Stepun, Fedor, 1884-1965

Alternative names
Birth 1884-02-19
Death 1965-02-23
Russian, German

Biographical notes:

Fedor Stepun, Russian émigré writer, editor, professor, political commentator, who emigrated to Germany after being expelled from Soviet Russia in 1922.

From the description of Fedor Stepun papers, 1902-1965 (bulk 1946-1965). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 83860314

From the description of Fedor Stepun papers, 1902-1965 (bulk 1946-1965). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702148184

Fedor Avgustovich Stepun was born in Moscow on February 6 (19) 1884, the eldest son in a family of German and Lithuanian stock. There is some evidence that his original name was Friedrich Steppuhn and that he was born a German citizen, accepting Russian citizenship before entering the army; until 1917 the Russian spelling of his name was Steppun. When he was three, his father, Avgust, became director of a paper factory and received a rural estate at Kondrovo; from then until secondary school, Stepun lived in a small Russian village. Later he would claim that village life, together with the Russophilism of his mother, Mariia, tempered his foreign blood and made him fully Russian. He subsequently converted from the Reformed Church to Orthodox Christianity.

In 1900, Stepun graduated from the Technical High School of St. Michael in Moscow, and enlisted for army service in 1901. He spent one year in an artillery division in the city of Kolomna. He underwent further military training there in 1904 and 1911. In 1914 he was called up for active duty in the war with Germany. Stepun's military experiences are described in great detail in his memoirs Vergangenes und Unvergängliches and in his 1918 autobiographical novel Pis'ma praporshchika-artillerista .

After his first period of military training, Stepun decided to devote himself to philosophical studies, to which purpose he applied to Heidelberg University. Stepun remained at Heidelberg from 1902 to 1910, attending lectures on a wide range of subjects. Throughout his stay, however, he remained under the particular tutelage and influence of the Neo-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband, and also enjoyed the advice of Heinrich Rickert and Emil Lask. Stepun received a degree in 1907 from the University of Heidelberg, and his Ph.D. in 1910, also from the University of Heidelberg. His doctoral dissertation, "Die Geschichtsphilosophie Wladimir Ssolowjews", was published by Fritz Eckardt Verlag in Leipzig under the name Friedrich Steppuhn. He published an essay in to Vom Messias. Kulturphilosophische Essays, whose contributors included Stepun's future friends and colleagues Sergei Gessen, Nicolai von Bubnoff, Georg Mehlis and Richard Kroner.

In Heidelberg Stepun met his first wife, Anna Aleksandrovna Serebriannikova, whom he married in about 1906 amidst tragic circumstances which are recounted both in his memoirs (where his wife is called Oloviannikova), and in his largely autobiographical novel, Nikolai Pereslegin, where she is called Tania. Both her real name and the date of their marriage remain uncertain. The marriage, which he called "a romance in the style of Dostoevskii", also ended tragically: barely two years after they were married, Anna drowned in the Baltic Sea, while attempting to rescue the younger brother of her own first husband. Stepun recalls in his memoirs that it was Professor Windelband, a classically haughty German philosopher, who broke the news of Anna Aleksandrovna's death to him. This passionate, early marriage, coupled with previous romantic encounters, contributed to Stepun's disenchantment with theoretical philosophy and pushed him in the direction of a more vitalistic thought, so-called 'philosophy of life', which he characterized in his novel Nikolai Pereslegin, "all my philosophy is a defense of life against [theoretical] constructions, of living eyes against points of view." It was about this time that Stepun began to give creative and theoretical expression to his life-long fascination with the artistic element in all aspects of life, from romance to theater and even politics. Memoirists are unanimous in declaring Stepun a primarily 'artistic nature', both in life and in his creative work.

Stepun had studied philosophy primarily under Neo-Kantian professors, and had begun his dissertation as a formal study of Solovyov's ethics. With time, however, he moved away from Kantianism towards German idealism and Solovyovian historiosophy. In the years after his first wife's death, Stepun wrote studies of Friedrich Schlegel and Rainer Maria Rilke. Although the Schlegel essay won high praise from Rickert and Georg Simmel, and Stepun continued to associate with his Kantian colleagues in the journal Logos, after his return to Russia in 1910 he soon found his intellectual home in the circle of Russian Symbolists and religious philosophers, such as Andrei Bely, Nikolai Berdiaev, Alexander Blok, Semen Frank, and Viacheslav Ivanov, to whose thought he would devote many of his mature works, and with some of whom he would remain close friends in emigration.

In 1910, together with his Heidelberg colleagues, Stepun became a founding editor of Logos. An International Philosophical Journal, which was published simultaneously in Russian (in Moscow) and German (in Tübingen). Stepun and Gessen took on the editorship of the Russian edition, and Stepun even traveled to Italy to arrange for an Italian version of the journal. The initial hostilities between Logos and representatives of Russian religious philosophy eventually abated, and Stepun became an active member of the Philosophical Societies of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In his memoirs, Andrei Belyi recalls a philosophical circle that formed around Stepun, and which included the budding poet Boris Pasternak. Stepun also contributed such essays as "Logos" and "Fenomenologiia landshafta" to the Symbolist journal Trudy i dni . In emigration, Stepun continue to hold a moderate position that allowed him to collaborate with both the stricter philosophers, such as Boris Jakovenko and Nikolai Losskii, and with their religious opponents, such as Nikolai Berdiaev, Sergius Bulgakov, and Vasilii Zen'kovskii.

In 1911, Stepun married Natal'ia Nikolaevna Nikol'skaia (born May 5, 1886, new style; she is called Nikitina in his memoirs, probably to protect those of her family who remained in the USSR). Natal'ia Nikolaevna had previously been engaged to Stepun's brother-in-law. Stepun also gave an artistic history of his second love in his novel Nikolai Pereslegin . You, as my Wife, will always remain God's harvester on my fields; whatever grains my life brings to bud, my soul will always know a yearning for Your sickle and the belief that, whatever matures within me, it matures only to die in Your embrace, on the blade of Your love. (203) Although she was from a noble family, Stepun's foreign friends always saw her as an embodiment of peasant Russia: simple, warm and hospitable. They spent much time in the following years, especially between 1918 and 1922, at her family estate Ivanovka, where Stepun worked the land as a peasant, an experience he often remembered with fondness.

From 1910 through 1914, Stepun wrote philosophical articles, mostly for Logos, Trudy i dni, and Severnye zapiski, and travelled around provincial Russia giving lectures to large audiences under the auspices of the "Bureau of Provincial Lectors", led by IUlii Isaevich Aikhenval'd. Stepun devotes many pages of his memoirs to his impressions of pre-war, provincial Russia, in particular the city Nizhnii Novgorod. During this time Stepun first exhibited a rare rhetorical gift that continued to stun his listeners throughout his life.

In 1914, Stepun was called up to serve in the First World War. He was commanded to the 12th Gunners Artillery Division in the rank of lieutenant, and, after an initial period in the Far East near Irkutsk, Stepun served throughout the Ukraine and Poland. The March revolution found his division in Galicia, and he was soon sent to Petersburg as part of an army delegation. Stepun became a representative of the front troops at the All-Russian Soviet of Workers', Peasants' and Soldiers' Deputies. He soon returned to the front, but was immediately called back to serve in the Political Section of the War Ministry, headed by ex-terrorist Boris Savinkov. Stepun played an active role in many important events of the pre-October period; he later told how he was present when A. F. Kerensky signed the order freeing Leon Trotsky from prison. At this time Stepun seems to have been closely tied to the Socialist Revolutionary Party (the SRs), although he was not a member. Stepun continued to write during this period: his first novel, Pis'ma praporshchika-artillerista, was first published in 1916 (in book form it was first published in 1918, together with a work by Savinkov). He was Political Editor for the newspaper Invalid (renamed Armiia i Flot Svobodnoi Rossii ), where he published several polemical articles, photostats of which are among his papers.

Stepun was briefly arrested during the October Revolution, but soon made his way to Moscow. He was active in the opposition press, particularly in the Right SR Vozrozhdenie, which was closed in June 1918 (and succeeded by Syn otechestva ), and as editor of Shipovnik . Called up into the Red Army, he was able to win a post in 1919 as repertoire and stage director of the Revolutionary Theater, where he staged Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex" and Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure". After losing this post in late 1920, Stepun retired to Ivanovka. Throughout the years 1918-22, Stepun continued to participate in meetings of the Free Philosophical Academy and revolutionary theater groups. In 1922 he collaborated with Nikolai Berdiaev and others in the collection Osval'd Shpengler i Zakat Evropy, and edited the literary and artistic almanac Shipovnik . In November of this year he was also expelled from Soviet Russia, together with a hundred and fifty other intellectuals. Stepun left the USSR with his wife and his mother, who died during the Second World War, and to whom Stepun devoted the final pages of his memoirs.

Stepun settled at first in Berlin, where he read lectures in the Religious-Philosophical Academy, founded by Nikolai Berdiaev and supported by the American YMCA, and at the Writers' Club. He published his collected philosophical essays in Zhizn' i tvorchestvo (Berlin, 1923), and also a book on the theater he had written at Ivanovka ( Osnovnye problemy teatra ). An expanded version of this book was later published in German as Theater und Kino (Berlin 1932; updated edition Theater und Film, München, 1953). He began to participate in the émigré press. He became literary editor for Sovremennye zapiski, where he published his semi-autobiographical and highly philosophical novel Nikolai Pereslegin (separate edition Paris, 1929) and a series of "Thoughts on Russia". Together with Sergei Hessen and Boris Jakovenko, Stepun became an editor of the rejuvenated Logos, which appeared in Prague. In early 1926, after a couple of years of residence in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Stepun was offered a position teaching sociology at Technische Hochschule Dresden, largely thanks to the sponsorship of Richard Kroner and Paul Tillich, who were teaching there. Tillich and Kroner, who both emigrated to America after Hitler's ascent to power, remained lifelong friends of Stepun. It is unknown when Stepun received, or rather resumed his German citizenship.

Stepun held his Dresden position for eleven years. He became a well-known figure in the emigrant colony of the city, serving as president of the important Vladimir Solovyov Society. His constant employment also gave him a measure of security unusual among the emigration, allowing him to travel widely to other émigré centers, such as Prague, Berlin, Riga and Paris, and also to Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavia. He quickly became a central participant both in émigré and German intellectual circles, contributing articles to such journals as Put', Sovremennye zapiski and Hochland . Stepun was also active in the Russian Student Christian Movement (RSKhD), through which he developed his love for the Orthodox Church and deepened his concern for the younger generation of émigré Russians. He was an editor of the short-lived journal Utverzhdenie, together with Nikolai Berdiaev. In 1931, together with Georgii Fedotov and Il'ia Isidorovich Fondaminskii (pseud. Bunakov), Stepun became a founding editor of the journal Novyi grad, which would expound a new Christian and Socialist vision, uniting such outstanding thinkers and figures as Berdiaev, Sergius Bulgakov, Mother Mariia (Skobtsova), Marina TSvetaeva, and the three editors themselves. Stepun expressed his critique of Bolshevism and his positive ideals in a German book Das Antlitz Russlands und das Gesicht der Revolution (Leipzig, 1934), translated into English as The Russian Soul and Revolution (London and New York, 1936).

The National Socialist coup in Germany gradually began to affect Stepun in 1935. He was removed as an editor of Novyi grad, apparently due to the ambiguity resulting from his decision to remain in Germany and work within the system. A document among Stepun's papers, dated January 2, 1935 (Box 53 Folder 1607) indicates that he expressed public approval of elements of the National Socialist cause. But by 1936, Stepun had been exiled to the economics department in Dresden and had aroused the suspicions of the administration. On a visit to Switzerland in 1936, Paul Tillich told Stepun of the European view of Hitler, and recorded: "He is deeply shaken, feels that he has taken Nazism too lightly". Indeed, in June 1937 Stepun was removed from his position on charges of overt Christianity and sympathy for the Jews. His one-time disavowal of German citizenship and conversion to Orthodoxy, even the spelling of his name, were also held against him. Stepun's personal papers contain chilling evidence of this episode (Box 68 Folders 2079-2081). Stepun was also forbidden to speak publicly, and the rising international tensions further cut him off from his friends abroad. He made his last trip to Paris for many years in 1937, the year of the World's Fair.

Stepun spent the war-years writing his memoirs in Dresden and at friends' houses in the country. He was at the house of Paul and Irmengard Mildner in Rottach-am-Tegernsee when Dresden was fire-bombed in February 1945. Thus Stepun and his wife became refugees without money or property. In October 1946, however, Stepun was awarded an honorary professorship at the University of Munich in Russian Spiritual History, a section of the Philosophical Faculty created especially for him. Over the next several years, Stepun endeavored to emigrate to the United States, but was unable to find a suitable position in an American university. His ignorance of English was also an inhibiting factor.

From 1946 to 1964, Stepun lectured constantly at the University of Munich and other public forums throughout Germany, as well as abroad, particularly in Switzerland and Scandinavia. Many of these lectures were held under the auspices of the organization Deutsches Vortragsamt (originally Westdeutsches Vortragsamt), and many others were organized by local cultural associations. They covered familiar territory for Stepun, including such titles as: "The Crisis of Freedom in Our Time", "The Fall and Reconstruction of the Personality"; "The Historical Roots of the Bolshevik Revolution", and "Russian Caesaropapism and Russia's Tragedy". His lectures on the history of Russian thought included the following constant themes: "Dostoevsky's World-View", "The Tragedy of Tolstoi's Life", "Vladimir Solovyov - Prophet of the Turn of the Century", "Russia's Image of Goethe". Similar titles recur with great frequency in Stepun's writings and radio speeches.

Stepun participated in the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Osteuropakunde (German Society for the Study of East Europe), and other learned societies with interests in Russia. His interpretations of everything from Bolshevism to Russian Symbolism and Dostoyevsky became influential factors in German intellectual life. The original publication of his memoirs (1947-48; abridged version in 1961), together with the republication of both his novels in German translation (1951, 1963), opened new vistas on Russia for a country that was at this time fascinated with the real nature of the Soviet Union and international Communism. An abridged version, titled Das Antlitz Russlands und Gesichte der Revolution, was even a bestseller in Germany. Stepun also published a book of his essays devoted to Russian Communism, Bolschewismus und die christliche Existenz (München, 1958). His final book, Mystische Weltschau (München, 1964), summed up his life-long interest in Vladimir Solovyov and Russian Symbolist literature, and remains a central work on these topics. In these later years, Stepun regularly contributed to the journals Hochland and Merkur, and his articles were published regularly in the German press. He also often appeared on the radio. Stepun also became a key figure in the Deutsches Institut für Film und Fernsehen in 1950s, although this initiative came to a controversial end in 1956. Stepun was also active in the Tolstoy Foundation and other religious charity organizations in Munich and elsewhere. February 20, 1964, Stepun was feted by the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts on behalf of his German and Russian-émigré admirers.

Throughout the early Cold War and subsequent Thaw, Stepun remained a giant of émigré letters and thought. He paid close attention to any significant cultural event, both in the emigration and in the Soviet Union, and refined and repeated his interpretation of Russian history as new events unfolded. Stepun contributed articles to Vestnik RSKhD, Vozrozhdenie, Novyi zhurnal, Opyty, Vozdushnye puti, Mosty (of which he was editor), Russkaia mysl' ( La pensée russe ), Za svobodu, Novoe russkoe slovo, and others. He frequently traveled to Paris to participate in émigré events. The original, Russian text of his memoirs was published to great acclaim in 1956. A collection of his literary essays was published as Vstrechi in 1962. In 1965 Stepun published his final work of fiction, the story "Revnost'".In recent years Stepun's intellectual legacy has begun to be appreciated in Russia, with the republication of many of his books and articles.

After his wife's death in August 1961, Stepun lived next door to his sister, Margarita, with her companion Galina Kuznetsova, who helped to care for him as his health deteriorated. He was also cared for by his former secretary, Dagmar Wienskowski. After enjoying many honors in his final years, "the voice of the other Russia" passed away on February 23, 1965, just days after his eighty-first birthday, after attending a lecture at the Bayern Academy of Fine Arts with his sister and Galina Kuznetsova. He was buried in Nordfriedhof cemetery in Munich on February 26, 1965.

From the guide to the Fedor Stepun papers, 1902-1965, 1946-1965, (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)


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  • Authors, Russian--20th century--Archives
  • Authors, Russian--20th century
  • Authors, Exiled
  • Russian literature--20th century
  • Political refugees
  • Political refugees--Soviet Union


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  • Russia (as recorded)
  • Soviet Union (as recorded)
  • Russia (as recorded)
  • Soviet Union (as recorded)