 and remains the only serious work dedicated to Schmidt. It situates Schmidt’s thought in the tradition of “mystical feminism,” comparing it to the apocryphal Gospel of Mary and the concept of Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of the divine in the Kabbalah. Before Shubin’s publication in 2017, Galia Ackerman and Paul Lequesne’s excellent rendition of Schmidt into French, Le Troisième Testament (Éditions du Rocher, 2004), had been the only attempt to make her writing available to a Western audience. Although Daniel Shubin deserves kudos for introducing Schmidt to the Anglophone reader, this difficult book may benefit from an ampler commentary and a more literary translation in the future. We have not yet pierced the enigma of Anna Schmidt, the busy little woman from Nizhny Novgorod, the Soul of the World.